Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Testament by John Grisham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Julia Mercer

Star Witness by Lia Matera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Julia Mercer

Friday, April 28, 2006

A Review of Marley & Me by John Grogan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

How to Read a Book, by Adler and Van Doren

I have always been a reader. I began reading early; before I went to school. My mother had been a kindergarten teacher so she experimented on me, to see just how early a child could begin to read. I was writing my name by the time I was three-years-old and then reading fairly well before kindergarten. By the time I reached first grade, when all the other children were learning to read, I was way ahead of them, reading third and fourth grade books. At one point, my teacher wanted to move me into second grade, but I visited the class for a couple of weeks and everyone determined that while I was even ahead of them academically, I was not socially ready to be anywhere above the first grade. Sadly, this began a trend of my boredom with school. Since I finished all my class work early, I was permitted to bring a book from home and read quietly in class after I finished my work. By the time I was in about the fourth grade, I was reading fluff books that gave me no literary challenge. In middle school and high school, the trend was for everyone to read modern novels and I was never introduced to the classics. Soon, I was reading dime novels by the dozens. By the time I went to college and majored in English literature, I was happily average and was no longer ahead of the class. In fact, I was behind most of my peers.

Fast forward twenty years to homeschooling my own children. Unlike my own education, I am giving my children an education in the classics first, and everything else is secondary. Our curriculum dictates that when a student reaches the ninth grade, he or she will begin reading the classics of ancient times; but before beginning the list of books, the student is assigned to read How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book is a book that was first published in 1940, but was revamped and modernized by the authors in the 1970s. Today it is a timeless tool for helping students to understand the process of reading intelligently, taking notes, analyzing, and understanding all that they read. I gave the book to my ninth grade son and we read it together. It was revolutionary. It was everything I needed to know when I was in college, and here was my ninth grader reading it. I was pleased that he would already be ahead of where I was when I was in college.

How to Read a Book discusses active reading, the goals of reading, and it explains the difference between reading for information and reading for understanding. It then goes on to explain the various levels of reading. The elementary level is simply understanding what one has read; or a fancy way of saying "reading comprehension." The second level of reading is when the student learns how to skim through the page, picking out what is important, and what can be left. The third level of reading is analytical reading, where the students learns how to classify books, how to outline a book, how to understand what the author is trying to convey, how to critique a book, and how to make sound judgments about the author.

Students are then led through the different processes of reading. There are many types of books to be read, and all are discussed here. We are taught how to read practical books; imaginative literature; plays, poems, and short stories; histories; academic books such as science and math books; philosophy; and the social sciences. Basically, How to Read a Book teaches students just that: how to read any book.

Lastly, the book delves into the fourth level of reading which is syntopical reading, which can be reading more than one book on the same subject, and deciding which is more relevant and more accurate. This requires a level of skill and wisdom that can only come with time, but this book tells what to do when you get there. How to Read a Book comes highly recommended for the high school student or anyone wanting to sharpen his reading skills.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

Considered the introductory tome of the modern feminist movement, The Feminine Mystique was the prized work of Betty Friedan, who died in February 2006. Friedan helped spark the second wave of feminism with this book. Friedan began her career as a reporter writing on labor unions, which was a non-traditional career path for a woman in the 1930s, but Friedan was known as a quality writer with a very masculine assertiveness that made her successful in her profession.

After working as a labor reporter, Betty married Carl Friedan and began staying at home while freelance writing. Friedan wrote in her spare time while raising small children. She believed that she could keep up with her career and her family. While Friedan and her ideas often seem outdated or commonsensical today, she was quite the pioneer in her time for these ideas.

Friedan began to notice trends among her college classmates at a reunion. These women were highly educated, yet they were homemakers. And they were bored. Friedan was a very well-educated woman. Before one of her reunions, she became interested to know what educated women were doing with themselves. These women, Friedan believed, were capable of accomplishing much, but most of them devoted themselves to their families as expected. Friedan was curious about how these women felt about those choices. She went to her reunion armed with questionnaires and discovered that many of the women reported the same feelings. They were not happy with their lives and found the life of a homemaker a little boring for their tastes.

Friedan continued to compile information about this phenomenon and the romanticized notion of femininity in which women were expected to be at home, taking care of house and children, while men went out and worked. Most popular notions at the time painted this life as one of leisure and comfort, but the women saw it differently. Many of them disliked this life and saw that notion of idealized womanhood as a myth. Women were expected to do everything on the domestic front and to do it well. They had more labor-saving devices than ever, but these women only saw the added pressure to do even more in the course of a day.

Friedan exposed this myth, which she called the myth of femininity, and her book found more favor among women than she would have imagined. Though Friedan eventually severed ties with the National Organization of Women, which she founded, she did help ignite a generation of feminist women. The Feminine Mystique permitted many women to discuss their thoughts on the way women lived their lives and to express their disenchantment with life. These topics had previously been kept under wraps, ostensibly because women believed that discussing these ideas would make them seem ungrateful and unfeminine. The work is one of the hallmarks of modern feminism although it has met with much disagreement in recent years.

The Feminine Mystique is still read in college classrooms today. Although times have changed since its initial publication, the ideas it discusses are very much alive. Friedan and her colleagues have been criticized all around for their exclusion of all non-white, non-middle class, and non-educated women, but the reality is that Friedan sought to deal with these women when she started her research. She talked only to these women because they were the only ones with whom she was familiar.

These middle-class women have, for all of their other faults, been instrumental in many of the changes made to the position women hold in modern American society. The work Friedan did is important, if incomplete, and it helped to spark conversations about the place women hold and the expectations heaped upon them by a society accustomed to women who did as was expected.

Anyone who would like a basic introduction to the feminist ideologies in the modern wave of feminism would do well to begin by reading Friedan. While reading it with a discerning eye is helpful, reading to understand the time in which it was written will help as well. When Friedan died in early 2006, she left behind a legacy of activism and commitment to the cause of equality for women, and her book is a testament to her devotation.

Havana Twist by Lia Matera

The story of Havana Twist is an interesting one that weaves elements of mystery, suspense, and politics into one novel. Author Lia Matera has a recurring character, attorney Willa Jansson. The attorney is considered right-wing for her parents and their political allies, but in reality, Jansson is your everyday liberal. Her parents, however, are extreme left-wing activists who are intimately involved in all types of political action on both sides of legal.

In Havana Twist, Jansson begins by telling her readers that she would love a mother who annoyed her with family anecdotes or by telling her how to raise tulips. Jansson instead had to go on a trip through the United States, Mexico, and Cuba to find her activist mom after the elder Jansson went on a political expedition to Cuba and failed to return with her group.

After learning about the disappearance of her mother, Jansson heads to Cuba, despite her desires. She has to pretend to be part of a tourist group and fly through Mexico City so that American customs does not find out about the trip. When Jansson arrives, she is soon befriended by Cindy and Dennis, who tell her that are Associated Press journalists, and by Ernesto, a young Cuban boy who is not what he seems.

Jansson uses these people to help her navigate the confusing waters of Cuba, using the time to comment on the state of the communist nation and its people. Matera often uses the book as a political commentary, pointing out the ills of Cuban communism and praising the gusanos, defectors who left Cuba for the United States. The commentary at times takes away from the book, making it seem that the purpose Matera had in mind when writing the book was to dissuade the legions of Americans who may be considering a summer vacation in Havana.

While in Cuba, Jansson finds herself at odds with the government, which is watching her every move. Eventually Jansson finds herself kicked out of the communist haven and sent back to Mexico City. Jansson connects with the newspaper where Cindy and Dennis worked and ends up involved in an international conspiracy involving love, hate, and human smuggling.

The effort to find her mother is not as pleasant or as simple as Jansson had hoped it would be. She ends up going back to her home in Santa Cruz after having explained the entire situation to several branches of the United States government and to her old flame, who happens to be a detective. Jansson spends the next six months pining away the hours, believing that her mother is dead, until her ex comes up with a plan.

The two travel back to Mexico and convince Martin Marules, the newspaper editor, to get them back into Cuba using his connections in the country. Marules does, and the two set out to find Mother once and for all. Once in Cuba, they are shuttled from place to place without being permitted to do any searching. In the end, they must leave Cuba empty-handed, but the two will not give up.

They continue staking out several places in Mexico City, including an apartment they have discovered is the headquarters for a motley crew of CIA agents. The book has more twists and turns than one may imagine, and Jansson and her comrades often get by on deus ex machina, the Greek phrase for God out of a box. In other words, the escapes sometimes are too narrow and too convenient to be believable. There are murders, double-crossing, and just plain lies in this book, which attempts too much in one short novel. Havana Twist is, however, a good story, but it may warrant a second read to keep everyone straight and to figure out how everyone fits together in the end.

Still the book provides an interesting read. Much of the history and the information about Cuba is accurate and gives one interpretation of the current state of affairs there. It may be surprising to know what one could expect to see in Cuba on a friendly little visit, but the book is not likely to convince anyone that visiting there would be a good idea.

By Julia Mercer

Everyday a Holiday by Silvana Clark

I saw a book a few weeks ago that I thought would be really interesting and that I may buy. It is called Everyday a Holiday by Silvana Clark. The book is a unique twist on celebrating holidays. Clark has found holidays for everyday of the year that celebrate everyday items. She has included a theme-related craft and food for all of the holidays in the book. What a neat idea! I think that the next book run I make will include this book for sure.

I think that celebrating National Jelly Bean Day or National Puzzle Day could be a lot of fun. My son would have a wonderful time, and I would get to do something exciting. If you have small children, you should think about this type of activity with them. You could get the book and use it as a guide to entertainment. Here is how.

Pick up the book and then decide how often you want to celebrate one of these little holidays. Perhaps you want to do something once a month. I think my family will do something every two weeks. That is a good timeframe for us.

Then decide how much you want to do. Perhaps you just want to do the food or just the craft. You may want to do both or even add more fun to your day. That will determine in part how often you celebrate. Once you have decided, go through the book. If you picked every two weeks as I have, then you will read the next two weeks of holidays. Decide which one sounds neat to you and then begin planning.

I will do a little more than what Everyday a Holiday has. I have a degree in history, and I am very interested in the sort of practical, narrative history in these types of quirky books. I will find out the history behind not only the holiday and its celebration but the item being celebrated. I can teach my son about the holiday and how we got jelly beans.

I also want a little interactive fun as I think that works really well for these types of celebrations. For example, I will have us make some homemade ice cream on the day to celebrate ice cream. Should we decide to celebrate Arbor Day, then we will plant a small tree.

Making the whole day about the holiday you are celebrating will be far more entertaining for your children. They enjoy drawing parallels and playing games. You could have trivia (with prizes!) if you have older children, or you could have a scavenger hunt with younger children. Be sure that you are making the whole day centered around this one thing you are celebrating.

These types of entertainment ideas are what makes me happy that I have my energy back. I can work on making my son happy because of the fun he gets to have. He will learn so much because we will be picking new holidays every year. If we celebrate the jelly beans this year, then we will not next year. I will pick different holidays until we have exhausted our options (or he feels that these celebrations are too silly for him).

My husband can get in on the celebration, too. Although he cannot participate all day in our holiday activities, he will be able to eat the meal we prepare in the evening. I am excited to see all of the possibilities for foods we can cook to celebrate these quirky little holidays.

Part of the fun for me of having my own family in our own house is that we can engage in this type of entertaining. We do not need a reason to celebrate or to get together. We can just have fun because we want to. In fact, we should have fun because we want to. Learning to love spending time with each other is one of the most important lessons I can teach my son. I hope that he will have as much fun with this new idea for entertaining as I am having thinking about it. After all, seeing the fun in his eyes makes all of the planning worth it.

By Julia Mercer

Hangman's Root By Susan Wittig Albert

I have always enjoyed a good mystery. But I don't like the hard-boiled, gritty true crime kind of mysteries. I prefer my mysteries less graphic and with more of an enjoyable story line. I love the process of a mystery, the subtle scattering of clues, the inevitable red herrings and the denouement that reveals the whole who, what and why. I always wonder if the butler did it, and if it was with a candlestick from the dining room or the lead pipe from the garage. Sometimes I figure it out ahead of time, other times the identity of the killer is a complete surprise to me. I like it, either way. There is nothing like curling up with a good book that is a great read with a satisfying conclusion.

I buy a lot of books on, and one of the especially nice things they do is offer you recommendations based on the books you have purchased in the past. I get some great recommendations. I also get some really weird ones and I give them a look and simply delete them. Computers aren't infallible, unfortunately, and they don't always have good taste in books!

One of the recommendations I got was the China Bayles series by Susan Wittig Albert. The book I just finished was Hangman's Root. As a woman, I truly love mystery writers who feature a strong female protagonist as the main character in their books. I also love mystery series with the same character. It is nice to get to know a character, get comfortable with them and feel like you know them. Then when you read another book by the same author, it is like meeting an old friend that you really like to spend time with.

This book is not the first one in the series. It is actually the third book in the series. I borrowed it from the library because I didn't want to buy a book if I didn't like the protagonist. I know, it's probably cheap, but the library is any avid reader's good friend, especially when you don't have a lot of extra cash to spend on books. I usually spend my extra money on things for my kids and even then I have to stretch every penny. So I use the library to try out book series before buying. Just call me cautious, I guess.

Hangman's Root was an excellent introduction to China Bayles. She is an ex lawyer in Houston, Texas. She worked as a criminal attorney until she got tired of it. She moved to a small fictional town named Pecan Springs and became the proprietor of an herb shop called Thyme and Seasons. She shares the building with the Crystal Cave, which is a new age shop owned by her best friend, Ruby Wilcox. Her book is filled with colorful characters that are interesting and well written.

China is involved with Mike McQuaid, who is a retired Houston Homicide detective that decided to quit the cop business, get a Ph.D. in criminal justice and become a teacher in the Criminal Justice department at Central Texas State University, which is also located in Pecan Springs. They have an uneasy relationship, because she comes with plenty of emotional baggage from a difficult upbringing with an alcoholic mother and a picky, snooty cat named Khat. McQuaid comes with a young eleven year old son and a dog named Howard Cosell. He is divorced, as well. This means they navigate the relationship waters very carefully. The intricacies of their relationship provide an interesting counterpoint to the story line, and since she likes to solve mysteries and he is a former cop, they spend a lot of their time tied up in the current mystery. In Hangman's Root, they are considering moving in together with his son and both of their pets. McQuaid wants to take their relationship to the next level. China is not as sold on the idea as he is, but she really wants to expand her shop because it is so small, and her living quarters at the back of the shop will make for a nice addition.

The story begins with what must be a Texas institution, a rattlesnake sacking championship. I had never heard of this, but from the story, it seems to be a popular activity in Texas. To each their own, of course! China feels badly for the snakes, and prefers to be somewhere else. She goes to visit a friend, whose nickname is the Cat Lady instead. China's feelings about the rattlesnake sacking competition are an excellent beginning to a story that is about animal rights and whether or not animals should be used in laboratory experiments.

Dottie Riddle is also a teacher at the local University. She teaches biology, and is the only woman in the entire biology department. She is also a cat lover, and rescues and cares for hundreds of cats. It is her passion, and she is very adamant about the rights of animals. It is at Dottie's that we get a glimpse of her nearest neighbor, who is also a professor at the college. Miles Harwick is an unpleasant little man who hates Dottie and threatens to trap and kill her cats if he finds them in his yard again. Dottie loses her temper and throws a hammer toward him, breaking his garage window.

When Miles is found hanged in his office a few days later, Dottie is the key suspect once it is discovered to be murder and not suicide. Part of the rope used to hang him is found in Dottie's garage, and a drug used to euthanize animals is found in Miles' coffee cup as well as Dottie's house. Several of her hairs are wound in the knot for the rope, and it looks like Dottie is going to be tried for this crime. China knows that Dottie did not do it, and calls a good friend who is also a lawyer to come and represent Dottie. China and her good friend, Ruby agree to do the legwork for the Whiz, as she refers to her lawyer friend, Justine Wyzinski. Justine calls China Hot Shot and these nicknames are a holdover from their days together in law school.

Susan Wittig Albert introduces other characters to make the twists and turns of the story more interesting and also a lot more tangled. China's best friend, Ruby discovers that the daughter she placed for adoption many years ago has tracked her down. Her name is Amy and she is a student at CTSU. She is also an active member of PETA, and she violently objects to the research that Miles Harwick had been planning to do. Amy is by degrees a sullen young adult and an outspoken activist.

There is also a young lab assistant named Kevin Scott. He is a young man who stutters and seems to be aware of how Miles Harwick is treating his lab animals but does not seem to want to do anything about.

In any institution of higher learning, there are always politics. Professors compete to be published and garner perks like an easy class schedule and a better office. The head of the biology department is Frank Castle. He is a suave, attractive dresser whose main goal is to get the University to build a bigger and better biology building complete with a state of the art research lab. He is certain that his friend and best researcher, Miles Harwick will be able to do a research project that will make this possible and put CTSU on the map. He is ambitious and fairly intelligent. He is protected by his secretary, Cynthia Leeds, who does her best to make sure that Castle's goals are realized. She is one of those background people who seem to always know what is going on.

Sheila Dawson is the new head of campus security, and right away, China is suspicious of how friendly she seems to be with McQuaid. Blonde, attractive and petite, Sheila turns out to be very good at her job, innovative and intelligent. China has a wary respect for her once she sees Sheila in action, and nicknames her Smart Cookie.

Throw into the mix a man who has a couple of greyhound dogs that has been seen at Miles Harwick's house, an accountant, a reluctant police chief and a few others, and you have a story that is definitely worth an afternoon. China and Ruby track down leads which take them in some interesting directions. China quickly figures out Ruby's long-lost daughter is not all that she seems to be, and evidence disappears just as it seems that Dottie will be cleared of the murder.

I would give you more clues about who really killed Miles Harwick, but I refuse to spoil the ending of a mystery for anyone. I will say that I was surprised about whom the actual killer turned out to be, and I liked the fact that there were many people with valid motives for killing Miles Harwick, and not everyone is completely innocent in this story. I appreciate a story that has black and white and shades of gray when it comes to people, because it is very true to life. No one is all good or bad, and everyone can rationalize some of their behaviors and actions based on an incident or event. Susan Wittig Albert has a very good handle on human character, and I found the people in her novel to be very three-dimensional and realistic. All of them have those little quirky things that make us all human.

China does triumph in the end, and Dottie is cleared to go home to her cats, sans one annoying neighbor. Things go on, with some people getting what they deserve, and others just getting a slap on the hand because of University politics, which is scarily similar to real life. China and McQuaid find a gorgeous house to rent that is spacious enough for two people, an eleven year old kid and two animals that detest each other. It is wonderful Victorian style house located near a small creek, and is complete with a turret. I am sure that in the next book I will find out how well China and McQuaid adjust to living together, along with another smart and funny mystery.

I am excited to have found another author I enjoy, and I encourage anyone who loves mysteries to check out Susan Wittig Albert and her character, China Bayles. You won't be disappointed, I promise!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The 20th Century Children's Book Treasury-- Janet Schulman

If you are looking for a terrific children's story collection, you should check out "The 20th Century Children's Book Treasury", edited by famed children's book editor Janet Schulman. Schulman has a knack for selecting the best of the bunch amongst children's stories.

The story selections span the 20th century-- from selections from the 1920's all the way through the 1990's. The thing is, the stories from the 1920's and 1930's don't seem dated in the least. In fact, they are beloved children's classics that your child is likely already familiar with.

The book includes works from more than 60 children's writers and artists. You will find old favorites along with new surprises, all compiled in one handsome volume. I bought this book as a gift for my child and it is still one of her favorites. Here are some of the great stories that are included in this book:

You get Ludwig Bemelman's classic story "Madeline" (originally published in 1939). It's the tale of a Parisian schoolgirl.

There's also the preschool favorite, "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom" by Bill Martin Jr. It's a catchy story with an irresistible rhythm to it.

Margaret Wise Brown's classic "Goodnight Moon" is also included-- fully illustrated and just as wonderful as it was when it first came out in 1947.

My favorite childhood story, Ezra Jack Keats' "The Snowy Day" is another great selection. It is a thrill for me to share this great story with my own children-- and it may bring back a memory for you, too.

Robert McCloskey's "Make Way for Duckling" is an award winning story of a mallard family looking for a place to live.

There are a couple longer stories, like "A Million Fish… More or Less" by Patricia McKissack and "Millions of Cats" by Wanda Gag (by longer stories I mean a surplus of words and just a few pictures). Then there's a story with no words at all-- just a sequence of pictures that tell the tale of Mercer Mayer's "A Boy, A Dog and a Frog".

There are familiar favorites, like Sam McBratney's "Guess How Much I Love You", the story of Little Nutbrown Hare and Big Nutbrown Hare.

One of my favorite stories in this collection is Judith Voirst's "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day". Older preschoolers and young school age kids will love this tale about a day where everything goes wrong for a young boy. It's funny and well written and guaranteed to get some laughs from your children.

With the recent release of the film version of "Curious George" it's great to see that the original story of eth curious monkey, by H.A. Rey, is in this book. If it's been a while since you've read this story, you'll love reading it to your kids.

The award winning "Where the Wild Things Are", written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, is the story of a boy's vivid imagination after he is sent to his room with no supper.

William Steig's classic, "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble" is included, as is Virginia Lee Burton's "Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel". Other classics include 1926's "In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets into a Tight Place" by A.A. Milne, "The Story of Babar" (Jean de Brunhof), "The Story of Ferdinand" by Munro Leaf and Gene Zion's "Harry the Dirty Dog".

Some of the characters from these stories have been developed into modern day television shows, including the Bernstein bears ("The Berenstein Bears and the Spooky Tree") and the aardvark named Arthur ("D.W. The Picky Eater") .

Stories from several generations of childhood are include din this book, like "Petunia' by Roger Duvoisin (from 1950) and 1863's "Amelia Bedelia'.

If you're a Richard Scarry fan, then you will love his illustrations for the story "I Am A Bunny" (written by Ole Risom).

No children's story collection would be complete without a selection by Dr. Suess. Included here is the 1961 story "The Sneetches".

Stories from the latter part of the century include Janell Cannon's "Stellaluna" and "First Tomato" by Rosemary Wells (of "Max and Ruby" fame).

The oldest story in the collection (as least as far as text goes, is actually from the 19th century--1899 to be exact. "The Story of Little Babaji" by Helen Bannerman was written in 1899, but the illustrations included in this book have updated it to the year 1996.

The book also includes complete biographical notes about the authors, something that I always find interesting to read. This book is definitely a must-own if you love children's literature.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Birth Book by William Sears and Martha Sears

If you are pregnant for the first time, then you are probably a bit apprehensive about what the actual delivery will be like. That's only natural, especially if you have friends or relatives that constantly regale you with stories about how long and drawn out their own labor and delivery process was. While it's great to talk to friends and family about what to expect on the big day, you might want to balance these personal views with the perspective of trained medical professionals. That's what reading The Birth Book by William Sears, M.D. and Martha Sears, R.N. will allow you to do.

The Birth Book carries the subtitle, "Everything You Need to Know to Have a Safe and Satisfying Birth." That would actually turn out to be true in my case, as this was the only book that I bought and read on the subject.

The book opens with the authors telling about the births of their own children. They have eight children in all, so there's no doubt as to their experience. The authors also start giving advice right away. This chapter contains 10 tips that they believe will help women have a safer birth when the time comes. Some of these tips include making sure you prepare adequately (read books, take classes, know what to expect); take responsibility for the choices you make regarding the method and manner of your baby's impending birth (in other words, don't let the nurse or doctor make all the choices -- unless a medical emergency comes up); learn how to make your labor progress naturally; and use technology wisely.

I thought this was an extremely effective opening chapter. The authors established themselves as experts with qualifications beyond mere titles and degrees. In addition, they gave solid advice right off the bat, so I felt that I was going to be able to learn a lot from the rest of the book.

The next chapter goes into some differences between how births were handled in the past and how they are handled now. I have to admit that I just skimmed this section because I didn't feel that knowing the information would impact my personal experience at all.

The authors then start talking about the many choices that mothers have to think about prior to giving birth. For example, it's important to think about where you want to have your birth. Are you going to do it in a regular hospital, or do you prefer to go to a place with a friendlier atmosphere (a so-called "family birth center)? Some women might even choose to give birth at home, but this would of course require that you prepare your home well in advance and arrange to have proper medical assistance onsite once your labor pains start. Some other choices that the authors talk about are: choosing who will be in the room with you, choosing a birthing philosophy, and choosing your birthing classes.

At this point, the authors also described some things that might go wrong during delivery. Although reading about the problems was a bit disconcerting and worrisome, the authors also pointed out some things that you can do to be prepared if any of these emergencies arise. They also give some statistics about how often the problems occur, which is reassuring since the percentages are pretty low.

In total, this book consists of 14 chapters describing various aspects of the whole birth process. In my opinion, some of the more interesting chapters were: Why Birth Hurts -- Why It Doesn't Have To, Labor and Deliver, Composing Your Birth Plan, and Relaxing For Birth. I thought the tips, advice, and stories presented in each of these chapters was extremely helpful and gave me lots of things to think about that I never would have figured out on my own.

I have to say that I was quite pleased with what this book was able to accomplish. The authors addressed the most important aspects of labor and delivery, and did much to educated and inform me about what I could expect. Of course, I still knew that my own baby's birth probably wouldn't unfold exactly as laid out in this book, but I at least had more of an inkling as to what I could expect to happen, and why those things would happen.

In other reviews of this book, some critics have said that this book is basically one-sided and very biased. The reason for these complaints is that the authors really go out of their way to recommend a natural birth without the use of narcotics, epidurals, or other pain relievers. In addition, the authors recommend holding out on a Cesarean section for as long as possible, and to only agree to such a procedure as a last resort.

I can understand where these other readers would feel that the authors were biased, because they really do urge women to choose natural birthing methods. However, they also present information about all of the options out there, and make it clear that the final decision is of course up to each woman herself. As a result, even though I could tell that they were indeed leaning towards natural births, there is definitely useful information in here for women who want to take advantage of the pain relief medications that are widely available.

On the whole, I would recommend The Birth Book to any woman that is interested in knowing what to expect when it comes time to deliver her first child. This book contains a lot of information, and the authors present it in an easy-to-read (yet not condescending or preachy) manner. You'll find the answers to many common concerns that pregnant women have about the time prior to, during, and just after delivery, as well as things you can do to help make your birth as safe and memorable as possible.

Contrary to what some critics have said, this book does give you a good look at many different delivery options, while taking the time to reinforce the notion that the final choice is yours. There is also a very helpful index in the back that will allow you to look up specific topics quickly and easily. I found myself constantly referring back to the book during my pregnancy to make sure that I was following the advice that was offered.

After reading The Birth Book, I can honestly say that I went into the delivery room more prepared than I otherwise would have been on my own. I believe that the advice in this book helped make my experience just about as good as it could be!

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, is a novel I was assigned to read in the 10th grade. I remember skimming over the long, boring-looking book, wondering how I could possibly finish it. I then began reading the first chapter. While, the young boy, Pip, seemed like a cute and clever little chap, I was soon bogged down by the Dickensian language. Let's face it, at age 15, I was not educated enough to read the book. Having filled my young mind with the likes of Danielle Steel and Barbara Cartland, I was hot on the dime novel and romance novel trail. I wanted literary candy, not a gourmet meal. Thanks to the less-than-first-rate school I attended, I somehow wrote and essay and passed the class, in spite of never getting past the first chapter.

Today, more than twenty years later, I homeschool my children and I am finally learning much of what I failed to learn (by either the school's failure or my own) all those years ago in school. My daughters, ages 12 and 13, were assigned Great Expectations this year in their school curriculum; or more clearly, I was assigned to read it to them aloud. With painful memories of Dickens in my past, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and, dedicated homeschool mom that I am, I persevered and began reading the book.

Much to my surprise (and elation) I have been educated since my high school years. Somehow I avoided Dickens in my four years of obtaining and English Literature degree, but here he was now, in my hands. I read to my daughters about Pip, about his overbearing and mean-hearted sister, about her gentle, sweet husband Joe, about the mysterious prisoner in the marshes, about the eccentric hermit, Miss Havisham, and about the cold Estella. The language was challenging, but I was thrilled to see that my daughters, having been educated much better than I was, picked up on the language and missed nothing in Dickens' dry humor. We were delighted when Pip, having grown up and gone on to accept his expectations, met up with Herbert, a surprise connection to his past. We brooded with Pip about the mysterious Jaggers and we loved the odd Wemmick, with his cheerful Aged Parent, which he lovingly referred to as the "Aged P."

Part way through the book, due to a sore throat and loss of voice, we turned to an audio version of the book. The actor who read the book for us had a charming English accent and was sure to give special tonality and spunk to each of the character's voices. We laughed and cried as we watched Pip make poor choices, choose less-than-favorable company, and get puffed up with his own importance. We all longed for him to open his eyes and discover who and what was really important in life.

As life often does, it softened Pip. For such a young man, Pip undergoes many difficult circumstances and trials. He is confused by his newfound position, he longs to know who his mysterious benefactor may be, and he has his heart broken terribly. Even when it seems that Pip has been softened, he continues to meet trials that show him, and us, that he still has many rough edges that need smoothing. While Pip has a kind, good heart on the inside, he must go through his trials to discover that the world does not revolve around him and that it will not wait for him to grow up. His choices often prevent Pip from being with the people he so adores and they force him to be with others whom he abhors. But in the end, after many years of hard work and changed expectations, Pip discovers what is important in life. He learns the true meaning of love and friendship and discovers that pretentiousness is only a mist.

Great Expectations is a wonderful coming-of-age story that will delight readers of literature everywhere. It is a glimpse back into a bygone era with the language of Dickens, the lives of people in 19th century England, and the timeless trials that every young person must ultimately face. Great Expectations comes highly recommended from this teacher who is still being educated.

Gemba Kaizen by Masaaki Imai

These days, many companies are looking for ways to improve the bottom line. However, most managers and executives mistakenly assume that they first have to spend a lot of money in order to realize substantial savings later on. For example, they may believe they have to invest in the latest electronic wizardry, high-speed industrial machinery, or expensive software systems that all promise dramatic company-wide improvements. But according to at least one school of thought, there's a much simpler and cost-effective way of streamlining operations and cutting down on waste. That's the focus of Gemba Kaizen by Masaaki Imai.

Gemba Kaizen is something of an anomaly as far as business books go. That is to say, even though it was published back in 1997, it is still extremely relevant and applicable in today's business environment. That's not something that can be said about other nonfiction business books that tend to focus on "flavor-of-the-month" ideas that fall quickly out of style. The only problem with this book's publication date is that it can sometimes be hard to find on bookstore shelves; instead, you'll probably have to order it from the Internet.

Imai is a consultant at the Kaizen Institute and is one of the world's foremost experts on the whole kaizen philosophy. He wrote a groundbreaking book, called, naturally, Kaizen, two decades ago in 1986. That book gave Western managers and executives insight into the whole kaizen concept, which Imai credits as the biggest reason for the sustained worldwide success of Japanese manufacturing companies.

The word kaizen is often translated as "improvement," or, more accurately, "continuous improvement." The idea behind this philosophy is actually quite simple: There is always room to improve in every area of company operations. Those companies that are constantly on the lookout for ways to get better will, in fact, get better, while those companies that make a few improvements here and there and then are satisfied, will eventually get left far behind.

The gemba part of the equation refers to "the workplace," or the "place where value is added." Every company or business in any type of industry has its own unique gemba. For example, the gemba of a writer would be her desk where she sits down to churn out pages and pages of text. The gemba of a factory worker is the assembly line where he spends eight hours per day. A news reporter's gemba is out on the street where the latest story is unfolding. And so on. According to Imai, this is the most important part of any operation, yet, surprisingly, is the place that is most often overlooked by upper management.

In this book, Imai encourages managers to spend more time in gemba and less time in their offices. In fact, Imai says that one of the most effective ways for a manager to spend his or her time is to stand in a single spot and carefully observe what is going on around them. When managers are out in gemba, they will start to notice new problems that they never perceived before, which in turn will lead to brainstorming new solutions and improvements in operations.

Another basic tenet of the gemba kaizen philosophy is the emphasis placed on good housekeeping. A company that is highly organized will operate much more efficiently than one that is in disarray. As an example, consider a maintenance worker who is in charge of fixing machinery in a production factory. If a machine breaks down, it costs the company money because production will obviously be reduced. It's in the best interest of the company to see to it that the machine gets back to working order as quickly as possible. If the maintenance worker has to spend several minutes looking around for the tools required to fix the machine, that's even more downtime and more lost money for the company.

However, if the maintenance worker's tools were neatly organized in a tool box or cabinet, he would quickly be able to locate the ones he needed for a specific job, and would get the machine up and running again in no time. The result when this kind of organization is implemented and maintained throughout the company is a drastic improvement in both efficiency and the bottom line.

According to the gemba kaizen system, there are five distinct steps (the so-called 5S's) in the housekeeping process: sort, straighten, scrub, systematize, and standardize. Imai spends a lot of time describing what is necessary to do in each phase and how today's managers can carry out 5S consistently. I found Imai's explanations in this part of the book, and indeed throughout the entire work, to be extremely clear and helpful.

In all, Imai discusses 16 different principles of the gemba kaizen management philosophy. Some of the other principles include self-discipline, quality circles, accountability, just-in-time production, the need to eliminate the waste of key elements such as time, motion, production, processing, and transportation.

I believe this book is an extremely practical and useful tool that almost any manager can benefit from. It is written in a very concise and clear style, and Imai shows that he deserves every bit of his solid reputation as an expert in gemba kaizen. He presents the ideas of this philosophy with a voice of reason that should be readily apparent even to people who might not be familiar with his previous works.

Unlike a lot of business books out there, Gemba Kaizen doesn't spend a lot of time dwelling on abstract theories and best-case scenarios. Instead, Imai presents the reader with well over 100 examples and numerous case studies from real companies that have benefited from his consultation and advice. Many of the examples deal with well-known companies from around the world, which serves to further legitimize the concepts presented in the book.

Imai is convinced that any company can enjoy a significant turnaround by incorporating the gemba kaizen philosophy into their daily routines. The changes won't be easy, and it will take a lot of discipline to keep things going, but Imai believes the results will be well worth it.

I've seen the way gemba kaizen works from the inside, so I can confidently say that Imai's explanations in this book are enough to get your company started down the path to operating efficiency. As I stated earlier, a lot of management techniques have come and gone over the years, but the gemba kaizen approach is still around and is still used by many powerful corporations the world over, including automotive giant Toyota Motors. If you're looking for a primer on this philosophy, then Gemba Kaizen by Masaaki Imai is an excellent book to start with.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by William E. Blundell

As a writer, I enjoy nothing more than sitting down with a good book that can give me ideas about how to become better at what I do. Since there are hundreds of writing books out there to choose from, I normally rely on word-of-mouth or customer recommendations before making a purchase. This approach generally works very well for me -- except in a few cases, including this one.

I purchased The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by William E. Blundell. Blundell is (or was; I couldn't really tell) on the staff of the Wall Street Journal, and this particular book has apparently been making the rounds for close to 20 years now. These were two additional features that really sold me on the book. The Wall Street Journal, of course, has an excellent reputation as far as writer goes. And, any nonfiction book that is still kicking around in print after two decades must have some terrific advice to offer.

So imagine my disappointment when I actually received the book (I ordered it from an online store) and discovered that, at least in my own humble opinion, it's not everything that it is cracked up to be. Let me explain.

The book is clearly outdated both in terms of style and presentation. If you're anything like me, then you're a product of the Internet Age where almost all information comes in small chunks that are easy to handle no matter how short your attention span happens to be. That has usually been the case with the other nonfiction how-to writing books that I have on my shelves. But not so with The Art and Craft of Feature Writing. The author tends to drone on and on about the various topics that he covers, which makes reading this book quite a laborious undertaking. In addition, the sample articles that he provides are very, very long (several pages in some instances). Since this book seems to be directed at inexperienced writers, I found the articles to be of little help. Yes, they were well-written. But it's not likely that a freelancer would get the kinds of assignments that would necessitate writing similarly lengthy, deeply-researched stories. These were also very difficult to read  (and it didn't help much that they were printed in a smaller font than the rest of the text).

As is usually the case with "how-to" books, some of the author's advice gets to be repetitive after a bit. He constantly repeats that it is the writer's job to make the article interesting for the reader, or the reader is likely to go elsewhere. That's not exactly a groundbreaking journalistic sentiment, yet Blundell decides that he has to repeat it in one form or other throughout the entire book.

That brings me to the most ironic aspect of The Art and Craft of Feature Writing: again, in my opinion, the author failed to do what he constantly exhorts his readers to do. That is to say, he didn't make his book very interesting. I found it extremely difficult to sit with this book for more than a few minutes at a time because it simply wasn't interesting or fun to read. Nevertheless, I stuck it out until the end in the hopes that something in the pages would stand out as the reason this book has received so much praise over the years. Unfortunately, that never happened. Instead, I was simply left scratching my head and wondering what all the fuss was about.

In the author's defense, he does cover many topics that budding writers could potentially find to be useful. For example, he has a chapter on where you can go for ideas, how to look for a unique angle when every other newspaper is covering the same story, and how to effectively use quotes in order to bolster your story. Remember, I didn't find fault with the actual content of the book, but rather with the writing style and presentation.

Overall I have to say that although The Art and Craft of Feature Writing contains a lot of advice about how to write a good newspaper story, younger writers might be turned off by the dated quality of the author's own writing. It's hard to go against the grain here, but I simply can't recommend this book.

The Lobster Chronicles, by Linda Greenlaw

Linda Greenlaw became known to many of us by her role in Sebastian Junger's novel, and subsequent blockbuster movie, The Perfect Storm. Played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, in the movie, the tough female captain of the sister sword fishing ship to the ship that was lost, Linda Greenlaw knows her ocean. She even wrote her own book about the sword fishing life, entitled, The Hungry Ocean, where she showed the world that she thoroughly earned the title of sword fishing captain - woman or not. In The Lobster Chronicles, Linda Greenlaw takes her readers back home to Maine, where her parents live, where she can connect with her roots. As if sword fishing weren't enough, she decides to become a lobster fisherman on the tiny Isle au Haut, an island off the Maine coast with a population of about 70 people, 30 of whom, as the book tells us, are her relatives.

The book begins with an explanation of lobsters and an assurance that all the names of the characters in the book are, in untraditional format, entirely accurate. We are taken on a quick tour of Isle au Haut where we see that the island is a real, working town, not just a tourist spot, like many of the other islands in Maine. Tourists may visit Isle au Haut in the summertime, but Ms. Greenlaw explains that "We do not have a Kmart, or any other mart. We have no movie theater, roller rink, arcade, or bowling alley. Residents can't get manicured, pedicured, dry-cleaned, massaged, hot tubbed, facial-ed, permed, tinted, foiled, or indoor tanned. We have neither fine dining nor fast food. There is no Dairy Queen, Jiffy Lube, newspaper stand, or Starbucks. There is no bank, not even an ATM. No cable TV, golf course, movie theater, gym, museum, art gallery... well, you get the picture." And thus begins a heartwarming tale of life on the island.

Ms. Greenlaw goes into great educational depth about all that lobster fishing entails, including the proper reference to lobster fishing that is, in fact, fishing, and that the hearty folks who brave the cold ocean to acquire the delectable arthropods, are known as fishermen, not lobstermen. Yet, the book is all that and more. It is about the author's home life, having moved back in with her mother and father after many years. It is about the funny doings and sayings of her parents, her neighbors, and the other townspeople. It is about political issues that are found in towns such as this, on outlying islands in Maine. It is about how and when and why anyone would go to the mainland. And mostly, it is about Linda Greenlaw - her love for Maine, for the ocean, for lobster fishing, for hard work, and for the people she loves.

Throughout the book, the author sprinkles in, at perfect intervals, her dry humor, that is so typical of native Mainers. One of the many instances is a chapter in which her aunt is trying to set up Ms. Greenlaw on a date. She explains that her aunt claims that she has a friend the author must meet. Once it has been established that the friend is a man who has a charter fishing business, the author launches into a thought process that will be hilarious to all single women everywhere: "Wow, I thought. A Charter Boy from the Vineyard - I'm sure he would be impressed. He's probably an avid catch-and-releaser. Maybe he's even a member of Greenpeace. Ours would be a match made in heaven. Cupid had outdone herself this time." And then she goes on to explain that she answered her aunt in a kind, mannerly way, knowing the man in question would most likely stay on his island, while she stayed happily on hers.

The book ends much the way it begins - with life continuing and promising to continue on the island, as it always has. Through the book, though the author doesn't change her lifestyle, per se, she learns a lot about herself in ways she never imagined. She becomes closer to her parents and a bit more proud of her life just as it is. Linda Greenlaw is a master story teller and anyone who is remotely interested in Maine, islands, the ocean, or just small town people, will love this book.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

As far as cautionary tales go, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is one of my favorites. It is a short novel (a novella, really), and Wilde doesn't really waste any space. Instead, he gets right into the action and keeps the drama and suspense building up throughout the entire work. It is a real page-turner, which is a bit of a surprise when you consider that the book was written way back in 1890. I've found that many of the authors I've read from that time period generally take their time developing the plot, and often get bogged down in extensive passages of narrative or description. Not so with The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The story opens in the studio of an artist named Basil Hallward. Basil is putting the finishing touches on a striking portrait of a very good-looking young man, while also talking to his friend Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry says that he thinks this particular painting is Basil's best work, and tries to get him to exhibit it to the public. But Basil declines, saying that the painting is far too personal for him to ever want to do that. Lord Henry then asks if Basil could at least introduce him to the subject of the painting, but Basil declines that as well. He does, however, reveal the name of the young man, which we find out is Dorian Gray. At that moment, Basil's butler comes in with the news that Dorian is now at the studio. So Lord Henry and Dorian get to meet after all.

Lord Henry and Dorian form an instant bond as they soon realize that they enjoy and appreciate many of the same things. Lord Henry is older than Dorian, and will become a mentor of sorts. These two will appear frequently together throughout the rest of the story.

In the meantime, Basil finished the painting and shows it to his subject. Although the painting is truly gorgeous, Dorian doesn't react in the way Basil expected. Instead of being charmed by it and feeling gratitude towards Basil, Dorian immediately becomes jealous of the figure in the painting. He realizes that the painted version of himself will forever remain young and beautiful while he himself must age and become ugly. He can't bear that thought and further wishes that the painting would age in his place. Basil, sensing that Dorian is not happy with the work, says that he'll destroy the painting on the spot by slashing it up with a knife. But Dorian prevents him, saying that such an act would be akin to murder.

Dorian starts going to the theater, and he soon falls in love with an actress named Sybil Vane. She is the starlet of the theater and always has the lead role in every production. Dorian watches her intently, and is fascinated by her performances, feeling that each one tops the previous one. He eventually asks Sybil to marry him, a proposal that she readily accepts. After becoming engaged, however, Sybil's performances start to go downhill. This does not sit well with Dorian, particularly considering the fact that he has finally brought his friends Lord Henry and Basil to watch her.

Sybil says she can't act anymore because Dorian has opened her eyes to a new "reality," by which she means the future life that they will have together. Dorian realizes that he doesn't really love Sybil after all, and was just infatuated with her acting. He calls off the engagement, which devastates Sybil. When Dorian returns home afterwards, he notices that his portrait has changed ever so slightly. Now, there are lines around the mouth, which seem to him to reflect the cruelty exhibited in his behavior towards Sybil.

From that point on, the reader realizes that Dorian's initial wish that the portrait would age in his place has actually come true. Once Dorian realizes this, he starts living a totally depraved and debauched life, knowing full well that his external appearance would never change. He subsequently has the painting covered, and then removed to the attic where he locks it away from all eyes except his own.

The rest of the novel deals with all of the terrible things that Dorian Gray does throughout the rest of his life. He commits virtually every sin there is, including murder. Over the course of the next 20 years, Dorian outwardly appears exactly the same as the first time the reader was introduced to him in Basil's studio. It is the painting that is horribly changed to reflect all of the wicked deeds that Dorian is guilty of.

The ending of the book was particularly memorable. While I won't reveal it here, I will say that I thought it was the only fitting way to bring the story to a close.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is extremely well-written and was enjoyable to read from the first page to the last. It is short enough, and certainly absorbing enough, to be read in a single sitting of several hours. That's not to say, however, that you should rush through the pages. Instead, I recommend taking it slowly enough to savor what the author was trying to say. You'll also want to try to pick up on the various nuances between the characters, as well as on all of the foreshadowing that Wilde treats us to. The foreshadowing really becomes apparent on the second or third reading of the novel, after you already know what happens at the end.

I also have to say that I liked the way Wilde developed the main characters. I liked Dorian at the beginning of the novel, and was sympathetic towards him. But by the end, I despised and reviled him, which is exactly what Wilde wanted.

There was a lot of controversy surrounding The Picture of Dorian Gray when it was first published. In fact, the version that the modern reader gets is a heavily revised edition of what Wilde first gave to the public. That's because the initial reception of the novel was heavily critical and negative, which disappointed Wilde immensely. So he went back and toned some things down, and added several new chapters to flesh out the story a bit more. The changes didn't do much to mollify the critics of a century ago, but the result is that today's reader probably won't realize what all the fuss could possibly have been about.

Overall, this is a fantastic book that I hope you'll take the time to read. If you're anything like me, you won't be able to put it down until you find you Dorian's fate!

Shogun, by James Clavell

I love to read and I always have more than one book going at a time; usually one fiction, one self-help, and one other, either history, biography, or human interest. Recently, I was lamenting the end of a really good fiction book, the kind you never want to end, and I wondered out loud to my husband about what I should read next. He gave me one of his standard replies, "You should read Shogun." We have had an old, paperback copy of the 1975 bestselling novel by James Clavell, but whenever I've seen the thickness of the 1200 pages and the picture of the Japanese samurai sword on the front cover, I've been put off. The ugly truth is that while I love the Japanese people, the history of their culture has never really interested me. "But," my husband told me, "you will understand our own history much better, if you know theirs as well." Over the years, I've always shrugged him off, but this time, I listened to my husband. I picked up Shogun and opened it to the first page.

The next ten days were full of some of the most reading I've done in years. Back in high school and college, I had time to read for hours on end, or stay up late into the night, finishing a good read. Yet, today, with working part time and homeschooling three children, I hardly have the time or inclination to spend more than thirty minutes at a time on a book (if I'm lucky). But Shogun captured me from the very start.

The book begins with Englishman John Blackthorne, piloting a ship from the Netherlands, across the Pacific Ocean toward "the Japans." The time is the 17th century, when the samurais and European exploration were at their height. When Blackthorne's ship nearly wrecks and the half-starved crew limps ashore in medieval Japan, they are met with a culture entirely different from their own. While they think of the Japanese as barbaric in their seeming disregard for human life, the Japanese refer to the Europeans as barbarians, because of their crude ways and uncleanliness. Thus begins an epic tale of Blackthorne's introduction to the society, the concepts, the worldviews, and the lifestyle of the Japanese. He learns of their love for order, neatness, and especially cleanliness. He learns about the pecking order, and how everyone is owned, controlled, or manipulated by someone else. He learns about their definition of honor and commitment. He learns that marriage and human relationships in Japan are handled in ways that are completely foreign to him.

As we, the readers, accompany Blackthorne on his immersion into the medieval Japanese culture (for we don't just read the book, we do actually accompany him), we see what he sees, feel what he feels, and we are shocked and horrified, pleased and amazed, at all the things he encounters. From the powerful Lord Toranaga to the evil Yabu, the honorable but ruthless Omi, and the beautiful, kind, Mariko, we find ourselves becoming part of this foreign culture and assimilating into it, as Blackthorne does.

Shogun has everything: passion, war, violence, history, love, honor, friendship, and hope. While reading this book, I found myself being transported to Japan each time I opened the pages. I found myself carrying the book with me wherever I went, so if there was a chance to sneak in a few pages, I could take it. I learned, got angry, loved, and grieved with Blackthorne. I wrestled with the hard issues, right along side him. And at the end of the book, after 1200 pages, I was not ready for it to end. If Shogun went on for thousands and thousands of pages, I would continue to read, continue to live the life there that Blackthorne, while he made plans for returning to England, was finally learning to live.

Now I will forever have these characters in my heart, as if they were more than characters in a fictional book, but rather, real people from real history. Shogun is long, but I would not remove one page or even once sentence from the story. It is easy to read and I would highly recommend it to any adult.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Zone, by Barry Sears, Ph.D.

Go into any bookstore (or search online) and you will find hundreds of diets and even more books on dieting. All the most popular recipe books today have jumped on the bandwagon as well, touting the latest dieting craze, whether it be lower fat, lower sugar, lower cholesterol, or lower carbs. With so many options, it's no wonder that many of us end up skimming the books, jumping from diet to diet, or simply giving up and going back to our old habits; while our old habits may not be in the best interest of weight loss and healthy living, at least they are comfortable and easy. Let's face it, we live in a world where ease matters. We use ATM and debit cards so we don't have to bother with cash; we read Cliff's Notes so we don't have to read the entire book; we do text messaging so we don't have to bother with a phone call; and we eat fast food so we don't have to stop for dinner. Our world requires much of us and most of us are too busy to slow down and think about why we do what we do. However, there is one diet book which appeals not to our need for weight loss or even our desire for good health, but rather, to our sense of logic.

The Zone, by Barry Sears, Ph.D., is that book. The Zone is unlike any other diet book because it is not about weight loss. The author explains that while Americans have given up fat, sugar and cholesterol, we are still the fattest people on the face of the earth. He then goes on to show us, scientifically, why giving up fat and sugar isn't the goal. In The Zone, Dr. Sears gives us a formula for eating protein, carbohydrates and fat. He shows us that fat is good, or rather, that the right kind of fat is good. Without good fat, our hair will dry out, our fingernails will break, and our skin will be dry and unhealthy looking. Although the media has been telling us to eat everything without fat, it has been doing us a disservice when our bodies actually need a certain amount of fat to function properly.

Not only is fat one of the issues, but so are carbohydrates. We have been told in recent years that carbs are the enemy. There are many low carb or no carb diets out there that encourage people to eat large amounts of protein and avoid carbohydrates altogether. Yet Dr. Sears shows us why this is a problem as well. As with fat, we need carbohydrates for our bodies to work optimally. The difference is that we need to eat the right kinds of carbohydrates. Many people do not understand that fruit and vegetables, as well as juices and alcoholic beverages are all carbohydrates. While some dieters will give up bread, pasta and potatoes, they might still eat nothing but salads and fruit juices. While salads and juices are healthy carbohydrates, they are still ONLY carbohydrates and serve to make us unbalanced.

Protein is the third corner of the Zone triangle. Rather than going on an all-protein diet, which will leave us unbalanced and possibly damage our kidneys, Dr. Sears explains how much protein an individual should eat, based on how much carbohydrates and how much fat he is eating. It is a simple formula that anyone can understand. The Zone diet is helpfully broken up into food blocks, so a person in the zone would simply eat a set amount of food blocks from each category, protein, carbohydrate, and fat, during each meal or snack. In doing this, we will not only feel better and have a clearer mind, we will also burn fat and fight heart disease, diabetes, PMS, chronic fatigue, depression and cancer. The zone is the first diet that makes sense, is easy to do, and actually works.

And if that weren't enough, The Zone is full of wonderful recipes that will appeal to your taste buds and your need for ease. If you are looking for a health regimen or a diet, consider taking a look at The Zone. It is the healthy diet for intelligent people

Boundaries, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend

There are a huge number of self-help books out on the market today, in as many categories as there are problems in the world. Without actually going to counseling and getting professional help, for the price of a book, most people can find the help they need if they are only willing to take the advice laid out in the book and put it into practice. As a frequent and long-time reader of self-help books of every kind, I was delighted with the book entitled, Boundaries, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Boundaries is a unique self-help book in that it addresses nearly every type of relationship anyone could have, and it gives the reader practical tools to change behaviors that give the wrong impressions or attract unpleasant results.

Boundaries is about just what the title implies: putting up barriers to people, behaviors, words, and other input by those around us that we do not want in our lives. Just the way we put up walls around our homes and fences around our yards, boundaries are mental, physical, and emotional barriers that help us protect ourselves, protect our loved ones, and allow only those visitors, words or behaviors that we want inside our space. The authors explain in the book that in the physical world, boundaries are easy to see, as in the aforementioned fences and walls; but they also give examples of signs, moats, and hedges. While physical boundaries are easy to see and define, mental, emotional and spiritual boundaries, while just as real, are much harder to see and differentiate.

The book defines a boundary as showing "what is me and what is not me." Boundaries show where I end and where someone else begins. This is an important thing to know because it forces us to take responsibility for our lives, not for what is inside someone else's boundary. The authors point out that boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out, just as in our backyard, we may keep our own dogs inside the fence, but stray dogs outside where they belong. One example of spiritual or mental boundaries is words. The word "no" is a prime example. People who struggle with boundaries have a hard time saying "no." Other examples of spiritual or mental boundaries are geographical distance, truth, emotional distance, time, and having other people as a support network. The book helps the reader understand what should or can be within our boundaries and helps each individual see what may or may not work for him.

The book addressed boundary issues in a multitude of relationships including family, friends, marriage, children, the work environment, issues with our selves or our past, and God. The reader will find concrete, real-life examples of others who have struggled with boundary issues and overcome them successfully. The authors give examples of boundary problems, they show how boundaries are developed, and they show us how to keep them intact when others try to knock them down. The book also covers the ten laws of boundaries as well as some common boundary myths.

After the reader has come to understand the concept of boundaries, there is encouragement to start implementing the concepts in the book. After explaining how the people in our lives will show resistance to our newly established boundaries, the authors encourage us to press on and they show how successful boundaries can be. Finally, we are given a chapter called, "A Day in a Life with Boundaries," to give us a last bit of encouragement about how it all works.

Readers really will find self-help in this book because they will learn how to set limits while still being a loving person; they will learn that boundaries are not selfish and that while it is normal to feel guilty or afraid while setting boundaries, that it is not necessary. Perhaps the best quote from the book is the following: "Remember, if you are a doormat, you will attract heels." This sums up the entire concept of boundaries; that our behavior directly influences the way others will treat us. Once we change our behavior and put up boundaries, others will find that they can no longer treat us the way they did formerly. Find out what your legitimate boundaries can be and see your life change!

The Well-Trained Mind, by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer

The Well-Trained Mind, by Jessie Wise and her daughter, Susan Wise Bauer, is a complete step-by-step guide on how to give a homeschooled child an academically challenging, comprehensive classical education from preschool through the senior year in high school. Jessie Wise homeschooled her daughter, Susan, during the 1970s when homeschooling was new and skeptics and nay-sayers were plentiful; but she had tried putting them in school: not just public school, but private school. Jessie had spent so much time teaching her children already, that they were far ahead of their peers in the schools. When she began Kindergarten, Susan was already reading at a 5th grade level and her older brother was getting more help at home from his mother and father than he was receiving at the school; in fact, Jessie records that she felt as thought she was spending most of her time when he was home undoing what was happening to him when he was at school.

After giving short autobiography on both Jessie and Susan, who is now a professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, the books begins to take the reader slowly and methodically through the ins and outs of classical education. Classical education is based on the idea that there are three stages of learning in the life of a child from Kindergarten up to the senior year in high school. The first stage is called the grammar stage, which includes Kindergarten through the fourth grade. The grammar stage is where students are introduced to content. Jessie Wise describes children of this stage as sponges and encourages parents to expose them to any and all good information. They will experience wonder and excitement as they learn if the subjects are presented to them in ways that are interesting to them. This is not the time to be bogging them down with worksheets, but showing them pictures, reading them stories, and teaching them facts. The book explains what the grammar stage is all about and then it goes, chapter by chapter, into great detail about how to teach each individual subject, from math, language arts, and science, to art, music, religion, and even physical education.

The second stage of learning which includes grades five through eight are labeled the logic stage. The logic stage is the time when children begin to think in more analytical terms. They begin to question the process and how things happened as they did in history. They will want to know not just what happens in a science experiment, but how things work. Again, the book proceeds to thoroughly explain how to teach each subject in each grade of the logic stage of development.

The third and last stage of learning includes grades nine through twelve, the high school years. This stage is known as the rhetoric stage. During the rhetoric stage, students who have learned much content and the process by which it comes about or exists, are now ready to question why things are as they are. The rhetoric stage will have students writing, speaking, questioning, debating, and explaining. This stage includes abstract thought and argumentation. The high school years are completely explained in this section, as in the others.

The Well-Trained Mind leaves nothing out. Every subject is covered and there is a multitude of suggested curriculums mentioned, as well as how much they cost and where to find them. Jessie Wise tells parents how to organize the homeschool, how to teach, which materials to use, and which school supplies to have on hand. With The Well-Trained Mind, any parent could teach any child, if the family is seeking an academically rigorous classical model of education. Every question is answered, outside resources are suggested, and there are even several potential scheduling suggestions. Extracurricular activities are discussed as are how to make use of local libraries and public schools. Most students who have been educated by the concepts in The Well-Trained Mind will be ready for college classes by their junior year in high school. This book is not for the faint of heart, but it will walk you through, every step of the way; and when a child has been educated by this method, he will, indeed, have a well trained mind.