Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Reviews

Now that I’ve got two kids reading, I’m always on the lookout for age-appropriate books that are also morally & spiritually appropriate. 

I’ll tell you, it’s been a bit of a challenge. 

I was happy to see that Focus on the Family has started to do some book reviews.  There aren’t a ton of books reviewed on the website, but at least it’s a start.

Here is a link in case you’re interested!

Happy reading!


The River and the Rain - The Lord's Prayer

Name of Book:   The River and the Rain – The Lord’s Prayer

Author:  Bijou Le Tord

Illustrator:  Bijou Le Tord

Publisher:  Doubleday

Audience:  Although this book is published for “all ages” and is one of Doubleday’s Books for Young Readers, I actually would not use this book with young children.  I would give it a “PG-13” rating due to: 1) the difficulty that I believe young children would have in connecting the words to some of the pictures, 2) the fact that it is a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, and 3) one illustration depicting a dead animal would possibly be disturbing to younger children (and I’m not sure how appropriate it is for this text in general).  I would use this book with teens and adults.

Summary:   This book is a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer that emphasizes stewardship of creation and awareness of environmental abuses inflicted by people.

Literary elements at work in the story:  The genre is poetic prayer and the overriding theme is the environment and our relationship with God and creation. The setting is the Amazon rain forest (as depicted in the illustrations).   The perspective is interesting as it incorporates both the familiar and the foreign.   Since it is a prayer it is, at once, first person (we are also praying) and communal as the body of worshippers, and, in this book there is an additional dimension because it appears to also be more specifically the perspective of someone indigenous to the rain forest.

Perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/abilities:

By employing the perspective of the indigenous forest people, it is the native Indians, who are portrayed as stewards of the land and wildlife.  The culture is tribal with the logger representing the “outside world” who brings destruction.

Scripture:      Genesis 1: 26-30, Genesis 9:  9-10, 13, 16-17, Matthew 6: 9-15 (various translations would be helpful), Deut. 20: 19 (These passages were selected to follow the emphasis on the environment that this books espouses.)

Theology:     We reflect God’s love and concern for all creation when we love and care for one another and for the plants and animals that are in our world.  God provides all that we need for eternal life – the things we enjoy daily (like food, water, and shelter) are not the ultimate gifts but are a means for us to participate in the stewardship of the earth – through them we can, for example, show hospitality to one another and compassion for living things.  This book would be particularly good to use in a study of environmental theology.

God’s love cannot be limited or stopped.  Although we continue to do things that are wicked in the eyes of God, we can pray for God’s assistance and strength to help us in our disobedience.  We are also accountable to one another in the things we do and say.  As Christians we are to help one another learn and follow the ways of God.

While we await the coming of the Kingdom of God, we can embody the Kingdom in the here and now by living into the commandments of God and the teachings of Christ as we know them from scripture and by the illumination of the Holy Spirit.  The Kingdom is not confined to the future, but can be experienced in Christ even now.  The Kingdom is both as far as heaven and as close as our back yard.

Faith Talk Questions:

A.  Questions on illustrations:

  1. Where is God in these illustrations?
  2. Why do you think the illustrator depicted “tempted/temptation” the way she did?
  3. How would you “paint” temptation?  Does it look the same to everyone?
  4. Do the illustrations represent the words that go with them?
  5. Do these illustrations make you think differently about the Lord’s Prayer?

B.  Questions on Text:

  1. Does the wording of this version of the Lord’s Prayer help you understand it differently than they way you learned it growing up?  In what way?
  2. Which word(s) stands out most to you?
  3. How do you understand the words trespasses/debts/wicked ways?  Which one do you think most fits this prayer?
  4. Why do we pray for God to “let us not be tempted?”
  5. Have you ever thought about what this prayer means to other cultures?
  6. If you were paraphrasing the Lord’s Prayer for your school, how would it sound?  What words would you use in your version of the prayer?

Review prepared by Nadine Ellsworth-Moran,  MDiv/MACE, Entering cohort Fall 2004


Thursday, January 28, 2010


“One other thing. And that’s all. I promise you. But the thing is, you raved and you bitched when you came home about the stupidity of audiences. The goddam ‘unskilled laughter’ coming from the fifth row. And that’s right, that’s right–God knows it’s depressing. I’m not saying it isn’t. But that’s none of your business, really. That’s none of your business, Franny. An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s. You have no right to think about those things, I swear to you. Not in any real sense, anyway. You know what I mean?”

For a fullish half minute or so, there were no other words, no further speech. Then: “I can’t talk any more, buddy.” The sound of a phone being replaced in its catch followed.

Franny took in her breath slightly but continued to hold the phone to her ear. A dial tone, of course, followed the formal break in the connection. She appeared to find it extraordinarily beautiful to listen to, rather as if it were the best possible substitute for the primordial silence itself. But she seemed to know, too, when to stop listening to it, as if all of what little or much wisdom there is in the world were suddenly hers. When she had replaced the phone, she seemed to know just what to do next, too. She cleared away the smoking things, then drew back the cotton bedspread from the bed she had been sitting on, took off her slippers, and got into the bed. For some minutes, before she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, she just lay quiet, smiling at the ceiling.

– J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Motion studies : Eadweard Muybridge and the technological wild west

Motion studies : Eadweard Muybridge and the technological wild west    London : Bloomsbury, 2003  Rebecca Solnit Chronophotography , History, Muybridge, Eadweard, 1830-1904 Hardcover. First edition and printing. 305 p. : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 271-293) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

In 1872 an Englishman photographed a running horse in California and succeeded for the first time in capturing an image of high-speed motion – the crucial breakthrough that eventually made movies possible. His patron, the philanthropist tycoon Leland Stanford, wanted to know if his trotter Occident ever lifted all four hooves at once – never suspecting what innovations Muybridge’s experiments would unleash. From Muybridge’s invention came Hollywood and from his patron Stanford’s sponsorship of technological research came Silicon Valley – two industries that have most powerfully shaped the modern world.

The story of Muybridge’s own life while he was making his motion studies is equally riveting. He became an internationally renowned inventor and photographer whose pictures of the war against the Modoc Indians and the monumental landscape of the American West have now become classics – and in a blaze of publicity, stood trial for the murder of his wife’s lover. Gripping and erudite, this is a fascinating biography of a true pioneer and the larger story of how time and space were revolutionised in the nineteenth century.


Baseball is America: A Child of Baseball

Victor Alexander Baltov Jr.

AuthorHouse, 2009

516 pages, Non-fiction/History/Politics

1 1/2 out of 5 stars

I love baseball. Have loved it my whole life. I was there when Kent Hrbek hit a grand slam in the 6th game of the 1987 World Series and I bit my nails all the way through the exciting 2009 post-season, which was preceded by an incredible one-game playoff between the Twins and the Tigers, forever dubbed in my home town by a simplistic and poetic moniker: Game 163. I also have a passion for political dialogue and love nothing more than an intelligent debate about elections, tracking polls and policy. I jumped at the opportunity to review a book by Victor Baltov’s that combined the two worlds and explained how one was the other. Baseball is America sounded like the perfect way to warm up for spring training.

I have not been this disappointed since Joe Nathan surrendered a ninth inning home run to Alex Rodriguez in Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS.

What could have been a provoking expose on the disappointment of baseball’s steroid era and its connection to America’s political landscape is instead nothing but a bitter, rambling journal overflowing with sarcastic and often mean-spirited hostility. It seems the author is trying to be funny and irreverent while showing off his intimate knowledge of baseball but it becomes a self-gratifying exercise. As if he’s writing in a diary, not to educate but to feed his own ego. This book is for people who are both die-hard baseball fans and far-right ideologues. If you meet both requirements then this book is filled with home runs but Baltov’s audience is limited to people who are exactly like him. Why do we need almost 500 pages? He could have done all this with a blog, which is probably a better option for material of this type.

His chief hypothesis, that a liberal, secular culture is responsible for introducing, sustaining and celebrating the use of steroids in baseball is never supported with any facts or data, and the connections he draws between liberalism and baseball’s steroid era are tenuous at best. His argument is more wishful thinking than scientific theory.

Writes Baltov on the steroid era: “The over-medicated, gadget addicted, sensory-deprived American fan base, indoctrinated into political correctness, metaphorically void of pitch recognition and unable to identify the curveball or change-up, is apathetic to the entire fix and continues to celebrate a crime that is immoral.” Hey baseball fans – this is you he’s talking about!

Where does he get off insinuating that baseball fans are not completely outraged at the steroid era? Head over to the fan forums at and see if you can find a single person who applauds the use of steroids. You can’t find them. Everyone agrees that steroids nearly ruined baseball. This is not a political issue any more than the use of cocaine in the worldplace, or domestic violence, or drunk driving. We all agree that these things are wrong.

The structure is poorly organized and nothing seems to follow what came before it. The thoughts are not presented in any coherent fashion, it’s just non-stop raving. Here’s an example. After a prolonged exposition on the flaws of Communist Russia, he says this: “Rasputin, the Mad Monk or Black Monk, who was thought to have special healing powers, especially with respect to the tsar’s son, who was suffering from hemophilia, was really just another pervert trying to live the ‘seventy-two virgin’ life he imagined without the encumbrance of a suicide bombing act.”

What does this have to do with baseball or America??!! I found myself asking this question throughout the book.

When he moves away from ranting about Russia and sticks to baseball the book becomes more personal, except that he constantly insults baseball fans, and as a result, his readers. He refers to the current generation of baseball fans as “a generation of secular, unprincipled addicts packaged under a politically correct feel-good label of being a ‘forgiving people.’” For a man who repeatedly flaunts his devotion to God, one wonders what problem he has with a nation of forgiving people?

For some reason, he talks about Orthodox Christianity and says 1917 was the year that it was “out with the old and in with the new for the most Orthodox Christian country in the world after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire at Constantinople in AD 1453.” The Holy Roman Empire was a country? And how holy were they, really? On the very same page he accuses Senator Al Franken of Minnesota of committing voter fraud but gives no evidence. None.

He constantly refers to Barack Obama as the Black Lenin who is degrading the red, white and blue of America. Fair, but back it up with some examples please. Help us connect the dots, otherwise you come off as a nothing more than a narrow-minded ideologue. Taking swipes at the left every chance he gets, he often invents those chances from thin air, causing the book to read like a rant at times, like a diary or memoir at others. With plenty of red meat for conservatives, there is no much on the plate that you won’t know if your rare steak came from a cow or a horse.

He even goes so far as to trash the Boy Scouts and compare them to a pro-Communist youth organization while touting their godlessness, when every Boy Scout states during the Boy Scout Oath that they will “do my duty to God and my country.” I was a Boy Scout. I went to scout camp many times. We prayed before every single meal.

Seeing the world through the lens of baseball the author weaves baseball jargon into everyday life, equating elementary school grades to innings (4th grade = the 4th inning), sins to errors, good deeds to hits, the crucifixion of Christ to a sacrifice bunt, and death to the post season.  But he takes off on wild, undisciplined tangents hopping from his uncle to Joseph Stalin to the Iliad to the Dead Sea scrolls, all in the same paragraph, never tying any of it together. The tone settles during the second half but that becomes nothing but a very detailed and very wordy account of his amateur baseball career – nearly every game of it – and contains the consistent theme that Baltov could have been one of America’s greatest athletes, if not for our country’s secular, liberal sports culture.

This book about baseball reminds me not of The Unforgettable Season but of Mein Kampf: a disorganized collection of incoherent ideological rambling with plenty of typos (since you asked, on p. 3 & p.14, just to name two). At time Baltov’s opinionated and staunchly-political ravings are so intense that I wonder if this is what Hitler would have written had he been born a baseball fan with broadband access. Baltov compares Soviets troops surrendering to Nazis in World War II to Americans voting for Barack Obama.

One thing that will really bug a lot of people, no matter your political stripes: the author almost refuses to name pro baseball players by their real names, relying almost completely on nicknames. You can mention that Ty Cobb was the Georgia Peach and then refer to him as the Georgia Peach for the rest of the story but the author does not do this. Instead we have a hodgepodge of nicknames like Hammerin’ Hank, Bucketfoot Al, Goose, and Black Mike that would have sent me online to look them up if only there weren’t so many of them. I stopped caring pretty quickly. When he rattles off four or five nicknames in one sentence without any context he’s either showing off or assuming incorrectly that his audience knows who these people are. It gets old. Fast. Take this: “The hometown Reds were a hitting machine on the Senior Circuit, leading the league in six offense categories led by Susan Derringer’s future Hall of Fame grandfather, 48-Ounce Edd.” Does he expect you to know who these people are? When we don’t know who he’s talking about we don’t know what he’s talking about.

For a guy who openly deplores the secular, liberal powerbase of American pop culture (read: Hollywood) he sure does consume a lot of their product. He constantly trashes the liberal media and the destructive culture of Hollywood yet he frequently drops enduring movie references that show he has appreciated, even cherished, his time spent before the screen. It’s an absurd duality. Baltov shows a clear love for a medium he abhors. It’s like watching a chocolate addict bemoan the evils The Hershey Company while buying a case of Milk Duds with a handful of dollars bills glazed with chocolate fingerprints .

The book contains an almost fatal flaw: there are blank pages with missing text. How could a colossal error like this ever get though?? We’re not talking about one missing page, which would be colossal in itself, but several blank pages. Chapter 12 ends in mid-sentence on p.187 with p. 188 left completely blank. The next two pages have photographs followed by a pair of blank pages. The missing text never appears. This continues into Chapter 13 which starts on p. 193 but ps. 194, 195, 197, 200, 201, 203, 206, 207 and 209 are completely blank. The pages filling the gaps contain text, but only in portions, leaving an incoherent Swiss cheese chapter. This holey practice continues into Chapter 14 but there is no need to break it down. You get the idea.

I hope this book is sent back to the printer before it hits the mass market because this crucial error destroys all credibility.

If you want a great book about baseball and American history you probably can’t do much better than Cait Murphy’s Crazy ’08, an amazing history of the 1908 baseball season. Yogi Berra said “It ain’t over till it’s over” and in the case of Baseball is America, I couldn’t wait until the final out of the ninth inning.

Strengths: a very strong point of view that never backs down, and an informed sense of baseball history

Opportunities: way too long, rambling, contains several major formatting errors

Will alienate:  just about every baseball fan, anyone who does not regularly attend Sunday Mass in a Catholic church, and anyone who has ever voted for a Democrat, especially Obama

Baseball is America: A Child of Baseball is available on amazon.

Reviewed by Mark McGinty, January 2010


Book Review: What Zadie Smith’s new essay collection tells us about the art of story-telling


Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith is sort of like when Columbia Records packages a mix of Bob Dylan demos, previously unreleased songs, covers from concerts, or songs from soundtracks and/or benefit albums.  You end up buying it (or illegally downloading it) because you’re a completist, but the demos are so-so and it really just makes you wish he’d go ahead and make another album.

These essays are good, though scattered from topics that range from Liberia to Grizzly Man, from David Foster Wallace to Audrey Hepburn. She is dead serious when contrasting Netherland with Remainder, and lethally comic when dismantling Date Movie (“it’s the laughter of monkeys as they fall out of trees”).

Scattered throughout are her observations about what makes good art, and in particular good story-telling, whether in the novels she reviews in section one or the movies in section three or in the stories she tells about her family.  Always she’s able to cross the line, though, and pull out truths from real life stories and made-up stories, to show us which works of art, like bootlegged Dylan shows, are worth checking out.

In her assessment of EM Forster’s radio show transcripts, she explains two camps of fiction. “Realists defend realism and experimentalists defend experimentalism; those who write simple sentences defend concision, and those who are fond of their adjectives claim the lyrical as the highest value in literature.”  Later she knocks Netherland for its faux realism in a heady essay that favors Remainder’s reality, but she consistently bashes adjectives in several of her essays. It’s worth noting that she liked Forster’s approach: “he could sit in his own literary corner without claiming its superiority to any other.”

Smith has this quality. She writes simply but swerves into weighty critical analysis and meta-narrative as it suits her.


There is the travel essay “One Week in Liberia”, where she tells a country’s troubled history freshly and concisely, and more importantly, with movement and urgency (her histories of Hebpurn, Garbo, and her father’s war experience are similar).  She connects past and present through the essay’s structure and through her story-telling.

Then she gives a more metaphorical travel essay “Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend.” Here she brings Hollywood to life and the dreams it promises and the things a place and certain (intentionally) un-named people come to represent. It’s an essay that winks, while the Liberia essay brings tears.


For my money the film reviews are the real gold here, the “Red River Shore” from Dylan’s Tell-Tale Signs.  Here she lays waste to bad film-making, from heavy-handed producing to poor ethnic casting, from dead dialogue to heartless story-telling. Smith is a fair judge, admitting changes in her perceptions of films and acknowledging adolescent-like awe though her mind tells her she shouldn’t.  The writing is crisp and funny, much looser than so much of her more academically-inclined efforts.  There is more David Foster Wallace here—a toughness in language and a mischievousness that eludes some of the essays (including her own analysis of Wallace, despite her attempts to emulate his footnote wizardry).

The most dour portions of the book are actually when she describes her own writing, specifically in “That Crafty Feeling.”  She confesses to having never read White Teeth, her first book many consider a masterpiece.  She read ten sentences “before I was overwhelmed with nausea.” After reading two-thirds of On Beauty, she felt “the nausea; as usual, the feeling of fraudulence; and the too-late desire to wield the red pen all over the place.”  It’s tough to hear someone like Smith complain about her own writing. It’s like when someone with a two million dollar home says things like, “My house is just a mess.”

It would be easy to go backwards and critique Smith’s own fiction based on some of what she writes in these essays, but that’s sort of like using Dylan’s memoir Chronicles to understand Blood on the Tracks (referenced in “Smith Family Christmas”).  She’s doing something different here, something uncollected that gives a good taste of her writing style and of her critical leanings. And like Dylan, she rewards with repeated listening.

Texts of Zadie Smith essays in Changing My Mind

  • Dead Man Laughing text
  • EM Forster, Middle Manager text
  • Speaking in Tongues text
  • Two Directions for the Novel text

Reviews of Changing My Mind

  • NPR
  • Guardian
  • Village Voice
  • LA Times
  • NYT
  • Slate
  • Newsweek
  • Boston Globe
  • Entertainment Weekly


Monday, January 25, 2010

Nothing Right

Nelson, Antonya. Nothing Right: short stories. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009.

Antonya Nelson’s humor comes at you in a slow and subtle way, almost like a Mona Lisa sly smirk. The entire collection of short stories is what a peepshow is to an adolescent boy; the reader is allowed in the living rooms and lives of the characters for only so long before the curtain is dropped and the scene goes dark. Nothing Right leaves you wanting more and always asking, “what happened next?” The perfect hook for a sequel. The one drawback to leaving so much to the imagination? The characters didn’t stay long enough for me to truly garner an interest in them personally. I wanted to know what happened next in terms of plot but not character. All of the stories circle around family dynamics; the good, the bad and most certainly, the ugly.

  • “Nothing Right” (title story) starts tongue-in-cheek although the reader is yet to see the irony. Hannah stares at brochures about taking care of babies while her own baby, 15 year old trouble-maker Leo, sees the district attorney  about a bomb threat he made at school. Hannah’s troubles only deepen when Leo goes on to father a child…
  • “Party of One” is a rather bizarre story about a woman trying to convince a married man to end his affair…with her sister.
  • “Obo” bothered me the most. I didn’t understand Abby at all. A pathological liar, she convinces her professor to take her to his wife’s family home for Christmas; all because she has fallen in love with the professor’s wife.
  • “Falsetto” – Michelle tries to cope with her parents’s devastating car accident while caring for her much younger brother and simultaneously re-evaluating her perfect relationship with her boyfriend.
  • “Kansas” is about a family’s drama when 17 year-old niece Kay-Kay disappears with her three year-old cousin.
  • “Biodegradable” is about a married woman who has an affair with a scientist.
  • “DWI” is about a married woman who loses her lover in a drunk-driving accident.
  • “Shauntrelle” is about a married woman who admits to an affair thinking her lover will be happy with taking her in. She is wrong and loses both men.
  • “Or Else” is about a man who misses the life he had with his childhood friend’s family so much that he pretends he is still part of their lives.
  • “We and They” is about a family in competition with their neighbors until they adopt a child who sides with the enemy.
  • People People” is about two sisters who couldn’t be any more different from one another.


What is it About Middle Earth?

Right now, among all my many other projects, I am making my sixth pilgrimage through Middle Earth. Some of you, I’m sure, are wondering why I would read through the nearly 1,500 pages of the Lord of the Rings trilogy when there are three very good movies that cover the same material. And others are asking why the Sam Hill I’d do it six times! My simple answer is that I love this story. But what is it about this tale that brings me back again and again?

I confess I first picked up the books ten years ago out of mere curiosity. I had read that they were numbered high among the 100 greatest works of the 20th century. And I recalled a friend who in junior high told me they were his favorite story; a dumb jock sort that I didn’t know could read at all. Taken together, I had to see what LOR was all about, and I was amazed by what I found.

As a writer, the mere scope of the story astounds me. Tokien created an entire, detailed world that his characters traverse in a year-long quest to defeat Lord Sauron, the Great Evil who has bent all his malice on dominating and destroying it. Breathtaking mountains; wild, rocky wastelands; stinking bogs; grassy plains; dark, murky forests; and majestic rivers, all graced with such unforgettable names as Moria, Brandywine, Caradhras and the Falls of Ruros.

Then Tolkien fills his land with marvelous civilizations, each with a culture – even languages! – of their own. Dwarves, stout-hearted, faithful, and ever-wooed by treasure. Elves, the never-dying, with their long memories, merry songs and their wisdom. Men, easily corrupted, but in whose hands the fate of Middle Earth now lies. And hobbits, the little people content to eat six meals a day and smoke tobacco, caring little what goes on beyond the boundaries of the Shire, until the Ring of Power accidentally (or perhaps not so accidentally) comes to them. And to complete this sense of reality, Tolkien gives his land a history, with tales, legends, ruins, prophecies, and the memories of those who settled the land thousands of year in the past.

And I must consider the characters themselves. Who can ever forget Gandalf, the hot-tempered, long-seeing, affectionate wizard sent to earth for this very purpose? And the four young hobbits who would rather go home, but who play out their roles out to the bitter end? And what about Eowyn, the beautiful, sober, stout-hearted princess of Rohan who has her own important part to play? And who can help but admire Aragorn, exiled heir to Gondor’s throne with his strength, his leadership, his purpose, and his lingering insecurity that he might prove as unworthy as his ancestor?

And can I mention the poetry with which Tolkien writes? To me, the author’s prose is hardly the least of the books attractions. Consider these words of Gandalf: “Faint to my ears came the gathered rumour of all lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone.” I’d like to write like that!

So why do I read the trilogy again and again? Maybe it’s the long shot, the chance in a million that Frodo can actually destroy the ring and save Middle Earth. Perhaps it’s the unfailing courage of the nine companions in the face of utter hopelessness. Maybe it’s the fight between obvious good vs. evil forces, the sacrifice of the companions, the overpowering emotions, the sweet victory, or the knowledge that every step of this epic adventure was meant to be, preordered by a higher, all-powerful Good, and worked according to a plan.

Or perhaps in this colony of the imagination I see much that is true and admirable and rare in our own world, and so it is to Middle Earth that I turn, again and again and again.


"The Good Guy" by Dean Koontz

The Good Guy

by Dean Koontz


Book Description:

Timothy Carrier, having a beer after work at his friend’s tavern, enjoys drawing eccentric customers into amusing conversations. But the jittery man who sits next to him tonight has mistaken Tim for someone very different—and passes to him a manila envelope full of cash.

“Ten thousand now. You get the rest when she’s gone.”

The stranger walks out, leaving a photo of the pretty woman marked for death, and her address. But things are about to get worse. In minutes another stranger sits next to Tim. This one is a cold-blooded killer who believes Tim is the man who has hired him.

Thinking fast, Tim says, “I’ve had a change of heart. You get ten thousand—for doing nothing. Call it a no-kill fee.” He keeps the photo and gives the money to the hired killer. And when Tim secretly follows the man out of the tavern, he gets a further shock: the hired killer is a cop.

Suddenly, Tim Carrier, an ordinary guy, is at the center of a mystery of extraordinary proportions, the one man who can save an innocent life and stop a killer far more powerful than any cop…and as relentless as evil incarnate. But first Tim must discover within himself the capacity for selflessness, endurance, and courage that can turn even an ordinary man into a hero, inner resources that will transform his idea of who he is and what it takes to be The Good Guy.

Chapter One Excerpt

My Review:   ♥  ♥  ♥  ♥  ♥

All I can say is Wow. Dean Koontz has done it again. An ordinary guy is in a bar. A man mistakes him for a hitman. Then the real hitman shows up. Does this “good guy” have what it takes to be a hero and save the day? This is classic Dean Koontz. An ordinary guy in extordinary circumstances is tested to the limits. Plot twists and turns will keep you on the edge of your seat to the very end. Nobody does it better than Dean Koontz.


Friday, January 22, 2010

The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux

The Elephanta Suite was this week’s read.  It’s a book of three novellas, each presenting an aspect of Indian culture, exposing the differences in shattering light.  Half-way through the first story, Monkey Hill, I noted: “the narrowing cave of consciousness” and that “I was quite board with the story. This 50-ish year old rich couple, on vacation at an Indian ayervedic spa, are just plain dull…or realistic perhaps.”   I was about to jump to the next novella, but I read on…and did not stop until I finished, to an end that sent chills through me, to an end one would suspect, but not see coming.  In a word: brilliant.   (I have to summon more patience; I’ve been reading too much teen fiction.)

The second story, The Gateway to India, the longest of the three, was compelling as well.  A 40-ish lawyer escapes a failed marriage and divorce by taking an outsourcing job in India, where he is dazzled by young girls who offer services for money.  This other life he hides from his associates.  “He was a man who had discovered sex in India and thought it was magic.  But it was an illusion, the consequences of his having power and money in a land of desperation.  Sex was a good thing, because it had an end, and when his desire died he saw he’d been a fool.”  I tried to like this guy, but failed miserably (a bit like my feelings for Humbert Humbert in Lolita, I grew disgusted with the him and these naked girls giving him blow-jobs…and patting himself on his back for “rescuing them” with is money.)

The last story is called The Elephant God.  We meet the young woman Alice, who is traveling in the ‘wonderland’ of India, donning a sizable backpack and a smile.  After her traveling companion abandons her for a guy, a blatant break in the promise that they made in their own travel contract, Alice finds herself at the Ashram on her itinerary.  On a walk outside the gates she befriends a kept elephant in a courtyard and visits the docile memory-filled creature regularly with gifts of carrots or cashews.  But when a tragic event befalls Alice, she butts heads with the Indian culture and justice system in which “denial” plays a big part in–a part which Alice cannot win.  Instead, she seeks her own justice without remorse…surpising this reader once again.

This is the first book by Paul Theroux that I’ve read. He is an evocative writer of furious, thought-provoking, and disturbing prose.  Looking forward to one called Blinding Light in the future. A writer sets out in the Ecuador jungle in search of a hallucinogenic drug in the hopes of curing his writer’s block.  Mmmmmm….


What I've Been Reading

  1. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. It’s hard to come into a book like White Teeth without any expectations. As the rookie-year novel of such a well-known writer as Smith, one tends to hear a lot of good things. She didn’t disappoint. White Teeth is a period-jumping novel dealing with a handful of themes: the weighty ambivalence of the immigrant; the conflicts of identity in their second-generation and mixed-race children; life-long friendship; war; the burden of history; the social costs of religious zealotry.
  2. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion. Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking was one of the most memorable nonfiction books on life I’ve read, which inspired me to pick up her collection of her essays written almost 40 years earlier. She seems to pop up on a lot of lists of the best essays of all time. My favorite one is the title piece about San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in the summer of 1967, and she describes the young culture and their grandiose but fuzzy mantras: “They feed back exactly what is given to them. Because they do not believe in words… their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language.” Sloppy language reflects sloppy thinking.
  3. A Heart So White, by Javier Marías. Marías, a talented story teller with a controlled yet lyrical voice (stoically poetic?), derives his title from a line in Macbeth that Lady Macbeth says to her husband after he’s killed Duncan, a murder she’s persuaded him to do. “

    My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white.” It’s a great novel and deals with the elusiveness and weight of past deeds and secrets, as well as language and conversation.

  4. Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb. I love Nassim Taleb. I read Fooled By Randomness a few years ago, and both books strongly shaped my thinking about statistics and finance. His main idea is that “experts” try to predict highly complex future events (like the direction of the stock market) using the same tools used to calculate simple events (like the outcomes of 10,000 blackjack games), leading to massive overconfidence and massively wrong predictions. We live in a primitive era of statistics: Basically, the only tool we currently have to predict the distribution of future events is the Gaussian bell curve, which is like trying to build a house with only a hammer. There’s been movement towards using fractals, notably by Benoit Mandelbrot, but to me, this seems like we’ve just added a flathead screwdriver to our tool belt. Taleb’s point is that we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we can predict the future; we don’t have the tools yet.

  5. Superfreaknomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I love these guys. They get a little pooh-poohed by mainstream economists for being overly simplistic and focusing on trite issues, but I believe they are pushing economics in the right direction. Economics is not just about the exchange of money for goods and services; it’s the patterns of human behavior and coordination that drive those transactions. Taking the rigor of economics to nontraditional fields, i.e. other types of human interactions, is absolutely germane. It’s also really entertaining.

  6. How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen. I hate this title. But I liked the book. While slightly awkward reading in public when (umm) alone, Franzen’s essays are a pleasure to read. He’s at his best when discussing fiction and personal history. I excerpted one of my favorite parts in a previous post.

  7. Mr. Market Miscalculates, by James Grant. Grant has become one of my favorite writers on finance, a topic that doesn’t exactly draw the most thoughtful wordsmiths. Reading him in real-time requires a $1,000 subscription to his newsletter. The books retails for a lot less and compiles his best pieces from the past decade. Enjoyable and educational, but it doesn’t read like a book with a singular theme or like a current newsletter with relevant perspectives. It reads like reading old newsletters.


Favorite books - 2009

For the past few years, I’ve made one New Year’s resolution: Read 52 books this year. I was successful at it for a couple of years but the last two? Not so much. Anyway, I did read 25 books last year, which isn’t so bad. Here’s my top 10:

  1. An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage – You get to eat, be very grateful. It doesn’t taste like crap. We have it easy.
  2. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – The first in a post-apocalyptic young adult fiction trilogy. Bloody but amazing. Give a copy to your favorite Libertarian.
  3. Marley and Me by John Grogan – Deciding to love a dog is knowing someday your heart will break.
  4. I Love You, Miss Huddleston: And Other Inappropriate Longings of My Indiana Childhood by Philip Gulley – Silly stories about growing up, written by a Quaker minister. Hilarious, read when you are in the bed with the flu, it will cheer you up.
  5. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins – The second in a post-apocalyptic young adult fiction trilogy. Bloody but amazing. Give a copy to your favorite Libertarian. I’m anxiously awaiting the third book.
  6. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer – The second in the Twilight Saga. I think that Bella and Edward are two of the most annoying characters ever. I want to slap them both but mysteriously I really liked this book, probably because Edward was absent for half of it.
  7. Holy Fools by Joanne Harris – She is one of my favorite authors, she also wrote Chocolat. Excellent as always.
  8. Locked Rooms by Laurie R. King – From the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series.  Some period fiction is awful but King spent her time in the library to make it good. Also, Sherlock Holmes! I love that dude! If you start the series read the first, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, first.
  9. The Language of Bees by Laurie R King – Another from the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. Like all of them, it is a great combo of action and interesting characters.
  10. It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita by Heather B. Armstrong – This book definitely has some rough patches but it made me laugh out loud a lot so onto the list it goes! You should read it for her definition of marriage alone, which somehow involves demolishing mailboxes with baseball bats.

And you? What were the best books you read last year?


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Civil War Stories

Civil War Stories
by Ambrose Bierce
Dover Thrift Editions
128 pages

Ambrose Bierce was a young man during the American Civil War, and enlisted in fighting for the Federal forces, with whom he participated in many bloody battles.  These experiences likely went a large way to forming the cynical and jaded views he carried through the rest of his life, and he came to be known by the nickname ‘Bitter Bierce’.

The 16 stories in this collection are mostly of the sort that occupy a middle ground between truth and fiction – they’re based on the author’s first-hand experience, but shaped and fleshed-out to fit the needs and duties of art.

Thoughts on some of the stories: “What I saw at Shiloh” begins the collection off with a very vivid description of troops maneuvering and engaging the enemy on the battlefield.  “Four Days in Dixie” follows the story of some northern soldiers who sneak over to the other side to spy, and then have trouble making their way back.  “A Horseman in the Sky” not only contains the vivid imagery of the title, but introduces a theme that gets repeated in many of the other stories, where a soldier finds himself fighting and killing his closest relatives.  The famous “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge” is here too, which touches on the slightly fantastic, a world that Bierce would explore in some of his stories collected elsewhere. The last story, “The Mocking-bird”, ends things off with some very poetic imagery of dreams and nature.

Ambrose Bierce, born 1842, disappeared in Mexico in 1914

Bierce is an excellent prose writer, bringing the reader into the story by relating things in a matter-of-fact tone. The main weakness of this collection is that some of the plots and events do repeat themselves from story to story.  Also, occasionally I felt hindered by my lack of knowledge of both Civil War history and military terminology.  On the whole, I think I prefer Bierce’s supernatural stories.


Exploring the Neural Correlates of Wu-Wei.

Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China

By Edward Slingerland

New York: Oxford University Press.  2003.

If the Tao is all around us in the natural world, what does it actually do?  In the monotheistic worldview, it’s all rather straightforward.  We have a command-and-control God who gets things going in the universe with direct, purposive action.  God said, “Let there be light!”… and there was light.  But early Chinese thought had no conception of a creator God.  There was the Tao, a “whirling emptiness” which was nevertheless “the ancestor of the ten thousand things.”  In stark contrast to God’s purposeful command, the Tao offers us the paradox of wu-wei: “Act by no-action, Then nothing is not in order.”[1]

Classical Chinese scholar, Edward Slingerland, translates wu-wei as “effortless action” and describes how this metaphor served “as a central spiritual ideal” of the great early Chinese philosophers.  Along with such great Chinese scholars as Joseph Needham and Benjamin Schwartz, Slingerland believes that the simple translation of wu-wei as “non-action” is inadequate to describe the concept.  Schwartz had previously suggested “non-purposive action or behavior”[2] and Needham offered: “‘refraining from activity contrary to Nature’, i.e. from insisting on going against the grain of things, from trying to make materials perform functions for which they are unsuitable.”[3] Slingerland’s “effortless action” seems consistent with these interpretations, but shifts the attention a little more to the dynamics within an individual consciousness rather than, for example, Needham’s focus on mankind’s relationship with the natural world.

This shift in focus leads Slingerland to identify what he sees as a crucial paradox in East Asian thought centered on the wu-wei concept, one that extended over more than a thousand years, through the development of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and into Neo-Confucian debates of the Song Dynasty.  The paradox goes like this.  The great Taoist works, such as the Laozi (Tao Te Ching) or the Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu), advocate a wu-wei approach to the world, with the Laozi’s view of ideal human nature as a natural uncarved piece of wood, and the Zhuangzi’s memorable descriptions of butchers, cicada-catchers and swimmers so involved in what they’re doing that they lose their self-consciousness, becoming one with their activity.  But if wu-wei is so “natural,” then how did we humans ever lose it, and how can we get back to that state without going against the very nature of wu-wei? Here’s how Slingerland summarizes it:

If, in fact, we are naturally good in a ‘so-of-itself,’ no-effort fashion, why are we not good already?  If the Laozian soteriological[4] path is so effortless and spontaneous, why do we have to be told to pursue it? … Laozi urges us to behaviorally ‘do wu-wei’ and to cognitively ‘grasp oneness,’ while at the same time he systematically condemns doing and grasping… The fact that we are not already … open to the Way means that we need to somehow render ourselves receptive, and Zhuangzi is thus forced to supplement his effortlessness and unself-consciousness metaphors with references to hard work and training…

Slingerland examines each of the great early Chinese philosophers from this perspective, pulling open the text to expose the underlying paradox.  In what was for me a particularly enlightening section, he demonstrates the conceptual relationship between the Confucian philosophy of Mencius and the Taoism of Laozi, showing how Mencius’ favorite agricultural metaphor transforms the Laozian sense of wu-wei as “pristine nature” into an agricultural vision of wu-wei as “appropriate cultivation.”

Slingerland concludes that “the paradox of wu-wei is a genuine paradox and that any ‘solution’ to the problem it presents will therefore necessarily be plagued by superficial and structural difficulties.”  While I agree with his view of the centrality of the wu-wei paradox in traditional Chinese thought, I believe it may be possible to make some headway in this paradox by applying recent findings in neuroscience to a cognitive view of human development, and considering the notion of wu-wei in terms of what I call “democracy of consciousness.”

In another blog, The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I’ve argued that the symbolizing and conceptual functions mediated by the prefrontal cortex (pfc) have led to a “tyranny” of those capabilities over other aspects of human consciousness.  This view can be seen as a modern formulation of the Taoist narrative of the loss of our original state of nature, that primordial time when “in the Age of Perfect Te, men lived in common with birds and beasts, and were on terms of equality with all creatures, as forming one family.”[5] Under this approach, the Laozian view that:

From knowing to not knowing, This is superior. From not knowing to knowing, This is sickness.[6]

may be seen as a repudiation of pfc-mediated forms of symbolic and conceptual cognition (which I’ve termed “conceptual consciousness”) and an idealization of what I call “animate consciousness”, the pre-symbolic form of consciousness that we share with other animals.  Similarly, the rise of the “tyranny of the pfc” that I’ve traced through agriculture, monotheist dualism and the scientific revolution, could be paraphrased in these lines from the Laozi:

Therefore when Tao is lost, then there is te. When te is lost, then there is jen (humanity). When jen is lost, then there is i (righteousness). When i is lost, then there is li (propriety).[7]

The trappings of culture, the forces of technology, cumulatively come to dominate mankind’s original animate consciousness, imposing a different kind of conceptualized order on society and in each of our minds.

However, my approach differs from Laozi in that it’s clear that there’s “no going home.”  Even if, according to some romantics, the hunter-gatherer way of life was superior to ours in many ways, that’s now irrelevant.  We live in an age when both the positive and negative effects of our pfc-dominated culture pervade every aspect of our existence.  The way forward, then, is for us to achieve a “democracy of consciousness” by regaining a harmony between our animate and conceptual consciousness.

This is where my approach meets Slingerland’s “paradox of wu-wei.”  When Zhuangzi describes the perfect harmony of the cicada-catcher or Butcher Ding, I believe he’s capturing moments of “democracy of consciousness”, when the functions of the pfc are perfectly aligned with those of our animate consciousness.  Slingerland points out the paradox here that Butcher Ding “apparently had to train for years and pass through several levels of attainment before he was finally able to follow his spiritual desires.”  I agree.  But modern neuroscience shows us that this paradox is encapsulated in the biology of our brains.  When you are learning a new routine, whether it’s driving, playing music, or walking into a restaurant, your pfc is fully engaged.  You are attentive to every move you make, thinking about it, making an effort, measuring it against pre-conceived rules of conduct.  Your self-awareness is at its height.  Wu-wei is nowhere to be found.

However, when you have mastered your activity, your pfc takes a back seat, only intervening if something unexpected occurs.  A recent neuroimaging study observes that, as familiarity with a particular activity increases, the pre-motor cortex begins to take over from the pfc:

Evidence suggests that the PFC is more critical for new learning than for familiar routines… Human imaging studies report a decrease in blood flow to the PFC as a task become more familiar and greater blood flow to the dorsal premotor cortex (PMC) than the PFC when subjects are performing familiar versus novel tasks.  Also, with increasing task familiarity, there is a relative shift in blood flow from areas associated with focal attention, such as the PFC, to motor regions.  Therefore, it may be that the PFC is primarily involved in new learning, but with familiarity, rules become more strongly established in motor system structures.[8]

I suggest that this study, and others like it, may be describing the neural correlates of Zhuangzi’s wu-wei.  Another recent study examines the neural activity predominant in meditation conducted by novices and those at more advanced stages of practice.  Again, in early stages, a practitioner requires greater mental effort to direct his/her wandering thoughts, which “requires strong executive function and capacity that heavily involves the PFC.” At intermediate stages, the anterior cingulate cortex (a brain area involved in self-regulation) “maintain[s] the balance of cognitive control and autonomic activity.”  For an advanced practitioner, however, an effortless state of wu-wei is achieved.  Here’s how it’s described:

In later meditation stages, the practitioner does not need strong effort and uses only effortless experience to maintain the meditative state. When deeply in this state, practitioners totally forget the body, the self and the environment. In this stage, the ANS [autonomic nervous system] is in control…[9]

I would propose that the “effortless experience” described here is the same wu-wei state as Slingerland’s “effortless action”.  Finally, in what is perhaps the most enlightening recent study on the subject, an analysis of the neural correlates of jazz improvisation shows a shift towards wu-wei in the cognitive experience of jazz musicians – what I view as a harmonization of animate and conceptual consciousness.  The study notes a deactivation of the lateral pfc regions that “are thought to provide a cognitive framework within which goal-directed behaviors are consciously monitored, evaluated and corrected” and which are active “during effortful problem-solving, conscious self-monitoring and focused attention.”  The authors of the study describe their findings in terms which, again, echo Slingerland’s “effortless action”:

Whereas activation of the lateral regions appears to support self-monitoring and focused attention, deactivation may be associated with defocused, free-floating attention that permits spontaneous unplanned associations, and sudden insights or realizations. The idea that spontaneous composition relies to some degree on intuition, the ‘‘ability to arrive at a solution without reasoning’’, may be consistent with the dissociated pattern of prefrontal activity we observed. That is, creative intuition may operate when an attenuated DLPFC [dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] no longer regulates the contents of consciousness.[10]

The subjects of this study were “highly skilled professional jazz musicians”.  We can imagine, based on the earlier studies mentioned, that novice jazz musicians would have shown much greater pfc-activation along with their greater effort.

Based on these analyses, I suggest that we can usefully correlate different levels of pfc-activation to different aspects of wu-wei that Slingerland identifies in Laozi, Mencius and Zhuangzi.

The Laozian wu-wei correlates with what I call animate consciousness, equivalent to the pre-symbolic kind perception experienced by an infant.  In a grown person, our experiences are mediated by the pfc so automatically that it’s difficult to discern this pre-symbolic moment of awareness, but experienced practitioners of meditation can describe it.  Here is a description of that pre-symbolic, pre-pfc moment by a renowned Buddhist meditation teacher:

When you first become aware of something, there is a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing, before you identify it.  That is a state of awareness.  Ordinarily, this state is short-lived…   It takes place just before you start thinking about it – before your mind says, ‘Oh, it’s a dog.’  That flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness is mindfulness.  In that brief flashing mind-moment you experience a thing as an un-thing.  You experience a softly flowing moment of pure experience that is interlocked with the rest of reality, not separate from it…[11]

By contrast, as Slingerland points out, the Mencian view of wu-wei involves “appropriate” human cultivation of experience.  In this view, the pfc’s functions of identifying, establishing rules, and promoting appropriate action are considered part of the natural, wu-wei human experience.  Just as it’s “natural” for an infant to spend their first two and a half years formulating the symbolic pfc-mediated network required to understand native language, so the Mencian view would place the societal manifestations of this function – language, community, agriculture – as wu-wei, the effortless activity of a mature human consciousness.

The Mencian view, though, describes another ideal context – that of a stable agricultural society where man and nature co-exist in harmony – which is almost as far removed from our world as the Laozian “state of nature.”  To use the Mencius agricultural harvest metaphor, mankind has been tugging on the naturally growing shoots for so long that we’re in danger of pulling up the entire plant from the ground, having to replace it with our own genetically engineered variety.

I suggest that the Zhuangzian approach to wu-wei, in contrast to both Laozi and Mencius, describes a path that’s directly relevant to our individual and societal conditions in the 21st century.  Rather than reject the pfc’s involvement in human experience, the Zhuangzian approach, supported by the neuroimaging findings above, advocates the full utilization of pfc functions – willpower, application, attention – to arrive at a stage where the pfc can take a back seat, and a harmonization of consciousness becomes available.  This dynamic can be extended beyond the specific aspects of life analyzed in the neuroimaging studies to all aspects of our lives, indeed to the general way we choose to lead our lives.

From this viewpoint, Slingerland’s original “wu-wei paradox” doesn’t go away, but it’s transformed into a descriptor of the pfc’s dynamics within our consciousness:  We can use the very power of our pfc functions – self-awareness, goal identification, willpower – to reduce the pfc’s “tyranny” over the other aspects of our consciousness.  I think this may be what Zhuangzi means when he says “Words are for holding ideas, but when one has got the idea, one need no longer think about the words.”[12]

It might take a great effort to get there, but by utilizing rather than rejecting our unique pfc-mediated functions, we each have the capability within us to arrive at a place of wu-wei, to shift the balance of power within our own minds and achieve our own democracy of consciousness.

[1] Chen, E. M. (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House. TTC 3 & 4, pp. 58, 60.

[2] Schwartz, B. I. (1985). The World of Thought in Ancient China, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard University Press,  188.

[3] Needham, J. (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume II. London: Cambridge University Press.

[4] “Soteriology” generally refers to the religious study of salvation.

[5] Cited by Chen, E. M. (1973). “The Meaning of Te in the Tao Te Ching: An Examination of the Concept of Nature in Chinese Taoism.” Philosophy East and West, 23(4), 457-470.

[6] Chen, E. M. (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, op. cit. 215: TTC 71

[7] Chen, op. cit. 146: TTC 38.

[8] Muhammad, R., Wallis, J. D., and Miller, E. K. (2006). “A Comparison of Abstract Rules in the Prefrontal Cortex, Premotor Cortex, Inferior Temporal Cortex, and Striatum.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 974-989.

[9] Tang, Y.-Y., and Posner, M. I. (2009). “Attention training and attention state training.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(5: May 2009).

[10] Limb, C. J., and Braun, A. R. (2008). “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.” PLoS ONE, 3(2: February 2008), e1679.

[11] Gunaratana, V. H. (1991). Mindfulness in Plain English, Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

[12] Quoted by Fung, Y.-L. (1948/1976). A Short History of Chinese Philosophy: A Systematic Account of Chinese Thought From Its Origins to the Present Day, New York: The Free Press.


How to Grow a Backbone: 10 Strategies for Gaining Power and Influence at Work

“If you can’t decide what you think, you’ll be at the mercy of others who can. That’s why people with backbone run things and people without complain” (167).

10 Strategies discussed in the book:

1. Get the Big Picture
2. Turn Meetings into Discovery Sessions
3. Become a Jotter
4. Get Eyes Wise
5. Expand and Contract: Your Thinking Must Change
6. Associate on Purpose
7. Play Columbo
8. Determine the Power Sources
9. Lose the Excuses
10. Decide What You Think and Say So

The Pros. The really nice thing about this book is the Introduction, because Marshall did a great job defining backbone, as she calls it “Backbone Basics.” The three major parts of the type of backbone to be discussed throughout the book was covered in the “Backbone Anatomy” section—competence, confidence, and risk taking. I would say the introduction was the most informative part of the book. The book was easy to read and well-organized; each strategy is divided into chapters and each chapters had sub-topics. What she had to said came through and the message was direct. The language was also simple and conversational.

There are also illustrations at the beginning of each chapter, where the man in the suit is doing something relevant to the strategy to be discussed. At the end of each chapter was a section called “Backbone-Building Exercises” where exercises for competence, confidence, and risk taking are based on the chapter. I also liked the quotes she used throughout the book. There weren’t a lot to cause a distraction but enough to keep the mind thinking and inspired; it created a nice break in between the reading.

The Cons. Although the stories she used were true and can be helpful, I found that the book could have been better if some of the stories were shorter. There were times I found some stories as unnecessary because it made her point harder to understand and made the reading a bit draggy. I ended up just skipping some and skimming through most. I also didn’t really understand Chapter 7: Play Columbo. Maybe because I don’t know who Columbo is *shrugs* but I spent a lot of time trying to understand her reasoning behind this chapter.

This wasn’t a book I would say, “It kept my nose in the book the whole time.” I would have liked to see more of managements’ point of view on what they see as desirable and what catches their attention about an employee.

Overall Comments. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading this book because there are still a lot of useful tips and information about each strategy. Marshall did a great job on stating who has a backbone and who doesn’t and how to identify them; you’ll notice this throughout the book. I appreciated the constant comparison because it made me reflect on my own habits and behaviors. I also do agree that we all need a firm backbone to gain power and be an influence where ever we are. Having a backbone will lead you to great opportunities instead of missing out and always complaining. The overall message: It starts with you.

Rating. 3.5/5 – This wouldn’t be a book I would rush to get but I will eventually add it to my collection.

For information of who Susan Marshall is check out this link: Susan Marshall: Google Profile (It turns out she lives in Wisconsin too and has been a guest lecturer at Alverno College! What are the odds eh…)

Works Cited.
Marshall, Susan. How to Grow a Backbone: 10 Strategies for Gaining Power and Influence at Work. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. Print.


Monday, January 18, 2010

A Weekend of Differences

Dear God. Has Dmitri come to this? When one of his prized possessions is a smoothie maker, and he’s even cooking from recipe books on a Sunday, has the mean-sprited, moaning, lazy good-for-nothing changed from that person they knew years ago? Probably. Hell, he even went to a West End Musical called Legally Blonde – and enjoyed it!!!

This is the sort of man who goes out to Asda on a Saturday night to bulk buy his dog’s food for the next six months. This is a man who buys frozen fruit and is alwys on the look out for new offers to make up his smoothies. This is a man who wonders if his dish is going to suffer because he replaced a dash of ginger with a dash of paprika. This is a man who now marinades his food for 24 hours, and loves home-baked bread. This is a man eschewing crisps, refusing alcohol and turning down requests to go to McDonalds. This is a man who wants to walk home from work, again!

I’ve gone odd.

Anyway, for those wondering what I cooked – I bet you don’t care really – it was this. I can report that the verdict from the beloved was that the sauce was delicious – and it was – but the chicken was a bit dry but not my fault – which it was and it was because I left it in the pan too long. However added to my performance the preceding week with this recipe where the chicken was moist, the sauce excellent, and the beloved delighted, I am now getting into this Sunday cooking lark and I am on the lookout for next week’s instalment. Who’d have thought it? A Dmitri Cookery Column.

Other news of life and stuff. I watched the first ever A-Team the other day (suppress your questions of why, I just did) and wondered who on earth it was playing Face? It appears his name is Tim Dunigan and he now works as a mortgage broker. Dirk Benedict came along later. All good fun… I picked up the DVD for the first series some months back for a couple of quid, so that’s why. I have Series 2 of The Wire, Series 1 of Homicide Life on the Streets, and innumerable sports stuff to watch, so plenty to be getting on with.

I’ve also reconnected with one of my school loves – no not some bird, as Dmitri went to an all boys school which introduced girls to the Sixth Form as some sort of strange social experiment to test out us strange people who thought all girls were evil, or some such thing. No, I mean history. I was good at it. I won the School Prize for best at history and promptly spent the book tokens on Garfield books! Just before Christmas Amazon were offering the Simon Schama History of Britain DVDs at a relatively lower price, so I bought them and have watched up to the death of Henry VIII (We have a mate at work, we should call him Henry IV, because he’s had three wives, so he’s half the man the old Henry was). I’m really interested in the medieval times, and since then have bought books on Edward I and Edward III, and also went to one of those awful cheapo stores and got a couple of Kings and Queens guides just to get myself back into it. Along with the 20 other new books I have, I doubt I’ll need any more to keep me going for a while.

Currently reading Frost / Nixon. I’ll go into that a bit more when I’ve finished it. Then I’ll watch the film (I still have the Anthony Hopkins film to watch too). People may know I’m fascinated by Nixon; much more than I am about JFK, or Barack Obama…. how could a man judged so unfavourably in hindsight (a) be president; and (b) win how he did in 1972? Watergate has always been an interest and I love All The President’s Men, the film that got me started. Frost’s attitude to Nixon now is very interesting, as is the book.

Finally, WindyBricks gave me the moment of the season so far, when DelBoy’s Irish relly equalised 20 seconds after the Sailors from the Solent had scored what looked like the winner deep in injury time. The manager of the Sailors, one Alan Absolutely Raped, is not one of my favourite characters for reasons I won’t go into now, except for the fact he’s a gobby prick. His face when the equaliser went in was a picture. An absolute picture. His notebook, which he ostentatiously made copious notes on during the game, went into orbit. His face was chewed up as if he’d eaten a dog turd. And all the while, I laughed, very loudly, at him. If ever a manager deserved that….

More later…..


Nonfiction: Reference

The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

Basically, this should have been called QI: The Book. It’s a book filled with questions that you think you know the answers to. And if you’ve seen all the episodes of QI (as I have!), you actually will know most, if not all of the answers. If you haven’t, then there is much knowledge to be imparted!

I think my favorite is the question about what noise the world’s largest frog makes. The answer is that it doesn’t make any noise since it’s mute. But, and this is where the book is at its most fun, do you know why, when asked what noise a frog makes, we all say ribbit, ribbit? It’s because that’s the noise made by the type of frog that lives in Hollywood and is part of their stock noise library (it probably has a more official name than that, but Josephine is sitting on my lap and I would have to make her get up to be able to reach the book and actually look it up) and, therefore, is used whenever they are filming in a jungle or swamp, &c, no matter where the film is actually set. Neat, huh?

The book is written with the same airy tone that the show has which means you’re only vaguely aware that you’re learning – the best way of doing it, if you ask me!

My rating: B+ (And I hope it goes without saying that you should all be watching QI [Stephen Fry is a god!])


Book Review: In defense of John Irving


The epigram from John Irving’s new novel, Last Night in Twisted River, is from the Bob Dylan song “Tangled Up in Blue.” It’s a short snippet that references working as a cook in the great north woods until one day “the ax just fell.”  That establishes the premise of the novel:  Dominic “Cookie” Baciagalupo has to flee his job as a cook when his son inadvertently mistakes his Indian lover for a bear and clubs her with a skillet. Since she is seeing the town sheriff, Cookie believes the only option is to run.

It is typical Irving: far-fetched and fun, complicated and epic.

While the book shares the premise with the Dylan song, it more closely shares the song’s structure as a series of events that get shuffled chronologically as though past, present, and future occur simultaneously.  At one point it’s described in the novel this way: “the near simultaneity of connected but dissimilar momentous events—these are what move a story forward.”

This is Irving’s great feat with Twisted River as he explores time through the lens of parenting.  The novel truly focuses on Cookie’s son, though at points three generations of Baciagalupo men co-exist.  It spans 1954-2005 ranging from New Hampshire and Boston to Toronto, familiar locations for Irving fans.


But not everyone is a fan of Irving’s not-so-subtle references to his life or to his novels (Danny writes a political abortion book that wins an Academy Award for its film adaptation, a la Cider House Rules).

At The Washington Post, author Ron Charles (in an article titled “Timber! went the plot”) laments Irving’s unevenness: “Everything that makes John Irving such a wonderful writer is on display in the opening section of his 12th novel, Last Night in Twisted River. And everything that makes him such a maddening one is evident in the 450 rambling pages that follow. It’s like signing on for a week’s vacation after a great first date only to discover that now you’re trapped in a small hotel room. For. Seven. Long. Days.”  Charles charges that all of the autobiographical allusions in this novel “serve as shorthand for real storytelling.”  Charles concludes, “Last Night in Twisted River is like some kind of postmodern tragedy: Danny Baciagalupo’s marvelous novel is smothered inside John Irving’s dull one.”

New York Times reviewer Joanna Scott agrees. She writes, “The coy hints of connections between the author and the narrator have been forced onto a plot that can’t accommodate them.”  She also tackles Irving’s willingness to write about fiction. “The fact that Danny is a famous novelist too often seems a mere contrivance, giving Irving a convenient opportunity to include rambling background information and to air his own ideas about writing. In his bid to make something ‘serious,’ Irving has risked distracting readers from what otherwise could be a moving, cohesive story.”

But Charles and Scott miss Irving’s intent. It’s not a stab at postmodern meta-narrative (Irving is more traditional and, like Danny, believes in plot). It’s also not true that making Danny a writer precludes him from saying something serious. While it’s true that Danny gives his views, the serious views about the times really come from Ketchum—he is Danny’s moral compass.  Irving did this in A Prayer for Owen Meany as well, allowing John Wheelright to wax eloquent from afar about politics while Owen Meany actually lives out the implications of the thoughts.  For Scott to charge that Twisted River isn’t moving clearly overlooks Irving’s most thoughtful theme: the dangers of becoming a parent.


When the cook tells Danny, “If becoming a parent doesn’t make you responsible, nothing will,” it’s clear that something transcends writing in Danny’s life.  Like a writer he has experienced the joy of creation, but as a parent he must protect that creation. No amount of plotting can save his son, and this lesson continuously breaks his heart.

When trying to impart an irrational but not entirely unbelievable fear to Joe, Danny teaches him that  “the blue Mustang wants you—that’s why you’ve got to be careful.”  It’s the limitation of real life balanced against the power of imagination, and Danny’s imagination was carved by his father, who taught him that it was “a world of accidents.”


As a writer one of Danny Angel’s mantras is that “So-called real people are never as complete as wholly imagined characters.”  Irving seems interested in this idea, that fiction is able to deliver truth in ways that reality is only able to hint at, that “real-life stories were never whole, never complete in the ways that novels could be.”

Irving includes some other nuggets about writing and the writing process as well:

  • “Maybe this moment of speechlessness helped to make Daniel Baciagalupo become a writer. All those moments when you know you should speak, but you can’t think of what to say—as a writer , you can never give enough attention to those moments” (128).
  • He pays homage to the Romantics of which he is a descendent. “They wrote long, complicated sentences; Hawthorne and Melville had liked semicolons.”  And Irving loves italics.
  • Drake: “I’m into writing, not rewriting. I only like the creative part.”
    Danny: “But rewriting is writing. Sometimes, rewriting is the most creative part.”
  • “Was Danny superstitious? (Most writers who believe in plot are.)”

Though people like to compare Irving and Dickens (and Irving likes to encourage the comparison) and at one point Irving even has Danny sneer at critics’ praise of symbolism, Irving is able to do it the right way.  He doesn’t inject objects to carry the story or overburden the narrative with the weight of some abstract gymnastics.  Instead, he allows the objects (like the skillet, the blue Mustang, or the wind-swept pine) to function first and take meaning later, only after the characters themselves attach meaning within their lives.  In other words, the symbolism comes from within the narrative rather than existing outside of it or hovering over it.  He did this in A Prayer for Owen Meany (the foul ball, the armadillo, etc.) and I think perhaps most hauntingly in A Widow for One Year in the descriptions of the absence pictures on the wall.


At a time when the literati demand psychological or lyrical realism, what to make of a big-hearted, epic book about plot?  Look at the past few Pulitzer Prize winners.  Olive Kitteridge is a collection of stories. The Road is a work of psychological realism.  March and Gilead were hardly about plot as much as the interior lives of the characters.  While The Known World was plotted, the plot fell into the background of the author’s larger intentions to explore a time and a place.  Really Irving is most like Michael Chabon in his willingness to tackle big stories. And Chabon won the Pulitzer before September 11.

LA Times reviewer Daniel Mallory said, “Irving’s first novel to reconfigure those Irving-esque devices — the doomed naif, the artist in bloom, the sweet, bitter tug-of-war between duty and destiny — into a tale as introspective as it is retrospective. It’s simultaneously every story he’s ever published and something altogether new.”

Irving’s comedy—though it’s more subtle and less zany than The Hotel New Hampshire, Ketchum’s dog does still fart and the scene with Lady Sky landing at the artist’s party in the pig sty is as good as Irving gets.

In closing, you read Irving for plot and character, and he offers one of his finest in the character of Ketchum.  The old logger haunts the book in a larger-than-life way. He slept with Danny’s mom, he plays guardian angel once Danny and Cookie flee, he calls throughout the novel, he drives with a bear he shot in his passenger seat, and he’s always armed.  As he ages, his moral dilemma becomes clear and poignant, and it’s in characters like Ketchum that Irving ultimately rewards his readers.


Friday, January 15, 2010


Name of Book: Jubilee

Author: Ellen Yeomans

Illustrator: Tim Ladwig

Publisher: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Audience: Can be used with all ages

Summary: Jubilee paints a beautiful picture, through words and illustrations, of what Heaven will be like, but also speaks to the glory of the Kingdom of God and our need to strive for justice, equality, and joy (jubilee) here on earth.  In this story, all people are equal and live in joyous celebration of the wonder of God’s creations.

Literary elements at work in the story: If you could imagine a picture-perfect day, not too hot and not too cold, where the grass is green and the sky is blue, and you are surrounded by beautiful trees, that would be the image Ladwig has captured in his illustrations in Jubilee.  In this picture book, the words are poetic and take on a rhythm or song-like quality as soon as you start reading, with each section ending in the word “jubilee”.  There is not a story or plot per se…the reader simply gets a glimpse of a world through the eyes of an observer, where people of all ages, races, genders, ethnicities, and interests, live together in harmony and rejoice in the splendor of their blessings and their surroundings.  

Perspective on gender/race/culture/economic/ability: Jubilee celebrates equality and social justice (like the Year of Jubilee found in the Old Testament).  Every person, no matter his age, race, gender, economic status, ability, etc. is valued and loved.  All are happy to see one another as together they celebrate the glory of God’s kingdom.

Scripture: Leviticus 25:10b , Numbers 36:4, 1 Peter 4:10

Theology: The Jubilee represents a return to the concept of equality before God.  In the Old Testament, the year of Jubilee was a reaction against oppression and poverty based on the idea that the land is from God and must be restored.  The Jubilee year was intended to be a joyous celebration of the sovereignty of God in which God’s people were emancipated and lived as partners for social justice.  This book represents this joyous celebration through beautiful words and illustrations.

Faith Talk Questions:

  1. Look closely at the pictures.  What do you see people doing?
  2. How are the people in this book treating the earth God has created?
  3. When you look at these pictures, how do they make you feel? Do they remind you of how we tend to interact with others and enjoy God’s creations?  How is the “real world” similar to these pictures? How is it different?
  4. Do you think human beings have trouble treating each other as equals? Why?
  5. At the end of the story, you are invited to join them…to “come along”.  What can you do everyday to create “jubilee”?

Review prepared by Erin Mills, MACE, Entering cohort Fall 2007


Author Steve Hamilton Appearing at Troy Barnes and Noble

Born and raised in Detroit and a graduate of the University of Michigan, author Steve Hamilton is well known for his Alex McKnight series, particularly A Cold Day in Paradise (Michigan,that is) which snagged both an Edgar and Shamus Award.

It appears, however, that Mr. Hamilton is branching out with a new piece of work. His site states that his latest book The Lock Artist, “…steps away from his Edgar Award-winning Alex McKnight series to introduce a unique new character unlike anyone you’ve ever seen in the world of crime fiction.”

Whether you are new to Steve Hamilton’s work or have been with him from the beginning, you can catch him up close and personal at the Barnes and Noble store in Troy on Friday, January 15, 2010 from 5-7 pm. As always, call first to confirm.

*Support your local bookstores. It matters!

-Post by Megan Shaffer

For More on Steve Hamilton:

The Lock Artist Q&A with author Steve Hamilton


me on book reviews

With the whole book fuzz that I’ve been in since last year, I started experimenting different ways to improve my reading skill and experience. One of the things that helped me was taking books to the office and give it quick lookups between a reboot and a rebuild. Other was setting time aside from my common schedule just to focus on the book. After some try and error I got a few techniques in place that make me feel more productive on the matter. One of them is book review.

I have done very little publicly on it though. A quick look on my account will show a few short reviews that are much more general comments than anything close to a review of the book, the writing and the content. But I definitely want to do more, and that’s the point where I’ll get to soon.

It’s not entirely new for me. I’ve done formal book reviews once for Paula Mastroberti, a Brazilian author that wrote and illustrated fantastic books that were a re-read of great classics of literature like Goethe’s Fausto, Homero’s Odissey and Cervante’s Quixote. In her version of the stories, the plot would roll in our modern times and all the different characters would be adapted to meet all their madness and tragedy within our day-to-day lives. Fausto became a sold-soul rockstar, while Quixote was turned into a suburb hero – succumbed by his madness wearing brighty and shiny 80’s disco clothes. Fun indeed.
It was a long time ago, but as you can see, I liked reading before I started working.

The exercise of writing book reviews is a good way to keep memory in shape and making sure you squeeze the most out of the book content. It’s even better for non-literature books, like the technical and conceptual books about programming and economics,  as we recap the content and reinforce the lessons and concepts learned. Also, it’s very good to develop writing skills as well, and for a non-native English speaker like me, it’s something.

My deal is the following, as I set the goal to provide whatever kind of content here for my own pleasure and fun, and as I want to make sure I enjoyed and payed attention to all my books details, I’ll start posting more about the books and giving them a post-mortem review after reading it.
At some point I’ll start using only the service to do so, and will pull them here through theyre fine API, which I’ve been playing a bit for a few days.

Be in peace amd correct my typos!


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Give a Goat

Name of Book:  Give a Goat

Author:  Jan West Schrock

Illustrator:  Aileen Darragh

Publisher: Tilbury House Publishers

Audience:  Ages 7 – 10

Summary: A fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Rowell reads her class the story of Beatrice’s Goat on a rainy school day.  The true story is about a girl in Africa who could not go to school because her family did not have the money to send her.  Her family is given a goat from the Heifer International Program. The presence of the goat in their lives begins a chain of events that allows the family to grow and prosper so that Beatrice can attend school.  The fifth grade class takes on the project of raising money to buy a goat for a poverty stricken family in Africa.  The story details their efforts.

Literary elements at work in the story: The theme of working together and giving to others to truly make a difference in one small corner of the world is the primary literary element in this story.

Perspective on gender/race/culture/economic ability: Economic perspective is highlighted in this story.  The story within this story about Beatrice illustrates the reality of poverty that families living in third world countries face each day and the fact that many children in these places do not have the luxury of attending school as contrasted with all that is available to children in school here in the United States so that they can learn.

Scripture: Acts 20:35, Matthew 6:2, 2 Corinthians 9:7-9


  1. We are God’s chosen people and are called to go into the world as missionaries.
  2. Belonging to the church means belonging to a community of people who serve God in their communities and in the world.
  3. God’s action of grace towards God’s people makes possible our action to serve God by giving to others.

Faith Talk Questions:

  1. How does the story of Beatrice’s Goat inspire the 5th grade children?
  2. What happens when people work together?
  3. What steps do the children take in order for their plan to succeed?
  4. What can we learn when we give a gift, such as a goat, to others?
  5. What could our Sunday school class or church do to help someone else?
  6. How does giving to others show the love of Jesus?
  7. What kind of attitude do we need to have when it comes to giving?

Review prepared by Marcia Rauch, MACE, Entering cohort Fall 2006


Leaving a Legacy

by Keith Dinnel 

December was an extremely busy month around the Greer household, as I’m sure it was for most everyone. I was somewhat worried that I wouldn’t get around to reading anything new to write about, what with all the chaos and so little free time.

     That’s when it hit me that I had a book that I was working through right under my nose! I had been tasked with reading a book called Letters From Dad written by Greg Vaughn.      Greg Vaughn is a two-time Emmy award-winning film producer and his work has been used in more than 40,000 schools and libraries. He also finds the time to work with over 85,000 churches. Wow! Talk about multi-tasking!      Letters From Dad is more than just a book that I’ve been reading. A couple of months back my friend J.R. Harris told me about an exciting endeavor he was working on bringing to the Grace Lutheran church here in Lake Benton.      This endeavor would require a group of dedicated men to meet once a month for approximately a five month period, and learn to share a whole new side of ourselves with our loved ones, with each other and with society in general. I eagerly signed up!      This group would individually be reading the book Letters From Dad, and in a sense this book would be our study guide to the adventure that we had each committed ourselves to. I won’t say anything else about this group of wonderful men that I am privileged to be a part of, because our meetings are still ongoing and I don’t want to give away what it is that we are working on quite yet!      Letters From Dad was born when author Greg Vaughn’s father passed away. As he was going through his garage he came upon his father’s rusty old fishing tackle box. This was the only item belonging to his father that Greg had inherited when his father passed.      Angry with his father, with himself and even with God because this was all that he had to remember his dad by, Greg was about to toss the rusty old box in the garbage when the voice of God posed to Greg a question: “If you were to die today, what would your children hold in their hands that would let them know that they were the treasures of your life?”      From that moment on, Greg became a man on a mission! He called up twelve friends of his who happened to also be fathers, and proposed the idea to them of a journey that they would take together! A journey where these men would come together and learn how to bless their children!      One key component of this journey would be resurrecting the near-lost art of letter writing! In today’s world it seems that e-mail has taken over and has become so much more convenient than actually writing a letter to someone. Heck, look at how huge texting someone from your phone rather than actually calling them has gotten!      I am a fan of the old school, and the prospect of getting back to the roots of writing appeals to me in a large way. I don’t consider myself a great writer, or even a good one for that matter, so the prospect of learning to write a “better letter”, if you will, holds such fascination for me.      I will leave it at that as far as the content of the rest of Greg’s book. It’s not that the subject matter isn’t worthy or engrossing, because it is! I just feel that anyone interested in learning the outcome of Greg’s ideas and the direction that they take would do better by picking up Letters From Dad and finding out for themselves!      I hope that possibly some men that happen to be reading this article discover a yearning in their heart to find out how to truly bless their loved ones, and their curiosity is peaked to the extent that they want to find out more about this book and it’s purpose.

My plan is to donate my copy of Letters From Dad to the Lake Benton Library when I am done using it for reference, in the hopes that others may find it useful and benefit from it’s inspiring and positive message.

In the meantime, if anyone has any questions as to how to find out more about the Letters From Dad men’s group, please feel free to contact J.R. Harris or myself. We are still on our own paths and still learning this as we go along, but I know that we would be happy to share with you what we have discovered so far! Thanks everyone!


Monday, January 11, 2010

"In a way you'll live forever."

“But I know who the real hero is, and it isn’t me or even the brave Lanaya. It’s an old man with a white beard and a walking stick and a heart so big it won’t let him stop thinking he can change the world by writing things down in a book that no one will ever read.”

-Rodman Philbrick, The Last Book in the Universe

* * *

In this dystopian novel, books no longer exist. No one reads. No one remembers what life was like before the Big Shake that destroyed civilization. One old man named Ryter is writing the last book in the universe, recording memories from his ancestors and a record of life as it exists now.

Spaz, the protagonist, lives in what’s called a “latch,” a sort of chaotic community run by a latchboss. He needs help getting back to the latch where he once lived, where his adopted sister Bean is dying of leukemia because the cure has been lost. Ryter insists that he go with Spaz, to record this last adventure before he dies.

Other characters in this story are “proovs,” genetically improved people. They’ve been programmed to resist diseases and cancer, so they have no need of chemotherapy that can cure Bean’s disease. Spaz meets a proov named Lanaya, and the three of them fight off gangs of evil people to get to Bean. All the while, Ryter spouts poetry and discusses events that took place before the Big Shake, drilling into Spaz the importance of keeping a written record, of writing down one’s story.

A beautiful moment happens toward the end of the story. Bean asks Ryter why he constantly makes references to being old and dying. Ryter worries that he won’t have time to finish his book. Bean’s response reveals that she understands the importance of story: ”"But would it ever really be finished?’ she asks. ‘I thought the book was your life, and it would only end when your life ends. Except it won’t really end, because people will read it and remember, so in a way you’ll live forever.’”

This book is a dystopian novel, set in a chaotic world. It’s not as dark as many other dystopian novels I’ve read, making it suitable for younger readers. Just as with other dystopian stories, Philbrick has established a jargon for his world. Fortunately, this jargon either explained or easy to figure out.

It’s really a great story. Ryter quotes Frost and Yeats, which had me cheering internally as I read. He’s a great character, wise and intelligent and courageous, inspiring Spaz to be more than just a slave to the latchboss and to fight for the things that are right and good. This is a re-read for me, but it’s definitely one I would go back to again and again.


Book Review: Think Outside The Box Office

The successes of low-budget independent films at Sundance like Slacker, Clerks, and El Mariachi in the early 1990s created the myth of the independent film “discovery”, a myth that continues to pervade to this day. For this year’s festival, Sundance recieved 9,816 submissions (113 were eventually picked), even as studios have pulled out of the specialty business.

Last year, three movies got picked up at Sundance. In other words, having your movie at a major festival is no longer a guarantee to secure distribution, nor was it ever, really. Even the movies I mentioned in the first paragraph had much more complicated backstories that one might believe.

Although always a firm believer in the DIY aesthetic, Jon Reiss always preferred to leave the distribution to others. His previous documentary, Better Living Through Circuitry, was handled by the small distributor 7th Art, and at the time of its release, benefitted from the electronic musicians profiled in the film: The Crystal Method, Roni Size, Moby, and BT. (As Reiss explains in the book there were two other movies in release at the time, and all the releases complimented one another.) When it came to debut Bomb It at Tribeca in 2007, Reiss believed that Bomb It would follow the same pattern. Except that it didn’t.

Reiss did everything that every filmmaker is expected to get their movie out there. Reiss saved the world premiere for an acquistion-friendly festival, got a sales agent, a well-connected publicist, and held off on circulating DVDs of any kind. In one aspect, this paid off–2,500 people attended the screenings, and 800 were turned away. However, this failed to materialize in an acquisition. Within a week, Bomb It was available on Canal Street as a bootleg. Reiss decided to take distribution into his own hands, and eventually landed a DVD deal with New Video. He documented his self-distribution experience for Filmmaker magazine, which in turn led to the writing and publication of this book.

Think Outside The Box Office examines a number of ways of distributing the movie–DIY Theatrical, Video On Demand, The Festival Circuit, the college circuit, the educational market–and considers all of these methods equally valid. Reiss realizes that what worked for Bomb It won’t work for every movie. To fill out his book, Reiss interviewed several other indie film figures, including Matt Dentler, Joe Swanberg, Todd Sklar, Mariana Palka, and Chris Hyams among others.

Anyone who is serious about surviving in the contemporary independent film world needs to read this book.


Needful Things

My mother was always an avid Stephen King reader. When I was around 9 or 10, I found one of her books lying around in the living room, and skimmed a few pages. I’ve long since forgotten the title or even the premise of that book. What I do remember is how enthralled with it I was.

I remember reading through the whole thing in one day, and Stephen King does not make tiny novels. Upon turning the last page, I ran into the dining room, where Stephen King occupied 90% of our shelf space. And an addict was born.

I’m not sure how I skipped this book, but Needful Things by Stephen King is honestly an amazing book.

Once again, Stephen King’s mind not only thrills me, but gets my mind reeling, and leaves me begging for more. Needful Things boasts a unique plot, one that keeps you guessing and characters that leave you dying to know more about them and what they go through. Definitely one of Stephen King’s classics and best works.

I’m a bad Stephen King fan, because I’ve yet to check out the movie. But I have no doubt in my mind that it will blow my mind, just because of the simple fact, Stephen King wrote it.

I would definitely recommend any macabre fiction fan pick this one up.

Alright, I’ll shut up and stop kissing SK’s ass.