Saturday, February 26, 2011

Packing for Mars

Interested in a new vacation destination? Well Packing for Mars will tell you what you need to join the US space program and what exactly you will be doing during training. And I mean exactly.

This little book covers everything from space food to sex in zero gravity. It gives the history of the issue and then some anecdotes about the training the real astronauts had. The chapter on gaining your equilibrium in zero gravity is especially detailed. So is the one on "human waste disposal" and the zero gravity toilet.

Roach, who put her body where her mouth is, had experienced many of the trials of fledgling astronauts. And she does it with some amount of grace. With a wry sense of humor Roach takes to the sky in the "vomit comet" and sacrifices her taste buds for experimental space food among other things. She gives the reader information that is not on any official NASA website.

This book has been on my "to read" list for some time. I suggest all the adults who still dream of going into space give this book a read. It has some laugh out loud passages as well as some that will give the reader pause. The book moves quickly. The chapters are short and subject specific. Roach takes the reader through the early days of the space program - from unmanned flights, through the chimp phase to manned flight. Each step shows that the real glitch in all the technology is the human body. But that the humans who aspire to be astronauts are willing to put up with almost certain death to participate.

You, lucky reader can enjoy the thrills, trials and tribulations vicariously through reading this book.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Girl in the Green Raincoat

This short sweet mystery from Laura Lippman is a updated version of the Hitchcock classic Rear Window. Tess Monaghan, a private investigator is bedridden in the late stages of her pregnancy. From her window she can view the park across the street. Everyday she views a woman in a green raincoat talking on her cell phone walking a dog, also in a green coat. Then one day Tess sees the dog running, with the leash still attached and no woman.

Tess becomes concerned about the missing woman. Using her contacts she discovers that the woman was living with a man whose 2 previous wives had been murdered. Tess is now really concerned not only for the woman, but because she (Tess) has been entrusted with the dog. The police eventually become involved and the investigation escalates.

Lippman spins a good story with comments on life and love along the way. The story is short as it was originally serialized in the New York Times magazine but the action is good and the characters sympathetic. And it has a surprise ending!

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sports Night

If you are looking for a comedy series about sports, but not really, check out Sports Night. It is written by Aaron Sorkin, who is best known for A Few Good Men, The American President and The West Wing and who is currently nominated for a best screenplay Academy Award for The Social Network. He is masterful at good character development using Mamet-like short dialogue and fast-paced episodes.

Sports Night, which aired on ABC from 1998 to 2000, is about a sports network similar to one on ESPN. The program highlights the interpersonal dynamics among members of the news team as they struggle with their own lives and the production of a live television broadcast.

Robert Guillaume (Soap, Benson) plays the benevolent managing editor, Isaac, and Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives) is Dana, the Executive Producer. Josh Charles (The Good Wife) plays Dan, co-anchor. Peter Krause (Parenthood and Six Feet Under) plays Casey, the other co-anchor. Other cast members include Joshua Malina (West Wing), who plays the nerdy Jeremy, and Sabrina Lloyd plays Natalie, Senior Associate Producer. Romantic tension abounds between Jeremy and Natalie, as well as between Dana and Dan.

If you watch ESPN's SportsCenter, this program will especially appeal. It offers a behind-the-scenes look at producing a program that will be popular with viewers and please the owning corporation. Along the way come ethical dilemmas, the day-to-day pressures of producing live television, and the interpersonal dynamics of a group of people whose teamwork is essential for a good daily program.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Lover's Dictionary, by David Levithan

David Levithan is best know for his romantic and somewhat whimsical young adult novels, including Boy Meets Boy, Love is the Higher Law, and (with Rachel Cohn) the New York Times bestseller, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

The Lover's Dictionary is Levithan's first book for adults, and it is no less than amazing. Using words in alphabetical order, the author constructs a story about a relationship. The narrator is clearly male, but the reader does not know the gender of the lover. What one does know, early on, is that the partner drinks too much and has been unfaithful. This awareness comes to us with the second entry, "abstain, v."

I'm sorry I was so surprised you didn't drink that night.
"Is something wrong?" I asked. It wasn't like you to turn down a drink after work.
"Go ahead," you said. "Drink for both of us."
So I ordered two Manhattans. I didn't know whether to offer you a sip. I didn't know if it could be this easy to get you, for once, to stop.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
After a dramatic pause, you said, totally serious, "I'm pregnant." And then you cracked up.
I laughed even though I didn't feel like laughing. I raised my Manhattan, tipped it in your direction, then asked, "Whose is it?"
The Lover's Dictionary is a very modern romance in which the characters meet online and sleep together on the first date.

aberrant, adj.
"I don't normally do this kind of thing," you said.
"Neither do I," I assured you.
...But we comforted ourselves with what we really meant to say, which was, "I don't normally feel this good about what I'm doing."
Measure the hope of that moment, that feeling. Everything else will be measured against it.

There is something so universal about that last line of the first entry. Anyone who has been in a relationship--short-lived or spanning decades-knows all too well that what comes later is often contrasted with the feelings of love's first embrace.

This short book is a non-chronological account of a love affair using words from a to z. It is an ode to love, not by John Keats, but by a disillusioned narrator recalling moments in his past relationship. Isn't that what we all remember? Life is never recalled as a chronology, but as a remembrance of pivetal events and feelings. And some things defy definition.

love, n.
"I'm not even going to try."

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Well, what can I say about Cleopatra? I know the rumors - that she was a harlot at best. A woman who used her charm to ensnare not only Caesar but Mark Antony, a woman who would do anything to control everyone and everything. Well she was something quite different according to Stacy Schiff. Schiff, an award winning author tries to put Cleopatra's reputation in a more flattering light. An exhaustively researched book, Cleopatra; A Life gives a new spin on Cleopatra VII. The bibliography and notes at the end of the book run approximately 25 pages.

Born in 69BCE, Cleopatra VII took the throne after her father passed away. The Ptolemies had ruled Egypt for more than 100 years. The family was dysfunctional at best. Marrying siblings to consolidate the power within the family was a common practice. So was killing those same siblings when it suited a political purpose. Cleopatra came to the throne at a perilous time. The world was unstable and Egypt was ripe for a takeover by Rome. Cleopatra, approximately 17 years old, decided that she needed to make Caesar her ally. So she had herself shipped to Rome, not in a carpet but in a bag of cloth. The story about the rug is just a myth.

Much of Cleopatra's life seems to be a myth. The records of Cleopatra's life that are available were written years sometimes centuries after her death. Schiff uses the writings of Cicero, Plutarch and even Shakespeare, among others to put this book together. According to her original biographers, either she got her way because she seduced everyone or because she was uncommonly politically astute. Either way the chroniclers of her life criticized her. What they all agree on is that Egypt was the wealthiest country in the Mediterranean and that Cleopatra was running it.

The book tells of an extraordinary life. Cleopatra was the richest woman in the world at that time. She controlled vast areas of land, she was politically shrewd and extremely intelligent. The Ptolemies educated all their children well and Cleopatra absorbed everything she could. She had power and wealth and knew how to use them. The story is told in a straight forward manner. The book contains the history of the time. Caesar and Marc Anthony and their political troubles figure prominently. The story of Cleopatra would not be complete without the two men who tried to control her life.

Cleopatra ruled for 22 years. She had children with both Caesar and Mark Antony. She committed suicide in 30 BCE after thinking that Mark Antony had killed himself rather that surrender to Octavian. Cleopatra and Antony had lost Alexandria to Octavian in a last desperate attempt to conquer the Roman.

The story moves quickly despite being full of historical facts. Schiff readily admits that the history is muddled and notes different viewpoints of what actually happened. She does however piece together a coherent rendering of Cleopatra. She dispels rumor and replaces it with well researched facts. This is an excellent book. The life of Cleopatra makes for a fascinating read.

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Clara and Mr Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

As soon as I read Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland, I knew it would appeal to those who enjoyed Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, as well as the other Susan Vreeland books.

Set at the turn of the (last) century, main character is Clara Driscoll, a strong woman artist who worked at the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company headed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Through her story, we learn about decorative art of the time, woman's rights, with a bit of love and romance thrown in. The author teaches the reader a great deal about Tiffany's famous stained glass: how it came to be designed and made into windows, lamps, and the unsung women's department which did the bulk of the work. Clara is likeable, particularly as she hires and trains new women, and stands up for them to Mr Tiffany himself. The author's notes reveal that the character of Clara was drawn from correspondence from the actual Clara Driscoll, and inspired by a recent exhibition of Tiffany Glass. A good read, and an education to boot.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Age of Dreaming

The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr, is told in a series of flasbacks that are set in the silent film era of Los Angeles. There is a murder mystery to solve and so the reader is taken back to that golden era to try to figure out exactly what happened.

The Japanese actor and "star" at the center of the mystery is such an interesting man that you find yourself immersed in his past and present life and of course the cultural differences that make this novel so riveting. He is now an aging and obscure man leading an unexciting and mundane life of retirement until a young writer asks to do a story of his past glory days.

Along with the story and the flashbacks come amazing incites into the Hollywood of the early 1900s. All is not as it seems and you are happily pulled into the facinating world surrounding the murder mystery.

History, romance and murder, this novel has it all! The author is an ingenious and talented writer who will leave you wanting more!

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