Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dear Visitors

Hi my dear readers,

Here is Mary Tudor alias Sue, i have something to tell all of you that i planed to move new blog. I am gonna to wind off this blog from updating and am gonna start posting in my new blog, please come there.

Give some time to me to let you know my new link. Thanks.

Sorry for Bookfan mary reader

Sorry for Bookfan mary reader, she moved to http://bookfanmary.wordpress.com/, you can contact her there.

Hereafter the confusion wont happen, am sure.

Ragards
Mary Tudor alias Sue

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Doctorow offers his adept gift of insight

E.L. Doctorow would seem to be consumed with history. His best-known novel, "Ragtime," offers a pastiche of America at the turn of the 20th century, while "The March" (2005) re-imagines Sherman's march to the sea during the Civil War. But he has spent much of his career evoking outsiders who feel alienated from what is expected of them.

To wit: Daniel Lewin of 1971's "The Book Of Daniel," trying to make sense of his parents who, like the Rosenbergs, were executed as atomic spies; the narrator of his 1984 novella "Lives of the Poets," informing us that "dereliction is the state of mind given to middle-aged men alone, not to women"; Thomas Pemberton, the Episcopal priest whose spiritual crisis centers the 2000 novel "City of God." These men are adrift in the universe, unable to reconcile themselves to family, to mortality, to their own irresolvable desires.

In "All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories," many of the characters -- including Pemberton, who appears in the story "Heist" -- which was later adapted for "City of God" -- suffer from a similar emotional exhaustion, the sense of having been caught unexpectedly in the middle of their lives with no clear through-line between the present and the past. As for the future, it is something of a glaring blankness, less a promise than a burden to be endured.

"Some vast -- what to call it? -- indifference ... slowly creeps up on you with age ... becomes more insistent with age," a character explains in the lovely "Edgemont Drive," a story told entirely in dialogue, in which an elderly poet returns to the home in which he was raised to haunt (in the most literal sense imaginable) the family that lives there now. "It's a kind of wearing out, I suppose. As if life had become threadbare, with the light peeking through."

"Edgemont Drive" is one of six new stories in "All the Time in the World." Six others -- three apiece -- come from Doctorow's two previous collections, "Lives of the Poets" (the title comes from the novella) and 2003's "Sweet Land Stories." New, of course, may be a relative term, since "Heist" was published in 1997 and "Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate" first appeared in New American Review in 1968. Rather than make the material seem recycled, however, this gives us a sense of breadth, of movement, of the scope of Doctorow's career.

Here we have the point of any new and selected volume, but in this instance, it's complicated because Doctorow has never published much short work. His stories, then, exist as analogues to his longer fiction, set pieces more than symphonies.

Doctorow touches on this in a brief preface, noting that whereas "(a) novel may begin in your mind as an evocative image, a bit of conversation, a piece of music, an incident you've read about in someone's life, a piece of music ... (a) story, by contrast, usually comes to you as a situation, with the characters and setting irrevocably attached to it."

What he's suggesting is that novels require a certain fluidity, while stories remain more fixed. This may be why, to me, "Heist," which was adapted for "City of God," and "Liner Notes" are the two least satisfying efforts: the former because it lacks the heft, the nuance, of the novel that grew out of it, and the latter for the opposite reason, because, in telling the story of a Bob Dylanesque singer-songwriter, it has nothing to do with the novel, "Billy Bathgate," that, more than 20 years later, Doctorow would go on to write.

And yet this too is in the nature of a new and selected, to operate as a bit of a grab bag, and in so doing to let us read the work anew. That's the case with the six older stories, which trace, with grace and acuity, the tension between longing and obligation, between who we are and who we mean to be.

In "Walter John Harmon," a middle-aged lawyer remains faithful to a religious cult even after his wife runs off with the leader of the sect. "What further proof did we need of the truth of his prophecy than his total immersion in sin and disgrace?" he asks of this erstwhile prophet, who has promised to purify his followers by taking their transgressions as his own.

With "A Writer in the Family," Doctorow turns the question of transgression inward, describing a Bronx teenager of the 1950s who writes letters from his dead father to his grandmother, to protect (or deceive) the older woman from knowing of her son's death.

Here, Doctorow explores the delicate dance of narrative, what it offers and what it can never offer, its ability to corrupt or to console. "I thought how stupid, and imperceptive, and self-centered I had been," the young letter writer admits, "never to have understood while he was alive what my father's dream for his life had been." Such a sense of disconnection reverberates through nearly every story in the book.

Perhaps nowhere is this more vividly expressed than in "Wakefield," the best of the new pieces.

Revolving around another middle-aged attorney who, after a fight with his wife, hides out for months in the attic above his garage, it is a parable of unintended consequences, of the way things can get away from us once we discover our "talent for dereliction."

"I had left not only my home; I had left the system," the narrator enthuses, as he lets his hair grow and, like a ghost, watches his family make a life that no longer has anything to do with him.

If this is the subtext of much of "All the Time in the World," here Doctorow makes it explicit and deeply moving, not because it is so odd but because it is so common, as if the scrim of civilization were just that: a veil, an illusion, a set of conventions that might dissipate at any moment, given the right kind of push.

The Book of Mormon – review

Devotees of the Broadway musical have been gasping for a saviour. Risk-takers such as the Green Day-scored American Idiot can't survive (it closes at the end of April), and corporate fiascos such as Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark threaten to turn the Great White Way into a global joke.

That's why The Book of Mormon, gleefully subversive and artfully crafted, is being hailed as the second coming; this new work by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and composer-lyricist Robert Lopez from the naughty-puppet hit Avenue Q) is a good old-fashioned song-and-dance spectacle that happens to include wildly offensive jokes about Aids in Africa and the theological kitsch that is Mormonism.

If you're surprised to hear that Parker and Stone are responsible for re-energising Broadway's hopes, you haven't been following their career. The team have been honing their razzle-dazzle chops over two decades. Their first major effort, Cannibal! The Musical, was filmed in 1993, and, in 1999, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was aptly (if cheekily) praised as the year's best new musical. More recently, Team America: World Police paid snarky homage to Rent with the parody ballad "Everybody Has Aids". These showtune-humming pranksters were destined to mock the Church of Latter-Day Saints in song – an institution that, like the Broadway musical, is a singularly American invention.

Starting off in the Mormon mecca, Salt Lake City, Utah, the story follows a mismatched pair of proselytisers, Elders Price (Andrew Rannells) and Cunningham (Josh Gad). The former is the clean-cut ideal of an LDS doorbell-pusher: white-bread, well-groomed and safely asexual. Cunningham, however, is a fat, dim-witted man-child who confuses Mormon mythology with The Lord of the Rings.

Despite Price's hope for missionary work in Orlando, Florida, the two are ordered to save souls in war-torn, poverty-stricken Uganda. Their evolving friendship lays the emotional foundation for the show, and gives even the cruellest jokes about racism and homophobic self-loathing a sweet, innocent finish. That human dimension reminds you that the comic genius of South Park (heading into its 15th season) relies on children blinded by naivety, but who see through society's lies.

Likewise, by smashing together cultural extremes – prim, uber-Caucasoid Mormons and long-suffering, hope-starved Africans – the creators lampoon western illusions about that complex continent (the anthem "I Am Africa" is sung by distinctly pale cast members), while scoring laughs off the sort of horrors that should never be put on a Broadway stage ("I have maggots in my scrotum" is a recurring lament by one villager). We chortle disgustedly at an African man who thinks raping a baby will cure his Aids (a documented crime), but truly grotesque is the notion that a couple of Bible-toting white boys can be of any real help.

Religion, the creators firmly point out, is showbiz, and they systematically dismantle the absurdities of John Smith's 19th-century cod revelation through the intoxicating frivolity of musical conventions. Of the dozen or so classics referenced in the pastiche score, or by sight gag and laugh line, you can count The Sound of Music, Wicked, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Music Man and (naturally) The Lion King. Now The Book of Mormon – aggressively hilarious, blasphemous and almost indecently entertaining – has grabbed a spot in that canon. For those of us who love a well-made musical with satirical bite, the show is manna from heaven.

The Book of Mormon – review

Devotees of the Broadway musical have been gasping for a saviour. Risk-takers such as the Green Day-scored American Idiot can't survive (it closes at the end of April), and corporate fiascos such as Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark threaten to turn the Great White Way into a global joke.

That's why The Book of Mormon, gleefully subversive and artfully crafted, is being hailed as the second coming; this new work by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and composer-lyricist Robert Lopez from the naughty-puppet hit Avenue Q) is a good old-fashioned song-and-dance spectacle that happens to include wildly offensive jokes about Aids in Africa and the theological kitsch that is Mormonism.

If you're surprised to hear that Parker and Stone are responsible for re-energising Broadway's hopes, you haven't been following their career. The team have been honing their razzle-dazzle chops over two decades. Their first major effort, Cannibal! The Musical, was filmed in 1993, and, in 1999, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was aptly (if cheekily) praised as the year's best new musical. More recently, Team America: World Police paid snarky homage to Rent with the parody ballad "Everybody Has Aids". These showtune-humming pranksters were destined to mock the Church of Latter-Day Saints in song – an institution that, like the Broadway musical, is a singularly American invention.

Starting off in the Mormon mecca, Salt Lake City, Utah, the story follows a mismatched pair of proselytisers, Elders Price (Andrew Rannells) and Cunningham (Josh Gad). The former is the clean-cut ideal of an LDS doorbell-pusher: white-bread, well-groomed and safely asexual. Cunningham, however, is a fat, dim-witted man-child who confuses Mormon mythology with The Lord of the Rings.

Despite Price's hope for missionary work in Orlando, Florida, the two are ordered to save souls in war-torn, poverty-stricken Uganda. Their evolving friendship lays the emotional foundation for the show, and gives even the cruellest jokes about racism and homophobic self-loathing a sweet, innocent finish. That human dimension reminds you that the comic genius of South Park (heading into its 15th season) relies on children blinded by naivety, but who see through society's lies.

Likewise, by smashing together cultural extremes – prim, uber-Caucasoid Mormons and long-suffering, hope-starved Africans – the creators lampoon western illusions about that complex continent (the anthem "I Am Africa" is sung by distinctly pale cast members), while scoring laughs off the sort of horrors that should never be put on a Broadway stage ("I have maggots in my scrotum" is a recurring lament by one villager). We chortle disgustedly at an African man who thinks raping a baby will cure his Aids (a documented crime), but truly grotesque is the notion that a couple of Bible-toting white boys can be of any real help.

Religion, the creators firmly point out, is showbiz, and they systematically dismantle the absurdities of John Smith's 19th-century cod revelation through the intoxicating frivolity of musical conventions. Of the dozen or so classics referenced in the pastiche score, or by sight gag and laugh line, you can count The Sound of Music, Wicked, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Music Man and (naturally) The Lion King. Now The Book of Mormon – aggressively hilarious, blasphemous and almost indecently entertaining – has grabbed a spot in that canon. For those of us who love a well-made musical with satirical bite, the show is manna from heaven.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Book Review – Service Tax Law and Practice

Rohini Aggarawal’s latest offering once again stands apart from the run of the mill books on service tax available dime a dozen in the market. With the increasing scope of the service tax net, the seventh edition spills over three volumes each focusing on a particular aspect of the law, each preceded by a Budget Supplement.

Rohini Aggarawal has authored a number of books on taxation, corporate and banking laws. Rohini has behind her 18 years of professional experience including association with Pricewaterhouse Coopers and is presently a Principal Consultant at ARX Advisors.

Volume 1 addresses the basic concepts and procedures in service tax ranging from the books and records required to be maintained, registration, classification, export and import of services, valuation, availment of CENVAT Credit, assessments, advance ruling, Large Tax Payer Units etc. The Budget Supplement to the Volume therefore provides a comprehensive list of the amendments proposed/ consequent to the announcements made vide the Finance Bill. In addition, all notifications issued since the last edition of the book have also been reproduced for ease of reference.

The second volume provides an exhaustive commentary on each of the taxable services. The notes for each chapter are detailed and seek to go beyond merely reciting the law. She analyses legislative changes and judicial precedents and succinctly puts them together into a very well researched and considered package. Where Rohini scores over most authors is that she has a very lucid and coherent yet simplistic style of writing whereby she can communicate even the most complex of concepts easily to her readers including those who are new to the subject or at a nascent stage of their practice.

In her interminable style, each chapter is followed by a reference guide which diligently indexes all relevant Notifications/Circulars which are applicable to the section as well as highlight those which have been made redundant by the ensuing changes in law. The Budget Supplement for this Volume also meets the standards expected from her. Rohini has incorporated amendments made or proposed and important judicial precedents vis-a-vis each of the existing taxable services as well as documented the new services proposed to be introduced vide the Finance Bill.

As a practitioner herself, Rohini perhaps is well placed to understand that it is much easier to effectuate changes in the legal framework that is causing interpretational or implementation concerns than put to rest any litigation which may have been instigated by such a legal provision. The third volume therefore, serves as a fantastic reference guide as it is devoted exclusively to the legal matrix applicable to service tax with specific referencing to time frames within which the provisions were operational. It includes all notifications and circulars referred to in Volume Two. Indexes in Volume Two safely guide the readers to the relevant reference page in Volume Three.

The staple charts which serve as ready reckoners for operational aspects of service tax dealing with date of introduction of each of the taxable services, categorisation of taxable services for the purposes of import and export, obligations for payment of tax, rate change etc. have been retained.

Rohini’s usual style of operation is to publish her exposition once the Finance Act has received formal assent and the notifications bringing about the new taxable services have been notified. This year marks a change from the trend as the seventh edition is out in the market at about the same time as other authors have published their post budget editions. She has with this put to rest one of the greatest complaints of her reader base.

However, what cannot be denied is that in an effort to get the books out in the market, the quality of the presentation, printing style, binding has not been upto the mark.

As the Finance Bill is yet to be notified, one would look forward to the eighth edition as a more comprehensively put together treatise as well as better published from quality perspective.

(Mekhla is a lawyer in the Tax Team, specialising in Indirect Taxation, at Amarchand Mangaldas Suresh A. Shroff & Co.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Review: Ultimate Regeneration

Ultimate Regeneration is a book compiling reviews and articles from the Doctor Who fan-site Kasterborous (named, of course, after the constellation that Gallifrey was in). The content is tied up with a newly-added cohesive narrative that covers the five years of Russell T. Davies' tenure as showrunner and writer. There are contributions from others as well, and they are given appropriate credit on the front cover. But for the most part it's what Christian Cawley thought of Davies' tenure.

However, that is not to say that the book is sycophantic as such books tend to be. Quite the opposite, in fact; if I didn't know any better, I'd say that the writer hates Davies with a passion. Many of the scripts that Rusty comes out with are said to have disappointed him, even when the episode seems perfectly fine. (In fairness, he does admit that these reviews are very much 'of the time' and that he has come to change his feelings about some aspects after re-watching them; he is also full of praise for the episode "Midnight.")

The cover (pictured as there is no Amazon page to link to as of this writing) is designed and illustrated by Anthony Dry (whose colourful visual style you may recognise from the "nifty art cards" mentioned in my earlier Doctor Who Series Fnarg review) and I must say I'm impressed. Most self-published works are just done with bare-bones covers, not professional-quality work.

The book does have two main problems, but one is cosmetic and the other is to do with content. The first is to do with the editing. I appreciate that as a self-published work, it won't have editors but it can't have been that hard to get someone to volunteer (I'm sure one of their readers would've jumped at the task). Hell, I would've done it for an editor credit. The book did have quite a few typos and suchlike. A particularly notable one is that they got Freema Agyeman's surname wrong twice in the same sentence - first they missed the letter 'y' (leaving 'Ageman') then reinserted the 'y' but left out the 'e'.

As I said, the other problem is to do with content. For a book that was finished in the beginning of 2011 (and finally published after numerous printing problems), the lack of a section detailing Matt Smith's tenure as the Doctor is surprising. It seems like it could've been used to detail how things improved or declined during the Moff's tenure.

However, for those two problems, the book is not actually bad. What you get is still good, covering as it does a longer period of time than The Writer's Tale by Russell T. Davies (in itself an excellent book), and I enjoyed reading it. Like the book I reviewed some time ago called Cinema Futura, this could've done with a larger print run than it got. The book was genuinely interesting and told me some things that I didn't know about Doctor Who and some misconceptions about same. Overall, it's worth buying -- go to www.kasterborous.com to order -- if you want to know what the fans thought of Russell T. Davies and if you don't mind typographical and grammar errors.

Still Alice Book Review

The brain is undoubtedly the most valuable part of the human body, a unique machine that hums with memories, emotions, and ideas. In Still Alice, Alice Howland, an esteemed professor at Harvard is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and faces the cold certainty that her quick, bright mind will disintegrate into a wispy shadow of what it once was. Although Still Alice is a work of fiction, author Lisa Genova, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University, creates a realistic and believable portrait of Alzheimer’s.

At age 50, Alice is a successful and respected cognitive psychology professor at Harvard. She thrives on the intellectual excitement of teaching, researching, and collaborating with her colleagues. The proud mother of three grown children, Alice and her husband John are comfortable with the routine of their lives. However, Alice’s sense of stability is disrupted when she cannot recall words in lectures, becomes lost in her own neighborhood, and must organize her life with Post-it Note reminders. Alice is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and she and her family must deal with the disconcerting and heart-wrenching process of her mind slipping away from her.

Alice’s story is a meaningful one, and it is portrayed gracefully and poignantly. A recurring theme is Alice’s fight to live a worthwhile life and maintain a sense of purpose even as her world and her loved ones become increasingly unfamiliar. Themes such as this one are enhanced by Genova’s realistic, honest character development of Alice and each of her family members. Alice’s disease affects her three grown children in distinctly painful ways.

Her loving husband John becomes more distant while her errant daughter Lydia reaches out to her mother, and her children Tom and Anna grapple with their mother’s decline in the midst of their own busy lives. By exploring the evolution of these relationships, Genova creates very real characters who add unique perspective and depth to the novel.

Genova’s writing style occasionally can be repetitive and over informative when she is describing the science behind Alzheimer’s. These sections tend to be wordy and difficult to grasp for those who are not scientifically inclined. However, despite being a bit tedious, the neurological references lend credibility to the novel. It is clear that Genova has extensive knowledge of medical and personal aspects of Alzheimer’s.

As a teen reader, I was surprised by how moved I was by Still Alice. My parents and many of my peers’ parents are nearing 50 years old – Alice’s age when she first begins to notice the signs of Alzheimer’s. I cannot imagine a parent developing this disease and losing the ability to live and think independently. According to the Mayo Clinic, 5 to 10 percent of all Alzheimer’s patients develop symptoms before age 65.

At least 200,000 individuals suffer from the early-onset of this disease. For anyone my age, losing a parent to this cruel disease would be a life-altering experience. Alice’s story teaches lessons about being grateful for relationships that are often taken for granted. Given the number of people who are afflicted with Alzheimer’s, Still Alice is an entirely relevant read that is touching, intriguing, and thought-provoking.

A novel about Alzheimer’s could repel skeptical readers. However, Still Alice is not morose, dull, or melodramatic. It is an intelligently written novel that blends the cold truth of science with the tragically beautiful, intimate story of a woman and her family who must cope with this truth.

Book Review: The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs

Last year the Princeton University Press published a curious volume entitled The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, written and illustrated by Gregory Paul. Paul is a renowned dinosaur expert who has appeared in many publications and served as a consultant on the movie “Jurassic Park.”

The book is set up as an actual field guide, organized by taxonomy and listing the various species with scientific names, sizes and various pertinent information. (I should note that the book is much larger than something you’d want to be carrying with you while going out on a dinosaur safari; it’s more of a coffee table book.)

It’s illustrated with skeletal diagrams as well as the sort of colored-pencil sketches you’d expect to find in a bird-watcher’s notebook, except these are creatures that Paul didn’t draw from life while sitting in a blind somewhere. There are some more elaborate full-color renderings as well, but the sketches and diagrams comprise the majority of the visuals in the field guide. You can get a feel for Paul’s illustrations from the Daily Dinosaur blog posts that ran last fall.

There is also a hefty section in the front about dinosaur biology and behavior, examinations of dinosaur growth and energetics and other information you’d typically find in a book about dinosaurs (as well as some atypical info).

I was quite fond of dinosaurs as a kid but at some point my interest waned and I failed to keep up with it. By the time I was in high school biology, learning things that could have had bearing on my understanding of dinosaurs, I had forgotten a lot of the names of dinosaurs and couldn’t remember the various eras, let alone identify which types of dinosaurs lived in which time periods.

That said, the Field Guide is a wealth of information for the dino-lover, but it almost seems like too much to handle at once. It’s not really the sort of book you’d sit and flip through—once you get into the taxonomy section, the text becomes less interesting to the casual dinosaur fan and you find yourself wishing for more stories about dinosaurs rather than just lists of factoids to go along with the pictures.

There’s no doubt that Paul has done a tremendous job with the Field Guide and it’s quite impressive. If you’re serious about dinosaurs and want a meticulously researched guide, this is certainly the book for you. If, on the other hand, you’re more interested in just the pictures, this book might be a little too information-rich for you.

For more about The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, visit the Princeton University Press web page.

Wired: An encyclopedia’s worth of dinosaur facts, presented as a field guide; excellent illustrations and plenty of information.

Tired: Maybe a little too much information for the casual dinosaur scholar; text-to-picture ratio might be a bit high for kids.

Book review: Dambuster by Robert Radcliffe

The British Dambusters Raid on key hydroelectric dams which powered the German industrial area of the Ruhr was an iconic event in the history of the Second World War.

Using the famous bouncing bombs developed by Barnes Wallis and under the leadership of legendary Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the RAF’s 617 Squadron launched a series of spectacular air attacks in 1943.

It was a proud moment in British history, with the crews displaying outstanding bravery, endurance and fighting spirit, and one that has been superbly recaptured in Robert Radcliffe’s meticulously researched novel, Dambuster.

Radcliffe, an experienced pilot, has made air conflict his speciality – Under an English Heaven and Across the Blood Red Skies also featured breathtaking battle sequences – and now he brings us another pivotal wartime drama.

Alongside real-life characters like the charismatic and volatile Gibson, Radcliffe includes a fictional crew whose emotions and experiences mirror the true toll of Operation Chastise. Eight aircraft were lost and 53 flyers were killed.

Buried within the action is a hidden narrator – Credo, a horribly injured pilot, who presents his own personal story in parallel to the bigger picture and gives us a fascinating insight into the work of the groundbreaking plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead.

The story opens in May 1943 in Lincolnshire where 20 Lancaster bombers stand poised to fly out on the daring and dangerous Dambuster mission.

Success could shorten the war, the crews are told, but will inevitably come at a cost. Many of them will not be coming back.

After two tours of duty and 59 missions, combat-seasoned pilot Peter Lightfoot and his loyal crew are already on borrowed time.

The seven men narrowly escaped death on a disastrous final operation over the Alps, a flight which ended when they were forced to ditch their wrecked Lancaster into the Atlantic.

Job done, they were finally relieved from operational flying but, haunted by a face from his past, Lightfoot cannot rest and, unknown to his crew, applies to join Gibson’s squadron and fly out to the Ruhr.

It’s a mission that many see as certain suicide.

Radcliffe is a gripping storyteller and Dambuster takes the reader high into the skies and into the cockpit of the Lancasters as they wing their way into the heart of enemy territory.

The tensions, the terror, the background romances and the sheer humanity of all those involved spring vividly to life in this riveting retelling of an awesome wartime operation that still has the power to thrill and amaze.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

'A Naked Singularity' Book Review

Sergio De La Pava's novel's beginning chapter opens up with the passage: "the system, needed to be constantly fed former people in order to properly function so that in a year typical to the city where the following took place about half a million bodies were forcibly conscripted. And if you learn only one thing from the ensuing maybe let it be this: the police were not merely interested observers who occasionally witnessed criminality and were then basically compelled to make and arrest, rather the police had the special ability to in effect create crime by making an arrest almost whenever they wished." With this quote you come to realize that "A Naked Singularity" is not a normal novel.

The book, which is a three-part narrative, follows the story of a public-defense attorney named Casi (which is Spanish for "as if"), and opens by following him during a regular day as he confers with a series of clients through the merciless process also known as the New York criminal justice system. The critique of the U.S. justice system and the problems with fiercer designs of law and order are told in great detail exposing all of its naked ugliness.

The first 250 pages of the book continue following Casi through his day. We are introduced to his neighbor, a Colombian psychology student who decides toward the end of the book to change his major to physics to find the greater truth in things We are also introduced to Casi's family, who come from Colombia and have personalities just as spicy as Colombian food.

Part two of the novel digresses into numerous topics about the issues in today's society. The novel talks about how those flaws are apparent when depicting the descriptions of a beautiful girl walking through a room. It also discusses the problem with the war on drugs, and how hard it is to quit any kind of drug, including caffeine, once a person gets started on it. It discusses why everyone, including McDonald's, likes criminals.

Part three concludes with a crime and all the crazy things that happen after the incident. At the focal point of the book, there is a complicated argument with the close of an exciting crime. The final pages will make your heart race, and the conclusion puts everything together.

At the end of the novel, the back cover reminds us that "you have to decide, this instant, who and what you are. Are you saint, sinner, or something in between, because nothing's worse than in between. To disappear into the lumpy, undefined center when the lure is so clearly found at the edges. No one aspires to mediocrity. Mediocrity withers and dies with nary a notice; its practitioners rendered mute by their race to the middle. Sinner or saint, that is your question."

Book review: 'Known and Unknown'

Book review: 'Known and Unknown' by Donald Rumsfeld

Donald Rumsfeld has served as White House chief of staff and twice as secretary of Defense, the youngest and the oldest man ever to hold the post. He has been a trusted diplomatic envoy and successful private sector executive. Throughout it all — indeed, for most of his 78 years — he has borne with courage and almost preternatural fortitude the burden of always being the smartest guy in the room.

It's wearisome always being right, particularly when so many others are so wrong, so often — at least that's the impression a reader is most likely to draw from Rumsfeld's exhaustive, exasperating but vigorously written memoir, "Known and Unknown."

The title derives from a frequently parodied Rumsfeld response to a reporter's question about whether there actually was evidence of any link between Saddam Hussein and terrorists seeking weapons of mass destruction. The Defense secretary responded: "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me because, as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know."

It is, of course, a logical fallacy to multiply categories beyond necessity, but it's one Rumsfeld has rhetorically mastered to create a self-conscious reputation as a fearless questioner of received truths, one he's amplified with a flair for impenetrably gnomic aphorisms. That, plus a cloying — but purely verbal — deference to questions of institutional loyalty are calculated to conceal as knife-sharp a set of elbows as any accomplished bureaucrat ever swung.

One might suppose, for example, that the "unknown" Rumsfeld intended to explore in these memoirs would be unrevealed facts about the six years during which he ran the Defense Department for President George W. Bush — particularly since nearly two-thirds of the book deal with that relatively brief period in the author's life. But, as Rumsfeld writes, he's "never much of a handwringer, I don't spend a lot of time in recriminations, looking back or second-guessing decisions made in real time with imperfect information by myself or others." As seems typical of so much here, that's partially true; the author has no taste for self-criticism or second-guessing himself.

Masterful bureaucratic survivor that he was until he ran out of room to maneuver, Rumsfeld delivers a memoir that is all about shifting blame and settling scores.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, later secretary of State, are two colleagues who come in for a particular bashing — the former chairman of the joint chiefs as a self-interested operator, Rice as ineffectual and inexperienced. Rumsfeld's contempt for her ability to function effectively as National Security Council chief is thoroughgoing, and he implicitly attributes some of Bush's poor decisions to the fact that Rice was usually the last person to whom the president spoke. Powell's closest deputy, Richard Armitage, also comes in for his share of knocks. In fact, according to Rumsfeld, at one point Bush had to intervene when Powell and the Defense secretary got into a spitting match about which of their deputies — Armitage or Paul Wolfowitz at Defense — was leaking the most damaging stories about the other's boss. The president, we're assured by Rumsfeld, took his side.

Rumsfeld takes particular offense at Powell's contention that he was misled by faulty intelligence into making the public case for the invasion of Iraq. "Powell was not duped or misled by anybody," Rumsfeld writes. "nor did he lie about Saddam's suspected WMD stockpiles. The president did not lie. The vice president did not lie. [ CIA Director George] Tenet did not lie. Rice did not lie. I did not lie.…The far less dramatic truth is that we were wrong."

Even so, Rumsfeld — who does reveal that Bush asked for Iraqi invasion plans within days of 9/11 — argues that removing Hussein was the right thing to do. He denies, however, that putting more troops on the ground there would have prevented the murderous chaos that engulfed Iraq, and he blames civilian administrator Paul Bremer's decision not to quickly turn control over to Iraqi civilians as well as the abrupt dissolution of Hussein's army for that. (In one of his rare forays into critical retrospection, Rumsfeld remarks in passing that he might have been able to stop that.) Rumsfeld flatly denies that any of his military commanders ever asked for more forces and categorically rejects the stories that Gen. Eric Shinseki was forced to retire for testifying to Congress before the invasion began that hundreds of thousands of troops would be required.

Tenet and Gen. Tommy Franks also come in for criticism over their handling of the Afghan fiasco at Tora Bora, where the United States botched its last known opportunity to apprehend or kill Osama bin Laden. Both the CIA director and the commander have said they were denied additional U.S. forces to seal off the area and prevent Bin Laden's escape. Rumsfeld has a different memory. He writes that he sent Tenet a memo saying that "we might be missing an opportunity" and wondering if more troops were needed. Rumsfeld alleges that he later learned a CIA agent on the ground had requested just that, but adds: "I never received such a request from either Franks or Tenet. And cannot imagine denying it if I had. If someone thought bin Laden was cornered, as later claimed, I found it surprising that Tenet had never called me to urge Franks to support their operation."

Rumsfeld's explanation? "Their recollections may be imperfect."

While the author goes out of the way to stress his loyalty to Bush and to express admiration for his personal qualities, he employs his best more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone to describe a president who too often failed to demand the best information, made decisions precipitously and then failed to see that they were wholly carried out.

The one colleague who is spared Rumsfeld's disapproval is Vice President Dick Cheney, with whom he served in Gerald Ford's White House. Apart from the observation that Cheney almost surely was the most influential vice president in recent history, he hardly appears in these pages. It's an odd omission.

Ultimately, Rumsfeld casts his net over a herd of scapegoats large enough to include his own family. He attributes his preoccupation in the days preceding 9/11, for example, to worry over his son Nic's relapse into drug addiction. His flippant, controversial dismissal of concerns over the looting of Baghdad's antiquities museum was, similarly, the consequence of distraction over his wife's ruptured appendix.

There is one unintentionally revealing anecdote from the tragic hours of 9/11 that actually serves as kind of coda to these recollections. The Pentagon, of course, had been attacked. Late that night, the dead still were uncounted and fires still burned. About 11 p.m. — 12 hours after the plane had slammed into the Pentagon — Torie Clarke, the veteran assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs, asked Rumsfeld whether he'd called his wife of 47 years? He admitted that he hadn't.

"Clarke looked at me with the stare of a woman who was also a wife. 'You son of a bitch,' she blurted out.

"She had a point."

She did, indeed.

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming: Review

Laurel Gray Hawthorne needs to make things pretty. Coming from a family with a literal skeleton in their closet, she's developed this talent all her life, whether helping her willful mother to smooth over the reality of her family's ugly past, or elevating humble scraps of unwanted fabric into nationally acclaimed art quilts.

Her sister Thalia, an impoverished "Actress" with a capital A, is her opposite, and prides herself in exposing the lurid truth lurking behind life's everyday niceties. And while Laurel's life was neatly on track, a passionate marriage, a treasured daughter, and a lovely home in lovely suburban Victorianna, everything she holds dear is thrown into question the night she is visited by an apparition in her bedroom.

The ghost appears to be her 14-year-old neighbor Molly Dufresne, and when Laurel follows this ghost , she finds the real Molly floating lifeless in her swimming pool. While the community writes the tragedy off as a suicide, Laurel can't. Reluctantly enlisting Thalia's aid, Laurel sets out on a life-altering investigation that triggers startling revelations about her own guarded past, the truth about her marriage, and the girl who stopped swimming.

Richer and more rewarding than any story from Joshilyn Jackson, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming is destined both to delight Jackson's loyal fans and capture a whole new audience.

'The Piano Teacher,' by Janice Y. K. Lee - Review

“That’s us, the British colonials, battling against our circum­stances, always,” the formidable Edwina Storch says to Claire Pendleton over tea one sweltering afternoon. Most of the colony’s British residents are cultivating a lifestyle of potted palms and potted duck. But not 28-year-old Claire. While her compatriots wilt and sweat, she glows. Hong Kong suits her. “Something about the tropical clime had ripened her appearance, brought everything into harmony.”

Janice Y. K. Lee’s first novel, “The Piano Teacher,” opens with the newlywed Claire traveling to Hong Kong in 1951 with her husband, Martin, an engineer. Of their marriage Lee writes, “She was not so attracted to him, but who was she to be picky, she thought, hearing the voice of her mother.” Soon Claire is hired as a piano teacher for the daughter of a wealthy Chinese couple, Victor and Melody Chen. Also in their employ, as a chauffeur, is an enigmatic Englishman, Will Truesdale.

In sleek, spare prose, Lee plays with the growing erotic tension between Claire and Will. Here he is approaching her, cutting “the space between them in half, and half again, coming at her with those hooded, sardonic eyes.” “Be good to me,” Claire cautions him. Will’s response is noncommittal. Claire is sexually charged and curious, the affair with Will her rite of passage. She’s also insightful enough to realize that the headier intoxication is with herself, the newly emerging Claire — a woman who indulges in petty thievery and has a lover; a woman more comfortable among the throngs of Chinese at the city’s wet markets than at the teas and cocktail parties on the Peak, where some of the colony’s wealthiest members reside.

Lee has made the bold (and successful) decision to write a novel in which none of her characters are particularly endearing. Will can be cruel and self-absorbed; Claire is often prejudiced. And the upper echelons of Hong Kong society, through which they both pass, are rife with pettiness and jealousy. Many of these people have been deeply scarred by the Japanese occupation — just how deeply Claire will eventually discover as she learns more about Will Truesdale’s past.

Will’s entree into Hong Kong took place in the summer of 1941 through his relationship with a quixotic Eurasian named Trudy Liang. Driven by deep insecurities, Trudy was part Holly Golightly, part Mata Hari — charming, insulting, scheming and above all captivating. In one of the novel’s retrospective scenes, at a party on the beach, conversation ceases as “they all watch her, rapt, as she plunges into the sea and comes up sleek and dripping — her slim body a vertical rebuke to the flatness of the horizon between the sky and sea.”

In December 1941, six months after Will met Trudy, the Japanese invaded Hong Kong. In small but riveting vignettes, Lee evokes the turmoil and fear that seized residents during the occupation, a time when Will and Trudy and the Chens made choices that have rippled through the war years and into Claire’s future.

“The Piano Teacher” is laced with intrigue concerning a hoard of Chinese artifacts called the Crown Collection that went missing during the war (like the artworks owned by the real-life Hong Kong businessman Paul Chater). But while the inevitable “who did what and when and why” that dominates the last third of the novel is satisfying because it answers all those questions, readers will be more enthralled by Lee’s depiction of Will’s relationships with his two lovers — “Claire, with her blond and familiar femininity, English rose to Trudy’s exotic scorpion” — and the unsparing way Lee unravels them.

Lisa Fugard is the author a novel, “Skinner’s Drift.”

Under the Tuscan Sun At Home in Italy

JACKET NOTES: UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN is one woman’s enchanting account of her love affair with Italy and the home that changes her life.

Frances Mayes - widely published poet, gourmet cook and travel writer - opens the door on a wondrous new world when she buys and restores an abandoned villa in the spectacular Tuscan countryside. She finds faded frescoes beneath the whitewash in the dining room, a vineyard under wildly overgrown brambles - and even a wayward scorpion under her pillow. And from her traditional kitchen and simple garden she creates dozens of delicious seasonal recipes, all included n this book.

In the vibrant local markets and neighboring hill towns, the author explores the nuances of the Italian landscape, history and cuisine. Each adventure yields delightful surprises - the perfect panettone, an unforgettable wine, or painted Etruscan tombs.

Frances Mayes’s sensuous memoir takes you into the heart of Italy and tells of a renewal, not only of a house, but also of the spirit.