Category Archives: Review

Holiday Fun with Photoshop Elements Template

I’ve been learning how to use Photoshop Elements the last few weeks. I know! Can you believe I haven’t bothered to learn it previously? Must admit that I was a bit intimidated by post-processing. I thought that Elements would be easier to dive into. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a steep learning curve!

One of the websites I’ve come across recently is MCP Actions, which specializes in Photoshop actions and Lightroom presets. While browsing around Jodi’s site, I downloaded some of her freebies. I found them really easy to use. Today, I was playing around with the template for a Facebook cover photo. There are multiple styles, although the ones below were done with only one of them. I noticed this evening that she is also offering free holiday greeting card templates, although I have not looked at them yet.

Could I have done the same thing on my own? Sure — eventually! But I can see the advantage to buying actions and presets for effects that you want to use routinely for speed, and for those infrequent effects that are complicated. It sure beats trying to remember all of the steps you need to follow.

I recently did some editing on portraits that I took of my sister’s family.  By the time I finished, I thought I had the process to whiten teeth memorized, but when I went back to do the same thing a few days later, I had to look it up again.  It isn’t difficult, but you have to remember all of the steps.  I think it is like a recipe:  if you do it often enough, you don’t have to refer to your cookbook — maybe you won’t even measure your ingredients.  But, if you don’t do a particular process often, you will either need to look it up or get it “pre-made”, a little, maybe, like store-bought cake mix.  You don’t have to bake it from scratch every time!

Today, I started to make a holiday banner. I didn’t like my first one, mostly because I did a poor job changing the colors on the initial photograph (nothing to do with the template). So I did another. With a quick search I found several images that I could use. By the time that I did the last one, I understood the process, so was able to finish the banner very quickly. I didn’t like the transitions between the photograph and the background (see the third example below).   While the template would work for some pictures, I wanted a continuous background. So I cropped out a section of the original image’s background and created a new file to place in the template as the background.  After flattening the image, I created a masking layer and worked on the “seam” between the two uploaded images.   Still not perfect, but I think I’m getting there!

I was thinking, as I finished these this evening, that I might make several of these for my Facebook page, displaying a different one daily between Dec 1 – 24, sort of a online FB advent calendar.   Don’t know if I will, but now that I know how, I know that it wouldn’t take me that long to do it.

Now that I look at this one, I can see that the text is not quite right. In a moment of liturgical accuracy (and thinking that I would use this on Sunday, the first day of Advent), I deleted the flames on three of the candles. Had I planned this better, I would have left the flame on the candle that is the furthest to the right, so that it didn’t run into the text.  I’ll probably just move the text to the left now.

At one point, while creating the background image, I tried to make a constellation of the stars. (The Big Dipper, because it’s the only one I know for sure!) But, I ended up flipping the image and overlapping the background and foreground layers. If the Big Dipper is still visible, I can’t find it!  I do like, though, how the stars get dimmer towards the left side of the banner.

This is the one with the transition that I didn’t like.  It’s okay, but I don’t like “just okay”. If I were revising this, I’d make a new background that was an extension of the one in the image and I would flip the image too so that the ornaments were along the edge of the banner.  I think it would be more visually appealing that way.

This was the last one that I did.   I don’t think it shows very well here, but I used the “EMBOSS” filter and “HIGH PASS” on the original image to give them a bit of dimensionality.  I think this is my favorite because of the simplicity.

If these images don’t look like they would work for a Facebook Cover photo/banner, you’re observant!   Because of the way that my WordPress template is, I decreased the size of these so that they would look better on my blog.   Also, there is a placeholder on the template for where your Profile Picture goes.  It doesn’t show in the banner as it is uploaded separately, but there is a space, right in the lower left corner for one’s smiling mug!

NOTICE:  I was neither solicited nor compensated by MCP Actions for writing about their products.  

>Reading Notes

>Off the Deep End, W. Hodding Carter, Alqonquin Books, 2008, (Advanced Reading Copy).

I received this ARC back in April as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. The description of the book sounding interesting: middle-aged man decides to train for the Olympic Swim team, in part as a way “through a midlife crisis”. When the book arrived, there was a note that one chapter was missing and would be send later. The book was published 2 weeks ago, but I haven’t received the pages yet. Since the Olympic swim trials were this week, I decided to read this without the remaining pages. I’m not sure what has been left out — given the publication date, it doesn’t seem likely to have been an epilogue stating whether Carter made the Olympic team — but I’m not sure that the book would seem any more complete had the absent chapter been included.

This book is very uneven: there doesn’t seem to be a coherent arrangement to the chapters and the timeline is unclear. Some of the chapters were published previously. Those that haven’t been appear less polished. I realize that this is an ARC, but it seems to me that more substantial editing would need to happen. I’m not involved in publishing, but I always thought that ARCs were ‘almost ready’ for publication and that any substantive editing would have already occurred. Perhaps I’m wrong with this book.

Carter adopts a self-deprecating sense of humor in this book, but the book doesn’t seem to have an overall consistent tone. The result of the humor, then, reads more like arrogance than self-deprecation. I think that Carter wants the reader to see that he did have a certain amount of arrogance to think that he even had a chance to make the Olympic team, but I was left wondering if that really was his point. The approach of the book is also unclear: parts of it are memoir, parts training guide, parts sports travelogue when he writes about swimming from one Virgin Island to the next, or participating in an 8 hour swim around Manhattan. The audience isn’t clear. Is he writing to swimmers? If so, then he shouldn’t have included some of the explications about the sport (pool size, standards, etc.). But, if he wasn’t intending to target swim enthusiasts, why did he go into such detail (and assumptions) about certain swim personalities, not just on an Olympic level that a casual observer of the sport might know, but on the regional Masters level.

Overall, I found the book disappointing. It could have been so much more. Carter did not qualify for the Olympic Swim Trials. Despite the flaws of the book, I wish that he had. Along with Dara Torres, it would have been quite the story for 2 40-something swimmers to leave younger contenders in their wake.

>Top Contender for Worst Book I’ve Read This Year

>I tried — really tried — to finish Holding Her Head High: 12 single mothers who championed their children and changed history, by Janine Turner (a book I received as a review copy through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program) but I can’t do it. When you find you are reading with the purpose of counting the number of cliches per chapter, there is no point in wasting any more of your time. I had begun to feel like a roadside gawker at horrible highway accident.

For the record, in the chapters I read, the phrase — as if you might not remember the title of the book — holding her head high was used an average of 4 times per chapter. Maximum chapter High Head Count: 8. If that doesn’t give you a sense of the tediousness of this book, I might discourage you with the following: improper use of quotations, misspelled words, poor (or wrong!) word choice, dull sentence structure, sloppy research, an inappropriately casual narrative voice, repetitive paragraphs, and poor organization. In general, it reads like a 8th grade term paper — one that would get an ‘C’ from a burned-out easy grader.

How anyone could make the lives of some of the women profiled (Helena Augusta, Christine De Pizan, Abigal Adams*) boring is surprising. More surprising still is that this book was published (although I’d guess that Turner being a Hollywood actress may have had some influence on the book deal). Some LT reviewers commented that this book should have been marketed differently (as a devotional rather than a sociological or history work), suggesting that for a different audience it would fare better. I don’t think so; poor writing is poor writing. A sad comment to make about a book with a topic that suggests that it could be so much more.

(*Note: Please don’t bother to correct me about A. Adams. I know that Abigal Adams wasn’t a single mother; John Adams outlived his wife. But, because she raised her children by herself during the Revolutionary War and Adams’ ambassadorial trips to Europe, Turner chose to include her in this work. There are other profiles in this book that are, arguably, not about single mothers.)

>Book Review: Hell and High Water

>Hell and High Water: Global Warming — The Solution and Politics — And What we Can Do Joseph Romm. William Morrow, 2007.

I so wanted to give this book a hearty recommendation. Its topic is one that I am very interested in –I think we all should be concerned about the global warming and need to take individual grassroots-level action to help find remedies. I was curious by the subtitle. Besides being one of the longest subtitles I’ve come across recently, I was concerned that the book might do a little over-reaching in it’s purpose. And that was confirmed as I read through it.

Romm’s book presents a worse-case scenario for the implications of society not doing anything to curb the effects of global warming. This book presents lots of well-footnoted facts — facts I’ve read elsewhere, ones I find convincing, although I do not have the technical background to refute any scientific flaws that may exist. In addition, Romm’s book is a analysis of what hasn’t been done by our government to implement means of reducing activities that are leading to global warming. It is this part — the attack on politics — where the book disappoints. While Romm is good with presentation of the data supporting the global warming trends, he relies more on unsupported (although not untrue) and suggestive attacks on the current administration, than on persuasive argument to convince the reader that the government is not doing enough to enact needed legislation. (Note: I’m not a supporter of the Bush administration, and can’t disagree with Romm’s premise, so bear with me here….)

Most of the facts on global warming have been presented elsewhere (Gore’s recent movie, An Inconvenient Truth comes to mind although it is not the only example), so Romm isn’t adding anything new to the body of knowledge for the lay reader who is aware of the situation and the overwhelming support in the scientific community for the need to address causes of global warming trends. But, Romm’s writing slants so much to attack — at points even seeming to contradict the point he is making. (e.g., at one point Romm writes of how a government representative made a statement which contradicts his (Romm’s) point in the previous chapter, but then states that they only agreed as a delaying tactic, not because they sincerely want to believe there is a problem.) I think that it is here that Romm could have been most effective if he hadn’t relied on attack-ad style tactics and hyperbole. He isn’t going to convince anyone who doesn’t already believe the facts about global warming that the US government is burying our collective head in the sand. But shouldn’t that be the point? If not, he is no better in advancing arguments for correcting the situation than the vocal and attention-grabbing mouthpieces of some oil companies who manipulate the data to disprove Romm’s scientific allies. The data about global warming is convincing enough that he should have changed the tone here. Instead, a reasoned voice is one that is more likely to be heard and to encourage action.

Another way in which the book disappoints is that it is very slim on the ‘what to do about it’ portion suggested by the title. A few paragraphs in the closing chapters is all that is presented. As someone interested in the topic who has read enough to convince me that something needs to be done, I was looking for something that would give reasoned, valid options for moving forward, rather than finger pointing.

I’m tired of divisive politics. I don’t think the issue is so one-sided that we can only blame one political party — I don’t see the other political party stepping to the forefront on this either.

The chapter, “Missing the Story of the Century”, did grab my attention though. Romm makes the point that as news media seek to ‘balance’ stories, they often give equal footing to both sides of the debate despite the preponderance of evidence. This is a different twist on the lament about so-called ‘media bias’, and I think that Romm has a valid point here. If the overwhelming number of scientists agree with the data on global warming and are in concurrence as to the root causes, why does the media give equal footing to those who oppose such data, including those that may be funded by the same industries that have the most to lose if we impose stricter governmental regulations? Romm uses the example of a recent (2005) segment on Meet the Press where there were four experts discussing avian flu. Romm’s point was that all were in agreement regarding the potential for a catastrophic bird flu outbreak, yet there are some who might disagree with the likelihood of such an occurrence. His point, specifically, is that the press wouldn’t think to have an opposing view since the majority concur; yet with global warming, they always give air to those who disagree. This may explain why studies show that few Americans think there is concurrence among scientists on global warming, while there are also studies that show that the majority of scientists do concur. I don’t know what the solution is — what percentage constitutes a majority opinion that dictates that we should listen to flat-earthers, regardless of the topic? Romm doesn’t offer a solution either, and I’m not sure that Romm’s reasoning behind the equal opportunity media time is because the media doesn’t want to be blasted for bias. This chapter could easily be a book; I’m sure that this isn’t the only topic where this is occurs.

While the above paragraphs might make you think that I wouldn’t recommend this book, that isn’t completely accurate. I think that Romm adequately lays out the facts regarding global warming trends, environmental impact of melting polar ice, and the reasons why we should reduce CO2 emissions (and sign the Kyoto treaty). He does make an argument about the dissembling actions of our government, although he seems more interested in painting the Republicans with a broad brush as ‘bad guys’ than in honest debate about how we should go about changing the situations and what types of economic plans we should have for doing so. He just seems to have taken on too much in one small book to make a strong case for how to change the problems — both politically and technologically/environmentally.

TWO NOTES: 1) If you are interested in a concise Q&A regarding environmental issues and how to defend against contrarians, check out this link. Courtesy of Rev Sam at Elizaphanian.

2) Some in the blog universe have posited recently that it’s important to disclose if a copy is a review copy. Here is my disclaimer in case you didn’t notice the 2007 pub date indicated above. I received this book as part of HarperCollins’ FirstLook program. Disproving, at least in this one case, the opinion that only positive reviews are done by bloggers when the book is free.


>Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Television is about as mesmerizing as a book about nothing can be. Mesmerizing yet a little numbing, like a television, set to a constant low hum. There were several times that I wanted to abandon the book, thinking “Alright, I get it!”, but I kept being drawn back to it the way the flickering images on a TV in a bar or restaurant can draw my attention even when I know I can’t hear the audio. (For some reason, I’m reminded of a time I watched Hitchcock’s The Birds play on a TV in a repair shop window late one night many years ago. In German, which I do not speak….but that’s probably a completely different post.)

At first, as I read this book, I couldn’t help but recall reading an article a few years ago attributing the success of HGTV to how innocuous it is. Having no content that can offend, it is the perfect TV programming, the visual equivalent of background music. The narrator of Television thinks that TV is stupid, yet he contemplates its importance constantly, as if pondering the absence of TV can make up for the background music he has turned off.

The unnamed narrator is an art historian, on sabbatical, attempting to write a book about Titian. The only problem is, he doesn’t want to write. On a whim, he vows to not watch television any more. Except when he can’t avoid it: looking out the window into other apartments, while waiting for someone in her apartment, at the neighbor’s. He gives no reason for his decision and is relieved when those to whom he brags about his TV abstinence do not inquire as to why he went cold-turkey.

Television is not so much about television as it is about the narrator and his ability to put off writing. Throughout the course of the book, all he manages to write is two words. Yet, the narrator claims he is working: if he is swimming, dining, walking and thinking about his book, or preparing to think about his book, he is ‘working’. The narrator describes how he postpones any actual writing in a series of humorous events over the course of a summer. Each of these scenarios — a chance encounter with his benefactor in the park, dinner with a colleague, watering his neighbor’s plants, floating casually in the pool — is, like the book as a whole, without much of a plot. Yet, the recounting of his day-to-day activities creates an effect on the reader similar to one a rabid channel-surfer in control of the remote would have on another viewer: the blurring of story lines, different faces and times, scattered observations in one continuous loop. Sitcom, melodrama, documentary, arts: on TV it all blurs, and little of it is memorable. Like the banality of television programming, it the mundane that occupies the narrator’s life. And he is okay with that. Success, the narrator says

“…couldn’t be judged quantitatively by the number of pages one might have written, nor, it seemed to me, by the quality and scope of the more basic groundwork one might have laid. No, the best criterion for evaluating the success of a day’s work, it seemed to me, was surely the way we have seen the time pass as we worked, the singular capacity the hours have demonstrated to take on the weight of our work, associated with the apparently contradictory impression that the time has flown by at great speed, heavy with the work we’ve accomplished, laden with that work’s meaning, charged with all the experiences we’ve gone through, and yet, so incomparably light that we never so much as noticed it passing. That’s what grace is, it seemed to me, that mix of fullness and lightness, which you can only experience in certain privileged moments of your existence, moments of writing or love.” (p. 91)

The narrator also says:

“Television is formal beyond all reason…it seems to flow along hand in hand with time itself, aping its passage in a crude parody where no moment lasts and everything soon disappears, to the point where you might sometimes wonder where all those images go once they’ve been broadcast, with no one watching them or remembering them or retaining them, scarcely seen at all, only momentarily skimmed by the viewer’s gaze. For where books, for instance, always offer a thousand times more than they are, television offers exactly what it is, its essential immediacy, its ever-evolving, always-in-progress superficiality.” (p. 95)

It is the mundaneness of life that skims his existence in an ‘always in progress superficiality’ that allows his life to speed by with lightness and grace, like the flicker and hum of the TV. The best way to watch television actively, the narrator explains, “is with your eyes closed.” (p. 97) And that is how he chooses to live.

There’s more to read about Toussaint’s Television at The LitBlog Co-op where Television was the Spring Read This! selection. (As usual, I’m a few weeks behind….”Television Week” was a few weeks ago, but you can still read the all of the interesting posts and comments.) Max Magee, of The Millions, wrote here and Anne Fernald of Fernham wrote here about the narrator as a slacker, and whether this makes him a hero or anti-hero. Max argues convincingly for hero. But, like Anne, I can’t help but project my workaholic tendencies on the narrator. Yet, I understand him. The thing is, though, I think that if I didn’t have that overachiever’s work ethic, I would be just like the narrator, drifting aimlessly in the swimming pool, except I might just drift away permanently like those broadcast messages that disappear.

Television, Jean-Philippe Toussaint. 1997. Translation by Jordan Stump, 2004. Dalkey Archive Press. 164 pp.

>It’s Only A Dog

>I was skeptical about reading Marley & Me. It seemed too trite of a subject to be much more than a long article — how could it be a full length book? With all of the ruckus over memoirs recently, if this wasn’t too far-fetched (or maybe if it was), I did think that the made-for-memoirs details would provide a few laughs.

I am a snob about what I read (what a surprise!). It had better be good; it had better inform or entertain or make me think. I better not wish to get back those lost hours spent reading the book. A book about a dog? Not likely.

I read beyond the first chapter. Yes, it was short, but a poor excuse for a book can lose me in 2 or 3 pages. By chapter 3 I hadn’t wanted to throw the book across the room, but I wasn’t convinced that I needed to finish the book. But then something happened: my own very old dog’s health changed drastically overnight. I spent the better part of two days sitting beside him, gently petting him, wishing I could ease his pain, letting him know that he was as valued to me as I think we’ve been to him.

And that lead me back, a few weeks later to Marley. It is just that affinity between pet & pet owner, between companion & friend, that this book is about. Told in brief slice-of-life chapters, John Grogan recounts the tales of Marley, the rambunctious, always a puppy, canine terror that ruled the roost for 13 years. By telling the stories about the dog, the reader also comes to know John Grogan, his love of gardening and of writing, of his family, and of the pains and joys of being a parent, a neighbor, or a friend. Throughout the book there are plenty of opportunities for the book to fall into a saccharine mess. After all, by it’s nature, it is perched dangerously close to such a fall into the sugar bowl. And yet, there are episodes that you can’t help but laugh at, like the description of a cross-country move involving an airplane ride with 3 young childen, some goldfish, crickets, frogs, a snail, and one tranquilized dog that howls so loudly in the hold that all of the passengers can hear him.

Pet owners know that it is never ‘just‘ a pet. Reading about how Marley was not just a dog, but a companion and family member to the Grogans is something pet owners will understand. Marley & Me may not be a thought-provoking literary jaunt that you’ll remember for a long time, but it is a lighthearted read that almost all pet owners would enjoy spending a few hours with.

>Precious Gems in the Night Sky: The Planets by Dava Sobel


“For myself, I confess that none of the truly staggering data I have been privileged to share here has altered the planets’ fundamental appeal to me as an assortment of magic beans or precious gems in a little private cabinet of wonder — portable, evocative, and swirled in beauty.” — Dava Sobel, The Planets

Three things recommended this book to me: the eye-catching cover depicting a map of Tyco Brahe’s universe, the author Dava Sobel whose books Longitude and Galelio’s Daughter I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and its simple title: The Planets. A wonderful science writer writing about the cosmos, with a cool cover to boot. There was much to expect, but, it turns out, plenty to disappoint.

The Planets is divided into 11 chapters — one for each planet, an intro & a coda. But the titles of each chapter suggests something different: Mythology, Beauty, Geography, Night Air. Each chapter discusses a portion of our Solar System in conjunction with a corresponding theme. Part history, part lore, part scientific discussion, each chapter discusses not only the heavenly body referred to in the chapter title, but also a history of how the heavens have been defined otherwise throughout the history of western thought.

In some chapters this works well, such as the chapter on Mythology and Mercury, or the chapter on Sci-F and Mars. But elsewhere, this device seemed too contrived and annoyed me. For instance, in “Music of the Spheres”, Sobel writes of Holst symphony “The Planets” and Saturn. After a few paragraphs the connection becomes overworked. Perhaps Holst’s well-known piece did represent a view of our universe, but what does it tell us about the universe? Isn’t the music really just inspired by the planets, not descriptive of them — not in a scientific way at any rate — although ancient astronomers may have written of the music of the stars? Maybe there are solar sounds and ratio in orbital patterns similar to music, but is there really a connection, a harmony more physical than metaphysical? If so, I didn’t get it from Sobel’s writing.

Similarly, while Sobel’s description of astrology is interesting, she seems to both support and refute its validity. From a historical perspective, the book discusses astrology’s importance throughout history, and how the scientific revelation the the earth was not the center of the universe made astrology obsolete. Yet, she writes of a ‘star chart’ for a satellite’s launch date and how ‘accurate’ it was. Elsewhere she begins with an elaborate description of an Ellis Island immigrant and likens it to ‘false memories’ of those who claim to be victims of alien abductions. She then makes a quantum cognitive jump into the cosmos to discuss the search for Pluto and the discovery of the Kuiper Body Objects. Once the leap is executed, the reader doesn’t return to the alien kidnappings; there is no connection and perhaps the only thing worse than this preposterous association would have been if Sobel DID loop back in some sort of literary mobius strip way to the world of aliens. If Sobel wants to believe in astrology or Roswellian creatures performing surgeries on the human populace during REM sleep, fine with me, but I don’t like the scientific mysticism attributed to it in this book.

Lastly, in a few places I tired of reading information from Sobel’s other books. Intrigued as I was in learning about Harrison’s clocks and his efforts to solve the ‘longitude problem’, the information regarding maps and efforts to define longitude seemed repetitive. Information that seemed almost a recitation from Galileo’s Daughter, while not completely irrelevant, read as if a lazy editor had cloned the earlier text in order to lengthen this book.

I like the idea of this book — science facts regarding our universe coupled with a history of how the universe has been understood throughout the ages by art, literature and religion. That there was a time — long before we had the words to define and describe our solar system in today’s scientific terms — when the arts and science and faith were so intertwined that they were inseparable. But, because it can’t always be connected specifically to current scientific knowledge, the book in its execution becomes too disjointed.

Yet, to return to the passage quoted above: “…[N]one of the truly staggering data I have been privileged to share here has altered the planets’ fundamental appeal to me as an assortment of…precious gems in a little private cabinet of wonder…” If Sobel’s intent is to evoke wonder and awe of our universe, perhaps she is successful in showing how it has inspired throughout the centuries. Those precious sparkling gems in the night sky have symbolized an abundance of human thought and experience. Maybe the poets and the scientists marvel at the same thing, but for different reasons, in different voices, in different times….

Postscript — On a readerly level, I most enjoyed the first half of Chapter 10, ‘Night Air’ in which Sobel writes a ‘fictionalized’ letter from astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848) to astronomer Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889). In the notes section Sobel indicates that the facts in the letter are true although it is unknown if the women corresponded. Maybe Sobel should try her hand at historical fiction next time.

>My Sister’s Keeper

>I bought a copy of Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper several months ago, but only read it recently, considering it as a possible selection for my reading group. Immediately, I was sucked into the story and plowed through the 400-plus pages in about a day. Not being a fast reader, this was unusual for me. (And who wants to read quickly anyway? I always want to linger with the books I like.)

There are many things that recommend this book — an intriguing moral dilemma involving organ donation, the emotional drama of a family torn apart by an illness that maims the siblings more than the cancer-stricken daughter, an accurate portrayal of how society reacts to ‘visible’ disabilities rather than those less obvious to the onlooker, and a narrative point of view that changes with each chapter, giving insight into more than just the main character.

The book deals well with the emotionally charged issue of extraordinary medical treatments and genetic engineering. The book walks a tight-rope, balancing the interests of the sick child with those of the child ‘created’ for the sole purpose of being a genetic match designed for saving her sister. One of the benefits of fiction is that it can deal with such issues in ways that scientific discourse and political arguments can not. As humans we thrive on stories and storytelling can be the vehicle for figuring out where one stands on an issue, for understanding that the answers are not simple, straightforward, black-and-white decisions. Picoult does this without delving too far into medical jingo and without being too heavy-handed regarding either side of the debate. Though striving to present multiple points of view, the book still leans towards one side of the argument. In part this is due to a lackluster, one-dimensional portrayal of the mother.

The technique of each character narrating chapters is interesting and works well to move the plot forward. However, some of these chapters are much stronger than the others. Anna, the healthy sister no longer willing to undergo medical procedures to save her dying sister, is clearly the protagonist and the chapters narrated by her are among the best written in the book. Clearly the author is intent on this being Anna’s story, while trying to give balance and dimension to the other characters. Early in the book, the chapters narrated by the mother Sara are griping, capturing the emotions of a mother’s fear of losing her child. Later in the book, as Sara becomes the enemy of Anna, fighting her teenage daughter in court, her chapters are one sided. They don’t seem as true as the earlier chapter, failing to fully give the mother’s point of view, painting her as a monster only loving one child, a mother best skilled at nurturing a sick child while being neglectful of her other children. When the mother claims that she cannot make a decision that would benefit both children, and that she realizes it is a Solomon-esque decision, the reader doesn’t believe it.

Similarly, other chapters in the book present some relevant ideas regarding the ethical dilemmas involved, serve to move the plot forward and develop the minor characters. However, most of the minor characters are not well developed. The chapters between the child advocate and the lawyer add an unnecessary romance-novel love story to the book, but aren’t convincing regarding the emotional motivations of the characters. The chapters about the father portray a man always ready to save others in his professional life, but distant from his own family. While the father talks about having given up on his teenage son, the book doesn’t give any indication of his remorse, or realization of how his behavior may have influenced his son. When he stands up for Anna, the reader wonders why he hadn’t done so before. The best written minor character is the character who narrates the fewest chapters — Jesse, the delinquent son. His intelligence, crippled by his anger, is evident; his cries for parental attention while aware that it is unattainable is striking. Picoult’s introduction to the book mentions her own experiences as a parent of a sick child. I find it interesting, then, that it is the teenagers, not the parents who are the best portrayed characters in the book.

Picoult’s writing kept me reading, and I understand why her books are popular. The emotional tug-of-war is one that could appeal to a female reader who looking for a book that is ‘a good cry’. But, as I approached the final pages I felt cheated, manipulated by the author, my emotions and expectations toyed with. In a published interview, Picoult revealed that her own child didn’t talk to her for a week after reading the book because of the ending. Yet, she claimed, she couldn’t have ended the story in any other way. Perhaps that’s because she was looking for a nice, tidy ending that let everyone be happy. Life is not that way. The ending was an easy way out for the author.

The quotes from works by authors such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Edna St. Vincent Milay preceding each section of the book were a nice touch. At first, they might appear out of place, a bit disjointed from the narrative, but in retrospect, they subtly frame the action to come.

I would recommend this book. For a reading group, it certainly provides many topics for discussion.

>Talk to the Hand: Rants, Shoots and (Rudely) Leaves

>Talk to the Hand #?*! The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door. Lynne Truss. Gotham Books, 2005.

Cam’s Concise Critique: A long-winded bellyache on our bad manners. An arrogant, unhumorous look at the fall of western civilization brought about by cell phones, traffic jams, tv, and poor customer service that offers trite examples of the problems without offering real solutions.

My Rating: Skip it.

Review: In her first book, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, Lynne Truss elevated a spot-on, sincere rant to a book-length argument against improper grammar. In her second book, Talk to the Hand, Truss tries to ride on the coattails of her earlier success to rage against a decay in manners throughout society. However, far from writing an enjoyable sequel to Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Truss has delivered a long, ill-humored, unoriginal whine about how the world is falling apart due to the unruly, ill-mannered Visigoths rallying at the gates, talking on their cells phones, and screaming “Eff-off” at the slightest offense. Society is bad and all that, but Truss’ book, in the end, is an arrogant and rude diatribe.

Although there are feeble attempts at appearing scholarly — Truss quotes repeatedly from other works decrying the fate of Western Civ and includes a 3 page bibliography — the book seems padded, little more than a term paper bloated by quotations to meet a word count. Little in this book is original. Who hasn’t complained about the insincerity of the customer service voice mail that repeatedly claims ‘We’re sorry for your wait’? About the woman who describes her recent surgery to the disembodied, never-present listener on the other end of the cell phone while seated at the next table in a restaurant? About the world-weary, road-raging driver who displays the “You’re # 1 sign” when cut off in traffic?

As for being humorous? Standup comics have done a better job of portraying our anti-social failings. They usually are funny; Ms. Truss is not. A comic will point out our flaws and we laugh at the universal truths of our failings. While some bits in Ms. Truss’ book are funny, she tries to rally the reader to be like her, to see himself as a curmudgeonly fuss-budget who staunchly stands with Truss in believing that all of culture is being flushed down the toilet with little hope for redemption. Salvation lies with those who are above the offending manners marauders. But, even when she tries to find commonality with the offenders, her faux offended persona falls short of holding up a mirror to our failings. We may indeed be like the examples of Rudeness Incarnate in her book, but with the whining, belly-aching, assault Truss presents, one reads this book hoping not to be as arrogant and contemptuous of others as she is.

The reader who enjoyed Eats, Shoots and Leaves should not waste her time with Talk to the Hand. You will miss Ms. Truss’ ability to take the mundane and make it laughable. But, you won’t forget about Eats, Shoots and Leaves as you read this. Ms. Truss mentions the earlier work throughout her new book, least you forget that she is skilled at ranting humorously about society. This helps to lengthen her short, magazine-length complaint to its published book length form.

This book neither amuses or instructs. It adds no new insights as to why people behave how they do. It presents no real solutions to the issues presented. The ‘flame of hope’ offered at the beginning is lamely summarized in the last one and 1/2 pages of the book: we should be kind and friendly and polite…..and roll our eyes and smugly smirk at those who don’t realize we are trying to rescue the ill-mannered from themselves.