Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Cellini Masterpiece

Author: Raymond John
Publisher: North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc.
ISBN: 0-87839-233-5

Of the thousands of books I’ve read, this is the only one set in Malta. Enticingly located in the Mediterranean, the island of Malta clearly is an appealing backdrop for a romance novel. Alternatively, a story rich in history is plausible. But I never envisioned Malta as the stage for an adventure involving twenty-first century terrorism. It takes a writer with Raymond John’s fertile imagination to artfully blend all of these ingredients – a generous helping of romance, a dash of history, a drop of terrorism, and a sprig of mystery – into a pleasing story.

Rick Olsen, a thirty-two year old prairie restorer (can you imagine a more innocuous profession?), travels to Malta to help his brother, Stef, unravel a mystery involving a precious gold sculpture. Rick’s troubles begin as soon as he steps off the plane. First, he is mugged at the airport. Then, he discovers that Stef has disappeared. Fortunately, Rick meets Caterina, an attractive cab driver whom he hires to be his chauffeur while he searches for his brother.

As Rick and Caterina search for Stef, they soon realize that Stef’s discovery is the key to a perilous mystery. Since Rick has some military experience and Caterina knows a few wily tricks, they cope surprisingly well with a variety of life-threatening situations. The fact that Rick knows a talented computer nerd who feeds them vital information doesn’t hurt either. The search for Stef takes Rick and Caterina all over the island, a circumstance that allows John to sprinkle the story with intriguing historical and geographical tidbits. As they trek and search – and fall in love – Rick and Caterina uncover a terrorist plot that endangers the entire Mediterranean region. By the story’s end, the farmer and the cabbie (surely the most unlikely pair of action heroes ever conceived) recover Stef, solve the mystery of the sculpture and foil the terrorists.

The Cellini Masterpiece, Raymond John’s first novel, is a captivating story. The two principal characters are enchanting and John’s portrayal of Rick and Caterina’s romance is exceptionally well done. He skillfully evokes intense passion without descending into prurience. Unfortunately, the book’s secondary characters are not nearly as alluring as the principals. The villains are particularly dull and stereotypical.

John’s flair for descriptive detail embeds the reader in Maltese culture, architecture and history. Thanks to John, Malta is now on my list of places I must visit before I die. I want to explore the island as Rick and Caterina did. I want to taste the cuisine they savored. I want to see the sunsets, smell the salty air and feel the breezes as they did. In short, I want to sample Rick and Caterina’s experience, minus the intrigue and danger, of course.

Overall, The Cellini Masterpiece is a rather good first novel. I hope to see more work by Raymond John in the future. Readers who like adventures set in exotic locales will enjoy this book.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Dark Journey Deep Grace

Author: Roy Ratcliff (with Lindy Adams)
Publisher: Leafwood Publishers
ISBN: 0-9767790-2-1

One phone call in April 1994 changed Roy Ratcliff’s life forever. The call came from a fellow minister who wanted to know if Ratcliff would preside over the baptism of an inmate who was incarcerated in a prison near his home. Ratcliff had never had any experience with prison ministry. Nevertheless, he agreed to drive to the prison and meet with the prisoner. Upon being satisfied that the prisoner had a proper understanding of baptism’s purpose, Ratcliff would make all the necessary arrangements. Ratcliff just needed one more piece of information: who was the prisoner making the request? The answer: Jeffrey Dahmer.

Ratcliff, like everyone else living in Wisconsin in the 1990s, was familiar with Dahmer’s horrific story of torture, murder, necrophilia and cannibalism. When Ratcliff met Dahmer in late April 1994, he was surprised at Dahmer’s quiet demeanor, his fairly lean frame and his small hands. Satisfied that Dahmer understood the meaning of baptism and that his desire was sincere, Ratcliff made arrangements for Dahmer’s baptism in May 1994.

After Dahmer’s baptism, Ratcliff continued meeting with him for weekly Bible studies and discussions. Little did they know that, in late November 1994, their friendship would be severed by Dahmer’s brutal murder at the hands of another prisoner.

His friendship with Dahmer changed Ratcliff’s life in several ways. First, the responses of other Christians to Ratcliff’s ministry with Dahmer challenged Ratcliff to think deeply about the concepts of mercy, grace and justice. Some Christians encouraged Ratcliff’s efforts, others believed Ratcliff was being conned and still others believed Dahmer was too evil to be forgiven. Second, Ratcliff’s belief in Dahmer’s sincerity and his friendship with Dahmer led him to believe more deeply in God’s unconditional love. Third, following his ministry with Dahmer, Ratcliff became involved in several other prison ministries, activities that he is still engaged in a dozen years later.

Ratcliff states unequivocally that God can and does forgive the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world. Ratcliff also states unequivocally that divine forgiveness does not expunge the need for earthly justice. Ratcliff believes that people who cannot understand these distinctions are confused about the natures of both God and society. Social justice required, rightly, according to Ratcliff, that Dahmer should serve out his sentence regardless of his spiritual condition. Ratcliff reports that Dahmer also accepted his penalty as a just one. Neither of these men ever viewed spiritual conversion as a “get out of jail free” card. According to Ratcliff:

“A gross misunderstanding of what Jeff’s baptism
accomplished was apparent.

No one said Jeff was no longer guilty of his crimes.
He would not be released from prison, nor should he be,
dependent upon his baptism.

Baptism does not take away crimes. It addresses sins.
The issue in baptism doesn’t concern justice in the society.
It concerns the forgiveness of God. . . .
Jeff’s crimes cry out for justice. . . .
No one understood this quite as well as Jeff” (pp. 85-86).

Dark Journey Deep Grace is a profoundly moving story, an unpretentious chronicle of an unlikely friendship that developed around a seemingly unlikely faith. Christians who enjoy stories of personal testimony will find this book interesting, as it offers insights into the spiritual lives of two men, Ratcliff and Dahmer. They should also find it uplifting, because it offers the promise of present and future redemption to all people, regardless of their past transgressions. Finally, readers of any faith, and even people with no faith, who read this book will be challenged to reconsider their ideas about God, evil and justice.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Elizabeth George: American Mistress of the English Cottage Mystery

Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley/Barbara Havers series is one of my favorites. Her most recent entry into the series, What Came Before He Shot Her, takes an interesting departure from the previous books, as most of the primary characters that she has developed throughout the series do not appear at all in this one. Well, Helen appears long enough to get shot. And Deborah hangs around long enough to park the car while Helen gets shot. The only other regulars who appear, Havers and Nkata, make their brief, low-key entrance in the book’s final scene. Nevertheless, George’s fans, knowing how this book’s main character is connected to the overall series, will not be able to resist this one. For the main character of this book, Joel Campbell, is implicated in the heartbreaking event that marked the climax of the previous one: the brutal murder of Helen Lynley.

Elizabeth George has a tremendous following around the world. Her reputation is well earned, for she writes exquisitely, though not quite as well as P.D. James, the unmatched mistress of this genre. She researches each book thoroughly; consequently, every story provides substantial food for thought. What Came Before He Shot Her clearly demonstrates George’s sensitivity to the sociological and psychological dynamics that, all too often, reach tragic climaxes on busy city streets and in seemingly quiet rural villages.

So, what do I like about the series? And what improvements would I like to see in future books?

First, the primary characters in the series, Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers, are fascinating. Lynley, an inspector at New Scotland Yard, is Lord Asherton, a member of the British nobility. He is handsome, well educated, articulate and socially polished. He is a good man who continually wrestles to control his inbred elitist tendencies. He has largely outgrown the selfishness of his youth, but he is far from perfect. He is likeable, yet, at times, infuriatingly arrogant. His partner, Barbara Havers, is his opposite in every way. Havers grew up in a working class home in a family scarred by tragedy. She is not physically attractive, and is neither well educated nor socially polished. She is, in fact, socially inept, a circumstance that often lands her in personal and professional difficulties. She is shrewd and intelligent, however, a keen observer of the people and events around her. She struggles, without success, to overcome feelings of inferiority and sees herself as the eternal outsider whose earnest efforts are never quite good enough to win either approval or respect from those around her.

This seemingly ill-matched pair is an intriguing combination. Their relationship ebbs and flows as they struggle to overlook class differences and work together. Havers respects Lynley tremendously and longs to be his friend as well as his colleague. Lynley, at times impatient with Havers’s intransigence and at other times awestruck by her unerring police instincts, is oblivious to her need. He maintains a professionally cordial relationship with her (most of the time), but is unaware of his unconscious reinforcement of embedded class distinctions that, apparently, will never disappear. Other members of Lynley’s intimate circle are much more sensitive to Barbara than he is and they try to welcome her into their circle.

One of Lynley’s oldest friends, a former lover who eventually tossed him aside and married his best friend, is Deborah St. James. Deborah is a character whom George needs to flesh out more fully. In the first few books of the series, Deborah agonized, ad nauseam, over her inability to have a child. This storyline got tedious after awhile, and I was grateful when George finally resolved it. Deborah, a member of the privileged class, nevertheless struggles with feelings of inadequacy. This struggle is common to most of George’s female characters, regardless of their social standing. Presumably, George is making the point that gender issues often transcend those of class.

Deborah’s husband, Simon St. James, is inexplicably boring. As a young man, he was crippled in a car accident in which a drunken Lynley was at fault. Simon is unflappable. The reader never witnesses him expressing frustration over his significant disability. Moreover, in one scene in which Lynley is inappropriately and unconscionably rude to his wife, St. James barely raises his voice in her defense. St. James, a forensics expert, has the potential to be a fascinating character, as he could provide significant insight into the struggles of the disabled as they fight for acceptance and respect in a world that often patronizes and pities them. George needs to work with him a lot more.

Lynley’s recently murdered wife, Helen, began as a bland, spoiled spendthrift, jetsetter and airhead. Early in the series, Helen embodied all of the worst qualities of the British elite. In more recent books, however, Helen’s moments of introspection were priceless. Moreover, she was the member of Lynley’s circle who most warmly welcomed Havers into their midst. It’s a shame that she got killed off just when she was becoming interesting.

Two other significant characters are Azhar, Barbara's landlord, and Hadiyyah, his young daughter. They are east Asian immigrants who provide a social context for Barbara outside of her workplace. Azhar offers interesting insights to the conflicts that arise when immigrants raise children in new cultures. Azhar is very traditional and "old country," and Hadiyyah* is becoming very much a child of Britain.

The final character I will mention is Winston Nkata, a black policeman of Caribbean descent who works with Lynley and Havers. Nkata is a fellow from a rough background who has made a success of his life. He and Havers respect each other, but, occasionally, their career interests conflict. This creates some interesting social and professional dynamics for them.

These are the principal characters in the series. While George’s development of these characters has been uneven, she has created an interesting cast from a range of class and ethnic backgrounds. Thus, they provide her with a solid foundation for exploring a rich array of class, ethnic and gender issues. I look forward to seeing what George will do with these riches.

Another thing I like about the series is that George’s plots are generally well-constructed. Each book is complete and does not require familiarity with the others. One can pick up any one of them and immediately become immersed in a coherent story with a satisfying resolution. Moreover, she sets scenes as well as anyone. This is testimony to a) the depth of her research and b) her eye for detail. When one reads George’s books, one clearly visualizes the characters and clearly sees the action unfold. This is unquestionably an area of strength for George.

Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about George’s writing is her ability to plumb the depths of human emotion and relationships. She has a wonderful command of the English language and she uses it to artfully convey powerful scenes, images and feelings. One scene that stands out, from relatively early in the series, is the discussion in which Deborah and Simon finally put to rest the issue of childbearing. Simon’s description of how he can’t bear to try for another child, because every time they lose a child, he loses a piece of her, is spellbinding. Incidentally, this is Simon at his best too.

Another scene that stands out is the one in which Lynley finally gets over his fury for what he perceived as Havers’s insubordination. In the previous book (Deception on His Mind), Havers had shot at a superior officer in order to save a child from drowning. But Lynley just could not comprehend Havers’s account of her actions – he just saw her as unwilling to abide by essential rules. As it happens, in this book (In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner), Lynley bent the rules to help out an old friend. The information Lynley provided eventually compelled the friend to commit suicide. At the end of the book, Lynley says to Havers that, when she bent the rules, a life was saved. In contrast, when he bent the rules, a life was lost. On the whole, he says, he’d rather have her record than his. This was a moving resolution to a conflict that festered throughout the entire book. It was a powerful moment of introspection for Lynley and a beautiful moment of reconciliation between the estranged partners.

Perhaps George’s most powerful scene to date occurred in With No One as Witness, when Helen Lynley was on her deathbed. Lynley’s anguish throughout this impeccably detailed ordeal is palpable. Anyone who can read this passage without breaking into tears has a heart of stone. Moments like these, when she exposes the human heart, are when George is at her best. Moments like these are what keep her fans coming back for more.

It’s been fun watching George's talents develop throughout this series. In my view, her weakest effort was A Traitor to Memory (which, ironically, followed two of her best books). Her latest entry in the series is not quite as good as its predecessor (With No One as Witness), but it is, nonetheless, engaging. I hope that George’s next volume will return to the characters to whom readers have grown attached, for they are her bread and butter. Sometimes variations in diet are welcome diversions, but, eventually, consumers like to return to the staples that have proven to be tried and true.

* An astute commenter (see below) pointed out that Hadiyyah is not an immigrant. I stand corrected on that point.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Noble's Gold

Author: W.C. Craddock
Publisher: Inkwater Press
ISBN: 1-59299-219-6

Sam Noble, a low-level government employee approaching retirement, has started writing the novel he always dreamed about. Unsure what he should write about, Sam takes a friend’s advice and begins writing random passages that he intends to stitch together later (p. 29). Drawing from sources in science, history, religious studies, economics, and various other disciplines, he contemplates the role of gold as a treasured substance and as the basis of monetary systems. Over a period of several months, Sam cranks out his book and emails chapters to an old wartime buddy, blissfully unaware that their correspondence has drawn the attention of American intelligence agencies. In an eerie coincidence, Sam’s book contains parallels to the clandestine work of a government committee. Their mission: to assess the feasibility of mining an extraterrestrial source of gold that will expand and stabilize the American economy. These agents must establish whether Sam is a terrorist, a spy, an average citizen or a harmless kook. To protect the government’s interests and ensure that Sam’s book will never be printed, they covertly buy from him all publishing rights. Shortly afterwards, a nuclear explosion in Jerusalem sets off an international crisis. This compels the American government to discard secrecy and immediately pursue its extraordinary economic plan. As the story closes, the world embarks on an international, interplanetary race for gold and Sam takes his book money and retires to a quiet life in Brazil.

Throughout Noble’s Gold, Craddock utilizes the technique of embedding one story within another. Unfortunately, he does not employ this device effectively. In order for the method to succeed, both storylines must engage the reader. Moreover, the reader must be able to discern clearly which of the two is the principal storyline. Since neither characteristic is present in Noble’s Gold, the book – totaling 801 pages – suffers from a serious lack of coherence. I will discuss these points in turn.

First, Sam’s novel, the embedded story-within-a-story, is a rambling mess. Early on, it appears that his main character, Duke Mitchum, will be engaged in an interesting scheme to avenge himself against the corporate employers who made him the scapegoat for their failures. Unfortunately, this storyline is abandoned. Instead, Duke’s quest for the information he needs to carry out his plan is merely a ploy that allows Craddock to fill hundreds of pages with essays on a wide range of topics: history, religion, geology – almost anything goes. The problem with this is that readers generally do not expect novels to be comprised almost entirely of essays. Rather, they expect characters to act and interact. They expect a plot to move forward to a conclusion. And they expect conflict, climax and resolution. Action, interaction, plot, conflict and resolution are woefully absent in this storyline. While the essays in this book may be interesting (more on this later), their form is poorly suited to be the primary substance of a novel. Thus, this storyline is an abysmal failure.

Second, Sam’s story gets scant attention. This story, summarized in the opening paragraph of this review, forms, at most, 30% of the book’s content. Moreover, since most of this material also takes the form of essays rather than character action and interaction, the reader may be excused for being uncertain whether Sam’s story is, indeed, the primary storyline.

Several hundred pages into the book, the government agents who have been investigating Sam conclude that he is merely a badly educated hayseed, with limited writing skills, who happened to come dangerously close to uncovering the truth that they themselves are researching. This device, in conjunction with the previously noted advice from Sam’s friend, allows Craddock to disingenuously acknowledge and justify his book’s weakness. This is astonishing! Surely Craddock, if he were truly interested in writing a novel, did not require several hundred disjointed pages to make the point that Sam is an untalented wannabe! It seems that Craddock’s novel is not intended to be a story at all; it is, rather, a cloak in which to garb the essays he wants to publish.

Since Sam Noble hardly ever appears in this book, and hardly ever acts, and hardly ever speaks, it is difficult to develop any interest in him. Considering the book’s excessive length, surprisingly little attention is given to developing his, or any other, character. In fact, this book has stunningly few characters. To say that all of them are bland is a gross understatement. Like Sam, they say little and do less. Consequently, the book is bereft of either dialog or action. It is peopled with a handful of characters who rarely interact and even more rarely do anything. Furthermore, on those few occasions when they do speak, they don’t have conversations. Instead, they usually speak in lengthy paragraphs and lecture each other.

In addition to the unrelenting dullness of the characters and the ghastly dialog, the story does not engage the reader because there is no action. Note, for example, this insipid account of the American government’s surveillance of Sam’s home:

“On a couple of occasions, federal agents were almost caught inside Noble’s Vienna small townhouse where they had entered under ‘sneak and peak’ to poke around, by Noble and his wife, but had managed to duck out the back door in the nick of time” (p. 736).

Are you kidding me? Where’s the confrontation between the irate citizen and the government agents who have violated his home and his civil rights? This scene (a term I am using loosely here) is ripe with potential for both plot and character development. Sadly, neither occurs at any point in this book. The entire tome is written in the same dry, quasi-academic style as this sample passage.

Finally, I must note that few of the ideas contained in Noble’s Gold are uniquely Craddock’s. For example, his discussion of early Christianity is remarkably similar to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code account. It is not plagiarized, but the correspondence is undeniable. If you’ve already read Brown’s book, you needn’t bother with Craddock’s. Brown did it first and he did it better. And he did it within the context of a novel that actually works as a novel. Unfortunately, Craddock’s work does not succeed as either a collection of original essays or as a novel. My advice: keep your money in your purse and leave this one on the bookstore shelf.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Author: Richard Haines
Publisher: Beaufort Books
ISBN: 978-0-8253-0510-8

Jon Phillips is a smart, handsome, successful Wall Street trader with a plan to get rich quickly and retire before the age of 40. The plan is bold, risky and illegal. When it fails in a spectacular manner, Jon is publicly disgraced, unemployed and racing around the world to stay alive. It turns out that a sizeable chunk of the money Jon lost belonged to the Russian mob. They want their money returned, or, in lieu of cash, Jon's life. Jon's race for survival takes him from New York, to England and Australia. As he runs, he encounters friends and enemies and confronts disturbing truths about the man he has become. Can he outwit his pursuers and survive? And if survives, can he salvage anything worthwhile from the shambles of his life? These two questions lie at the heart of Jon's story.

Chameleon is a fast-paced adventure that grips the reader's attention quickly and never lets go. Hains draws on his inside knowledge of high finance to create his main character and set the scene for that character's downfall. He describes the physical, social and psychological atmosphere of the trading floor exceptionally well and his descriptions of the social and geographical features of New York, England and Australia are similarly well done. He has a nice knack for setting his scenes and helping the reader see what he sees.

The book's main character, Jon Phillips, is charming and egotistical, engaging and infuriating, affectionate and selfish. He is a full-bodied, complex character who elicits both the reader's sympathy and distrust. Jon may be a good drinking buddy, but he's not the guy you'd want your sister to marry. The principal secondary characters, Victoria and Penny, are less intriguing but still likeable. Unfortunately, however, the villains are relentlessly evil and boring.

Chameleon's plot is fairly believable, but there are some significant difficulties. Given Jon's life of ease and affluence, his abilities to facilely change identities and readily disappear are inexplicable. His uncanny aptitudes for repeatedly outwitting and outfighting tough, hardcore criminals are similarly suspicious. And his remorseless brutality in dispatching his enemies is disconcerting. At points, Jon seems to be Wall Street's James Bond: running and hiding where he wishes, maiming and killing as needed, and bedding beautiful women at will. And, like Bond, he always emerges victorious and, usually, unscathed.

Hains expounds on Jon's adventures much more successfully than his introspection. Jon's moments of self-examination are rare, brief and superficial. One can't help wondering why Hains bothered developing this aspect of his character at all. Perhaps he should have just written a straightforward adventure story with a larger-than-life hero and left it at that. Nevertheless, Chameleon is a fairly good first novel. Readers who like thrillers probably will enjoy Chameleon.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Poetry Confessions

Author: John G. Briscoe
ISBN: 0-7414-2926-8

In Poetry Confessions, John Briscoe introduces his new art form, Creative Art Poetry Story (CAPS), which “combines visual art and poetry to tell a story in a unique new way” (p.1). Each poem is accompanied by complementary artwork. And, occasionally, poems are graphically arranged so that they are both textual and visual works. “Gentleman’s Farewell Tease,” (p. 69) is an obvious example of one such graphic poem. In this collection, the poems combine to tell a fictional story of a doomed love affair.

The first thing a reader will notice is that Briscoe’s poems do not adhere to traditional forms. This is not necessarily bad. Many skilled poets have demonstrated that free verse is a flexible tool that is well suited for contemporary poetic expression. In Briscoe’s case, his irregular meters and stanzas, and his unique rhyme schemes, are sometimes clever and refreshing. Note, for example, this couplet:

Starting over takes a lot of compromising.
We both are good at prioritizing (p. 28).

The cadence created by this couplet’s irregular meter is distinctive and charming. And the unusual rhyming of the words “compromising” and “prioritizing” is creative. Passages such as this reveal that Briscoe is quite comfortable working with words and is able to write in a uniquely expressive manner.

Unfortunately, refreshing moments like these are sometimes offset by lapses into truly hackneyed passages, such as this one:

. . . falling in, and out, of love,
and asking forgiveness from the heavenly Father above (p.4).

The “love-above” rhyme is nauseatingly overused in religious poetry and song lyrics. That rhyme, plus the conjunction of the phrases “falling in, and out, of love” and “heavenly Father above,” struck me as an instance in which the author resorted to using well-known, well-worn phrases instead of creating unique ways to express his ideas.

Briscoe’s greatest strength as a writer is that he explores and expresses a wide range of emotions. He writes, sometimes with brutal honesty, about euphoria, despair, anger, joy, loss, contrition and everything in between. Such writing takes tremendous courage and self-confidence.

Briscoe’s greatest weakness as a poet is that, apparently, he can’t live with rhyme and he can’t live without it. The English language lends itself readily to rhyme, which is why so many English-language poets employ it. While this amenability to rhyme is one of the English language’s greatest assets, it is also the source of an extraordinary amount of banal verse. Many English-language poets know, in their heads, that poetry doesn’t always have to rhyme. Nevertheless, it’s extremely difficult to escape the notion, in their hearts, that poetry ought to rhyme. At times, Briscoe seems to be stuck in this quandary. The result is that much of his rhyme appears to be accidental or incidental rather than intentional. It is not unusual for him to waiver between rhymed and unrhymed lines within the space of one poem, or even within a stanza. This inconsistency is disconcerting. If, in a particular poem, he intends to reject rhyme, then he should reject it throughout. If, in a particular poem, he intends to employ rhyme, then he should employ it with discipline and consistency throughout. In their current forms, many of the poems in this collection are passionate and expressive, but incoherent as poetry.

I admire Briscoe’s passion and his willingness to explore the complexities, frailties and imperfections of human relationships. He is an able writer and I look forward to seeing him develop his voice and style in the coming years. Poetry Confessions is more compelling as a story, however, than as a collection of poetry. If you are looking for good poetry, you won’t find very much of it in this book. If you enjoy delving into new story forms, however, you may find Poetry Confessions intriguing.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

How Children Become Violent

Author: Kathryn Seifert, Ph.D.
Publisher: Acanthus Publishing
ISBN: 1-933631-48-1

It seems that hardly a month goes by in which Americans don’t hear of violence involving children. Sometimes, children assault or kill adults. Often, adults assault and kill children. And far too often, children assault and kill other children. Repeatedly, we gather in our lunchrooms, on our subways or in our churches and ask each other: Why did this happen? What is this world coming to? What can we do to prevent this from happening again?

In How Children Become Violent, Dr. Kathryn Seifert has provided some answers to these questions. In the first section of the book, Seifert discusses violence and disrupted attachment patterns. This section is filled with anecdotal evidence from Seifert’s own travel and experiences, plus an array of statistical evidence. Seifert posits that a significant cause of violence occurs when children do not have opportunities, very early in life, to development normal, healthy attachment relationships with caregivers. The reasons for these disruptions are varied and the consequences, frequently, are severe. Seifert bases her theory on lessons learned in more than three decades as a clinician, as well as an extensive body of research conducted in the past several decades by many scholars. Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six-Stage Theory of Moral Development provides a particularly significant foundation for Seifert’s theory. Linking her theory to Kohlberg’s, she uses the latter’s ideas as the basis for her analyses of some well-known American serial killers, such as Ted Kacynski, Ted Bundy and Charles Manson.

In the second section of the book, Seifert discusses means for assessing whether children (and adults who survived troubled childhoods) suffer from disrupted attachment patterns or other problems. This section is filled with brief descriptions of various instruments that measure psychological health.

In the third section, Seifert describes various treatment methods for working with children and adults who suffer from disrupted attachment patterns. Similar to her discussion of the assessment tools, Seifert’s discussion of each treatment is brief.

The book’s final chapter, written by a colleague of Seifert’s, discusses a school-based mental health program in which school districts and families can work together toward early diagnosis and violence prevention. Throughout the book, Seifert emphasizes that families and communities must be involved in preventing childhood attachment disruptions. In Seifert’s experience, it is not enough to treat children who suffer from disrupted attachment patterns. Their families, particularly their primary caregivers, must be involved in the treatment and often require treatment themselves. Moreover, since violent children frequently harm others outside of their families, violent children are ultimately a community concern. School-based programs offer a natural juncture for families and communities to work together.

Overall, Seifert’s book is filled with a wealth of interesting material. Unfortunately, I had difficulty determining what audience Seifert intends to reach with this book. The first section, with its wealth of anecdotal material, is written in a manner that appeals to lay people. Nevertheless, Seifert includes some solid scholarly information here. This is not mere psychological pabulum for the masses. The second and third sections, however, appear to be addressed to professional audiences. The second section is reminiscent of the literature review one finds in research papers, theses and dissertations. Much of the information is rather technical and would appeal primarily to scholars and practitioners in the field of psychology. The third section, with its interesting descriptive overviews of treatment methods, seems too superficial to offer much for practicing professionals and scholars. It could, however, be useful material for college students who may be searching for their particular professional niches.

Another indication of Seifert’s apparent confusion regarding her intended audience is the inclusion of material concerning childhood violence in countries other than the United States. To be sure, this is fascinating and important information. Unfortunately, however, Seifert does not tightly tie these issues together with the rest of the book, which focuses almost exclusively on an American context. Ordinarily, I would heartily applaud Seifert’s effort to avoid the cultural myopia that afflicts many Americans. In this case, however, Seifert’s message would be clearer if her focus was more centered.

How Children Become Violent should be of interest to lay people with a strong interest in psychology, criminal justice and the like. Be warned, however, that you’d better be familiar with research methodology and lingo, because the book’s middle section is laced with it. The book should also be of interest to college students majoring in psychology, criminology, or other related fields, who are exploring possible specific directions for their careers, as it provides a good basic grounding in the psychology of violence. As Seifert admits, there is much more work to be done in this field. To her credit, she’s taken a solid first step in analyzing and documenting an acute problem. More importantly, she’s also pointed out possible directions for solving that problem. These are achievements for which all of us should be grateful.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Sex Secrets of an American Geisha

Author: Py Kim Conant
Publisher: Hunter House Publishers
ISBN: 089793-490-3

Are you a single woman who is ready to settle into marriage? Conant assures you that, if you follow her advice, you can achieve that goal within twelve to eighteen months.

Are you a married woman seeking to reignite the sparks of passion in your marriage? Conant assures you that, if you follow her advice, you can achieve that goal.

The key, in both cases, is to become an American geisha.

According to Conant, the Asian geisha is an independent businesswoman, an entertainer who rarely has sex with her clients, whose job is simply to help men relax and feel positive about themselves as men. She achieves these goals by establishing a pleasing, feminine contrast to their masculinity. When she does her job well, they seek her company, rather than another geisha’s, again and again. Similarly, Conant’s American geisha is an independent, classy, sexy woman who attracts men to her so that she will be able to choose from among several suitable candidates the one whom she wishes to marry.

In Conant’s view, the idea that geisha are submissive and passive is mistaken. Even though geisha are feminine, cordial, pleasant women to be with, they are also women who think and work independently, set goals for themselves and carefully map out the plans they will follow to reach those goals. They are strong women who are capable of thinking and acting autonomously and they only spend time connecting with “good” men who highly value their company.

The first section of Conant’s book deals with developing “geisha consciousness,” by which Conant means becoming aware of one’s self-worth and sexuality as well as assessing one’s beauty and femininity. She cautions her readers not to seek conformity to an unrealistic body type. Instead, she suggests that all women should seek to reach and maintain “ideal” weights for their particular frames. Additionally, she stresses emphasizing one’s most attractive features by careful use of wardrobe, cosmetics and good grooming rather than surgery. She deals with beauty, particularly weight management, in more depth in the book’s third section.

The second section of the book deals with sex secrets that will keep men coming back to one rather than seeking out another mate. In this section Conant explicitly discusses a variety of sexual techniques and emphatically does not recommend promiscuity. Instead, she stresses that a sexual relationship should develop alongside of a companionable relationship that progressively reaches deeper stages. Just as the Asian geisha will only have sexual relations with clients who make significant commitments to her, the American geisha will only have sex with partners whom she is willing to consider marrying. And some may choose to refrain from intercourse until marriage. If an American geisha knows that a particular man is not one she considers a suitable marriage partner, then she should not waste either her time or his in a dating or sexual relationship that will ultimately be futile.

The book’s third section deals with planning for marriage. Conant suggests that her readers should identify and write down specific goals they wish to achieve in love and marriage as well as in their personal and professional development. She further advises them to write down precise attributes that they desire in their mates and emphasizes, here and throughout the book, that American geisha should only spend time with men who are good for them. Since the exact characteristics of a “good” man will vary for different women, they must articulate their relationship goals if they hope to use their dating and courtship time wisely.

This is also the section where Conant outlines fully her “plan” for weight control. This plan is based primarily on self-awareness. Conant does not prescribe a particular diet or exercise regimen. Instead, she advises her readers to monitor their weight on a daily basis, eat sensibly and adopt a moderate exercise program that suits them. Generally speaking, the theme of the entire section is self-awareness. The American geisha is aware of her physical, psychological, emotional and social needs, attributes and preferences.

The final section of the book deals with dating, love and marriage. Conant stresses that the goal of an American geisha is an enduring marriage, not a lavish wedding. Accordingly, she offers common-sense “rules” for maintaining a loving relationship. Some of these are addressed to women, some to men and others to couples. Conant advises that the American geisha’s highest priority, regardless of whether she is a soccer mom or a CEO, is to ensure that her husband is happy and fulfilled in his relationship with her. It is when she keeps this priority in its proper place that the American geisha will be most fulfilled.

Sex Secrets of an American Geisha does not contain any groundbreaking research or new data. Certainly, all of the information contained in this book can be found in dozens of other sources. And Conant is humble and honest enough to include, and recommend, a detailed list of the references she utilized in her research. The appeal of Sex Secrets lies in Conant’s creative ability to take a fairly ordinary body of knowledge and wrap it in the glamorous framework of the geisha mystique. Conant successfully uses this framework to draw in her readers and hold their attention while she offers practical advice. Even though this book is addressed primarily to single women, married women will likely find some useful hints here too. Who knows? Maybe men will enjoy it too!

Sex Secrets of an American Geisha: How to Attract, Satisfy and Keep Your Man (Hunter House Publishers). Available in bookstores; may be ordered directly by calling 1-800-266-5592.