Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book Review: Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton

[Previously published on]

Have you ever been to a party and met lots of people in a short period of time? Then you got home and said, "There were several really interesting people there! It sure would have been nice to get to know them a bit better." That's how I felt after this quick and enthralling read. I was eager to get into the story and Crichton made it easy. The story begins with a public hanging and escalates with the arrival of the merchantman Godspeed. The ship brings new characters and news of events that lead to adventure, violence, destruction, romance and mystery on the high seas of the Caribbean and the Atlantic. Interesting, intimidating and charming personalities appear in surprising people as diverse as privateers, politicians, courtesans, pirates, whores, transvestites, executioners and Harvard graduates! Crichton continues his clever connections with places and people. An island in this novel repeats the name of an island from The Lost World and a ship captain shares the author's alma mater. The lookout for the expedition, a sailor with incredible vision, is named "Lazue" which is a bastardization of the French term "les yeux" for "eyes". We meet an executioner named Sanson (a la "Manson") and visit a place that's name means "slaughter" A willing reader is quickly caught up in the whirlwind action and can easily overlook the lack of character development, "Ok, he's a pirate and she's a whore. Get on with the story!"

And what an interesting story it is! Our would-be hero sails off with a hand-picked crew to face his demons and foes. Part of his mission is to identify just who it is that he is up against in a romantic world of pirates and politicians where betrayal and loyalty walk hand-in-hand. How can you be a conquerer and return home a hero if you aren't sure of your enemy? Our protagonist (is he a privateer or a pirate?) sets out on his mission financed by important people to deal with The Black Ship, Monkey Bay, The Mouth of the Dragon and a foreboding fortress on the island of Mantanceros. Crichton's fans have come to expect enlightenment in each of his books whether it is nano technology, gene splicing, poisonous politics, or reverse sex discrimination. They won't be disappointed with Pirate Latitudes's monographs on 17th century weaponry, sailing ships, and navigation. Also included is an explanation of the posturing used by sailors in which they would stand up straight on the bow with their arms extended, back to the wind (remember that Decaprio/Winslet scene in Titanic?). If the characters are not developed enough to suit the discriminating reader, then surely the setting will satisfy. Establishments with names like "The Black Bear", "Queen's Arms", "The Yellow Scamp" and "The Blue Goat" and their seedy characteristics place the reader right there with the characters. Attention is also given to oppressively hot jungles, mosquitoes, and foreboding geography.

Island life in 1665 was not easy. It may sound romantic today but it had to have been brutal then. And a pirate's life was always violent. One such incident: "Hunter chose that moment to lunge. He pushed his palm flat against the upturned tankard, ramming it back against Levasseur's face, which thudded against the back wall. Levasseur gurgled and collapsed, blood dripping from his mouth. Hunter grabbed the tankard and crashed it down on Levasseur's skull. The Frenchman lay unconscious. Hunter shook his hand free of the wine on his fingers, turned, and walked out of Mrs. Denby's Inn. He stepped ankle-deep into the mud of the street, but paid no attention."

Readers will be glad that an assistant paid attention and found this complete manuscript in the late author's files as the book is a fitting conclusion to a remarkable career. Crichton remains to this day, the only writer to have had the number one book, movie, and TV show at the same time. The book ends with an epilogue detailing the conclusion of the lives of several of the characters as well as an epitaph that is befitting Crichton himself: "Honest Adventurer and Seaman, Beloved of His Countrymen In The New World. Vincit"

[Note: According to a New York Times article, Harper Collins will also publish a technological thriller of which Crichton had finished a third. The publisher and estate will find an author to finish the novel based on Michael Crichton's notes and plan to publish the novel in the fall of 2010.]

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Sales Floor CEO

[Previously published on]

"You said your company is promoting an 'automatic order' program for your regular customers?" I asked over coffee with a friend. The Juke Box Junction attracts a diverse clientele ranging from families and teens to business types and retirees.

"Yeah, they're pushing it really hard." Walter sighed. "And it's really bad! Customers sign up for it, then don't accept the auto order 95% of the time. Then we have to return it to stock creating lots of double and even triple work." Walter has spent his career in retail. First with small drug chains, now with a national big box retailer.
"Why would they promote a program so heavily that doesn't work?" I asked--already knowing what was coming.
"The people in corporate pushing it haven't worked in a store in twenty years!" Walter replied, almost shouting.
Miriam drops her spoon on the table and interjects, "My kid brother was a buyer for a chain of dollar stores and he drew up those little diagrams to tell the stockers where to put the merchandise. He never worked in a store in his life! When I heard he was doing that, I asked, 'What the hell do you know about stocking shelves?' He said he just works off the numbers, you know, how much of each item sells, the customer demographics, stuff like that. He wouldn't know a box cutter from a butter knife!"
It all reminded me of my early days at Eckerd, back in the eighties. The CEO had come from personnel and we always laughed about how they didn't have any cash registers in personnel. It was our way of lamenting how out of touch the occupants of the corporate suites were with the sales floor and the stock room. When was the last time you saw a blue suit take off his jacket and tie and help unload a truck? Most of my career has been in retail with a brief hiatus in direct sales (adult education and then life insurance). The seventies and eighties had been great years for Eckerd in Louisiana. Our division manager was Tony Spedale and he taught everyone in middle management to be sure to visit with every associate in the store during visits. He wanted us to stop by each department and make sure that everyone knew someone from management was in the store and had stopped by to see them. Those were the good old days.

Pass the cream and sugar, please.

Rex, the pharmacist in our coffee group chimes in with this story. "It's about to be January. January and February are usually the doldrums of the retail business and every year the corporate gurus send down the edict to cut payroll because sales will be off after Christmas. That's true enough for the non-pharmacy part of the business, but the first few months of every new year usually feature the flu season, so we need extra help. Not the time for us to cut payroll. Customers complain enough already about long waits for their medicine."

Charlie (a CPA) relates: "When I was in college, I worked off-campus in a Valumart. Checking in an order was a nightmare! It took away time I could be with customers and if I made a mistake, they said it was "paper shrink" and we lost money just like the merchandise was stolen --and I had it all right there in the tote box. How could it be stolen if it was right there still in the shipping crate?" Walter agrees, "As ordering technology evolved, it was supposed to make it easy to keep the shelves full. You know the old adage, you can't sell it if you don't have it, and 'replenishment' was supposed to be a panacea -- it's a boondoggle. Our inventory system is so complicated, it's a wonder we have anything on the shelves. And I know what you mean about shrink! I'm not sure who's running our company, the loss prevention department or legal. It's easier to catch and fire our own employees than it is to catch a shoplifter!"

Miriam almost reveals her age by asking, "What year did that book come out that extolled the virtues of 'management-by-wandering-around'? Remember, one company they talked about required everyone in the corporate office to work in the field a certain amount of time every month to stay close to the business."

"That was In Search of Excellence," I said, "it came out in the early eighties, '81 or '82." It is still one of my favorite books on business and management. Now in the autumn of my career, I wish my company felt that way. [I've been with my present employer four years and still haven't met my supervisor's boss. I still think that the associates that spend the most time with the customers --cashiers and stockers -- should be making a lot more than they are.]

"Oh yeah," Walter interjected, "my wife used to work at Wang Labs. Wasn't that one of the excellent companies? They're gone now, but most of the others did good. Wish I'd bought stock in all of them."

Friday, January 15, 2010


Had I been asked to title this work, I would have chosen "Reverie". The setting reminds me of a New Orleans courtyard and the subject appears relaxed enough to be lost in a daydream although the expression could be anger or annoyance as much as contemplation. She is focused on something that we cannot see. I doubt we would have seen it had we been there. This is a mood evoked from the "flash upon that inward eye" of something she clearly sees and feels strongly about. Perhaps she has done something with which she is pleased, but something that others may not share her pleasure. She doesn't care. She's confident in her reliving the incident and the results. The fact that she has broken some rule intrigues me, and her attitude makes her not only interesting but curiously attractive. "She's got everything she needs, she's an artist; she don't look back. She can take the dark out of the nighttime and paint the daytime black." Dylan said it in "She Belongs to Me". How long will she enjoy this thought? How long can we share her defiance? We can enjoy it for as long and as often as we like, because she belongs to us.

Fazrul Arham worked as an illustrator in a Malaysian publication house for many years until the end of June 2009 when he decided to fulfill his ambition to work as a full time artist. He is largely self taught. More of this work can be seen and purchased here:

He writes about his work in his blog here:

Tittle: Demi Kasih Demi Sayang
Medium: Acrylic paints on canvas
Size: 20 inches x 30 inches
Year: 2004
Publisher: Creative Enterprise Sdn. Bhd
Signed and dated bottom edge right : fazrul arhan 2004
Model: Rohayah
Labels: Illustration Book Cover

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Review: "The A Game: Great Moments in Alabama Football History" by Caleb Pirtle III

[Note of irony: Pirtle is a Longhorn, and I am an LSU Tiger!]
In 1907, Alabama and Auburn played to a 6-6 tie in their cross state rivalry game, the "Iron Bowl". The game was played in a sea of red mud, and Bama fought the heavy favorite to a tie, thus earning their now well known moniker, the "Crimson Tide". The University of Alabama had fielded it's first football team in the fall of 1892 and it was in that first season that Auburn had beat them 32-22. After that game, Alabama's coach, E. B. Beaumont was fired. Caleb Pirtle writes, "Within the hearts of Alabama resided a tradition of winning even before there was a tradition of football. Neither time nor circumstance would change it." And so begins the first of over fifty "moments" detailed in Pirtle's fifty-second book. Each point in time is arrestingly illustrated with original work by Rick Rush, an Alabama alum often hailed as "America's Sports Artist."

Each incident chosen for inclusion in this book stands alone for the casual reader who might let the book drop open and read a few pages. Collectively, they tell the story of college football in the United States from it's infancy in New England right up through the most recent moments of the 2010 BCS Championship game. Officially, the book ends with Bama's win over Auburn in the 2008 season but illustrates the attitudes and behaviors that led to the thrilling win over Texas. Along the way, the reader will enjoy encounters with such diverse characters as Tallulah Bankhead, President John F. Kennedy, and a score of famous (and infamous) people and coaches. I suspect that the probability of Auburn or Florida fans picking up this book is slim, but they would be missing a real treat. Even the most die-hard fans of opposing teams have come to appreciate and revere the accomplishments and legacy of Paul "Bear" Bryant. Many of the moments in this book clarify and strengthen not only the great stories of The Bear, but also those of his predecessors and those who have followed.

In the fall of 1970, USC came to Alabama and won big, 42-21. By inviting John McKay and his Trojans to town, The Bear had defied history and tradition. Southern Cal was playing in the The Deep South with an array of great black athletes. After the game, Bryant visited the visitors' dressing room and personally congratulated both the coach and the team. He then met individually with Sam Cunningham and Clarence Davis. The Bear realized then that everyone's sweat was the same color. Several years later, after the 1973 Cotton Bowl, Bryant answered a reporter's question about the racial mix on his team: "I don't have any white ones. I don't have any black ones. I just have football players. They come in all colors."

November 8, 2008 marked the return of Nick Saban to Baton Rouge. The previous season, LSU had gotten a certain measure of revenge against their former coach by winning 41-34 in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Now, the Tigers and 93,039 enthusiastic fans awaited his arrival into Death Valley as an opponent for the first time. Many had felt betrayed when he left for the Miami Dolphins and, now, most were just livid. Alabama won in a game that lasted more than four hours and included overtime. It was the first game that season in which the Crimson Tide had trailed and had to come from behind. Not only did they come from behind, they stepped out front in the SEC West and this game, as much as any, marked the return to prominence of Alabama in college football.

There have been many great moments for Alabama since 1892 and this coffee-table-style book includes encounters with many of the country's finest teams. Regardless of your team loyalty you're sure to find several moments you'll remember -- and many that will be new. With their thirteenth national championship, it is easy to understand why Bama fans feel that the Tide will roll on forever and the great moments will never end.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

King Cake Season is Here!

In my home state of Louisiana it's traditional that January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, is the time when Christmas trees are taken down and Mardis Gras (Fat Tuesday) decorations begin to appear. It also marks the beginning of King Cake Season.

My wife and I moved to the mountains of North Carolina after Katrina. We arrived in February and my training with the new company began quickly. On my last week in the training store, I surprised the staff with a New Orleans King Cake from Gambino's Bakery. I've had many king cakes over the years and found that Gambino's is my favorite. Several of the people who had been so helpful in my training had heard of this delicious treat but never had tasted one. Others didn't have a clue. Sharing a bit of my heritage and talking about one of the few things I miss about Louisiana is always fun for me.

A king cake is not a typical Duncan Hines cake with two layers and icing in the middle. Take a small amount of king cake dough and bake it and you've got a cinnamon bun/roll. Take a lot more of the same dough, put it in a circular shape (like a crown) and you've got a king cake. It's more like a giant cinnamon donut! But there's more! Next comes a thick layer of white icing with purple, gold, and green (Mardis Gras colors) sugar sprinkled over it. Some variations include fillings such as cream cheese, strawberries, or praline. The final touch is the insertion of a small plastic baby. Now you've not only got a great treat or desert upon which to focus a party, you've got a religious feast! The circular shape represents a crown for the King of Kings. The baby represents the baby Jesus. The official Mardi Gras colors were chosen in 1872. The 1892 Rex Parade theme, Symbolism of Colors, gave meaning to the colors: purple represents justice; green, faith; and gold, power. Is it any surprise that the Mardi Gras colors influenced the choice of school colors for arch rivals Louisiana State University and Tulane University? When LSU was deciding on its colors, the shops in New Orleans had stocked up on purple, green, and gold material for the Mardi Gras season. LSU decided upon purple and gold, and bought much of it. Tulane bought much of the only remaining color -- green and thus the Green Wave.

Just as the birth of Jesus meant good things to come for believers, the baby in the king cake represents more parties! The person who is served the piece of cake that includes the baby is obligated to bring the cake for the next party! In South Louisiana, it isn't unusual to have one or more "King Cake Parties" every week all the way up till Mardis Gras. It sure is hard to give up king cakes for Lent! Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez!!!