Sunday, January 31, 2010

Free Online Translators

Two tools you can use to translate text are Google Translate and Babel Fish from Yahoo. Both allow you to paste or type in text or input a URL if you need to translate a webpage. Google also lets you upload a document.

I've used Babel Fish in the past with success. It's good if you're working with commonly spoken languages, such as Spanish, French, Russian, and Chinese. You can't go from each language to all the others, though--you have to use the combinations provided in the drop-down menu.

Google Translate offers over fifty languages, and you can pick any combination. Choices include Welsh, Afrikaans, Catalan, Greek, Hindi, and Swahili as well as traditional ones such as Spanish and French. (A fun exercise is to start with something in English, translate it into another language, then keep translating it into other languages until you finally want to translate it back into English. See how close the end result is to your original text.) The cool thing about this resource is it translates on the fly as you type.

Either one is good for quick translations of relatively short blocks of text. Use Google for documents. If you are familiar with another language (or several), try both and see which one gives the better translation.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Finding Tax Assistance

If you're a senior citizen and you'd like some help with your taxes, try the AARP Tax-Aide Locator. Just put in  your address and see places near you that might offer assistance. Sometimes there are earnings caps and you often have to make an appointment, but it might be worth a try. Generally, your local senior center is a good starting point. (Note: This website is only active from late January/early February through tax season, so if you try it at another time during the year, you'll get a message telling you when you can use it.)

If you're not a senior citizen, unfortunately there aren't many places that offer assistance without charging a fee, like H&R Block. However, ask at your local library because they might have suggestions for you.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Book Review - "Wench" by Dolen Perkins-Valdez


This is a powerful book. It reads quick, but it leaves you thinking long after you've closed the cover. It presents a view of slavery from the perspective of the slaves. Each one wrestles with the idea of freedom: What does freedom mean exactly? Can it take different forms? How can one choose freedom and yet leave behind loved ones still in bondage?

Three women--Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet--are meeting each other for the second time as their white masters have brought them to a summer resort in Ohio. Ohio is in Northern territory and therefore freedom is closer than ever for the women. The issue comes to the forefront as newcomer Mawu, another slave women, arrives and starts asking questions and planning her escape. A couple of slave men are also in the group, but Lizzie quickly comes forth as the main character. She's tempted by Mawu's words, but she feels strong loyalty to her master, Drayle. She's borne him two children and lives in his house. She believes they love each other, and though she doesn't like being a slave, her life is easier than that of many others. She can't quite bring herself to turn her back on him and on her children, even if she herself can gain freedom. Her struggles, her thoughts, and feelings, her indecisions are presented in the book. And when circumstances force her to choose, she thinks once again of her children.

The author does a good job of demonstrating the nuances of various situations of slavery. Philip, also belonging to Master Drayle, has a permanent pass to ride the horses off the plantation as he's in charge of their care. He also comes to Ohio, where he falls in love with a free black woman. How far will he go to be with her? Mawu, Sweet, and Reenie also have children, though Reenie's had been sold off and Mawu doesn't claim hers nearly as deeply as Lizzie does. Mawu can't wait to get away, Sweet and Reenie aren't so sure, and Lizzie has mixed feelings. Things are complicated for her because Drayle acknowledges her children as his, but he also treats them as property. She can't understand why he won't free them even though he's willing to let them live in his house and learn to read and write. Ultimately Lizzie has to find a strength within herself that will allow her to transcend her bondage mentally and emotionally, even as her physical body remains in slavery.

Slavery may seem like a black and white issue, and certainly it is and always was wrong for one group of people to keep another group of people in chains. However, take a step closer and get inside the "peculiar institution," where you will see shades of freedom and bondage. This story takes place in the decade before the Civil War, but what if Emancipation had occurred while Lizzie and her friends were in Ohio? What if they all had been freed, or what if she had escaped? Are the ties of blood and family stronger than personal freedom? How does one choose? Even the few white Northerners in the book have choices. Glory, a woman living near the resort, seems to be willing to help the slaves run away, but certainly there are other whites who are just as happy to catch slaves and return them to their masters for a price. Slavery and freedom then become moral issues and not just legal ones.

For a first novel, this one is excellent. Pick it up when you have a few days to ruminate on its implications. Even if you're not a fan of historical fiction or if you don't think you know much about the Civil War, that won't matter because the questions raised are timeless. Definitely give this a read.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Finding Movie Information

You've probably heard of the Internet Movie Database, but what about AllMovie? AllMovie lets you browse by genre or search by title or name. It includes some television shows, and the information given can range from biographies and discographies to reviews.

Maybe because I've used IMDb for years I've gotten used to its layout and know how it works, but after looking around a little on AllMovie, I prefer IMDb. Sure, the homepage is cluttered, but the search box is easy to find (it's right at the top and all your options are on the pull-down menu) and the results are easy to interpret. Didn't type the title exactly right? That's okay. You get a list of partial matches. You also might get a cover of the DVD in case the visual prompt jogs your memory. Then, once you find the person or movie, you get all kinds of information. Full cast and crew, biographies, awards, filming locations, box office info, release dates, trivia, user reviews...it's all there on one screen.

Both websites are hyperlinked, making your experience a breeze as you jump from person to topic. AllMovie has over 220,000 titles, while IMDbPro says it has 1 million. (IMDbPro is the paid version, but I would imagine the free version has just as many, or at least pretty close to that number.) Take a look at both, test drive them for a while, and decide for yourself.

Book Review - "Through the Heart" by Kate Morgenroth

Love stories don't usually involve murder, but this one does. It also involves a lot of other emotions and concerns, such as guilt, duty, fate. The story isn't long page-wise, but it does have the power to keep you thinking after you close the book.

Nora has been taking care of her ailing mother for three years, giving up her dream of getting a PhD in order to move back to her tiny hometown in Kansas in order to do it. Timothy, in New York, manages the family's fortune and kind of drifts through life, not quite sure what he wants but content to have things stay the same. He has to make a visit to Omaha to see Warren Buffett and while there, takes a drive into Kansas that leads to a chance encounter with Nora.

Nora isn't like any of the women Timothy has met in New York. She is beautiful but she has a childlike quality to her, which makes her seem more real. She's always herself, never trying to impress him or to be someone else so he'll like her. She doesn't flirt, she just acts naturally. For Nora, she has a broken engagement in her past and a mother who thinks she hasn't tried hard enough to catch a man. The two try to have a couple of dates, but miscommunication gets in the way. Still, they each see something in the other that makes them think they've fallen in love. Nora follows Timothy to New York, where she meets his crazy family. Timothy asks her to marry him and she says yes, but neither one knows what disaster will befall them the night before the wedding.

Each chapter is told in alternating first-person perspectives of Nora and Timothy. Thus there are several places where the same scene is visited but from the other side. Luckily, the author doesn't simply rewrite each of those scenes; she includes the thoughts and emotions from each person, so you feel like you were there. Or that you're sitting down, chatting over coffee with Nora and then with Timothy. Interspersing some chapters are excerpts from police procedural textbooks, which reminds you that there's a murder in the story somewhere. The main focus, however, is on Nora and Timothy and their slow courtship, which speeds up considerably once she arrives in New York and they get engaged. The murder occurs near the end of the book, and the revelation of the killer blows a few holes in the story, but if you can suspend your disbelief for a while, you'll end up thinking more about the themes Morgenroth has explored instead of the details.

Morgenroth's themes include guilt, both from survivors and from children towards their parents. She also asks about duty, as in how much does an adult child owe his or her parents? When does a child cross the line between sacrificing their own lives and in taking responsibility for the care of a parent? Morgenroth also inquires about money. How much does it take to make someone really and truly happy? She wonders what love is like. How do you know you're officially in love, and is that the most important thing in life?

Neither Nora nor Timothy is a completely sympathetic character, and their love story may seem superficial. For example, Timothy at one point says he needs Nora to prove she loves him, and he gets as far as the rehearsal dinner without feeling like she's come through. This seems a little selfish to me. Still, even though not much else happens in the book besides this romance, there are enough questions raised to keep me pondering about these two characters and the choices they make. If you like cerebral writing or if you like a little mystery in your romance, give this one a try.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Taxes


It's getting to be that time of year again, when your mailbox starts filling up with wage earnings, interest statements, dividend statements, charitable giving statements, and tax booklets. For some, filling out all those forms can be daunting. And once you finish the federal form, you then have to do it all again for your state.

The IRS has a huge website. For several years now it's been the comprehensive place to go for forms, instructions, and publications. The link for all current forms and pubs is on the left of the screen. You'll need Adobe Reader to see them, but there's a link at the bottom of the list pages if you need to download it. If you have a new enough version of Adobe, you can fill out the forms online, print them, and save a copy to your computer.

If you need to file taxes for past years, start at the IRS homepage, click the link for Forms and Publications, then click the link for Previous Years. You can go back as far as 1980 for the basics, but you might not be able to get every form from every year.

From the homepage, you can also check on your refund, calculate your withholdings, and find out how to file online. Read the screens carefully to see whether you qualify for free e-filing and for choosing an online company.

The search function works well, even if you're not entirely sure what the name of the form or publication is that you need. For more assistance, click the Contact IRS button at the top right of the screen.

To get your state tax forms, instructions, publications, contact information, and more, try the Federation of Tax Administrators. Click your state on the map to get to the revenue department, or whatever your state's office is called.

Book Review - "The 13th Hour" by Richard Doetsch

This book turns the suspense genre on its head by opening with the end of the story (literally--the first chapter is Chapter 12) and working backwards through time. It's a clever idea, one that could be difficult to pull off, but after a rough start, this one definitely comes through.

Nick Quinn finds himself in an interrogation room at the police station, being questioned by the only two officers available. A plane has crashed in town, and everyone else is at the site, sifting through the rubble, organizing the scene, and collecting bodies. Nick is the only suspect in his wife's murder, and one of the cops is determined to get a confession out of him.

A man arrives to see Nick, and the officers think he's his lawyer. They leave the two alone, but the man is a stranger to Nick. The stranger gives him a letter and a watch and offers him a chance to live the previous twelve hours over again in an attempt to find his wife's killer and stop him from committing his horrible crime. Nick isn't quite sure how it'll work, but he's so in love with Julia that he resolves to do anything he can to get her back.

Each chapter takes one hour, and with each jump backwards Nick finds another clue about what happened to Julia. It turns out she was supposed to be on the plane that crashed, but she was called off at the last minute to deal with the robbery of a client's house. She's the victim's attorney and the point of contact should anything happen to his priceless art and weapons collection. Nick soon realizes the robbery and Julia's murder are connected, so as he continues through the day in reverse, he has to figure out how to stop the robbery as well as find her killer. Then there's the plane crash--how does that fit into the puzzle?

The story isn't exactly a complex one, especially in the beginning, though it is a bit confusing to figure out the time line while simultaneously trying to learn the rules of time-shifting. Along with Nick, the reader has to remember Who knows what when. Can Nick really change the future? How do his actions affect what had already happened? Will he change the future for the better, or is Julia destined to die no matter what? However, by the end of the book, you probably won't care too much about the minutia because the clues come faster and Nick literally runs out of time to save his wife. Nick does philosophize with his friend Marcus about what he is doing and whether he really can change the future, and while some of this slows down the action, it also allows the reader to ponder destiny versus free will as well. Some details are repeated, which can also bog down the story, but generally another character has taken the stage and so the reader is getting a different perspective. In all, this book is well written and provides a neat twist to the usual mystery. Stick with it through the first three chapters or so and you'll be hooked.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Review: "The Children's Day" by Michiel Heyns

The Children's Day was published several years ago in South Africa, the author's homeland, but it didn't come out in the United States until 2009. It's fiction, but it reads like an autobiography. Readers who enjoy learning about other cultures should give it a try as well as people who like coming of age stories.

Michiel Heyns opens the book in 1968 with Simon, thirteen, and his private school teammates receiving an offer from another school to play in a tennis tournament. The boys scoff at the idea because they perceive this other school as being inferior, but their coach persuades them to accept. As the day arrives and they meet the tennis team, Simon realizes he knows one of the players. His name is Fanie van den Bergh. The two had been classmates back in Simon's hometown, and this unexpected meeting triggers distant memories. The story then is divided between flashbacks from primary school and the present tennis match as Simon ruminates on several life-altering episodes, many of which involve Fanie.

Narrator Simon is an adult reflecting back on his child self as he navigates the world of his small village. Encounters with girls, favorite teachers, feared teachers, a stranger who comes to town on a motorcycle, the telephone operator who refuses to speak her standard phrases in Afrikaans before repeating them in English, and the dour veterinarian who has to deal with a potentially rabid meerkat all leave their impressions on young Simon. Mostly silent Fanie--dirty, poor, emotionless, simple Fanie--also affects Simon in ways he doesn't even understand until the evening after their tennis match, when Simon comes to an understanding of himself in a literal thunder and lightning storm.

Simon must also figure out where he fits in his country fragmented by apartheid. Though his parents are both white, his mother is Afrikaner and his father English, and Simon never feels quite accepted by either culture. He doesn't meet many Bantus, or blacks, but there is still an undercurrent of white supremacy from some of the town leaders. Race itself is not a big factor in this story, but the sense of belonging, which permeates and transcends all cultures, is important. Simon would rather read than play sports, although he is good at tennis. However, even that sets him apart as most of his classmates prefer rugby. He does his best to come to terms with who he is and to think for himself. Near the end of the book he must make a difficult choice and then accept the consequences. He also must face his true feelings about Fanie and reconcile his childhood with the adulthood he is stepping into.

Heyns is a perceptive writer, able to describe childhood emotions and reactions while at the same time looking at them from a wiser adult's viewpoint. He chooses scenarios that refine the process of growing up, scenarios that most people can relate to because they also experienced them. Maybe the details are different, but we all learned the same lessons about self-identity and what it means to be mature.

Other South African authors:
Alan Paton
Nadine Gordimer
J. M. Coetzee

AllMusic.com

Have you ever needed to look up a song to find out what album it's on or who sang it? Do you want to see all the albums by your favorite band? Are you into classical music and you'd like to know how many times a certain piece has been recorded? Check out allmusic.com.

This site isn't new, but it is very powerful. Everything from jazz and R&B to Latin and classical is here. There are blogs to follow as well as a music gift guide.

Searching is easy - just type what you're looking for into the box at the top of the screen. Depending on your search you may see a long list of results with the most relevant at the top. Click the one you want, and you'll then get all kinds of information including a biography of the band/artist, discography, and awards. Entries are generally of decent length, like several paragraphs, and there are links everywhere so it's easy to find related information. You might even be able to listen to a snippet of a song.

The advanced search isn't really more complex; it just walks you through your search. Depending on your choices, you'll get more options until the "Go" button appears, which is what triggers the search. One cool thing you can do though is search text mentions. You won't get liner notes, but if your search term shows up in an allmusic.com review or article, you'll get to see that.

So now that you've found a CD, how do you know if you can purchase it or not? This may seem obvious, by try Amazon.com. You can try searching with allmusic.com's catalog number, but album title and/or artist may be the best option. Amazon also is pretty comprehensive in finding albums and song titles, and often you can hear about 30 seconds of a song. If an mp3 file is okay for you, you can possibly purchase one and have the music on your computer almost instantly. Otherwise, you'll have to order the CD. If it's not in print anymore, Amazon may have suggestions of online sellers.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Books and Book Clubs

Even if you don't belong to a book club, these websites can be helpful in choosing something to read. And if you do belong to a club, here are a few places to get suggested titles as well as discussion questions.

ReadingGroupGuides.com - Blogs, polls, recommended reading, Oprah's books...it's all right on the homepage. And if that wasn't enough, the menu across the top has even more stuff, like information on starting a book club, a newsletter, and discussion guides. Some books published in the last couple of years or so may have guides in the back as well as an interview with the author. You can find similar information with this website. If you can't find a guide, there's even a link on the "Find a Guide" menu for help in making up your own questions. Nearly 3000 guides are available here, so you and your group should have plenty to choose from.

Reading Group Choices - This site has similar information but perhaps in a more user-friendly layout. One unique feature is the wine or food suggestions to go with your book. You can join and participate by sending in favorite books. The search box is right on top of the screen for easy access.

BookBrowse - There's a lot here too, from blogs to advice. You can get discussion questions and author interviews and suggested titles. You can search the site on the left or just follow the links. If you join the site, you'll have access to the magazine.

Barnes and Noble and Amazon have sections for book clubs also. (Barnes and Noble makes theirs easy to find, at the top of the homepage. Amazon requires a little searching.) Also don't forget to check author and publisher websites for biographical information and perhaps some background information and maybe discussion questions.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Web Searching Skills

I've written posts on Bing, Yahoo, and Google, so if  you found those helpful, you might also like this blog from the Web Search Guide. (Thanks for Stephen's Lighthouse for the link.) There's all kinds of information on search engines you've never heard of, so check it out. You might just find a new favorite. For search basics, try the Web Search Guide homepage. The center section has some good stuff if you're new to Internet searching or if you want a refresher.

More Good Reading

So you've checked the websites I mentioned previously. Where else can you go to find stuff to read? Here are three more suggestions.

Fresh Fiction helps you find new genre fiction. You can search for authors or titles (to see a list of titles in a particular genre, click "Advanced Search," then select what you want from the drop-down menu and click "Search" without typing anything else), see reviews, or enter contests. Follow updates on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, subscribe to the newsletter, or keep current with the blog. You can register, but it's not necessary to search the site.

Good Reads and LibraryThing are similar in that you can create an account and add titles to your library, tagging them and writing reviews. You can see what other people are reading and get ideas for what you want to read next. They let  you be part of a community of readers, sharing what you like. (I'm on LibraryThing. Check out my bookshelf.)

What other reading or book websites do you like?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Finding Good Reading

If you've found yourself enjoying a new author and want to find the rest of the titles in the series, try What's Next. This database comes from Kent District Library in Michigan and is quite handy at generating lists of series titles--in order.

The search box is straightforward. Put in a title, author, or series. You can specify reading level or genre, but generally doing a simple search will be enough to get you your list. Results are shown by author, then series. Keep clicking the plus sign until you get the list of titles. Clicking a book title brings you to the Kent District Library catalog so you don't need to go that far; just write down the titles or copy them to a file so you can search your own library's catalog or browse your favorite bookstore's shelves.

Another useful website is Fantastic Fiction. It's based in England so you can find UK information for many books and authors (like series titles and book covers that might be different from one side of the Atlantic to the other), but there's also tons of US info as well. You can search or browse the site directly, but you might also come across it when searching Google as it gets high rankings in Google's algorithm. Fantastic Fiction includes some brief descriptions as well as lists.


Google itself is a good place to start your series search. Most authors have their own websites, although there are still a few who rely on their publishers for their web presence, and you can usually easily find lists of titles and series order. Search either for the author's name or the series name, or perhaps some combination of both.

If you have a library card, check with your local library and see if they subscribe to NoveList. This is a great resource for finding books for all ages. You can search by title, author, subject, series, or keyword ("Describe a Plot"). Once you find a book you like, you can ask NoveList to show you similar books by checking off descriptors that you definitely want included and ones that probably want included. Book reviews are available. Also available are author-readalikes, awards lists, and suggested reading. You can even create an account for yourself and build your own lists.

The capability exists to search your library's catalog directly from NoveList, but not all library systems have enabled this feature. Check with your local librarian for more information.

Another resource to ask about at your library is Fiction Connection. You can see what it looks like, but in order to actually find anything you'll need a library card from a participating library. Once inside, you can search or browse. You can find similar titles to ones you like or broaden your reading experience by looking for books you might not normally pick up. Book reviews are included.

With all these options, you never have an excuse that you have nothing to read.