Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Lost Hero of Cape Cod by Vincent Miles

Why I Read It: The author requested a review for Sea History magazine.

Summary: The life and times of Asa Eldridge of Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, a sea captain who did it all.

My Thoughts: The author contends that the sea captains who broke transatlantic speed records during the middle of the 1800s are an overlooked class of American heroes, and he is absolutely right.

There is a lot to consider when examining the era. Transatlantic packets had been operating for a long time, and would linger for years after major technological changes in the shipbuilding industry came along that marginalized their usage. The British were ahead of the U.S. as far as steam technology was concerned, but the Americans had better sailing ship designs. And so the race was on, for many reasons: the mail, news and passenger delivery, hidden military agendas. The two countries had been at war twice within modern memory, so it only made sense to keep the need to cross the ocean quickly in warships in the back of one's mind.

Eldridge, amazingly, took the helm of transatlantic packets, transatlantic steamers and clipper ships, playing a major role in the dropping of the crossing time from a month to just over nine days. We can't imagine it now, but consider an America that had to wait for a month to get news from Europe. Then imagine what it must have been like to have that shrunk down to about a week. It must have seemed like the world was spinning faster than anyone ever imagined it could.

The author does a magnificent job of pulling together the scant primary source material about Eldridge himself - one letter to a newspaper, a few official documents, etc. - and weaving them into the story of the era. We know, for the most part, what ships he captained (he had seagoing brothers as well, and sometimes they got confused in the press). Throw in the 1849 San Francisco gold rush, the Australian gold rush, the idea of cutting a canal through Central America, and you have an engaging saga about the seas in the middle of the nineteenth century. Still, there remains an air of mystery around Asa Eldridge, which, unfortunately, continues through his death at sea.

We've made heroes of much lesser Americans. Asa Eldridge and his contemporaries deserve far more recognition for the growth of early America than they currently receive.

Monday, May 23, 2016

One Wild Bird at a Time by Bernd Heinrich

Why I Read It: Grabbed from the Amazon Vine program; I loved Winter World.

Summary: Heinrich investigates the lives of several species of birds living near his cabin in Maine.

My Thoughts: Heinrich has done it again. Mostly what he has done is he has caused the world to slow down for just a few minutes and see it the way that he does, one piece of data at a time. The stories of each species he covers focus on the tight confines of his woods in Maine. He spends his days like I hope to some day, taking long observations and thinking deeply about what he sees. Why do redpolls burrow into the snow? How does a red-breasted nuthatch build its nest? Oftentimes, he challenges us to take the unexpected turn in the way we think, to challenge conventional wisdom.

Just as often, he makes us laugh with his experimentation techniques. When a black-capped chickadee slams into a window on his cabin and dies, he doesn't just let it become food for another bird, or even give it a "proper" burial; he skins it and examines the contents of its guts to find out what species of caterpillars it's been eating. When he wants to find out whether or not a ruffed grouse is more apt to create a subnivian burrow in an area where others already exist, he tests his theory by taking a dead bantam rooster on a rope out to a clearing and pitching it head first into the snow, to mimic the grouse's holes.

As someone who has dabbled in citizen science, I bow to the master! This book makes me wish I had more free time to explore the world like Bernd Heinrich does.

Split Season by Jeff Katz

Why I Read It: I lived it, like millions of other baseball fans.

Summary: "Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo and the Strike That Saved Baseball"; the 1981 players' strike and the season that surrounded it.

My Thoughts: In 1981 I was ten years old. I had no reason to be a true baseball fan just yet - my hometown Red Sox weren't exactly lighting the world afire - but I was. It probably had more to do with baseball cards and collecting them than the game itself. I was heading for Little League and the Sox had a few stars to whom I could look up, in that innocent way kids do. Carl Yastrzemski was nearing the end, but Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk and so many others were in their primes.

And then, it came to a halt. The players went on strike. Mind you, it didn't really affect me that much that I can remember. My love for listening to and watching baseball has grown with the years. At that time there was much more to do with my life. But I do have one strong memory of the strike.

I remember listening to the radio one night. The 1981 Sox were taking on...the 1967 Sox. It sounded like so much fun, and due to the magic of radio, it could happen. There was Tony Conigliaro coming to the plate, Jim Lonborg on the mound pitching to Dwight Evans. I'm sure somewhere somebody had pulled out the old Strat-O-Matic and come up with the game result, but there was one obvious human touch. At one point in the game, I can't remember when, Carl Yastrzemski came to the plate (1981 Yaz). Before the first pitch was thrown, 1967 Yaz motioned to the right fielder that he wanted to switch positions, from left to right. And there it was. 1981 Yaz swung and launched a mighty drive to right, way back, toward the bullpen, and 1967 Yaz leaped and robbed himself of a future home run! I may not have understood what was going on with baseball, but I knew I had just witnessed history that could never happen.

Katz brings us back there, to the days when Fernando Valenzuela turned baseball on its head, looking skyward all the way. Back to Pete Rose's all-time National League hit record, and Garry Templeton's ousting from the Cardinals. And he brings us into the backroom haranguing that eventually settled the dispute between players and owners, Marvin Miller and Ray Grebey. It was not baseball's last labor dispute, but it was one with major ramifications for many parties involved. That included the fans, many of whom walked away and only came back in a very gradual way, if they did at all. In the long run, the strike helped baseball, but in the short term, it made for some tough days.

So Anyway by John Cleese

Why I Read It: I kind of had no choice. John Cleese wrote it.

Summary: Cleese's a point.

My Thoughts: Just like everybody else who read it, I suspect, I got to a point in the book where I said, "Oh my god...he's not going to do Python."

Cleese is an amazing writer. It helps that we all have his voice in our heads. I actually feel that there are books that need no audiobook companions, because we can already hear the voice, the inflection, the cadence. When we read them, it's as if they're being read to us.

That said, I reiterate, Cleese is an amazing writer. Of course, he's been at it for decades. He knows how to string together words in ways that make us laugh, either as Basil Fawlty, Ann Elk or as president of Britain's Well Basically Club. Sure, I was not an innocent and previously disinterested bystander when I picked up the book. I wanted to know as much as I could about the author's life. But many times in the past, I've picked up an autobiography with sweating palms and been deeply disappointed. I walked away from this one enchanted.

We learn where it all began, the stories of mom and dad, and how young John came along. We learn, in more detail than I was expecting, about John's relationship with his mother. We learn, too, origin stories for many of the skits that Monty Python made famous (Cleese was bitten by a rabbit as a kid, for instance). We also learn that not everything we saw on screen was original material, that some skits were tried and true routines from years past that Python simply made famous.

Most of the book is pre-Python, and, in fact, Cleese even admits that he was going to end the book with the formation of the group, but that he couldn't stop there without adding a few final words. He feels he has to, that he cannot call this book complete without sharing some of his deep love and affection for our lost Python, Graham Chapman. It's touching and beautiful. But the book still feels incomplete; or, more precisely, it makes the reader feel like there has to be a follow-up tome.

Python fans, Fawlty Towers fans, even A Fish Called Wanda fans should love this book, as, above all else, it proves that nice guys sometimes do well in this world.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Road to Little Dribblng by Bill Bryson

Why I Read It: Self-diagnosed Anglophilia and a secret desire to be a societally-accepted curmudgeon.

Summary: Bryson repeats himself, walking England a second time, in mostly different places than he visited in Notes from a Small Island.

My Thoughts: I've thought about it myself. I have done 2 1/2 books on walking (the third in process) and I've thought about repeating my steps. When would it be appropriate? After ten years? After twenty? In my case, the topics were open space and nature, and I'm sure that if I returned to some places, things would be tragically different, at least in my eyes. Bryson's topic, generally, was British culture, and he opted for the 20-year approach.

His humor is unmatched in the genre. The pictures he paints are sublimely silly, when he is trying to be funny. But he is more than comedy. He is information and education. He is a statistician that finds deeply relevant numbers to crunch that most of us overlook. And he spews his own form of watchdoggerel (new word! yes!) directed at, well, everybody and anybody. He wants us to all get along, at a good, fair price and for a solid day's effort. He detests corner-cutters and skinflints as well as people who stare logic in the face and stick their tongues out at it.

He takes us back and forth through time, introducing us to some of the lesser known characters of British history, in their estates, in their gardens, in their woods. He visits museums and archaeological wonders, architectural landmarks and every bar and coffee shop in England, usually in that order. He wonders why the British people are the way they are, sometimes figuring it out, oftentimes leaving town with a scribble over his head like a Peanuts character, with a scowl and a few hushed obscenities on his lips. And before you label him as a prima donna or a turd, know that he is as self-deprecating as hell. He starts the book with a slapstick moment in which he is the foil. He knows who he is, and uses it to make us laugh.

If you've read Bryson's travel work before, you know what to expect. If you haven't, read, laugh, learn. If' you're British, read the last 5 to 10 pages to see what he truly believes about England. Treasure him for who he is and what he does, for, if nothing else, he is a conversation catalyst, and conversation drives us toward change and societal improvement.

Now, I sit and wait for the next Bryson book to come out, and continue to ponder how to take my next steps, both as a wanderer and a writer.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Ty Cobb by Charles C. Alexander

Why I Read It: Baseball has been my passion since I was a very small boy. Ty Cobb was a name I grew up with in my head, but I never really knew who he was.

Summary: A true baseball biography, sometimes a game-by-game account.

My Thoughts: Ty Cobb was disliked, and I think that's where I now stand on him after reading this biography. Other people may go much further, to defining him as despicable or hated. I don't think I want to go that far.

Cobb suffered from a ferocious drive that fueled a hatred for the people around him, sometimes even his own teammates. But it was, unfortunately, what ultimately made him so successful on the baseball diamond. He always had to be better than the other guy, and felt he had to constantly prove that he was through his actions. It was him against the world, and he was nasty about it.

He played on the cusp of baseball eras, the Cobbian and the Ruthian. His was a game of bunts and steals and gamesmanship. Ruth's was of swinging for the fences. Stolen bases came back late in the 20th century, and now we live in a sort of blended age (steroids jerked us back to the Babe's game; we're now settling back toward the middle). He hated everything about the new game, and went to his grave thinking that players who played prior to 1920 were the game's all-time greats.

Had he not shown his cutthroat behavior before he made the majors, we might have cut him some slack for what happened on the eve of his coming of age. His mother blew away his father with a shotgun in what was termed an accident. Cobb had fought his whole youth for his father's acceptance, and was about to prove to him once and for all that baseball had been a wise choice, and his dad was taken away in a gruesome, horrifying scene. Naturally, that stayed with Cobb his whole life.

Cobb died a lonely, angry man, leaning toward repentance at the very end, wondering if he'd made the right choices along the way. The author brings out the best and worst of Cobb, and the book sadly tilts toward the latter, but the facts are the facts. Ty Cobb was not a nice man. He did incredible things on the baseball field, and the records books will always tell us so. He became the first independently wealthy star athlete, and he did much to help those around him with his money. I just wish he had seen the error of his ways long before he did, and could have died a happier man.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Birds in the Bush by Bradford Torrey

Why I read it: I lived, for a short time, a stone's throw from the Bradford Torrey Bird Sanctuary in Weymouth, Massachusetts.

Summary: A series of short essays on birdlife around New England in the 1880s.

My Thoughts: Bradford Torrey had that gentlemanly birder way about him, always excusing himself for intruding on the lives of the birds he was seeking. But that was the way it was in the 19th century. If you weren't shooting them and building up huge piles of feathers and bones, you were meandering about gathering behavioral data, on the cutting edge of ornithology (one might say we're still there today; we have so much to learn!).

For those folks who have never read a 19th century birding book, start with the oldest bird ID guide you can find. Eastern Towhees weren't towhees, they were "chewinks." Yellow Warblers weren't warblers, they were Summer Yellow Birds. The names alone add a lyrical bent to the storytelling, sometimes reminding us of the evolution in nomenclature we take for granted.

And, if this is your first foray into Victorian birding in the Boston area, know, too, that not all is the same. Torrey talks of flocks of Fox-colored Sparrows; a single bird spotted today will make your winter. He talks of the rarity of Northern Cardinals, and he was right. They arrived, en masse, as even winterers decades later. And he laments the arrival and overwhelming advance of House Sparrows. We lament it today as well, but he was there to see the transformation, the loss of the cavity nesters, the movement of the sparrows (at that point they were still classified as sparrows, eventually to be recognized as weaver finches, though retaining the name) from the cities and into the suburbs and countryside.

Torrey moves out across New England, to Vermont and New Hampshire, in the days when to do so meant taking a carriage to a train to a - or, the - hotel in a given area. In what has to remain one of the most interesting birding experiences of all time, Torrey rode on a slow-moving flatbed railroad car through the White Mountains' Franconia Notch while sitting on a freshly-made coffin being transported to a - the - hotel for immediate use. Quite frankly, if given the opportunity, I would have done the same thing.

One interesting sidelight to the book is the direct parallels to today. Torrey spends several paragraphs detailing the life of the hunter, how he wantonly kills the birds (as it was in those days) just for sport, and then compares it to his own hobby. Why, he says, am I labeled as the odd one, for just looking at them? Birders still live by this stigma today in America. (Note: Believe me, individual birders give the world plenty of reasons to think they're all nuts, but in truth, they're not).

Torrey's voice is one that is lost to time, but should be right there with Thoreau (whom he championed) and Muir as the great describers of the American wilderness in their days. He was a pen pal of the Isles of Shoals' Celia Thaxter, too, deeply tied into the corps of writers defining New England in the late nineteenth century.