Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Stars and Strikes by Dan Epstein

Why I Read It: Read Big Hair and Plastic Grass, and grooved on it.

Summary: Major League Baseball and the summer of 1976.

My Thoughts: I lived it - barely. To be truthful, I can't say that I remember anything specifically about the 1976 baseball season - I had just turned five years old - but just about everything about it is familiar.

I remember the names, especially those of the Red Sox. I remember hearing about Mark Fidrych from friends. But I definitely have no memories of Reggie Jackson in a Baltimore Orioles uniform. My earliest memories of him are with the Yankees.

But, I had the baseball cards.

Dan Epstein brings the season back to life, straight form the faces of those Topps cards, from the shaggy locks of Randy Jones (remember the card of him with his hat flying off?) to the mutton chops, from the stark white and black collared shirts of the White Sox to the rainbow of colors being worn around the leagues. He mixes in the stories of the Bicentennial, when America celebrated its founding with event after event, some of which went well, some, not so much. He revels in the music of the summer, of the slow birth of Disc, the emergence of FM rock, the growth of punk. He wraps it all into the baseball season, following the stories of owners like Bill Veeck and Ted Turner (and, of course, George Steinbrenner), managers like Billy Martin and Walter Alston, and players like George Foster, Thurman Munson and so many more that it makes your head spin with beloved nostalgia. If you love the game like I do, you'll remember most immediately, but a few names will make you say, "Holy crap...I almost forgot about that guy."

The book has no choice but to be funky in the best of ways. Every Mick Schmidt home run, George Brett ripped single and Pete Rose slap double, every twist of El Tiante's wind-up screams the '70s in its multi-hued, brash, outspoken glory.

We all know the ending - Big Red Machine over the Yanks - but this book is not about the ending. It's about enjoying the ride. And it's a top-down, slow cruise through the neighborhood with Boston's "More Than a Feeling" blaring at unacceptable levels.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

So Close to Home by Michael Tougias and Alison O'Leary

Why I Read It: Michael is an acquaintance, and a good guy. I read everything he publishes.

Summary: A family leaving Central America in the early days of World War II meets with disaster at sea.

My Thoughts: We've moved on from World War II in many ways, but, there's one thing I've always found odd about the way that we have treated its history. The average, knee-jerk reaction to the notion that German U-boats were off our coasts is unequivocally negative. There's no way they were here, I've been told time and again.

Perhaps it was the wartime press blackouts, the fact that newspapers and magazines and radio stations stayed away form publishing such news, at the urging of the federal government. But they were there, and there are hundreds of American families who can claim lost loved ones off our very own coasts thanks to U-boat attacks.

Tougias and O'Leary detail the pathways of the U-boats lurking in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 1942 with exact precision, recapturing the horrors of the true terror attacks of World War II. Survivors tell of explosions, abandoning ship, and strange encounters with U-boat captains who say they are sorry, but this is war, before delivering cigarettes and even baked goods to survivors in life rafts.

This story focuses on one family and their struggle to remain alive and together after the freighter on which they are heading home is torpedoed. It captures the darkness of the spring of 1942, when the U-boats controlled the seas, taking out ships at will, racking up tonnage at an alarming rate. The Germans celebrated their U-boat heroes; the Americans lived in abject fear of them.

Yes, the U-boat threat was real off the American coast in World War II. Let Tougias and O'Leary prove to you how real it was.

Project Puffin by Stephen W. Kress and Derrick Z. Jackson

Why I Read It: For many years, I led puffin trips.

Summary: The story of the reestablishment of the southernmost breeding colony of Atlantic Puffins in the United States.

My Thoughts: This book was a long time in coming. Those of us in the field, leading the birding trips throughout the northeast, had long associated Steven Kress with this amazing tale. We knew when we stepped onto the islands off the coast of Maine that miracles had happened in the world of Atlantic Puffins,

The trips I used to lead were not on the islands on which Kress worked so diligently, but much farther north, on Machias Seal Island, on the Maine-Canda border (the island is disputed). There's much that I could tell about our adventures out there, but they'd be extraneous to this tale, Suffice to say, a puffin colony is a different world, when mixed with a few Razorbills and a couple of Common Murres, perhaps Arctic Terns diving at your head as you make your way to the viewing blinds. I miss it.

Kress had a epiphany after reading that some Maine islands had formerly held puffin breeding colonies, but that those colonies had gone extinct, or, probably more accurately, had been extirpated. He thought something had to be done, but what? How could one attract a species back to a location on which it once thrived, but that was now overwhelmed by predators? Sure, the big problem had gone away, humans weren't hunting them any more, but gulls had moved in, gulls that would love to snack on "pufflings" before or after they came out of their eggs.

Kress believed that translocation of young puffins could lead to an eventual breeding colony. Puffin chicks raised on the island would, theoretically come back. But nobody had tested the theory. He set out to do so, and, in turn, changed the seabird colony restoration world.

This book details the journey, almost chick by chick, from the start in the 1970s to similar restoration projects taking place around the world today. It's a story of perseverance, above all else. It's a tale with a happy ending, so far, as who knows what will pop up next to endanger these little birds? So, let's celebrate it with Steven Kress while we can. He deserves it more than any of us can ever imagine.

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 autobiography...to 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.