Sunday, January 25, 2015

King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Why I Read It: Had to remember how they laid out the whole lunar eclipse thing, having read it in college.

Summary: An adventurer joins a party looking for a man lost in Africa, and ends up wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but only after much, much more adventure!

My Thoughts: So, we have to put ourselves in 1885 when we read this book. Cool. I dig mental time travel. I can do that.

We have to not only take with a grain of salt the simplicity of the tale compared with today's standards, we have to also live with the fact that this was a man's adventure. Although Allen Quatermain, our hero, from time to time surprises us with a slightly open view of the world (hinting that he would accept a mixed black/white relationship while the rest of the world might not be ready for it), there are no women involved in the story as far as the main effort goes. There are witches, there is Gagool, and there are young handmaidens of the fairest kind, but there is no heroine.

We also have to remember the excitement the "opening" of Africa meant in the 19th century. We have to remember that popular adventure fiction was generally young. In fact, this book kicked off the "Lost World" genre. Suspension of disbelief was in its infancy in the English-speaking nations (though I would say that anybody who had their hands on a copy of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from 1818 was probably already in practice).

So what sticks today? The names, for one. What a fantastic job by Haggard! "Allen Quatermain" sounds like a man wearing cargo shorts and a pith helmet. Sir Henry and Captain Good as companions round out the British trio. They may as well have been in the opening scene of a Commander McBragg cartoon ("Quite.") Umbopa becomes Ignosi, the names of the man who returns to become king of Kukuanaland (all great names!), and the evil witch doctoress Gagool, well, doesn't it just send shivers right up your spine? The only name of which I wasn't really enamored was Twala, the reigning king, who just didn't seem evil enough, but his son more than makes up for it. Would you trust someone named Scragga?

Then, there is the total manliness of the story: plunging headlong into the journey knowing it would end on the death of all three; survival against all odds; donning ancient chain mail to participate in an epic battle that reshapes the world of the Kukuanas; the overthrow and installation of kings; the search for the treasure; the blatant use of sexual imagery (pointing to two distant mountains and calling them Sheba's Breasts, then charging into a cave at the base of them); the dramatic manner in which two of the three native guides die; the ruse of pretending to be from the stars, and happening to be in the exact right place for viewing a total lunar eclipse when you're in need of a sign of your other-worldliness; being trapped by Gagool in the mines, getting down to a single ignitable match, then finding your way out in the darkness; I could go on. About halfway through the story you just learn that anything is possible.

Man, do I love this story. It's so deep that I don't think I'll bother to ever watch a movie rendition. Why ruin it?

Gilgamesh, A Verse Narrative by Herbert Mason

Why I Read It: Flashback to 5th grade; I'll explain.

Summary: The epic story of the hero Gilgamesh, as told in this one man's translation.

My Thoughts: Yes, 5th grade. Mr. McSweeney read the narrative (a narrative; for some reason I assume that it was this one) to us as a group, as part of our social studies exploration of the cradle of civilization, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. You know, the Fertile Crescent. It's amazing how much has stuck with me since that time.

Anyway, I have vivid memories of the reading, because one of my classmates, a true goofball if there ever was one, stood at the front of the class and acted out the narration. Every time Mr. McSweeney read the word "Humbaba," the name of the early enemy of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, my classmate would furrow his brow, suck in all the air he could, move his shoulders up and out in the "I'm HUGE!" pose and stomp clumsily around the room. And so, recently, while cataloging my book collection, I came across a paperback copy of the Mason narrative, which I probably purchased more than a decade ago with the intent of reading through the entire story, refreshing my 9-year-old experiences. It took until 2015 (I was in 5th grade in 1980-81) but here we are.

There is so much about this story that is simply amazing, and I mean that in the sincerest way. Consider the age of it. Sorry, trick question - we don't know how old it is. What we do know is that the story is timeless, a theme that carries through the ages and relates from the ancient Mesopotamians to today. That, in itself, is worthy of an "amazing" in my eyes.

But take the second piece, that the text wasn't even found until the mid-1800s, on tablets, and the story appeared only in fragments at that time. Parts had to be chased around the world from other sources to make it all come together, and in the end, it came to this one man - a Massachusetts man, I might add (proudly) - to create the beautifully flowing epic narrative that I have just read.

This story was saved. What has been lost?

The transformation of Gilgamesh is invigorating, and then heartrending, from hated ruler to beloved friend, to sorrowful and vulnerable man. He, as a part-god, faces death for the first time in his life when Enkidu is taken from him. It haunts him, causing him to go to the ends of the earth for answers, first, for how to get Enkidu back, and then for why he can't. This is pre-U.S. sitcoms. There is no happy ending. We are left with his despair, and it stings.

One odd note that struck me during the reading was the mention of Uruk, an important city of Sumer and Babylonia, ruled at one time by Gilgamesh. Tolkien's nastiest orcs are called Uruk-hai; a tribute to the Gilgamesh? It would be interesting to go back and peek into his mind. He could have intended it for their fierceness as warriors, but I am totally conjecturing.

Finally, I think I'm learning that I love epics. Beowulf is still my all-time favorite, but Gilgamesh pulled at my heart. I think I need to read a few more.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Old Coast Road from Boston to Plymouth by Agnes Edwards Rothery

Why I Read It: Some backyard history; I cover the same region for a magazine.

Summary: From Beacon Hill to Plymouth Rock by automobile in 1920; one very opinionated woman's thoughts.

My Thoughts: Well, I have never been so insulted by a 95-year-old book in my life.

But it's all relative, of course. Taking time, place and economic class into perspective, it was inevitable. And in reality it was only one comment, which made me laugh out loud with a "Hey, what's up with that?!" In discussing the changes to the Boston neighborhoods in the first two decades of the twentieth century, the author comments that the North End hadn't fared as well as others, inhabited then as they were by the "sons of Abraham and the Italians."

I'd like to think that we have moved past such things, so I'll give Ms. Rothery a pass on this one. Quite frankly, it's her sort of ridiculous frankness that makes the book so interesting. For instance, she has no problem telling us that the history of one of the towns on the road from Boston to Plymouth, Weymouth, is painfully boring. She felt that the first few years of Morton and Merrymount were the pinnacle of Weymouth history, that the next few centuries were drab. If only she could see the town now, after a naval air station has come and gone. Boring is hardly the word.

She also points to the old Plymouth records she had access to, and makes a case that the people of the 1920s were less lecherous, generally higher brow than even the Pilgrims. She describes the old portico over Plymouth Rock as horrid (it would be replaced within two years of publication of the book, so maybe she had a point).

While most of the book is hyperbole built off solid history lessons, one sentence she used caused me to think vividly. Imagine Plymouth Harbor, she pleaded, with naught but a small shallop in it. I couldn't. The Plymouth waterfront bustles all throughout the year - people, cars, boats, birds - and thus she stumped me. I couldn't fathom what it must have meant for the Pilgrims to watch the Mayflower disappear over the horizon.

In the end, the book was a lesson in historiography as well as anything else. There's no special depth to it as a history book, but it reads as at least a primer on the history of the South Shore towns, and makes for a fun trip down a familiar road, for me, at least.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard by John Branch

Why I Read It: Hockey is in my blood.

Summary: The life of an enforcer in the NHL; how he got there from small town roots, and what finally brought him down.

My Thoughts: I can never look at professional hockey, a sport I love, the same way again.

I knew it when I was a kid. I wasn't smart enough to say it, but I knew it. I was sitting in the stands of a hockey game in Montreal, watching the Bruins and Canadiens, as a pre-teen. A man doing a survey stuck a microphone in my face and asked about fighting in hockey. I said "It's part of the game, it's always been there, always will be." But then, moments later, when I really thought about it, I reflected on the recent Olympic games. It boasted the best hockey I had ever seen - and by that age, it was a considerable amount - and there was no fighting. Yet there, down on the ice, Jay Miller and Lyndon Byers were squaring off with John Kordic and Steve Fletcher, and the place was going nuts.

Now that I've read this book, I'm done with fighting in hockey.

There's a simple common sense notion to it all. They're fighting! How stupid is that? We let them square off and pummel each other, often just because that's what those particular players excel at. They can't score, they can't pass, heck, some of them can't even skate that well (yes, I'm speaking relatively; they did make it to the NHL, after all). In no other team sport do we stand by and let two athletes punch the hell out of each other until one is knocked to the surface. It's just plain dumb.

And what comes of it? Derek Boogaard had wounds on his hands that reopened repeatedly. His nasal passages had been crushed so many times trainers sat on his chest and tried to wrestle his nose back into position. Shoulders, knees, back, all ached. And the head...that's where it completely unravels for me.

We're in the concussion age. We - apparently everybody but the NHL - take it seriously when a head injury occurs. Yes, if someone gets dinged on the ice and shows obvious signs of a potential concussion, he's removed from the game, most of the time temporarily. But what about the guy who gets in a fight and has his face punched repeatedly by a 250-pound man? Five minutes in the penalty box, back on the ice as soon as he can be. Gotta be tough. Can't let them see you wince, otherwise you might lose your job.

Derek suffered one hell of a concussion during his last fight, never returning to a game. He took pills, from wherever he could get them, and as a pro athlete, he had no problem obtaining them by the hundreds: sleep aids, pain killers, narcotics. He got them from team doctors and he got them from dealers. He ultimately killed himself with them.

The author paints a picture of a man-child who never fully matured, a two-time rehab failure who couldn't get past denial. His size pushed him to places he never should have gone; he wasn't talented enough to be a top level pro hockey player. But in his day and time, in his moment, enforcers were called for, and roster spots were opened up to men like him instead of goal scorers and playmakers. We're still in that age, and many of the men he bloodied his own knuckles against are still playing, being paid millions of dollars to give each other concussions, robbing each other - and their families - of the future.

The Boogaards did a wonderful thing by donating Derek's brain to the Sports Legacy Institute for study, furthering the knowledge of CTE and its effects. Had Derek lived, with the condition his brain was in, he would have suffered from dementia in the 30s. Hopefully his case pushes us out of this dark age of hockey.

Hockey, at its best, is a beautiful sport. I can't even begin to describe the feeling I get watching a well executed breakout melding into an odd-man rush culminating in a scoring opportunity. And the finality of that moment, whether it comes as a jaw-dropping save or a netted puck, is equally as exquisite. Yet, we stop it all to allow two men grab each other's shirts and pound the hell out of each other. What a waste - of a good game, and otherwise good human lives.

I hope Derek rests in peace, and I hope his family finds it, too. And I hope that someday, very soon, the NHL figures a way out of this barbaric idiocy. We see the fists fly, we see the momentum change, and we think it's all good. We don't see the dark side, until we read books like this one.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Life in a Medieval Village by Joseph and Frances Gies

Why I Read It: Aside from latent Anglophilia, one of my earliest passions centered on medieval history.

Summary: A snapshot view of the village of Elton, Huntingdonshire, England in the Middle Ages, representative of the village system as it stood at that time.

My Thoughts: The Gies just had a way of simplifying the history of the Middle Ages for broad public consumption through their light, easy-flowing writing style. But I think there is a hidden secret to their success.

They are among the greatest medievalists to ever work in the field, the irony being that they lived in Michigan (which has become a hotbed of medieval studies in the United States). The time period they study in this book, the 11th to 14th centuries or so, represented "pre-history" in the United States, as ugly a term as there ever was. But in England it was decades, then centuries after the invasion of William the Conqueror. New forms of governance were coming to light, the first steps on the road to modern types of government. The open field village was one of those steps.

That said, enter the sauciness.

Many of the documents available to medievalists studying small communities like Elton consist of court records, in whatever form the "courts" were in those days. Little about daily life was recorded - do you like to journal about your laundry? and if so, have you sent a copy to the local historical society? - so much of what we know about the norms of medieval life are drawn from records of the abnormalities. Murder, rape, theft, drunkenness, hamsoken (assaulting someone in their own home), all of these items were recorded in sometimes lecherous detail. And it makes for great reading.

This book centers on one representative village, and is almost a screenplay unto itself. The first houses are built, the roads laid out, the church constructed. Harvest fairs are held, taxes are paid, livestock are stolen, crops rotated. The community gathers at hallmote ("hall meeting") and decides what's best for the village, knowing that the lord always has final say. Births, marriages, deaths race past until that fateful day when the Black Plague strikes the countryside. There are not enough people left to harvest the fields. The mills fall to pieces, with no one to repair them. The village we came to know and love is all but lost, to arise again and become today's community. Wooden buildings fall, hardier stone-based structures rise. The main road that ran through town became today's B671; Middle Street ran west to the manor house of the lord.

One of the most intriguing notions I gained from this book is the possibilities of aerial archaeology, using photography from planes to locate ancient villages, like that at Wharram Percy. With Google Maps and Google Earth, we have greater resources at our own fingertips to do this at any time we like. The Gies wrote this book in 1990, after 21 years of other work in the field, and did not have access to such technologies at the time. But it's a race against development, as our bulging population continues its inexorable march to the decimation of the countryside.

Their overarching premise that the village system was unique in history is well-stated. One can hardly imagine living under the system as it was, but then, we weren't there then. It might have seemed as natural as small-town life feels to us today.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Baseball Economist by J.C. Bradbury

Why I Read It: Bought it at the MIT Press bookstore; and I'm still looking for a baseball book I don't like.

Summary: Looking deeply between the numbers at baseball, finding true value, missed opportunities, etc.

My Thoughts: I've always been one of those people who has thought that sabermatricians are doing a lot to tear down the fun of baseball, much like fantasy football players have done to that sport. But I haven't stood outside of my front door and yelled at them all to get off my lawn or anything like that; far from it. In fact, I'm a stat geek. I've always just thought that there's room for a basic, pure love of the game that should not be forsaken. There's nothing like the anticipation of a long fly ball edging its way toward the fence, then the exuberance that erupts when it crosses that line. The immediate reaction should be "YEAH!" and not, "Well, that's going to do wonders for his OPS."

But I do think that once we step outside the stadium and reduce major league baseball players to heaps of numbers (which we do), there is a lot of fascinating information therein. And, true to the title, the author does expose some, like why Bartolo Colon never should have won his Cy Young Award and why Derrek Lee was stiffed out of an MVP.

The author digs into many long-term nagging questions about baseball, some of which bring up questions of my own. For example, the author goes into pretty fine detail about the advantages and disadvantages of left and right-handedness behind the plate, debunking the old notion, for instance, that left-handed-throwing catchers can't throw runners out trying to steal third base. Steals of third happen so rarely, and generally are not worth the gamble anyway, that having a left-handed catcher would hardly influence a game, or a season. He mentions that right-handed catchers have no problem throwing to first, but fails to mention that nobody ever tries to steal first. The timing is different when you're just trying to pick somebody off. But there are more issues to be raised.

First, when a catcher attempts to throw out a runner stealing a base, he is in his stance to catch the ball for quick release well before the pitch arrives. Whether he's righty or lefty, the mechanics are the same, and the results should be the same.

The problem arises with the handedness of the batter. The major leagues have a preponderance of right-handed hitters. When a runner steals second and a right-handed catcher jumps up to throw, most of the time the batter at the plate is right-handed, meaning that the catcher has a clear path to throw the ball. For a left-handed catcher, most of the time the batter is in the way. That, to me, would be a hindrance. And the fact is that when baseball was young, there were very few left-handers in general. One writer, Bugs Baer, wrote in 1923 about the lack of left-handed catchers, saying that this was in fact the reason, that before they were so policed, batters would make hell for a left-handed catcher trying to throw to second.

The author brings up a Bill James quote at the end of the chapter, in which James states that since there are so few left-handed throwing major leaguers, teams should prize the best arms, which they do, by not using them as catchers, but instead as pitchers. But there's more to pitching than just a live arm. Without control and accuracy, a 95 mph fastball is for naught.

So, in the end, as far as the left-handed catcher question goes, I am just not convinced, at least by this argument.

As for other topics: The author dedicates a chapter to the big market vs. small market question (does a large population guarantee success?), and in the end states that the belief in the idea is misleading. Yes, a large fanbase can have an effect (i.e., New York, population 18 million, should outplay Kansas City, ten times smaller, as the former can afford to pay for better talent), but that other factors are involved outside of money. True. But he misses one. "The bigger problem appears to be inept management of a few clubs that happen to be smaller market teams." Doesn't it stand to reason that if a team can't afford to pay top notch baseball talent, that it also can't afford to pay top notch managerial, administration and baseball operations personnel as well? Can't "inept management" fall right back under the small market blues?

One question I'd really like answered is sudden regional variability. Why does the NFC South go south? Why does the Western Conference dominate the NBA right now? Is it just pure coincidence that all of the teams in one NHL division can, for lack of a better word, suck at the same time? Do teams generally attempt to build their rosters to defeat their nearest neighbors, just to "get in the tournament" and worry about the big prizes at the end later?

I think I could go on and on, but will stop here.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Birds of Pandemonium by Michele Raffin

Why I Read It: Free copy sent to the nature center at which I work; the front desk staff thought I would be the one who would give it the best review.

Summary: A woman finds and cares for an injured dove and discovers her passion.

My Thoughts: Oh, the obsession. It's an amazing thing that birds do to us. The sheer number of species in the world has driven birders to the very ends of the earth in search of glimpses of each and every one. Although this book uses a number in the 9000s, other estimates suggest 11,000 or more species may be out there.

In this case, it's birds brought home that have done the damage. It's incredible that the author has kept her marriage; I've seen and read about more than one that has died on the vine in the face of an avian obsession. Michele started small, and didn't heed the advice of other breeders. Before she knew it, she had aviary after aviary filled with injured, abandoned and otherwise down-on-their-luck birds, from parrots to pigeons to parakeets. The common link? Exotic and/or endangered. My diagnosis? An overexercised nurturing instinct.

But Michele did the right thing (in my opinion, of course) and turned her passion for breeding, raising and rescuing birds into a nonprofit organization. Why not? She always had a mission, so why not legitimize it with 501(c)(3) status? The work she was already doing can now be supported by grants, and by the work of volunteers.

The question for me whenever I read about an exoctics rescue system is why? The United States has plenty of species of birds that are declining or disappearing. Golden-winged Warblers, quite common forty years ago in my home state of Massachusetts, are all but gone. In ten years of birding, I've never seen one. Bachman's Warblers may be gone as well, the last one seen in Virginia possibly in the 1960s. Red Knots, shorebirds that once flew in huge numbers up and down the East Coast, are nearly as rare as those Golden-wings, destroyed by our greed for horseshoe crabs as a bait source; the Knots ate their eggs as sustenance for their migrations. Don't they all deserve a home?

But, reading this book, it struck me. When I think in terms of "native" species, I think the U.S., but in fact, at this point in world history, as we sit in the middle of the sixth great extinction of life on earth, "native" means much more. The birds of Pandemonium, from the Green-naped Pheasant-pigeons to the Lady Ross' Turacos (one pictured on the cover of the book), are native to our planet. Everything else has gone global these days, why shouldn't conservation?