Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Best of the Britcoms by Garry Berman

Why I read it: Uncontrollable Anglophilia.

Summary: One-to-four page synopses and critiques of about 50 of the author's favorite British sitcoms, with other short chapters.

My Thoughts: So I'm halfway there.

I think it all started with Benny Hill. My dad would watch it when we were young, and either it or M*A*S*H* always seemed to be on the television whenever he was home. I had no idea what half of the double entendres meant, but I knew when Benny spliced in the fast action slapstick stuff, most of which ended up with him repeatedly smacking his old bald friend Jackie on the scalp with a very funny slapping noise, I would howl with laughter. From there it was probably Monthy Python in high school and college.

Soon enough, after taking in these forms of gateway British humor, I moved onto Fawlty Towers, strangely, though, through radio. My mother traveled to London and came back with audio cassette versions of the show. John Cleese was the link. And he was the reason I listened to old episodes of ISIRTA on the internet  ("I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again"). From there I was off: Hancock's Half Hour, The Goon Show, Dad's Army, Yes, Minister, To the Manor Born, you name it. I searched the PBS stations locally and came up with Keeping Up Appearances, Are You Being Served?, The Vicar of Dibley, Last of the Summer Wine, As Time Goes By, One Foot in the Grave, Coupling and more. Oftentimes it became the background noise of my life as I performed menial tasks like editing, or cropping photographs for one of my books. In short, I've laughed my way through the past thirty years or so at the expense of the British monarchy, the German army and the French in general.

Ironically, through DNA testing, I've recently found out I'm half British.

According to the British people, or at least those thousands who responded to the BBC's (British Broadcasting Company) poll to find the country's best sitcom, I'm very familiar, through either radio or television, with 25 of the top 50. Strangely, the number one British sitcom of all time, Only Fools and Horses, I've never seen.

And that was the effect of Berman's book on me. Reading through all of the descriptions of the various shows - he didn't stick entirely to the list, choosing to add a few that he, personally, thought had merit - I realized there were several that I now wanted to add to my list.

There's another whole conversation to be had about American vs. British television, why some shows work here and others don't, what themes we might never grasp, why the Brits are able to pull off period sitcoms and we can't, etc. Berman touches on these topics in fun ways. Hos book will now be a reference tool on my shelf as I continue pursuing my love of all things British.

Well, most.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros

Why I read it: I walk, a lot, so when Amazon Vine revealed this book as an option for pre-release review, I jumped at it.

Summary: What is walking, beyond the physical?

My Thoughts: I've written two books on walking, and have walked a lot in preparation for writing other titles on nature. Along the way I've had the opportunity to think both about what I'm seeing and what I'm doing.

I'm a big proponent of immersing myself in nature, in opening all my senses and forgetting the rest of my life for the few precious moments I get alone. Sound callous? So what. Let's face it, we're more connected now than ever, which means we get less solitude than ever. The people important to me are with me on every step, of course, but they share space in my mind with the flowers, butterflies, birds and whatever else I can find.

A lot of times when I walk my mind wanders away from my legs. They can take me down a trail. I can still smell the wildflowers and hear the birdsong, but in my head I'm writing my next book, or wrestling with a burning question or two. Mind you, that burning question has nothing to do with work or family, but may be along the lines of "If red-bellied woodpeckers are moving north with global climate change, will they force out the flickers?"

So each walk I take is a journey unto itself. This, in a way, is what the author attempts to capture in A Philosophy of Walking. He considers Thoreau and his thoughts on walking. He points to Gandhi and his political use of protest walks. He follows Nietzsche on his wanderings. He expounds upon the basics, like gravity, distance, purpose. He shows that walking, though many consider it to be the simplest form of rudimentary transportation, can be so much more.

Needless to say, I'm a believer, as the Monkees once said (now there's a group of philosophers right there!).

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Jeff Corwin's Explorer Series: Sharks

Why I Read It: Met Jeff, and he told me it was coming out. Grew up on a peninsula, too, which helped stoke my interest in everything in the sea as a kid.

Summary: Part life of the sharks of today, part Shark-o-pedia, wriiten for middle schoolers on up.

My Thoughts: I think the one thing I like best about Jeff Corwin's books is their bluntness about natural facts. He has a way of letting the reader know that nature is blunt. If an older sibling feels it needs to kill a younger sibling to survive, it will, heartlessly and wantonly. There are no societal mores at play when it's kill or be killed for survival.

This book is readable by middle schoolers, and as a naturalist at a nature center, I enjoyed thinking about how to use it to teach others about these fascinating creatures, only a few of which I've seen in the wild.

Now onto terrifying facts about sharks.

1. They have what are called ampullae of Lorenzini, sensors that can detect traces of metal, in their heads. When a hammerhead shark waves his head over the ground, he's acting as a metal detector.
2. Sharks probably rest only parts of their brain at a time. That means that white sharks can cruise the oceans without ever really being fully asleep.
3. Some sharks can lose a tooth, and then regenerate it within as little as a day. Oh, great.

But in actuality, your chances of being killed by a shark are 1 in 263,000,000. We've overhyped their dangers since the 1970s, since, you guessed it, Jaws. The real harrowing fact is that we kill them in unfathomable numbers and sadly, we've almost killed them all. They survived the first five great extinctions of life on earth, but as we live through the sixth, we're taking them down. Of the 2,000-3,000 species of sharks known to have been on the planet, we're down to about 400. And there are repercussions. Take out any apex predator and watch as the next level down multiplies.

As an added bonus, this book comes with embedded video, for those with the right platform.

Leaping Lanny: Wrestling with Rhyme by Lanny Poffo

Why I read it: He was one of my favorite wrestlers of all time.

Summary: A collection of poetry that mostly has to do with professional wrestling in the late 1980s.

My Thoughts: So, when I grabbed this one from the Kindle Store, I thought I was getting myself an autobiography. Totally my fault - I just hit send without looking deeply, really because I was so excited to start reading it. I always found Lanny Poffo to be a very interesting character (even beneath the facade of playing a character). He was, I think, the first wrestler I saw doing backflips in the ring. And with his suit of armor, he was perfect for the caricaturish WWF (when it still was the World Wrestling Federation) of the late 1980s. I saw him once in a battle royale at the old Boston Garden wearing it, and when he got tumbled over the top rope, top heavy, I never laughed so hard in my life (who won? King Kong Bundy beat "The Duke of Dorchester" Pete Doherty - yes, my memory can be insane sometimes).

Why poetry? Before his matches, whether a heel or a face (bad guy or a good guy), Lanny would read a poem to the audience, typically about his opponent. He put the words onto frisbees and then flung them into the audience.

Of course, a lot of it was woven into the storyline. He'd end a poem by saying that Jim "The Anvil" Neidhardt had no brain, and Anvil would come across the ring with a double axehandle and crumple him. Despite his obvious physical abilities and his confidence on the microphone in front of a full audience - before many others picked it up - he never went anywhere in the federation. This was during the age of Hulkamania. Size meant everything (still does with WWE). He wasn't a jobber, but he might as well have been, which to me was always a shame. I guess I like rooting for underdogs.

So, many of the poems are pure strolls down memory lane for my 15-year-old self. But there's more. Lanny shares with us several other poems that have to do with his personal life, a few beautifully chosen words here and there. We're not talking about major works of art, though a few lines did strike me right in the heart. And I think it was heartening to know that the poetry on the frisbees wasn't a gimmick, that this actually was part of the life of Lanny Poffo.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Between Man and Beast: A Tale of Exploration & Evolution by Monte Reel

Why I Read It: Reviewed it for the Amazon Vine program, plus it was the perfect blend of nature and history for me.

Summary: The story of Paul Du Chaillu's adventures in Africa in pursuit of gorillas, and his lengthier, nastier encounters with the people of Great Britain.

My Thoughts: What a world we lived in, in those Victorian times.

I wasn't there, of course, but have sometimes been so immersed in research about the time period that it feels like I was. Even so, there are some things I don't think I could ever get used to, like the ideas on race that were widely held at that time. I just have a different baseline, and can't imagine slipping backwards to the baseline of 1855.

Our protagonist, an explorer of dubious origin - especially as it comes to race - sets off to Africa with the intent of bringing back the first gorillas to the civilized western world. He starts with America, where he is basically viewed as a sideshow peddler, and then visits England, where he becomes the most talked about person in the highest circles of London. But where there's fame, there are critics and jealousy. His apparent successes are torn down, his every scientific notion shredded, justly or unjustly. He returns to Africa to try again, and has an epiphany. He trades his guns for scientific observation tools.

The story is part African adventure, part Victorian London navigation. Du Chaillu has to weave his way through minefields of dissent and doubt, even accusations that he may be one of "them" (black) in a world that knew that people of African origin were more animalistic than uiman. It was a world that believed, with almost all of its heart, that black folk were closer kin to gorillas than white folk were to black folk - and, boy, was that world in for a rude awakening in a few short years.

Du Chaillu influenced many writers, including T.H. Huxley, Arthur Conan Doyle and Merian C. Cooper (King Kong). Strangely, Edgar Rice Burroughs is not mentioned, but I would guess that before embarking on the Tarzan saga, he would have at least known of Paul and his work.

Next step? We can go back to the beginning and read Paul's own work, which has been digitized: Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 by Harvey Sachs

Why I Read It: I'm a firm believer in setting the background before telling a story. What was the world around Beethoven like when he composed the Ninth?

Summary: The seminal moments of the year in which Beethoven debuted his Ninth Symphony, and a study of that masterpiece.

My Thoughts: What is it that has made Beethoven's Ninth Symphony stand out over time as one of the most revered pieces of music ever written and performed? Why does it affect us the way it does? Why does the repetitive sixteen-note score, played by different instruments at varying volumes and sung bu different voices, cause us to swell our breasts with the grand feeling of just being alive and able to appreciate such artistry?

Perhaps that's just me. But there is something magical about the way the music thrills with the concomitant fluidity of the strings and the abruptness of the drums. Yet, for us, it's old hat, a standard of classical music we can pull up on our iPods at any time. For 1824, it walked the precipice of being so unusual, so different as to be almost heretical. Music until that time had been written for state ceremonies, for religious purposes, for specific events. Beethoven infused his music with raw emotion, and he wrote it for himself. His Ninth signaled the end of the Classical period and the start of the Romantic.

Sachs carries us through the day of its first performance, imagining what it was that went through the master's mind in the moments leading to it. He bases his suppositions on the historic texts we have from Beethoven's life, the "conversation books" he had on hand to communicate with visitors, handlers and friends, a workaround for his deafness. But I think the author secretly reveled in the chance to "play" Beethoven in that crusty, haughty personality we all attribute to him.

He then carries us through the year, and the lives (and deaths) of Romantic era poets and writers, playwrights and more. He intertwines the lives of the great composers as they were so knotted up anyway; this one mentored that one, that one was influenced by this one. He then runs us through his interpretation of the piece, for the most part avoiding the temptation to lay out a manmade storyline.

I truly believe that we are empowered by, inspired by our times, our surroundings. I'm sure Beethoven was, too, but then, he had the perhaps unconscious ability to rise above it all and see the world from a different perspective, one that no one else could see. Actually, I take that back. I really feel he had more of an ability to draw deeply within himself and remove himself from society in the creative moment. He was a risk-taker, willing to break convention and present the world music as he thought it should be, not aligned by the rules of church or state.

If you don't think so, listen to his Ninth Symphony and perhaps then you'll understand.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A History of the Fish Hook by Hans Jorgen Hurum

Why I Read It: Why not? Any marine theme is in bounds, and this microhistory seemed about as interesting as anything else I had on the shelf at the moment.

Summary: The history of the hook as seen through the story of the Norwegain hook-making firm O. Mustad & Son.

My Thoughts: As with anything in the history of our planet, it turns out there's a lot more than meets the eye when one delves deeply into the story of the fish hook.

The author, an avid fisherman, does an excellent job at cataloguing for us the ancient hooks of the world's archaeological collections, showing us that they have been made from all sorts of materials, including plants. Perhaps the most harrowing fish hook tale comes from Easter Island. The people who lived there with little at their disposal used human bone for their hooks. Conjecture has even arisen that some of the human sacrifices that took place on the island may have been because the current stock of hooks was low and that the community needed it replenished for survivial. (To which, of course, I respond, "Hey, I know a few fishermen today who would go that route...").

While the book eventually trails into the history of the Mustad family and its super-secret hook-making operation - hidden rooms in factories like those with Mustad just complete the circuit; fishermen don't like to tell you where they fish, what bait they use, etc. - it covers as well some interesting generalities about the history of the endeavor. For instance, although he only hints at this idea, it's pretty easy to see that Mustad knows one thing we don't. Fishermen the world over are highly superstitious. Okay, we know that, but what they know is that fishermen in Cuba may order hooks with a specific barb tip and those in Florida may order them with a different tip because they know that it works better to catch the same fish. He describes international fishing tournaments in which fishermen are lined up along the banks of a river all using different hooks to catch the same fish. So what does Mustad do? It caters. At one point (the book was published in 1976) the company manufactured 108,000 varieties of hooks. How do you get rich in this industry? Listen to your clients.

There are other strange theories out there. The author proposes the notion that if the reversal of the trend of the decline in whales is not possible then we should consider a silver lining. More krill for human consumption! Of course, though, forty years later, krill are dying out, too. And then there's the story of the British gentleman who lined his clothing with fish hooks so that pickpockets would either get ripped or caught while attempting to get at him in London.

Off the beaten path, yes, but a fun read nonetheless, highly illustrated and with that twist of being of Norwegian origin, and not American.