Saturday, January 13, 2018

30 Years of 'Allo 'Allo! by Richard Webber

Why I Read It: Binge-watched the show on Netflix and fell in love.

Summary: Three decades on, where are the cast members now? What's the show's legacy?

My Thoughts: When I was a kid, it was M*A*S*H and the Three Stooges. Later it was Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond. I've always had a background track running in my life.

It's not that I necessarily watch every second of every show. I've always been a multi-tasker, perfectly comfortable to put on a TV show in the background as I do everything but write. I even read with the TV on. In a weird way, the cast members become members of my family. They're the comforting background noise to my life as I go about my work.

And so it came to be with 'Allo 'Allo! Except this time it was a bit different. While I've watched the others on TV, I binged this show on my Kindle on the elliptical. Two episodes per day got me easily through each day's workout. I focused more strongly on the show than I typically do.

Why did I choose it? A few reasons. First, I love British comedy, from Monty Python's Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers, and Are You Being Served? to One Foot in the Grave and even listening to the audio versions of Dad's Army, All Gas and Gaiters and more. They go places American shows just won't. Second, the Jeremy Lloyd/David Croft combination is always worth a shot. As co-creators and writers they just had the magic touch. Third, the setting was fantastic to me: occupied France during World War II. The familiar themes of the war played out in a French cafe frequented by Germans under whose noses escaping British airmen hid, sometimes in plain sight.

But that's the TV show. As for the book, it's wonderful, exactly the type of follow-up one wishes for when reaching the end of a run. The author recaptures the series year-by-year giving behind-the-scenes stories told by the players themselves. We learn of the practical jokes, the special relationships the formed because of the show and the small jealousies that arose as well. Each of the lead actors is profiled, and even some of the lesser lights. It's, of course, sad to know who is no longer with us, but also very interesting to know who has done what since. Yes, IMDB can coldly tell us that, but the book lets the actors tell us the details through the words of the actors themselves.

The book becomes a reference guide to the show, one to be pulled off the shelf when the questions arise about specific episodes. When did General Von Klinkerhoffen lose his mind? When was Herr Flick hit with the poison dart? When did the Communist Resistance first appear? What was Officer Crabtree's catchphrase? It's all there.

And, thanks to digitization, so is the show. May its legacy last long into the future.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Seasons in Hell by Mike Shropshire

Why I Read It: Re-read it. Remembered it as one of the funniest baseball books I'd ever read. Decided to give it a second try two decades later.

Summary: A beat reporter remembers the Texas Rangers of 1973-1975, with (almost) no punches pulled.

My Thoughts: This book was just as fun the second time around.

Shropshire covered the Texas Rangers during a turbulent time, both for the franchise locally and the nation at large. The Rangers, recently the Washington Senators, were trying to establish themselves in a new market, and struggled out of the gate with Ted Williams and then Whitey Herzog as manager. When Billy Martin arrived, things turned around, but there was one problem: Billy Martin. On the national scene, think Watergate, Vietnam, turbulence in the Middle East and more.

Shropshire's story is semi-autobiographical, recounting how a beat reporter earned his money and his chops in those days, when newspapers still mattered. But mostly it's about the individuals on and around the team, from the players to the owners. We may not remember Bob Short or Brad Corbett for their influences on the game, but as owners they left their marks in baseball history for better or worse during their short tenures.

For me, the book is almost perfectly situated in time. I was born in 1971, and really started following the game about six years later. The names are mostly recognizable for me without having to refer to baseballreference,com or some other informational website. It made the read very smooth.

That said, a little backstory is always interesting. I knew of Fergie Jenkins, of course, but had no idea, for instance, that one spring training he picked up a hermit to help him drive from Texas to Florida so he could get some sleep on the way. I knew that the '70s were a 1960s hangover, with remnants of the free-spirited anti-authoritarian nature of the previous decade manifesting themselves in odd ways. It was a time when baseball owners were experimenting with ways to increase their gate revenues, including such harebrained schemes as "Bat Night" and "10-cent Beer Night." Having recently read a book on the Oakland A's of the same period I had some sense of this atmosphere, but Shropshire lets more of the sordid stories fly.

The story has a sad ending that deals several personal blows to Shropshire himself, leading him away from newspaper writing and the day-to-day Rangers beat. There could have been more, but Shropshire certainly gives us plenty of material to ponder and even laugh out loud about.

Sometimes it can be hard to read another fan's favorite team's books; Red Sox fans generally do not read Yankee history. But this is more about a moment in baseball time than it is about any rooting interest. It crosses a boundary into the wide, wide world of sports that existed in the 1970s.

1918: The Year of Victories by Martin Marix Evans

Why I Read It:
 Feeling like I should know more about the stories of World War I, now 100 years in the past.

Summary: A thoroughly military look at the action on the western front in the final year of the war.

My Thoughts: Ugh.

What a horrible war. Evans's narrative follows closely the thoughts and actions of the combat officers who directed the battles that ultimately decided the First World War. The story of 1918 really hinged on the arrival of American troops. The Germans knew they were coming, made a push to claim as much land as possible before they arrived, trying to finally wear down the decimated French and British troops. But it was for naught, as the fresh supply of manpower put the Allies over the top.

As this book is primarily about tactics, it follows the evolution that ultimately leads to the resolution that men should not be seen as expendable as bullets, fired off once and discarded to make way for the next wave. Until that point, though, the losses are appalling; 16,000,000 people died during the war, of all causes. I've often wondered which one of them would have cured cancer, if given the chance to live, which one would have composed a classic concerto, and so on. What a horrible, horrible war.

It's sprinkled liberally with first-person accounts of the action, as soldiers explain what life in the trenches is like, first encounters with tanks, the sounds of bullets flying overhead and what it feels like to know that incoming shells are on their way. These tales humanize the stories of battalions, divisions, salients, and command structures that are focal points of the book.

Monday, December 11, 2017

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

Why I Read It: I was out of reading material after a flight was delayed in Minneapolis, so I picked it up off the rack. And World War II is the literary gift that keeps on giving.

Summary: Millions of servicemen face boredom while waiting, and the United States responds with mountains of books.

My Thoughts: This book has many angles to it, centralizing on the disparity between Nazi Germany and the United States when it came to freedom of thought and expression. Germany burned books, with approximately 100,000,000 books destroyed during the war through public conflagrations and the ravages of combat. It sought to stamp out ideas contrary to its cause, and force a nation to think in one, cohesive direction. The U.S., on the other hand - despite the "banned in Boston" movement alive and well in the 1940s - understood that knowledge is power, that only by understanding how the world truly operates can an individual, or a nation, take part in it productively.

With men pulled from farms, fields, cities, towns and more across America and thrust into life and death situations around the globe, America found that simple, easy-to-carry books were in high demand. At first, the country responded with book drives. Then a council of the country's top publishers created the "Armed Services Edition," pocket sized reproductions of popular books, printed by the hundreds of thousands and shipped to servicemen around the world (note: not to servicewomen, the distinction being made that they were for combatants).

There was one interesting hiccup, though, as prior to the 1944 election Republicans sought a form of censorship in regard to books being shipped overseas to soldiers. With a reported two-thirds of soldiers in the Pacific primed to vote Franklin Delano Roosevelt in for a fourth term as President of the United States, Republicans attempted to block any political references in materials being sent to soldiers anywhere. The language was included in a bill that would make voting easier for deployed servicemen, who barely voted at all in 1943. The idea that a soldier fighting for democracy could not participate in its primary right is , of course, ludicrous. But there was a political war that had to be fought for both soldiers to vote and to enjoy the fruits of the freedom of the press.

One concept made my head spin. As the war ended, many soldiers believed they were writers, and queried publishers in regard to publishing their memoirs of their war experiences. We know which books made it through the process, but what didn't? If World War II was fought today, we would have a much richer genre of books. Paper shortages and the bottom lines of the major publishing houses curtailed the flow. Today with printing on demand, digital books and self-publishing, we would have an avalanche of soldiers' tales. It makes you wonder what wasn't written.

American soldiers were the envy of Allied troops, especially in book-deprived Europe. There is no doubt that because of this program, American forces formed the best read military in the world. And when they came home, their often newfound love of learning led them into their postwar careers, with many thousands passing through college on the way. The greater ramifications of this process, creating an enlightened generation, are probably being felt even today.

Some small acts create major change. In World War II, it was pocket-sized books that changed the face of war for millions of men, keeping home within an arm's reach at all times.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Birding Without Borders by Noah Strycker

Why I Read It: I'm a birder.

Summary: One man conquers the world, breaking the record for the most bird species seen globally in a single year.

My Thoughts: There are a lot of birders out there. In fact, there are more than you know. It's a pastime that is now global in dimension, and it's spoken in a language all its own. And I don't mean Latin, but that helps, for sure.

Birders understand the passions of other birders, for the most part. As with any hobby, there are extremists. But for the most part, when a visiting birder arranges with a local to find something he or she has never seen before, it's met with great enthusiasm.

Strycker set out to break a record, but he did it in a way that few others have done before, with grace and thankfulness at every stop along the way. In the end, he got his record, well knowing that there were already plans afoot by someone else to break it the following year. He makes numerous new friends around the globe, captures the wide range of bird conservation themes impacting the world today and proves that the widest of gaps - linguistic, cultural, political - can be bridged by open minds.

I've completed similar challenges, on much smaller scales. I've forced myself to find a new nature trail to walk every day for a year. I've taken a 30-minute nature walk in each of Massachusetts' 351 cities and towns in a single year. And I've read 50,000 tombstones in a year to determine what my own epitaph should be. Along the way, I've recorded every bird I've seen as part of the exploration experience.

I can tell you that Strycker's stories of planning for his journey mirrored mine, with the spreadsheets, route-making, etc. And I can tell you that the calendrical sensations are the same. Getting out of the gate there is a sense that the world is before you, and in Strycker's case, that was an absolute truth. There is a desire to start off right, making the first step symbolic. He starts in Antarctica, at the very bottom of the world. I had no such luck with my Massachusetts year. I planned to start somewhere symbolic, like Plymouth Rock, but a friend called and asked for help with a Christmas Bird Count. At sunrise on January 1 I was in a manure field in a small farming town. You want your first bird to be special, not common in any way. He started with a Cape Petrel, something most of us will never see. In my new trails year, bird #1 was a House Sparrow, and bird #100 was a Fish Crow. (Sigh).

By the end of the year, the journey is the story, and once the deadline is in sight, it's time to get reflective and philosophical. If the goal is met, there's a serenity to knowing that it's all over, that the next day you can get up and do whatever you want. Usually, that means considering what the next challenge should be.

Strycker did it right. Now that he's found 6,000 of the world's recognized 10,000 or so, it'll be interesting to see if he opts to take a second year to find the balance. But whatever he does, he'll be sure to continue to spread goodwill wherever he goes.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford

Why I Read It: I read A Christmas Carol every year; I figured I should know why.

Summary: The story of Charles Dickens and his amazingly enduring tale.

My Thoughts: The author states that Charles Dickens has been called "the man who invented Christmas" in the past, and admits that it might be a bit hyperbolic, but tells a pretty convincing story to that effect.

Nearly two hundred years removed from the origins of the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, we have more or less glossed over the story of its author, at least in relation to the details of his life as it concerned the writing of this book. Christmas is a beast, starting in late September each year. We don't stop to smell ancient roses like we should. But A Christmas Carol is one of them to which we should pay specific attention.

Dickens was struggling as a writer at the moment the idea hit him. Moreover, he had already dabbled in Christmas-themed stories before he penned this work, and would continue to do so for a few more years, never again reaching the same level of success. It turned out to be the perfect confluence of forces for him and, as it turns out, millions of readers living well into the future.

The underlying message of A Christmas Carol is charity, avoidance of greed, and it was published in a time, in 1843, when London was in dire need of such reflection. Life was tough, all around. There is probably a direct connection between the book's publication in late 1843 and the founding of the YMCA in the same city in 1844. As all -pervasive as Dickens' story was, it probably had at least a tangential effect on the Y's founders. Interestingly, the story comes with the ironic twist that Dickens was angered by the lacking paycheck he received from its first run.

A fun feature of this printing is that the book also contains the full text of A Christmas Carol, so we can seamlessly step from the Dickens story to the Scrooge story.

So, did he invent Christmas? No, obviously not. But he did help shape the holiday we celebrate today, helping to cement traditions we often inherit without much thought as to their origins.

Mad Dog: The Maurice Vachon Story by Bertrand Hebert and Pat Laprade

Why I Read It: "Mad Dog" Vachon was a legend by the time I started watching pro wrestling in the late 1970s.

Summary: The life story of one of French Canada's wrestling legends.

My Thoughts: Wrestlers, like any other athletes, tend to fade away when they leave the limelight. They occasionally show up in the background shots of sketches, barely recognizable as an extra referee or in some other capacity, sometimes trotted out one last time to lift up a current star, to put them over. The WWE has done a great thing by establishing its Hall of Fame, and opening it up to wrestlers from all across the United States, reversing its ancient trend of not recognizing other associations, a lingering aftereffect of the territorial era. Through it we get to see and hear our heroes and villains one last time.

Maurice Vachon was one of those wrestlers with whom I'd lost touch through time. Honestly, I don't know that I ever saw him wrestle, as his most accessible home turf to me in the early 1980s, the American Wrestling Association, was just beginning to be televised in my region before it was swallowed up by the then-WWF. Now, his brother, Paul "The Butcher" Vachon, was a different story. By that time he was a jobber, collecting a paycheck week to week by getting his shoulders pinned to the mat to highlight established and up-and-coming stars. I didn't see him at his prime, but at least I saw him in action. I read about Mad Dog in the many magazines of the day.

So it was almost a blank slate with which I approached this biography. I had previously read the authors' work in a history of Montreal wrestling, which, in turn, spawned this book. The book is translated from the French version, with minor interruptions to its flow, overall very well done.

The basic story is that "Mad Dog" was a gimmick, and Maurice Vachon had a heart of gold. In the days when fans truly believed what they were seeing, before "kayfabe" was broken for good, it was hard to believe that there was an ounce of good in him, but it was true.

There are recurring themes in his life. From a hardscrabble childhood, he followed the typical YMCA redemption story (life was tough, I went to the Y and it changed for the better) by taking up boxing and then wrestling. Maurice represented his country at the Olympics as a wrestler, gaining national recognition that would follow him for the rest of his life. He cheated death several times, eventually losing part of a leg to an accident. He went through several marriages. and rode the ups and downs of the industry.

I think, for me, the enduring image will be of Mad Dog, fire in his eyes, working on building a casket for an opponent in his backyard for a televised sketch. That type of far-fetched lunacy was what fueled the future of wrestling, for better or worse, depending on your point of view, microphone skills becoming as important as physical talent. But in the end, it was indicative of the creativity of the performer that showed through and his passion in connection with his pursuit.

Mad Dog may rest in peace, but there are generations still left who are still riled up by his act.