Thursday, September 18, 2014

One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard

Why I Read It: Continuing my lifelong fascination with the Civil War; also, Glory! is one of my favorite movies of all time.

Summary: The story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

My Thoughts: I, of course, wondered what would be different about the book, having seen the movie as a teenager. But I didn't linger on that notion. There were a few major departures, like iconic lines attributed to one historic figure in the movie but actually uttered by another in the historic record, the displacement of events from ships to the shore, etc. But they in no way ruined the memories of the movie for me; I now just know where they are.

The key to reading this story in the wake of the movie is to know that it is biographical in nature, following the life of Robert Gould Shaw from childhood to death. The book in no way "fleshes out" the handful of leading African-American characters in the film. That was just never the author's intent. We learn a little about Shaw's superiors and the men who reported directly to him, somewhat about his family, but mostly about Shaw himself, what fueled him, and what fears ultimately consumed him.

The book is also a wonderful immersion into Victorian Boston, the world of Governor John Andrew, of William Lloyd Garrison and others. It brings us back to a place fired by a notion, the eradication of slavery. It brings us into the presence of Frederick Douglass. It brings us into the heads of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, as they maneuvered the chess pieces that led to the arming of African-Americans - including some former slaves - and, in Davis' case, the divining of consequences for the captured officers who oversaw them. While the South promised swift "justice," the North promised to retaliate in kind, eye for an eye, with Confederate prisoners, should anything happen to Union officers of African-American troops.

I think when we consider this book, we have to take two things into account. One, it was published in 1965, during the centenary of the Civil War. Two, it was published in 1965, during the Civil Rights movement. I would love to know how it was received when it was released, for if nothing else it is a story of inspiration, as portrayed in the movie two decades later.

Last year I spent a lot of time walking in cemeteries, and each time I came across a 54th soldier, I stopped and paid respect. I had to. For some reason, I couldn't just walk on by.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Why I Read It: The story seemed too interesting to pass up.

Summary: A reporter follows the story of the "immortal" HeLa cells back to the "donor's" family, then walks with them through their own journey of discovery about their past.

My Thoughts: We're only a hundred years removed from dirt roads and horses and buggies, and in some places not even that much. We're only a century and a half beyond the American Civil War, the conflict that ended slavery in the United States. We've come a long way, but we are not as advanced as we think we are.

In some ways, the rushes to advance have occurred in misstep. Nowhere is this reality better exemplified than in the juxtaposition of the American medical industry of the 1940s and 1950s and the home life of the Lacks family in rural Virginia at that same time. Physicians at Johns Hopkins diagnosed patients there using words the latter never had a chance of learning.

For many Americans the concept of rural poverty is undecipherable. We can say we understand poverty and get what is meant by living a rural life, but until we've seen it in action, considered it from all angles, we just don't truly know what it's all about. And so we come to the story of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta lived that life in the Jim Crow South, marrying a cousin and dying of cancer at a young age. Her cancerous cells - without any familial consent - were taken for lab use and became the standard experimental cells used in research around the world. They are sold today for large sums of money, yet her descendants cannot afford health care.

Skloot takes us on the road with her as she does her research. The book is not a straight history (though in some places it certainly is), but rather a first-person walkthrough of meeting the Lacks family and participating in their exploration of Henrietta's life and legacy. The story eventually centers on one daughter and her quest for knowledge about her mom and a sister mysteriously lost in the past as well.

The story is remarkable, when we consider that the HeLa cells have replicated themselves so many times that they could wrap the earth numerous times, still splitting sixty years after Henrietta died. We stand by  as the family comes to grips with their existence. Are they her mother or aren't they? Can they say, since her cells were shot into outer space, that their mother has been there, too?

The book wanders us into the waters of medical ethics from the 1800s to today, and begs us to consider the issues of research for the benefit of the greater population vs. personal ownership of our own cells. Should doctors and researchers be free to keep what is gathered from an operating table or an exam room and do with it whatever they wish? or should we, as patients, have the right to sell our cells to the highest bidder? Where is the line drawn?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Ted W. Lawson

Why I Read It: I'm still pursuing every story ever told about World War II.

Summary: A first-person narrative of the Doolittle raid in April 1942 by a B-25 pilot who survived it.

My Thoughts: I grabbed this book from a box of old tomes I had stashed away. When I pulled it out, it just felt right in my hands. My copy is an original 1943 edition, with nothing but a little top-down silhouette of a B-25 on the cover. It just drew me in, and I knew it's time had come.

When I purchased it, years ago, I did so because of the familiarity of the title, tying it into the movie of the same name. I've been a World War II-era movie buff for as long as I've been fascinated with reading books about the conflict. I had no idea, though, that the tale would be so gripping.

There are no chapters, no natural breaks in the story, and because of that fact, the book moves. And, due to the nature of the tale - training, transit, mission, crash, escape, repatriation, recovery - breaks are unnecessary. I found it hard to stop reading anywhere, not because there were no convenient places to bookmark, but because there was no stopping the flow. Once the crash occurs, every page brings another bit of tension. How close are the Japanese troops? Will they catch them, or will the Americans get away? What will become of the people who help them if the Japanese find them?

The book is full of raw World War II-style hatred for the enemy, and is a great immersion in the thought cycles of the day. In some ways, it's spooky to see the old style printing of names like "Dr. C_____," knowing that the author was protecting the identity of someone who was still at deep risk of capture and death at the hands of the Japanese. Lawson practices the same routine with the names of the villages he wound through during the tumultuous escape attempt, not wanting to give the Japanese a trail to follow.

In retrospect, it's amazing what was pulled off by the bombers on the Doolittle raid, a slug back into the face of the enemy in response to Pearl Harbor. The logistics of the raid called for guts in the extreme. Launching B-25's off an aircraft carrier had never been done, and for this raid the plan was to land in Chinese airfields, refuel and keep going. But being spooked by the presence of Japanese ships at sea, the planes flew earlier than expected off the Hornet and mostly ran out of or very low on fuel searching for the airfields in a storm. It was a miracle that the men who made it home did so.

Lawson lost a lot, personally, as a result of the mission, but did it for the right reasons for the time. He waved the American flag with his words at a time when many Americans needed such encouragement. That old school patriotism is generally lost now, but it was a building block to the world of today.

But no matter what one's opinions on those topics may be, as a piece of literature, this book is as thrilling as anything I've ever read. It's now permanently out of the box and onto my shelf.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Stones and Bones of New England by Lisa Rogak

Why I Read It: I am a self-professed taphophile.

Summary: A reference guide to some of the most historic and interesting cemeteries in the six New England states.

My Thoughts: It'd be easy for me to go on a rant about opportunities missed, but I think there's an important note that needs to be made about this book. The subtitle calls it  "a guide to unusual historic and otherwise notable cemeteries," not "the guide."

For you see, this is New England! We have such great depth of history (note - yes, Medievalists and researchers of antiquity, American history is but current events, but work with me here) that cemeteries in every town hold tales. Even the remotest of communities, in the deepest, darkest corners of New England, have secrets that rival all others around them.

So I won't even mention my list of cemeteries that could have been mentioned in this book. Instead, I'll simply applaud it for what it is: a wonderful survey. Sometimes, the place is the story. In other places, it may be an individual stone. In still others, it's a stonecarver who left his unique stamp on the local history. The author takes us on a quick journey through a few dozen of New England's most hallowed and most fascinating burial grounds.

As a collector - not of anything in particular, just one who tends to gather things - I've found cemeteries among my most beloved treasures. Use this book to get you started, then remember that no matter where you are, a cemetery will have a story for you.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

Why I Read It: I'd read the other three A.J. Jacobs titles.

Summary: Jacobs continues his pursuit of self-improvement, this time focusing on his soul.

My Thoughts: When I first read the subtitle ("One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible"), I thought to myself, "How funny is that?! Why would anybody ever want to do such a thing?"

And the cover of the book, I think, fueled those thoughts. The robe, the sandals, the big beard, all juxtaposed with the New York City skyline, are meant to draw you in. Imagine, somebody walking around a modern-day American city dressed like a Jew from more than 2000 years ago! What will they think of next...

And it is funny. Jacobs is a talented writer. But I liken this work to Tony Horwitz' Confederates in the Attic. In that book, the author toured the South to find the places where the Civil War was still being fought, and found it in myriad places. In this book, Jacobs sought those places where the Bible is being taken at its literal word, the places where the ancient beliefs of the Middle Eastern lands still resonate today.

Much like Horwitz, Jacobs finds that hatred is rampant. Horwitz found racism, Jacobs finds antisemitism, misogyny and homophobia, all of which are derived from - and justified by - interpretations of the Bible. Of course, he finds plenty of good in the religious world, always seeking both sides to every debate. And while the book focuses on the beard, the clothing, and blowing a horn on the first day of the new month, the true story lies in the spiritual transformation Jacobs undergoes. He searches his soul during his Biblical year for signs of increased passion for religion, for deeper belief.

As usual with Jacobs, his family life plays heavily in the story, and why not? If you've got it, flaunt it. His collection of aunts, uncles and cousins provides entertainment enough in the many side stories he presents as his beard gets bigger and his list of OCD-like rituals grows. Life lessons play out before his eyes, and he finds their parallels in Biblical passages, reminding him that while a situation might seem new - a death in the family, etc. - it never is; somebody, somewhere has fought their way through it before.

If you've got heavy religious sensitivities in any way, this book is not for you. If you're agnostic and have ever wondered how the other half lives, or if you've got an open mind as far as religion goes, and are willing to let one voice tell you the story of one man's immersion in that world, then pick it up.

Friday, July 25, 2014

No Way Home by David S. Wilcove

Why I read it: I'm a nature nut at heart.

Summary: The demise of the world's great migrations, on land, in the air and the seas.

My Thoughts: This story is more poignant this year than ever, as September 1, 2014 marks the centennial of the loss of the last Passenger Pigeon. The bird that once darkened the sky for hours in migration has now been eradicated from our planet for 100 years. The act was unconscionable. It seemed impossible, even at the time, but it happened.

And we all know about the American Bison, as nineteenth century overhunting diminished its numbers to near extinction. The same can be said of Right Whales. It seems that in the latter half of the 1800s we just perfected the art of mass slaughter of abundant animals.

But what we haven't paid much attention to is the habitat destruction and fragmentation that have disrupted the flow of migrations. The author discusses the plight of the Red Knot, a shorebird that has crashed in numbers because of our greed. We harvest and chop up Horseshoe Crabs for bait  in such numbers that the knots, which once fed on them extensively at a mid-Atlantic refueling station, can no longer sustain themselves on their northward migration to their Arctic breeding grounds.

How much of the American West has been fenced in? How much of the African corridors through which Springbok once migrated? And what does a sea full of lobster traps mean for a Humpback Whale in migration? And what have dams on major rivers done to Atlantic Salmon populations?

We, as a world, have to consider the entirety of a species' existence - breeding, migrating, wintering - if we are to preserve them. But we are talking about transnational collaboration between countries of varying economic capabilities, not to mention conservation sensitivities and political intentions.

Can it be done? Yes.

Will it?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit by Corey Olsen

Why I Read It: I read Tolkien as a kid, have read a biography, love the movies and have played LOTRO (Lord of the Rings Online). Purchased at the MIT Loading Dock Sale.

Summary: One man's interpretation of The Hobbit.

My Thoughts: Somewhere along the way I must have read a book about reading a book. I mean, literary criticism has been around forever.

This, though, is a first for me, taking the journey of Bilbo Baggins through yet another set of eyes. So, let me set this up for you. The book itself is told through the eyes of a narrator, making it a third-person perspective. We are now taking a step back and through Olsen's eyes are seeing the journey from a fourth-person perspective; he sees the narrator as a character in the telling of the tale. Yet, in the end, as we know, we are told that Bilbo wrote the book upon which the narrative is based, There and Back Again. So we land somewhere about second-and-a-half perspective when all is said and done.

Olsen made this a straight interpretation on his part, meaning that he didn't attempt to pry into Tolkien's mind and say, "I think what he was trying to say was this." His Exploring is just that, a journey in itself, wandering alongside Bilbo, seeing the sights he sees and listening to the songs Bilbo hears from the elves, goblins and dwarves. It's also a psychological study of Bilbo himself, a scrutiny of which side of his personality, Took or Baggins (his family lines) wins out in each situation.

There are times, though, when Olsen evokes some offline Tolkien information, either from Tolkien's other works of fiction or his own explanations of the story. We learn about changes made to the original text when The Fellowship of the Ring came out, and what his original plan was for the killing of Smaug.

The question is, now, whether or not I should go back and read The Hobbit, which I haven't for a few decades, though I fear I've doomed myself by reading too deeply on the topic now. I took science fiction criticism classes at college and have never been able to enjoy a sci fi film again. Ehh...we'll see.