Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Road to Little Dribblng by Bill Bryson

Why I Read It: Self-diagnosed Anglophilia and a secret desire to be a societally-accepted curmudgeon.

Summary: Bryson repeats himself, walking England a second time, in mostly different places than he visited in Notes from a Small Island.

My Thoughts: I've thought about it myself. I have done 2 1/2 books on walking (the third in process) and I've thought about repeating my steps. When would it be appropriate? After ten years? After twenty? In my case, the topics were open space and nature, and I'm sure that if I returned to some places, things would be tragically different, at least in my eyes. Bryson's topic, generally, was British culture, and he opted for the 20-year approach.

His humor is unmatched in the genre. The pictures he paints are sublimely silly, when he is trying to be funny. But he is more than comedy. He is information and education. He is a statistician that finds deeply relevant numbers to crunch that most of us overlook. And he spews his own form of watchdoggerel (new word! yes!) directed at, well, everybody and anybody. He wants us to all get along, at a good, fair price and for a solid day's effort. He detests corner-cutters and skinflints as well as people who stare logic in the face and stick their tongues out at it.

He takes us back and forth through time, introducing us to some of the lesser known characters of British history, in their estates, in their gardens, in their woods. He visits museums and archaeological wonders, architectural landmarks and every bar and coffee shop in England, usually in that order. He wonders why the British people are the way they are, sometimes figuring it out, oftentimes leaving town with a scribble over his head like a Peanuts character, with a scowl and a few hushed obscenities on his lips. And before you label him as a prima donna or a turd, know that he is as self-deprecating as hell. He starts the book with a slapstick moment in which he is the foil. He knows who he is, and uses it to make us laugh.

If you've read Bryson's travel work before, you know what to expect. If you haven't, read, laugh, learn. If' you're British, read the last 5 to 10 pages to see what he truly believes about England. Treasure him for who he is and what he does, for, if nothing else, he is a conversation catalyst, and conversation drives us toward change and societal improvement.

Now, I sit and wait for the next Bryson book to come out, and continue to ponder how to take my next steps, both as a wanderer and a writer.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Ty Cobb by Charles C. Alexander

Why I Read It: Baseball has been my passion since I was a very small boy. Ty Cobb was a name I grew up with in my head, but I never really knew who he was.

Summary: A true baseball biography, sometimes a game-by-game account.

My Thoughts: Ty Cobb was disliked, and I think that's where I now stand on him after reading this biography. Other people may go much further, to defining him as despicable or hated. I don't think I want to go that far.

Cobb suffered from a ferocious drive that fueled a hatred for the people around him, sometimes even his own teammates. But it was, unfortunately, what ultimately made him so successful on the baseball diamond. He always had to be better than the other guy, and felt he had to constantly prove that he was through his actions. It was him against the world, and he was nasty about it.

He played on the cusp of baseball eras, the Cobbian and the Ruthian. His was a game of bunts and steals and gamesmanship. Ruth's was of swinging for the fences. Stolen bases came back late in the 20th century, and now we live in a sort of blended age (steroids jerked us back to the Babe's game; we're now settling back toward the middle). He hated everything about the new game, and went to his grave thinking that players who played prior to 1920 were the game's all-time greats.

Had he not shown his cutthroat behavior before he made the majors, we might have cut him some slack for what happened on the eve of his coming of age. His mother blew away his father with a shotgun in what was termed an accident. Cobb had fought his whole youth for his father's acceptance, and was about to prove to him once and for all that baseball had been a wise choice, and his dad was taken away in a gruesome, horrifying scene. Naturally, that stayed with Cobb his whole life.

Cobb died a lonely, angry man, leaning toward repentance at the very end, wondering if he'd made the right choices along the way. The author brings out the best and worst of Cobb, and the book sadly tilts toward the latter, but the facts are the facts. Ty Cobb was not a nice man. He did incredible things on the baseball field, and the records books will always tell us so. He became the first independently wealthy star athlete, and he did much to help those around him with his money. I just wish he had seen the error of his ways long before he did, and could have died a happier man.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Birds in the Bush by Bradford Torrey

Why I read it: I lived, for a short time, a stone's throw from the Bradford Torrey Bird Sanctuary in Weymouth, Massachusetts.

Summary: A series of short essays on birdlife around New England in the 1880s.

My Thoughts: Bradford Torrey had that gentlemanly birder way about him, always excusing himself for intruding on the lives of the birds he was seeking. But that was the way it was in the 19th century. If you weren't shooting them and building up huge piles of feathers and bones, you were meandering about gathering behavioral data, on the cutting edge of ornithology (one might say we're still there today; we have so much to learn!).

For those folks who have never read a 19th century birding book, start with the oldest bird ID guide you can find. Eastern Towhees weren't towhees, they were "chewinks." Yellow Warblers weren't warblers, they were Summer Yellow Birds. The names alone add a lyrical bent to the storytelling, sometimes reminding us of the evolution in nomenclature we take for granted.

And, if this is your first foray into Victorian birding in the Boston area, know, too, that not all is the same. Torrey talks of flocks of Fox-colored Sparrows; a single bird spotted today will make your winter. He talks of the rarity of Northern Cardinals, and he was right. They arrived, en masse, as even winterers decades later. And he laments the arrival and overwhelming advance of House Sparrows. We lament it today as well, but he was there to see the transformation, the loss of the cavity nesters, the movement of the sparrows (at that point they were still classified as sparrows, eventually to be recognized as weaver finches, though retaining the name) from the cities and into the suburbs and countryside.

Torrey moves out across New England, to Vermont and New Hampshire, in the days when to do so meant taking a carriage to a train to a - or, the - hotel in a given area. In what has to remain one of the most interesting birding experiences of all time, Torrey rode on a slow-moving flatbed railroad car through the White Mountains' Franconia Notch while sitting on a freshly-made coffin being transported to a - the - hotel for immediate use. Quite frankly, if given the opportunity, I would have done the same thing.

One interesting sidelight to the book is the direct parallels to today. Torrey spends several paragraphs detailing the life of the hunter, how he wantonly kills the birds (as it was in those days) just for sport, and then compares it to his own hobby. Why, he says, am I labeled as the odd one, for just looking at them? Birders still live by this stigma today in America. (Note: Believe me, individual birders give the world plenty of reasons to think they're all nuts, but in truth, they're not).

Torrey's voice is one that is lost to time, but should be right there with Thoreau (whom he championed) and Muir as the great describers of the American wilderness in their days. He was a pen pal of the Isles of Shoals' Celia Thaxter, too, deeply tied into the corps of writers defining New England in the late nineteenth century.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Tales from the Dugout by Mike Shannon

Why I Read It: I'm a Krank from way back, and this was a gift from my friend Tom from Texas.

Summary: A collection of baseball anecdotes, a little heavy on the Cincinnati side, gathered in the 1990s.

My Thoughts: Mike Shannon wanted to do a book of baseball anecdotes, but he wanted to make sure that he gathered tales that had not been told before. Baseball is a wonderful thing in that sense. It has such ridiculous depth that it is possible to turn over new stones every year and find such stories.

And the author did well. It was only on page 89 that I realized I had heard one story before, as well read as I am on the history of the sport and its characters.

These books generally age well. Baseball will always be a game of balls and sticks and gloves, of 90 feet between the bases, of short right field porches and hot shots down the third base line. The bones will always be there. It's the personalities that come and go, that fill the uniforms and the positions and lineup cards and bullpens that will change. So, even though time-stamped - for instance, when Shannon mentions that Ken Singleton is "currently" the radio announcer for the Montreal Expos - these books can proudly go onto the baseball bookshelf, despite the fact they occasionally make us stick our heads in the air and look at the calendar to check what year we're actually in.

The stories are wonderful, arranged alphabetically by subject. The one thing the book is missing is a postscript, or some other way of wrapping up the collection. In a way, it ends with triumph, but only because of its alphabetical arrangement. In the last few words, Anthony Young is carried away on the shoulders of teammates after breaking his major league record losing streak.

There was plenty in this book that I had never read before. It's the kind of book that you like to put on a shelf, knowing you may never read it all the way through again, but makes you smile when you see the spine, as you're reminded of how much you loved the book, and how much you love the game.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

For Cause & Comrades by James McPherson

Why I Read It: A Civil War topic with which I've always been fascinated.

Summary: A deep examination of the reasons of why northern and southern soldiers alike fought in the Civil War,

My Thoughts: The author, a talented Civil War historian, dove into this subject with vigor and determination, much like the men of whom he wrote approached the war they fought over a century and a half ago. His tally was somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 letters read, from all the states that existed at the time, plenty of occupations, different levels of social class.

I approached the book with some preconceived ideas. To me, the main reason men stood shoulder-to-shoulder and fired their guns at armies doing the same a few dozen yards away was the fact that most units were formed from hometowns. If you skedaddled, news beat you home, and you couldn't go home. And that notion was validated by McPherson's research. It was a factor. But it was only one.

Men signed up at the beginning of the war for different reasons than they reenlisted for three years later. At the beginning there was a cause, and though they were different on either side of the lines, causes were equally as powerful whether you wore blue or gray. Plenty of other factors
- ideology, religion, patriotism, etc. - all came into play, as did loyalty to one's comrades. Many men couldn't pull themselves away from their friends, couldn't fathom leaving them at the front and returning home. Some fought for the people at home. Some fought because they were more scared of their own officers than they were of the enemy. Northerners fought to hold together what the Revolution had wrought; southerners fought against the tyrannical rule of the North, to maintain their rights as given to them by the Declaration of Independence. It was all in the interpretation.

As the war moved on, reasons changed. Slavery became an issue, where before it was masked under states' rights. Politics heated up in 1864 with the presidential election, and the North feared a loss of professionalism as original enlistments ran out and the idea of bounty men filling the ranks permeated. Why did men fight? It depended on the year, the occupation, the personal conviction.

What this book really asks, if you read deeply enough, is why would you have fought (or would you fight today, and why)? Do we carry the same nobility of spirit as we believe they did, and as they believe their American Revolution forbears did?

It's been almost 80 years since manpower was needed in a war to the extent that the Civil War claimed it. I wonder how I would have reacted had my name been called.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Andy Warhol was a Hoarder by Claudia Kalb

Why I Read It: Grabbed from the Amazon Vine program.

Summary: An exercise in historical diagnoses of some of the world's greatest minds.

My Thoughts: The author lets us know right off the bat that there is nothing binding in what she says. Her musings are not true diagnoses. We have to accept it, that everything in the book is conjecture, retroactive dabbling.

So let's have fun with it.

There are certain famous figures at whom we look back - Howard Hughes, for instance - who we know had their issues. And then, there are others, like, say, Abraham Lincoln. Sure, he looked morose, but then he was President at the most trying time in American history, when war raged across its landscape. I think you or I might be pretty stressed out, too. But who knew that long before he took the oath of office he was suicidal?

Who knew that Dostoevsky was a gambling addict?

This book is full of such juicy tidbits, and really, that's a lot of what this book is about. It's dead celebrity gawking, with the added twist that we're looking inside their heads. The celebrity bit gives the book its power; if this was a tome about twelve Joe Schmoes, we wouldn't care nearly as much. So, we look at George Gershwin, and we think about Porgy and Bess and An American in Paris (for reference, look up 1990s United Airlines commercials and listen to the background music). But did anybody in his time consider him to "be ADHD"? The signs are all there, today, as we look back. And was Einstein on the spectrum? Boy, it sure looks like it. We always have just taken him as brilliant, quirky, but not a candidate for autism or Asperger's. Yet, try to talk your way out of it after reading this book.

It's all here, from Frank Lloyd Wright's narcissism to Betty Ford's alcoholism. The question is raised about the connection between fame and extreme behavior. Can you be a superstar in any field without a little bit of, well, something? Usually, when I read a book like this one, I start to look in the mirror and tremble just a little bit. But not this one. Nope, these people are way too far out there.

Guess I'm not headed toward a life of fame. My mother will never believe it.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend by Colin Duriez

Why I Read It: I've been a fan of Hobbits for three decades.

Summary: A biography of the master.

My Thoughts: Tolkien himself seems to have been quite an interesting character, somewhat stereotypical of the post-Victorian British society learned types, yet somehow deeply intriguing in his ability to lose himself in his own mind in a rigid world shaped by the harshness of two world wars.

I've read the classic Tolkien biography, by Humphrey Carpenter, and remember it as quite enlightening itself. I wondered what could be new with Duriez' assault on the topic. What I found was that it certainly fit the way that my mind works.

Duriez pieces together the life of the author and academic much in the way that others before him have, but expands his research, or his presentation of that research, to include the physical world that shaped Tolkien's mind. Throughout the book, references are made to the places on which Tolkien patterned his mythical landscapes, and the landmarks of his life. The photographs in the book are of those places - of the inspiration for the Two Towers, of the apartments and other homes in which he lived, and more. The book, more so than any other I've read on the master, gives us Tolkien historicity. We could almost design a Tolkien driving tour of England, to revisit the places that remain - and even those that don't - as inspiration highlights.

This book, more than others, also leads one to believe that Tolkien's life was one of fellowships. Although the direct connection is not so written, the fact is that from the T.C.B.S. to the Coalbiters to the Inklings, Tolkien surrounded himself with friends of differing strengths, and believed in the power of such fellowships. His first group, the T.C.B.S, even pledged to change the world for good, and then lost two of its four members in the First World War. Those dark days definitely shaped the future of Tolkien's writing career.

Duriez brings us a little different focus on the life of Tolkien, allowing us to see a little deeper into the mind of the master storyteller, and to appreciate his work just that much more.