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.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Rescue of the Bounty by Michael Tougias and Douglas Campbell

Why I read it: To review it for Sea History, the magazine of the National Maritime Historical Society.

Summary: We all watched it live on TV during Hurricane Sandy; the old wooden sailing ship Bounty is claimed by the storm and most of its crew is rescued by the Coast Guard.

My Thoughts: Some of these books are hitting closer to home than I would like them to.

First, I know one of the authors. Mike Tougias is a fellow Massachusetts writer, who flipped from nature topics to the sea. As he did so, I was navigating those same waters, and asked him to submit a few articles, book blurbs, really, to a magazine I was editing. I also arranged for him to speak at a few events I was leading in the region.

Second, I knew the boat. I'll never forget seeing Bounty at Fall River, near Battleship Cove, tied up to the pier. I knew it had a very cool history, appearing out in the South Pacific in the movie for which it was built, Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando. I didn't know that Disney then lay in its future, nor that this event would ever happen. What I saw was an old sailing ship with a wonderful backstory that was in rumored financial trouble; I had no way of knowing what its ultimate fate would be.

Third, I can pinpoint personal proximity to Captain Robin Walbridge, who went down with the ship during the storm, to a specific date and place. About two decades ago, on the 200th anniversary of the launch of the USS Constitution, the Navy sailed her around Boston Harbor. I was on a friend's fishing boat that day, joining with the thousands of others in the spectacle out on the sea. Robin Walbridge was up on deck of Constitution, the fill-in for the Navy captain should he become incapacitated. It's a weird connection to make - and it's one that those other thousands can now make as well - but here it is.

The book is half the tale of the Bounty, and half the tale of the rescue. One can hear Tougias' sea adventure voice coming through as loudly as Campbell's technical knowledge of sailing ships. They make for a good tandem in attacking the topic. And they don't shy away from the obvious question, the one we all asked when we first heard the ship was in trouble during the storm: what the hell are they doing out there? It's the underlying foundation of the book. Who was Robin Walbridge and why did he make such a poor decision, in retrospect? One wonders how the media coverage would have been had Bounty made it through unharmed. There would probably have been a mid-page mention of the "harrowing tale" of passage on rough seas rather than front-page headlines screaming for the captain's head.

Since this book was completed (I read it in galley form) the Coast Guard has released its investigation report, pointing the finger at the captain. Aside from his own, the decision to sail toward the storm took a second life, ironically the sole crew member who claimed distant relation to Fletcher Christian, the master's mate on the real Bounty in the 1700s. But should Walbridge's entire life be judged by this one bad decision? It's hard to say "yes," but saying "no" doesn't exactly make one feel good either.

My last thought is the historic impact. When Titanic sank and the world realized there were not enough lifeboats aboard the ship, passenger vessels around the United States scrambled to come up to new codes for the number of lifeboats now legally necessary. Will there be any fallout in the historic sailing ship fleet governance, any rules implemented because of the actions of Walbridge and the Bounty crew? Or was the error in sailing toward the hurricane so egregious that no such rules about weather states, pump power, etc. need creation?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Propaganda Technique in World War I by Harold D. Lasswell

Why I Read It: Picked it up at the MIT loading dock book sale. Gotta love a bargain.

Summary: An examination of the topic through the eyes of several of the major nations involved in the conflict.

My Thoughts: What is real and what is fake in wartime? How can we tell when words are delivered to us whether or not they are truly worth heeding, or generated in some foreign office intending to sway our opinions?

Lasswell's book, published originally in 1927 as Propaganda Technique in the World War, looks at not only what we consider to be standard usage of propaganda - for instance, dropping leaflets onto the enemy lines, trying to get soldiers to desert, defect or otherwise change their perspective on the conflict - but other important ways as well. How should we sway the thoughts of the citizens of enemy countries (Germany bought several American newspapers, the French published works in German, etc.)? How should we get the neutrals to best accept our point of view? How should we approach the maintenance of existing friendships between nations? How can we demonize our enemies in the minds of our own people while concurrently demoralizing the enemy's troops and citizenry?

Who should deliver the message? Was it feasible to send German speakers to America in the 19-teens to have them attempt to rally support, or would the message to Americans best come from Americans themselves? What are the traits of the best diplomats working with foreign governments?

When one considers the world in the second decade of the twentieth century, it's amazing the chips fell where they did. France and England had been at war for a thousand years, off and on. Could they unite to face a common enemy, in the face of that enemy spreading reminders of those past hatreds, and false tales about England taking over Calais for the next 99 years? America was strictly neutral, but populated by thousands of recent immigrants still connected to their home countries. Which way would they go? Would Central and South America follow, or could they be moved in another direction? And would America align with Great Britain, after all they had been through?

Lasswell also studies who should be in charge of propaganda (an individual? a standing governmental committee? a committee formed for the purpose?) and the perils of party politics dominating the propaganda messaging. Sometimes, the effectiveness of propaganda came down to cultural differences. The famous German example comes in a story about nurses. Germany executed a French nurse, and the French propaganda machine used the incident to great extent; when France countered and executed two German nurses, Germany's propaganda office did nothing. When asked why, the old Prussian officer in charge said, "They deserved it!"

The book reports on the physical delivery of those messages, and in World War I one of the most effective tools was balloons. The author makes a point of noting that the Allies had the advantage with this method, simply because of prevailing westerly winds.

Oh, how the world has changed, yet in some ways remains exactly the same.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sky Pilot of the Great Lakes by John Kotzian

Why I Read It: I was happy to act as an editor for the author.

Summary: A missionary in rural Michigan in the late 1800s finds his true calling when rescued by a United States Life-Saving Service crew off Bois Blanc Island.
My Thoughts: I've spent the past decade and a half as an expert in the field of maritime history, specifically that of the United States Life-Saving Service, a forerunner to the Coast Guard. For the most part, it seems, the story has been told; rarely does a new tale come along. But, the thing is, I know that they are out there. The magazine I edited on the topic probably touched on the experiences of 50-75 station crews throughout the United States. But there were 279 of them. There are more stories to tell. Sometimes the stories tangential to the world of the Life-Saving Service are as compelling as the tales of the deeds of the life-savers themselves.

John Kotzian's tale about the Reverend William H. Law is not just such a tale, it's a family history, as John is a descendant of the "Sky Pilot." No one was better positioned to tell this story.

Law stumbled into the lighthouse and Life-Saving Service worlds while living on Lake Huron in the late 1800s. He'd gone into missionary work in the area to serve the lumberjacks, sailors and the local Native Americans, but a chance encounter with the Life-Saving Service on Bois Blanc Island set the course for the rest of his life. In need of assistance in the teeth of a storm, his boat receiving a battering by the waves, Law never lost hope, but realized the danger he was in. Then, from seemingly out of nowhere, the life-saving crew arrived and carried him easily to safety. He spent a few days with them, heard their stories, began to understand how lonely and unrewarding life could be in both services, and dedicated the rest of his life to them.

His contributions were multitudinous, from the compilations of traveling libraries to the delivery of his own annual "messages," printed bulletins full of hope and good cheer. The most important action he took, though, was to personally wage a campaign for the pensioning of life-savers and lighthouse keepers. We'll never know how important his work truly was in creating the Coast Guard (by giving the life-savers at least quasi-military status in 1915 and taking them out of civil service, the federal government avoided, at the time, having to establish pensions for the entire civil service sector of the government), but we know he played a role. Lighthouse keepers would have to wait until years after his death, but they, too, would get their due.

Law's adventures carried him well beyond the Great Lakes, out to the Atlantic coast, where he interacted with one of the most well-known lighthouse families in American history, due mostly to the fact that the matron, Connie Small, wrote her memoirs and lived until 2005. Small's own book cross-references the tales of interaction with Law, his visit to her Maine lighthouse home and the letters they sent back and forth.

Had John Kotzian not chased down his ancestor's tale, we may have entirely missed the William H. Law story. Thankfully, due to this work, this odd but inspiring piece of Coast Guard history survives.

John McGraw by Charles Alexander

John McGraw
by Charles Alexander
The definitive biography of baseball’s greatest manager.
Release Date: May 15, 2014
Available from Kindle, iBooks,
and other major distributors
Published by Summer Game
For media inquiries, promotional materials, and ordering information,
contact Kent Weber:

Why I read it: I was asked to review it by Summer Game Books, the company publishing the ebook in 2014.

Summary: The biography of the first great dynastic manager in baseball history.

My Thoughts: I've been a student of the history of baseball since I was a kid. Yes, I have my own baseline from which I started, flipping Topps baseball cards with friends in the late 1970s, so my history is different than the next guy's. But as I grew, I became more than just a student of baseball history, I became a historian by training and trade.

So long before I picked up my Kindle and started advancing through the pages of John McGraw, back when I was a twelve-year-old, I knew who John McGraw was, in the way that I knew who Smoky Joe Wood or Willie Keeler was. I knew the era in which he managed (I honestly didn't know about his playing career), the stars of his day, and the success he forged in the sport.

But what I didn't know about John McGraw could fit into a 350-page book.

McGraw's career spanned from the 1890s to the 1930s, and just consider the changes he saw in the game. His playing career included parts of seventeen seasons, and his managing career thirty-three, with major overlap in the sense that he was, as were many of his contemporaries in the deadball era, a longtime player-manager. He watched the game evolve from the days of Cy Young and Ty Cobb to Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell. He played with men who had roots in the very beginning of the sport of organized baseball, and managed young men who would play in the 1950s, long after he had passed on.

If the author wanted us to carry one word forward about the life of John McGraw, it might be "tumultuous." The deadball era might well have been known as the bareknuckles era of baseball, with John McGraw its John L. Sullivan. His fieriness at the helmn of a baseball squad was probably only matched in the latter half of the twentieth century by Earl Weaver, who at least kept his hands to himself. McGraw was known for his vulgarity, his fists and his baseball acumen, by many people in that exact order. But however he got there, he became one of the most successful managers in baseball history.

As McGraw aged with the sport, his problems grew deeper. His on-field incident suspensions waned with time, but poor investments, gambling, drinking during Prohibition (and mistakenly publicly admitting to doing so) and issues with cohorts with the New York Giants ownership and management landed him in court on more than one occasion. His players loved him or hated him, and some, when traded to his team, downright refused to play for him on reputation alone.

Charles Alexander takes us season-by-season through the life of McGraw - he never needed a first name, it seems, as even today there's a certain comfort to just using his surname - and we, as "modern-day" baseball fans are much the better for it. Rube Marquard is no longer just a line of stats on a website to us, and Bill Terry is no longer just a player who made the jump to manager. The stars (and scrubs) of the first four decades of twentieth century baseball come to life as they orbit around the polarizing figure who helped define the era, possibly the greatest baseball manager who ever lived.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sergeant Stubby by Ann Bausum

Why I Read It: Advanced copy from Vine program.

Summary: "How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation" (also the subtitle).

My Thoughts: You may say to yourself, "Seriously? A dog helped win the war?"

Then, step back. OK, bigger picture - every action by an allied soldier (well, most, anyways) - helped win the war. Then you say, "But you said soldier." Correct. But trust me when I say Stubby played his part.

He meandered into the Yankee Division in New Haven, Connecticut, and found his way overseas with doughboy Robert Conroy, and at least experienced what the average American soldier did in World War I. He was present at many major battles, and even has been credited with capturing a German soldier. War hero? Maybe not. But symbol of all that was good about that average World War I doughboy? I'd say so.

Whether or not he deserved the attention and fame, he got it, and he was beloved by many who called upon his owner to be sure he was at the head of many veterans parades in the years after the war. He was vilified, too, by folks who felt the spotlight shining on him should have been cast elsewhere, toward the young men who lost arms and legs and minds on the battlefields of France.

Due to the relative scarcity of information about his life, the author provides contextual background for Stubby's story. She sets all the scenes and extrapolates what Stubby might have done. This is not a work of fiction, but carefully phrased facts.

Perhaps the most fascinating tale of all is how Stubby got to his ultimate destination. He's on display at the Smithsonian Institution. He didn't get there immediately, but he's there now. There's a whole psychological study to be done regarding Stubby and Conroy, why Conroy held onto what he did as far as Stubby's materials go after finally donating him to the institution, whether or not his relationship with the dog affected his relationships with women, or his ability to hold a job. Then, too, there is the question of why Conroy would hang his medals on his dog's back and claim they belonged to the canine, as it seems he did.

It's an interesting sidelight of history, not about two of the major players of World War I, but certainly about two of the players without whom the full story of the war cannot be told.