Saturday, May 23, 2015

Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen

Why I Read It: History of any kind is always a potential read, and the 1920s are certainly an area worth wading through.

Summary: A narrative history of the 1920s.

My Thoughts: There are those books that come along once in a while that simply make you feel unworthy. I don't think I'm qualified to review this book, but I'm going to do it anyway.

The book starts in the waning days of World War I. We walked through the next decade with the author, alongside the presidents, from the red scare, to Charles Lindbergh, through the murder trials, the flagpole sitters, the biggest scandals. What I find most remarkable is how the author was able, in such a quick turnaround, to recognize the trends of the decade and report on them from the early days of the 1930s.

But he doesn't just report on them. He narrates them like they're a poem. He takes us up and down the knees of the young women of the 20s, right along with their fashion-dictated skirt lengths. He takes us up into the big bull market and brings us crashing down. He introduces us to H.L. Mencken, teaches us to love him and hate them at the same time. He picks up on the malaise of the '20s, an era we look back to as "roaring." There were high times, yes. There was a reason The Great Gatsby was produced during this time. He educates us on our America was really prepared for Prohibition, how most people even thought it was a good idea. And then he explains how it led to open gunfights in the streets of Chicago. We see the causes, we see the effects. We better understand how the 1930s began, and how our world of today was shaped.

If there was one literary tool I thought the author misfired on, it was not utilizing the wonderful picture he drew at the beginning of the book with a juxtaposed ending. We meet Mr. and Mrs. Smith of Middletown, Anywhere, USA, and join them at the beginning of the decade. We learn what they eat. We learn what they look for when they pick up a newspaper. We learn about what their daily lives are like. Bringing the book to a close in a similar fashion would've been a wonderful reading experience. Perhaps though, considering how the book ends, with the stock market crash, it simply wasn't a good idea.

And there are those funny twists of history, that make such a book such a beautiful snapshot in time. As the book ends, Charles Lindbergh is still a hero. He has married Ann Morrow, but there is no mention of a baby or a kidnapping. Lindbergh hasn't returned from Germany telling us all that the Nazis aren't all that bad. The moment of perspective makes the book. The title is perfect. When Frederick Lewis Allen was writing his epic history of the 1920s, to him it was only yesterday.

I read an old dusty paperback version of this book. I kind of wish I had a hardcover copy, one that I could pass on to my boys. The first time they get into their history studies and tell me it's boring, I plan to pull out this book and read excerpts to them to prove that no subjects are boring, only writers can be. The right author, like Allen, can make history seeme not only like it was just yesterday, but that it was right here in front of you.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood by Terry Masear

Why I Read It: An Amazon Vine opportunity; I've actually been in on the capture and banding of two extralimital hummingbirds on the South Shore of Boston (one Allen's, one Rufous).

Summary: An ordinary, everyday American citizen transforms into a full blown hummingbird hero.

My Thoughts: Like many other pursuits, hummingbird rescue and rehab on the West Coast is one of those "be careful what you wish for" propositions. The author begged to get into the world, and now can't get out (not that she's hinting that she wants to). The responsibilities, once accepted, are far too great to just step away. Too many lives hang in the balance. If she truly feels how she says she does about hummingbirds, then she knows she is in this for life, hers and theirs.

The author starts simply, finding an injured bird and bringing it to a rehabber, volunteering to help. She soon starts her own rehab center, and before she knows it her summer life is altered with job changes, the inability to take vacations - or even leave the house for 30 minutes - and quick trips to the market to purchase as many rotting bananas as she can find. Hummingbirds specialize in catching the fruit flies that find the bananas.

Ultimately, she picks up the jadedness many people working with wildlife get when forced to interact with the general public. She has to give the same educational lessons over and over again, and will ad infinitum, as there will always be another person calling in who either has done something wrong, ignorant of what is right simply because s/he didn't know, or that is so wrapped up in self that s/he decides that despite the admonitions of the trained rehabber, their way is just better. Alternately she is occasionally buoyed by the odd individual who will go above and beyond, sometimes literally, to rebuild or replace a fallen hummingbird nest.

One of the storylines in the book is the return of a previously injured bird, four years after first encountered. Strangely, if not for a quirk of the rehabbers trade - many of them don't, according to the author, band the birds - it wouldn't have been much of a tale. Banders attach small rings around the legs of birds with numbers on them that are stored in a central database; when a bird is found it tells a lot about the individual's movement. In this way, one bird can tell a lot about its entire species. Anyway, because the bird in question had such obvious markings, it was easy to make the identification the second time, after the L.A. road grime that coated it was washed away; but had she banded it in the first place, the author would have recognized it right away.

The book is a testament to the great lengths to which people will go to help wildlife, and in that sense, it is heartwarming, when we consider how much people do to harm wildlife, either directly or indirectly, through money-grabbing development of precious habitat or the use of products that place toxins in the environment. The author carries us through just one season of hummingbird rescue in the greater Los Angeles area. For her, there is much more to come.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes

Why I Read It: I was a teen when the movie came out, had read the Goldman book on which it was based, and was simply immersed.

Summary: Cary Elwes (Westley/The Man in Black) recounts, spurred by the 25th anniversary of the release of the movie, the flubs, outtakes, laughs and more.

My Thoughts: Cary Elwes never wanted the filming of the movie to end, and so it goes with those of us who love the film. In all, we got an hour and a half of this mythos, the place where the border nations of Guilder and Florin are at odds, where Spaniards, Sicilians and giants last seen in Greenland work together in temporary harmony and where the Dread Pirate Roberts goes on and on pillaging, seemingly defying aging and time. We wanted more.

This book, 25 years later, gives us an extension (reading the William Goldman novel adds more, and YouTube has some interesting material as well). We are allowed back into the story. We are free to read aloud the lines we all know anyway in concert with Elwes as he uses them to set scenes. We get not only the voice of Elwes but of the director (Rob Reiner) and many of the actors, in constant sidebar quotes throughout the book. Only a few are gone - Andre the Giant, Mel Smith, Peter Falk - but the rest remember the entire experience lovingly. In fact, it seems almost too perfect, as Elwes doesn't have a bad word for anybody. This is a very positive book from cover to cover.

There are some interesting revelations as far as the personalities go. Wallace Shawn (Vizzini) not only had a truly "dizzying intellect" off screen, he was also seemingly ridiculously nervous about losing his part, so badly so that he gave himself hives. William Goldman loved his book so much that he couldn't bear to watch most of it being filmed. And then there was Elwes' broken toe. After reading this book, you will never watch the movie the same way again, if just because you'll be looking for the ramifications of that injury as they were captured on film. You'll also be looking for a prop from This is Spinal Tap that appears in the background because Mark Knopfler asked for it to be there.

We get to wonder about the alternatives. What if, as proposed in an earlier attempt at filming the movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger played Fezzik? Or Mel Brooks was Miracle Max? Or Danny DeVito played Vizzini? Or Michael Palin was the Impressive Clergyman? It might have been a very different world.

So there is no dirt, but then, I was hoping there would not be, to tell you the truth. For a few more hours I got a chance to live in that world again. And if Goldman ever finishes Buttercup's Baby, the follow-up novel, we get more, but he's not sure he ever will.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top by Seth Mnookin

Why I Read It: The time had come; the book had been around since 2006, and I've been a Red Sox fan since 1975.

Summary: An embedded writer's view of the 2002 to 2005 arc of the life of the Boston Red Sox, including the building and crashing of the 2004 World Series champions.

My Thoughts: My initial gut reaction to the book told me that this book was going to be heavily pro-management, but I let it ride. The book opens with a history of the Red Sox and then profiles of the big three owner/executives - John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino - before getting into the story of the world championship.

The beauty of a book like this, in which somebody spends the time to look deeply into the details of a story that unfolded right before our eyes is that the layers are exposed. As a thirty-something American male, I was deeply ensconced in my work and social lives at the time; I caught the general flow of information out of Fenway Park, and probably knew more than the average Bostonian, being a devotee of sports radio. But it would be impossible, in my situation, to know every detail of every story related to the 2004 World Series champs, especially since much of what is in this book was published for the first time in its pages. (For example, I had no idea owner Tom Werner had a ticket on Flight 11 on September 11, 2001, but, because a meeting got out early, he flew out early; or that a Red Sox pitcher was caught cheating with a Northeastern student when she posted a picture of them cuddling in a dorm on a social media site). The depth of the research and then the reflective nature of the interviews Mnookin conducted in the aftermath make for a fantastic combination.

Still, as I  read, I couldn't help but feel a bias forming. Perhaps it simply was, as Mnookin professed it would be, the truth. He and Henry agreed that the book would not be slanted in any way, but in the end Henry comes off as the most likable individual in the story. Many players and even other journalists are given negative personae through the tone in which they are presented, but, again, we get the softened, filtered version through our regular media. Mnookin had as close a seat to the action as anyone will ever have. If you read this book, expect to have some heroic facades (as heroic as we make our athletes out to be) crumble. Expect, too, to do some self-reflection, if you are a Boston sports fan.

The book culminates not with the Sox defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in October of 2004 (I was in Norfolk, Virginia, when it happened; where were you?), but with the schism between Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein and then the tenuous rebuilding of their relationship. And it's funny knowing the future beyond the book. This tale ends in 2005, projecting 2006. In 2007, the Sox won it all again. I wonder if Mnookin felt a twinge of regret, that perhaps an opportunity had been missed. But then, who can predict baseball futures? Bill James?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Why I Read It: Reading the series with my kindergartner as "chapter books."

Summary: Four children in World War II London are hustled out of the city and into the home of an elderly man, where they find a magical wardrobe.

My Thoughts: Perhaps it's just the struggling dad in me, trying to find the next great great story to tell, but it seems the concept comes naturally. A child peeks into something and finds another world. For us, it's been everything from a glass of milk to an imaginary tube in the vernal pool behind our house. Of course, since my little guy's world is populated with pop culture characters, the tube leads to Mario and Luigi, and the world on the other side of the glass of milk was Minecraft.

But those worlds just got him warmed up for Narnia. While there was a language barrier to hurdle (quickly changing "Father Christmas" to "Santa," for instance; yes, he makes an appearance in the book), the story is action-packed enough to be fun for his little mind. Even just the concept of swords, shields and potions of healing get him thinking. Powerful talking lions and evil witches just add to the fun.

A few things went over his head, like the concept of the non-passage of time, like when the children emerge from the wardrobe after what felt like years inside, only to find that they had not aged at all. But the basic concept of good and evil is there, of triumph over adversity. I hope he is having enough fun to consider reading them again in the future. I'll be sure the books are packed away so that he can.

For some reason, I had never read these books before, so it's an exploration for me, too. I was certainly a fantasy and Sci-Fi geek as a kid, but perhaps I just discovered Lewis a bit too late. I'm glad I'm getting the chance to relive a little of my childhood for the first time, sharing it with my son.

The Predator Paradox: Ending the War With Wolves, Bears, Cougars and Coyotes by John Shivik

Why I Read It: Full-time job is as a naturalist.

Summary: The author tries to find the bridge between the loss of livestock and the wholesale retaliatory slaughter of apex predators.

My Thoughts: This book boils down to one pertinent fact.

When we consider the depredations of the country's top natural predators on livestock, on people and on pets, etc., oftentimes our reaction is to make a big sweeping move. Wolves killing sheep? Kill all the local wolves. Grizzly bears attacking campers and hikers? Kill all the bears. But we know the domino system will be in effect.

If we kill the top predator, its main wild prey can run rampant. Kill all the hammerhead sharks and we'll be overwhelmed on our beaches by overabundant stingrays. With no natural predators in Massachusetts, where I live, white-tailed deer have become a nuisance species, spreading Lyme disease and devouring forest floor habitats, not to mention the front yard tulips.

But, Shivik argues, supported by the numerous ongoing experiments he covers in this book, even just destroying the local population of predators is the wrong way to go. We tend to think that each and every wolf is the same as the next one; if one wolf is a sheep killer, they all are. But we are finding that, just like us, there is individual variation in the way of personalities in the world of our biggest mammalian predators. Oftentimes innocent bystanders are being picked off in the war against them.

But how do we know who is a sheep killer and who is not? And are there ways that we can train wild predators to shy away from the desire to take livestock? Shivik walks us through the thought process. Can we give visual or olfactory reasons not to kill? Will a distasteful scent tip a bear off that attacking a hiker might be an unpleasant experience?

One way or another, the author argues, we have to stop the war, lest we interminably damage the balance in the ecosystem (more than we already have). Yes, we have questions of economies to consider; we can't let our livestock producers live with constant losses. But we also can't let the wild world down, either.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

Why I Read It: Whim. Was scanning through my Kindle for something "new."

Summary: A doctor-turned-physicist discovers the secret of human invisibility (it has to do with light refraction) and goes on a naked, invisible rampage.

My Thoughts: For it's time, it must have been quite the sensation. Wells certainly had the touch.

I think for me, though, there was a lot of baseline comedy that made the book even more enjoyable. Let's face it - the story is more than 100 years old and has been done to death in movies, etc. (My favorite spoof was with Ed Begley, Jr., in Amazon Women on the Moon). The concept is not as shocking as it once was.

Then there's the setting, late small-town Victorian England, the land of pubs. Everybody has an overwritten accent, every person a classic caricature to today's reader. And there's even a Monty Python moment. When the Invisible Man, who we come to know as Griffin, meets the wanderer Mr. Thomas Marvel for the first time, he gets frustrated by Marvel's noncommittal stance on aiding him. The Invisible Man ultimately says that if Marvel doesn't help him, he will throw flints at him until he acquiesces. This sort of minor punishment just struck me as reminiscent of a famous line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Very well. If you do not appease us, we will say 'Ni' to you."

The pace of this book is excellent, making it a true thriller. Even during the lengthy conversation between Griffin and his college contemporary, Kemp, the story moves. The beauty of the concept is that being invisible, Griffin can (ironically) appear in the book at any time, leaving that constant air of mystery when any other characters are conversing without him. There are exceptions, of course. When he eats, food must assimilate into his system; Marvel asks him when he first meets him whether or not he's recently eaten bread and cheese. When it rains, mud outlines his bare feet, and two young boys watch his feet run down the street.

I think we are left with the ultimate question of "did the process of becoming invisible make him go crazy, was it the realization afterward that his life had forever been altered, or was he a loony before this all happened (perhaps explaining why he did this to himself in the first place)?" The guy is bordering on pure evil. He plans a reign of terror. He murders. He steals. He wantonly hurts others for what seems like fun.

The fact is, though, that if he was not nuts, the book would have gone nowhere. Had he been a proper late Victorian British gentleman, the tale would have been boring as hell. Wells chose his character well, giving him delusions of despotism.