Friday, July 17, 2015

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

Why I Read It: Needed a small paperback to keep in my pocket while waiting; found it in the boxes in the garage.

Summary: The author has a theory and carries out an experiment to attempt to prove it.

My Thoughts: This may be one of the most remarkable adventures undertaken in the name of anthropology of all-time.

Heyerdahl's theory, in a nutshell, is that the islands of the South Seas were populated by ancient people who had sailed the Pacific currents from the western coast of South America on balsa rafts. But when he tried to promote the theory, he was told it was impossible, that despite the overwhelming evidence of linkages between the people of modern-day Peru and the people of the South Seas, there was just no way that a balsa raft could survive the trek across the Pacific.

So, he decided to try it. He gathered friends who, like him, had survived World War II, men who had fought underground, behind enemy lines, made makeshift radios, and had done anything to stay alive. He knew that if anybody would be up for the challenge, it would be this crew.

They gathered materials, with the help of several governments, built their raft and hit the open ocean.

Among my favorite parts of the book are the interactions with wildlife, such as the whale shark that visited them, and the flying fish that constantly leaped on deck. What an odd and sad turn of events for that fish. Imagine all the work that went into the development of the defense mechanism over thousands of years. The species learned to propel themselves out of the water in order to avoid predators, or at least throw them off their track. And for thousands of years, as far as we know, it worked. Then, along came men, and boats. Suddenly the fish flew away from their enemies into the hands of those with just as much hunger in their bellies. The fact that the fish landed on the Kon-Tiki helped prove Heyerdahl's theory. Food from the sea was abundant and easily gathered during this mid-20th century journey; in earlier times, before factory ships and overfishing, it must have been more so.

One of the lingering feelings I get about this book is that in some way it had to be an inspiration for Gilligan's Island (there was a 1930s movie that definitely resembled the idea, with a handful of people of different backgrounds stranded on an island). The story may just have been tucked in the back of Sherwood Schwartz's mind as he was creating the show a few years later, but it feels like it was there. America had a growing love affair with Polynesia at the time. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers, sailors and Marines had visited the islands, had eaten the foods and generally fallen for the culture. The 1950s saw the great rise of tiki restaurants in America. By the time the Gilligan showed his face the first time in the early 1960s, South Pacific had been presented as both a Broadway play (1949) and a movie (1958), taken directly from a James Michener collection of stories.

I may be way off with my theory, but if you read Kon-Tiki, you will understand how spot on Heyerdahl was with his.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson

Why I Read It: Pulled from the Amazon Vine line-up. Shipwreck books are usually of great interest for me, with my background in maritime history.

Summary: A team of divers set out to find a treasure ship, then switches course to look for a pirate ship.

My Thoughts: I met John Chatterton, one of the main characters in the book. He has no reason to remember me. He was filming an episode of Deep Sea Detectives for the History Channel in Boston Harbor and the Coast Guard invited me out onto the water with them as he and his on-screen partner read their lines. I stood by and watched from behind the camera on the top deck of a 47-foot motor lifeboat.

The book carries an interesting narrative, even if I find fault with one main issue. The ancient pirate whom they - divers John Chatterton and John Mattera - chase is over-inflated in historical importance. If Joseph Bannister was as notorious in the pantheon of pirates as the author professes he is, wouldn't we have heard of him by now?

In his defense (the pirate's), he pulled a badass move, for sure. He turned from regular seagoing merchant to pirate and forced a showdown with the Royal Navy that left the latter in retreat. His story is certainly interesting, now that it has been dusted off, but does he belong, as the author states, with William Kidd and Blackbeard?

We are treated with views into the lives of the two divers. John Chatterton is a Vietnam vet who took battlefield chances others would not, a medic who ran through enemy fire to retrieve his wounded comrades. John Mattera grew up with New York mob ties and his own entrepreneurial illegitimate businesses, until turning to police work and ultimately his own protection agency. They find their common ground in diving work.

The story brings us through their journey, from the moment they decide to abandon a treasure ship search to find a pirate ship instead to the ultimate successful conclusion of that search. The journey includes all sorts of side adventures, from gun play in the streets of the Dominican Republic to quiet moments of discovery in Spanish archives.

The story is oozing with bravado and machismo, both modern and historical. And it moves well, as the divers seek to read the mind of their 17th century prey, Bannister. If they find him, mentally, and understand how he thought, they find the ship.

If you pick it up, read it like an adventure novel, and you won't be disappointed.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Why I Read It: I think technically it's illegal to be American and not read it.

Summary: Teenager Holden Caulfield is booted out of yet another school and finds his way home, stalling for a few days to arrive about the same time as the letter he expects is being sent to his parents.

My Thoughts: I knew him.

I couldn't believe when I started reading the text how much Holden Caulfield, who narrates his story directly to us, sounds exactly like a great uncle of mine, one who was born about the same time as the character. The ego, the disdain for everybody else, what they do and how they do it, it was all there. Even specific repeated words and phrases - phony, hot shot, etc. - were words I heard every day from my uncle. Having heard the language before, I couldn't put it down.

Our protagonist is kicked out of prep school and sent packing. He could never focus on his studies, save for his English. Instead, he spends his time scrutinizing everybody in the world around him, finding them all to be phonies or bastards, to use his words. He holds respect for a bare few, his younger sister and his dead younger brother among them. The book is one long complaint, as he wanders home into New York City, looking down his nose in his twisted illogical way at every person he meets.

The problem with Holden is that he doesn't know when to stop, when to let his thoughts be thoughts and not leave his mouth. Numerous times while reading the book I found myself thinking, "No, Holden, don't say it!" or disbelieving that he had used specific words in specific situations. He is unfiltered, and it costs him time and again.

He is certainly contemptible, in need of intervention-style learning moments. But he has a soft side.

He has a surprising altruistic streak. In one of his many encounters with random people - a pimping hotel elevator operator, young women visiting the city from Seattle, administrators at his old elementary school - he meets two nuns coming to teach at a school in the city. He offers them $10 for their charity and indulges them in conversation. His ultimate dream, even beyond the twice expressed goal of running away to a place way out west, or up in New England, away from all people, is to save children from hurting themselves. He wants to help, in many ways, but can't get out of his own way.

Holden is disillusioned with adulthood, yet is struggling with getting there and trying it out for himself. He talks big about sex, and then when it is practically forced onto him by a prostitute he somewhat mistakenly solicits, he can't follow through and announces that despite his boasts, he's a virgin. He talks his way into a couple of beatings. He generalizes, constantly. He lets the actions of one person represent entire classes of people: the elderly, teachers, guys who visit his room at school, etc. He instructs us on why we should dislike just about everybody.

It must have been wonderful to read this book when it was thoroughly controversial across the United States, in simpler times when even just the language was enough to initiate book burning parties. But it was certainly wonderful to read it now, nearly 60 years after its release.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

Why I Read It: Another "find" in a box I had dusted off. It had long been on the list.

Summary: The introduction of logotherapy told in two parts, a description of the practice preceded with the author's memoir of life in Nazi concentration camps.

My Thoughts: I often wonder how people a hundred years from now will react to stories of the Holocaust. Will it be diluted through time? We are just now losing the last of the "greatest generation," so that means that I have lived among them for nearly half a century. The people of World War II have always been a part of my life.

I guess that's why the stories have always affected me so deeply. People of my grandparents' vintage were among those gassed or otherwise atrociously treated. And when it came to such levels of understanding, it probably helped to grow up in a town with a strong Jewish population.

But Frankl's memoir struck me if just in two sentences. I guess at this point I have no expectations for how low the Nazis could sink; the depths of their cruelty no longer shock me. But Frankl made one statement that jumped out at me. He mentioned how life in the camps was the ultimate game of survival, and that in many cases, the good guys, the men and women who thought of others first, lost. In his words, it wasn't the best among them who survived the ordeal. I think I've always just believed that the prisoners in the concentration camps had no free will whatsoever, but Frankl's book changed my viewpoint on that idea. Some men and women went to great lengths to survive, often at the expense of others.

The second sentence that got me presented me with a physical reality that just struck a chord. He talked about being so weak that to take a step up into a building he had to put his hands inside the doorway and pull himself in. We've all seen the pictures of the gauntness of the concentration camp prisoner. But I guess that that's it; they're still pictures. I never thought too much of what it must have been like to try to do the simplest tasks.

I wasn't as impressed with the second half of the book, but it's not for me to really tear it down. The fact that any man or woman was able to survive the ordeal and think so deeply about the psychiatric side of concentration camp life - of the prisoners, of the guards, of the liberators, etc. - is amazing. To have gained the attention of so many millions and tell the tales as Frankl did, is astounding.

For me, personally, the timing was odd, too. The last line in the book (1984 edition) has to do with Hiroshima, which was the subject of the book I had just put down before picking this one up. I guess, in the end, as long as texts like this one survive, perhaps there will be less dilution than I fear. If we are supposed to learn from history, this is one lesson we should never forget.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Hiroshima by John Hersey

Why I Read It: World War II history is always on the table; was going through a box of old books and decided to pull it out and read it.

Summary: The author follows the stories of six people caught in the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima, told in four parts.

My Thoughts: Having not been there, it's hard for me to say on what side of the coin I would have fallen. I can say today whether or not I would have supported the dropping of the bomb, but having not been alive and in the United States in 1945, I cannot say how I would have felt at the moment. Of course, most Americans weren't in on the debate anyway.

And I'm guessing that even in the immediate aftermath, there was little American sympathy for the Japanese civilians killed in the blast. With the press filtered as it was in those days, average Joe probably had little knowledge of the truth as it was. Then, too, after four years of war, bloodshed, rumored atrocities and the revelation of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, there must have been a general numbness to death in distant lands.

But to the first-time reader in 2015, there is no such distancing.

The first-person descriptions offered by Hersey from the mouths of his interview subjects are jarring. Descriptions of physical impacts are as heartbreaking as the psychological crashes, like the tale of the woman who held onto her dead baby for days in order to show her husband their child one last time. He, a newly-recruited soldier, was probably dead already, too.

The sense of lost wonder - what kind of bomb was it? - was bewilderment in its truest description. Rumors abounded about paratroopers following the explosions, of gasoline sprinkled over the city then lit by incendiary bombs, and more. In a way, the fear of what came next mirrored the hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, when trigger-happy American antiaircraft crews shot at their own planes. Some Japanese spoke with absolute authority; they knew what the bomb was. Others simply listened, the topic way over their heads.

The tale is utterly humanizing, in the sense that it takes us to ground zero of the enemy's worst day, and forces us to understand that their every day lives were not much different from ours. We are left to wonder, how would Los Angeles have done in the same situation, or Chicago? What if 10,000 wounded and sick Americans tried to find help at a 600-bed hospital? What if 100,000 of your closest friends were suddenly gone? What would you do if you found the silhouette of your uncle burned into a granite slab near the spot of impact, a permanent ghostly reminder of his last act?

This book has long been touted as one that everyone should read. I cannot disagree.

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 seem 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.