Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford

Why I Read It: I read A Christmas Carol every year; I figured I should know why.

Summary: The story of Charles Dickens and his amazingly enduring tale.

My Thoughts: The author states that Charles Dickens has been called "the man who invented Christmas" in the past, and admits that it might be a bit hyperbolic, but tells a pretty convincing story to that effect.

Nearly two hundred years removed from the origins of the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, we have more or less glossed over the story of its author, at least in relation to the details of his life as it concerned the writing of this book. Christmas is a beast, starting in late September each year. We don't stop to smell ancient roses like we should. But A Christmas Carol is one of them to which we should pay specific attention.

Dickens was struggling as a writer at the moment the idea hit him. Moreover, he had already dabbled in Christmas-themed stories before he penned this work, and would continue to do so for a few more years, never again reaching the same level of success. It turned out to be the perfect confluence of forces for him and, as it turns out, millions of readers living well into the future.

The underlying message of A Christmas Carol is charity, avoidance of greed, and it was published in a time, in 1843, when London was in dire need of such reflection. Life was tough, all around. There is probably a direct connection between the book's publication in late 1843 and the founding of the YMCA in the same city in 1844. As all -pervasive as Dickens' story was, it probably had at least a tangential effect on the Y's founders. Interestingly, the story comes with the ironic twist that Dickens was angered by the lacking paycheck he received from its first run.

A fun feature of this printing is that the book also contains the full text of A Christmas Carol, so we can seamlessly step from the Dickens story to the Scrooge story.

So, did he invent Christmas? No, obviously not. But he did hep shape the holiday we celebrate today, helping to cement traditions we often inherit without much thought as to their origins.

Mad Dog: The Maurice Vachon Story by Bertrand Hebert and Pat Laprade

Why I Read It: "Mad Dog" Vachon was a legend by the time I started watching pro wrestling in the late 1970s.

Summary: The life story of one of French Canada's wrestling legends.

My Thoughts: Wrestlers, like any other athletes, tend to fade away when they leave the limelight. They occasionally show up in the background shots of sketches, barely recognizable as an extra referee or in some other capacity, sometimes trotted out one last time to lift up a current star, to put them over. The WWE has done a great thing by establishing its Hall of Fame, and opening it up to wrestlers from all across the United States, reversing its ancient trend of not recognizing other associations, a lingering aftereffect of the territorial era. Through it we get to see and hear our heroes and villains one last time.

Maurice Vachon was one of those wrestlers with whom I'd lost touch through time. Honestly, I don't know that I ever saw him wrestle, as his most accessible home turf to me in the early 1980s, the American Wrestling Association, was just beginning to be televised in my region before it was swallowed up by the then-WWF. Now, his brother, Paul "The Butcher" Vachon, was a different story. By that time he was a jobber, collecting a paycheck week to week by getting his shoulders pinned to the mat to highlight established and up-and-coming stars. I didn't see him at his prime, but at least I saw him in action. I read about Mad Dog in the many magazines of the day.

So it was almost a blank slate with which I approached this biography. I had previously read the authors' work in a history of Montreal wrestling, which, in turn, spawned this book. The book is translated from the French version, with minor interruptions to its flow, overall very well done.

The basic story is that "Mad Dog" was a gimmick, and Maurice Vachon had a heart of gold. In the days when fans truly believed what they were seeing, before "kayfabe" was broken for good, it was hard to believe that there was an ounce of good in him, but it was true.

There are recurring themes in his life. From a hardscrabble childhood, he followed the typical YMCA redemption story (life was tough, I went to the Y and it changed for the better) by taking up boxing and then wrestling. Maurice represented his country at the Olympics as a wrestler, gaining national recognition that would follow him for the rest of his life. He cheated death several times, eventually losing part of a leg to an accident. He went through several marriages. and rode the ups and downs of the industry.

I think, for me, the enduring image will be of Mad Dog, fire in his eyes, working on building a casket for an opponent in his backyard for a televised sketch. That type of far-fetched lunacy was what fueled the future of wrestling, for better or worse, depending on your point of view, microphone skills becoming as important as physical talent. But in the end, it was indicative of the creativity of the performer that showed through and his passion in connection with his pursuit.

Mad Dog may rest in peace, but there are generations still left who are still riled up by his act.

American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee

Why I Read It: As a citizen scientist, the idea of telling a wolf's story through collected data seemed interesting.

Summary: Forces collide and decide the fate of an iconic wolf.

My Thoughts: The basic story told through this book is that as a country we are so deeply divided on so many issues that we are blind to the consequences of our own selfishness. And that goes for all sides of any argument.

In this case, it's wolves and wolf-watchers vs. ranchers and hunters, politicians standing on either side to get elected, the National Park Service caught in the middle and already-elected officials in Washington, D.C., attaching the lives of wolves to bills as poison pills to block passage of unrelated laws. In many ways, this is the most disgusting of practices.

The author follows the life of 0-6, a wolf claimed to be un-anthropomorphized (due to the fact that she was never given a proper name, instead called by the last two numbers of the year of her birth). Unfortunately, whether she was 0-6 or Sheila, she still gathered a following who watched her every move and made her a member of their extended family, exactly what scientists are trained not to do. The scientific disconnect was just not there, and because of it, there was an epic blow-up when she was shot and killed.

It takes moments like this, of course, to cause change, but in this case, all sides have ground on which to stand. Conservationists want wolves back at Yellowstone, to restore the natural order, to cause that tropic cascade that controls the elk population, which in turn changes plant colonies for the better, etc. Ranchers want their cattle protected, and who the hell can blame them? Hunters want to hunt, and not just for sport. They want to provide food for their families, and they see wolves as competition. It's a nasty snarl of a question that leads to back-and-forth situations in which states have jurisdiction over the lives of the animals, and then the federal government does, and vice versa as the political winds blow. Wolves, clueless as to man-made boundaries, the current state of their placement on the endangered species list and other human whims, have no idea when they transition from a safe zone to one in which anyone with a gun can shoot and kill them, and wander into and out of rifle and spotting scopes.

No matter which side you land on in this debate, you'll be mad when you finish this book, because the story doesn't end. There will be more to come.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Great Quake by Henry Fountain

Why I Read It: Amazon Vine pick, plus my natural curiosity about geology dragged me in.

Summary: The 1964 Alaska earthquake and what we learned from it.

My Thoughts: When I was a kid in the 1970s, attending college in the late '80's and early '90's, there was no doubt that plate tectonics explained the make-up of the earth's crust and the cause of earthquakes. It was in the textbooks. It was fact. Yet, it was only seven years prior to my birth that the theory started to come together, as a result of the 1964 Alaskan quake. I guess I had believed that like other theories, it had roots much deeper in the past, even if just the late 1800s. In a way, I guess it had, when we consider the role that the theory of seafloor spreading had on the development of the theory of plate tectonics.

The author focuses on several different groups of people in the books, including the residents of the towns of Chenega and Valdez, and the geologists called in to research changes in the landscape following the quake. He tells the story of the quake with a fast-paced series of short, destruction-filled sentences that attempt to describe the eternity the quake felt like during its five horrendous minutes. I don't think anything ever written will be able to do so, but the author gives it a valiant, convincing effort. He fills us in on the backstory beforehand, introducing us to the characters the quake kills off wantonly and indiscriminately. He tracks the survivors from his 1964 narrative up to the present day. And he tracks the damage and the effects of the quake all over the Pacific Rim.

The star of the story is George Plafker, a geologist who, already familiar with the region after years of field work, joined the team researching the quake's aftermath. His work - driven by the rising and falling of the land, sometimes measurable by, of all things, barnacles, led to the theory of plate tectonics, which, incidentally, is still being tweaked even today.

The story reminds us, too, of the relative unpredictability of earthquakes. But it brings a question to mind. Since we now have ground-penetrating radar, are we far from technology that will allow us to identify those places along fault lines where stresses are building? And from that point, can we develop technologies that will allow us to alleviate those stresses before they release themselves? Or is this like trying to drop atomic bombs into the center of hurricanes, a nice idea but relatively ineffective, even if they represent the ultimate efforts capable by man against nature?

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Once Upon a Town by Bob Greene

Why I read it: Impulse buy. I saw it as yet another story in the biggest story of them all, World War II.

Summary: A small town train station is turned into a place of joy for America's military men as they cross the country on troop trains in World War II.

My Thoughts: So, what happened in North Platte, Nebraska, in World War II? Meet just about any veteran you meet (sadly, they are almost all gone), and he will tell you.

As a stop on the east-west rail line across the country, the North Platte station suddenly became a place that just about every serviceman knew. He had a precious few minutes to get to know it, but the locals were ready.

They set up the train station as a canteen, and stocked it with whatever they could make: coffee, pleasant sandwiches, cake,s pies and more. The local communities took turns manning - or womanning, technically - the canteen, making sure that every train, sometimes as many as 32 per day, was met, with smiles, positive vibes and home style nourishment for young men with the most uncertain of futures.

Bob Greene went to find it, and found it was gone. But the people were there, and the spirit lived on. He let them tell their own story, in this partial oral history of the North Platte Canteen, and sought the men who went through and made it home to tell the story of the miracle they witnessed in Nebraska.

If you have read and are a fan of The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim Defede, you will love this book. It's as feel-good as it gets.

Playboys and Mayfair Men by Angus McLaren

Why I read it: It was an Amazon Vine opportunity, plus the interwar period has always interested me.

Summary: "Crime, Class, Masculinity, and Fascism in 1930s London" as studied through the lens of the Mayfair Men diamond theft case.

My Thoughts: So, the basic story is that four young men, from well-bred stock (as defined by the social structures of interwar England) stage a robbery, are caught, tried and punished. From these simple, straightforward moments spring innumerable storylines.

Who were they, and why did they do what they did? Were they typical of men of their generation, or were they just four wayward souls who sank to the lowest of the low? As the subtitle, quoted above, states, there was a lot more to it, mostly driven by the sensational coverage by the newspapers of the day. The perpetrators' pasts were paraded across the front pages, their failed relationships, their speeding tickets, their soured business dealings. From these details the concept of a "Mayfair Man" hardened: a lover of speed, a self-made adventurer, a risk-taker.

But there was more. Despite the carefully constructed "butch" facade, the typical Mayfair Man, was a little effeminate by the day's standard. The men in the robbery was described as such by the hotel staff that encountered them before and after the act. But were they trendsetters, or followers of fashion trends sent forward by men like Noel Coward and Fred Astaire?

The discussion, too, focused on politics, with each side, liberal and conservative, blaming the other for the rise of the Mayfair Man.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the story pertains to the punishment for the crime. Two of the men were sentenced to flogging. The should-we-or-shouldn't-we debate raged. Should capital punishment be allowed? Was it really a deterrent? And should the sons of England's socially superior families be subjected to it? Their masculinity would be on trial when the cat-o'-nine-tails struck, too, especially when watched by the generation who came before them, those who fought in World War I, and gave up friends, limbs and more for their country.

My thought on the topic was that I was surprised that it was even an issue. For centuries, death had been a spectator sport in Great Britain, with public executions, in many gruesome, gory variations, always attracting crowds. These punishments were not public, beyond the results published in the newspapers (which varied from paper to paper). But England was in the throes of growing its conscience, at least questioning whether or not physical punishment - from flogging to execution - should even be alternatives any more.

The author presents us with much more than just the case, as he offers us the life histories of other "Mayfair Men" who fit the mold, rich, young men who wanted more and were not averse to taking it.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Under the March Sun by Charles Fountain

Why I Read It: A baseball fan through and through, major league spring training is something I've never experienced.

Summary: A history of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, focusing mostly on the musical chairs game at play among the many cities hosting and hoping to host big league clubs.

My Thoughts: When I was a kid, Winter Haven was the byline. The Red Sox trained in Winter Haven. Always had, always would. I had no understanding that spring training did not come with the advent of baseball. It seems so obvious; they must have trained somewhere warm before the season started, even the old Boston Beaneaters. Yet, at some point in my life, they moved to Fort Myers. It was the result of negotiations regarding the needs of a club and the needs of a community, of the optimum number of practice fields and fan accessibility. It was part of the regular shuffling from city to city, from state to state, through time. But it had major economic impacts on Winter Haven. There are only so many major league teams to go around. Without the best package to offer, a community may find itself without one for a year, and a facility in waiting is a facility stagnating.

And yet, from Boston, when I found out the Red Sox moved, I reacted like someone who had no idea of any of the above. "Huh, they moved." And I went on my merry way.

Politics and economics both play major roles in the spring training game. From the beginning, pioneers in Florida saw spring training as their economic salvation. Six weeks of bylines in major northern cities were seen as untouchable marketing opportunities for tourism boards. Now, a century on, it's all a multi-million dollar affair. It's Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Boardwalk and Baseball in Haines City. It's the celebration of baseball that sometimes goes too far to be sustainable. It's about understanding the fan experience as a part of the grander scheme, but that the bottom line still trumps everything.

It's also the competition between cities in Florida, and between Florida and Arizona. And it's the story of the briefly considered Oasis League in Las Vegas. The sting of gambling kept the sport away, but now that the NHL has broken down that barrier, with a new team in the desert, has the game changed? The author also deals with the trials of racial integration. Florida is the Deep South, and as such, spring training was a battleground in the integration war.

To keep it all straight, the author includes a thorough appendix, by team, of the spring training locations of the past 120 years. After reading this book, I'll never give the news of a move a "Huh" again.

Finally, let me just say how fun it is to read all the way through a book, and have the author sign off the acknowledgments from a spot fifteen minutes from your house. It brings the whole reading experience full circle, and makes one feel like there is somehow magic nearby.