Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Story of Mount Desert Island by Samuel Eliot Morison

Why I read it: Annual trips to Mt. Desert Island.

Summary: A quick and dirty, witty local history of the land now famed far and wide as the host to Maine's Acadia National Park.

My Thoughts: Needs a map. Now onto the good stuff.

Growing up around the city of Boston, just south of it, in fact, and embroiling myself in the world of Massachusetts history, I've run across the work of Morison on innumerable occasions. He's a giant round these parts. But I've only read pieces here and there. I've never pushed through his opus on the Navy in World War II from cover to cover (to cover to cover to cover...), but I truly enjoyed One Boy's Boston, his memoir of growing up in the ritzy Beacon Hill section of the city.

So I knew the old Harvard professor had some wit to him before I picked up this book. But I was shocked - happily so - when I read his statements about the Red Paint People, a native tribe whom he termed "addicted to make-up" and surmised may have been wiped out by a neighboring tribe because they were too concerned with their cosmetics to defend themselves.


Racism aside (the first place most people will go when reading this passage; keep in mind when it was written), these words jump off the page for one specific reason. Historians can get too bogged down in proper, technical and accepted writing techniques to creatively express the important details of a story. Morison obviously wanted to break free from the stereotype of the American historian. He wanted to show that history can be engaging, fun, eye-catching and thought-provoking.

I've spent my career in search of good nonfiction stories. Yes, I want everything I write to be factual, but factual does not have to mean boring. Remember the saying about truth? A lot of times it's just about connecting the dots and asking the right questions. In Morison's case, the fate of the Red Paint People was pure speculation and his write-up is merely an exercise in "thinking out loud" (the book is, in fact, a collection of lectures he gave for fellow "rusticators" in Maine). But it's a food-for-thought type of supposition. Go ahead - you come up with a theory as to why the Red Paint People faded away. Is it any more or less plausible than what Morison has thrown out?

I'll tell you one thing. I'm now a fan of the author, and look forward to reading more of his work.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Wht I read it: I could name many things by their Latin names, but could never tell you how the Latin naming system came to be.

Summary: The history of taxonomy, featuring the role of the human umvelt.

My Thoughts: I knew Linnaeus, and I knew Darwin, but I didn't know Mayr, or Woese, or the others who have toiled over time to classify the earth's living things. Taxonomists get so little press these days, when there are so many Lady Gagas and Lebron Jameses about.

That's not to say that Yoon's work is a straight history of taxonomy. Instead, it's a story interwoven with the history of the human umvelt, that hard-wired section of our brain that helps us order the natural world. Lose it, as some men and women have over time, and you lose the ability to recognize wild creatures, what you can eat and what can eat you.

The umvelt is, in fact, the star of the book. Linnaeus's umvelt was the uber-umvelt, highly developed and primed for the gathering and naming of all the known species of the world. Darwin's wasn't bad either, even if the world was not ready for what he had to say - animals evolving? You mean they're not set in their ways for all time, that a pinyon jay may in the future not be exactly like a pinyon jay is today? Hogwash!

The umvelt takes a beating through time, as different theorists come along with new methods of classification. Numerical taxonomists believed they could compare traits between species - by the way, there is no accepted definition for the word "species" - and count the similarities to determine how closely they grew on the tree of life. Molecular biologists debunked this creative math by breaking life down to its lowest levels, comparing chemistries. Cladists have come along and turned birds into dinosaurs and eliminated fish (I'll leave that story to the reading of the text).

With each step, the human intuition for naming species was farther removed from the science of taxonomy. But it's still there. We still classify things. Think of all the brand names in our heads. Our forebears named the natural world, as it was the world they lived in. We name the marketed world, as we live in malls, magazines and websites.

The story is full of comedic moments, like in the early days of collecting and naming plants and animals when a Madagascaran scout shouted "Indri! Indri!" at the sight of a disappearing lemur. The westerner on the collecting journey wrote down the species as the Indri indri, only to find out later that his guide was yelling "Look! Look!"

With 1.8 million of the apprximately 3 to 30 million species of the world named...on this one planet...there are missteps to come. Have we reached the final revolution in taxonomy? Probably not. But as the author says, we're up against it; with each passing generation, our umvelts, the ultimate tools with which we can tackle this task, move farther and farther from the workbench, or lab table.

Things Ain't What They Used to Be by Philip Glenister

Why I read it: Watched the full run of Life on Mars on DVD, and just wanted more from the characters.

Summary: British actor Philip Glenister, known most prominently for the role of Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt from the television series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, reminisces about life in Great Britain in the 1970s and 1980s.

My Thoughts: Comedian Stephen Wright once quipped that he liked to reminisce with people he doesn't know. " takes longer."

And so it goes with this book, if you're an American. It's like comedian Steve Martin said about the French; it's as if they have a different word for everything. Our 1970s here in the United States were very unlike the 1970s in England. We have few shared cultural memories. C'est la vie et vive la difference.

But if you do know anything about British culture, you'll find a lot of humor in this book. The process of coming of age anywhere has its similarities. The world seen through the eyes of seven-year-olds is full of candy, schoolwork, television, holidays, sports heroes, blockbuster movies and toys. Our football is their soccer; our Snickers is their Curly Wurly.

There has to be something of Gene Hunt in Philip Glenister, but I hope it's a small, controllable amount. Hunt's voice comes through the text, as the author asks and answers questions like which Bond was the best, Roger Moore or Daniel Craig? (and for that matter, who was the best Bond girl?) Were our toys better in the 1970s? Was television bettter? Was the world a better place before the Sex Pistols swore on live TV? Could the citizens of the world use a little suspense in their lives, like when the Brits waited for months for Star Wars to cross the Atlantic, or is the instant society we live in now the way it should be? And isn't most of what we know, say, do and enjoy simply a repackaging of what we had in the 1970s?

Finally, back to comedians. If you need a comparison, Glenister has a little bit of Denis Leary in him, a real no-nonsense, tough-guy, man's man aura, but he holds back just where he should. His humor can be caustic, but he stops before crossing the line to gratuitous language and scatalogical humor. Anyone in the public eye can throw together a memoir and let it ride on the fame of the author, but it takes a true thinker to put the pieces together like Glenister does, making us think on our own.

For those who watched Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes (not on DVD in the US yet, sadly), you'll have fun learning how parts of Gene Hunt's persona was formed from the childhood memories of Glenister, and, like me, can then wonder where Glenister ends and Hunt begins.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Why I read it: Bryson, so far, was undefeated in my reading life. Plus, I am an anglophile.

Summary: The author, who lived in England for almost 20 years, is faced with moving back to the United States, and determines to take one last visit to his favorite places in England, and to see the places that he always wanted to see. He critiques architecture, transportation systems and, especially, the British people, and does so amazingly using only one Monty Python reference.

My Thoughts: Bill Bryson lived the dream of many, many American Anglophiles. He lived in the land of red telephone boxes, double decker buses and bacon butties for nearly two decades. But, as he reveals, living abroad in England is like finally achieving time travel: until you do it, you only see the good stuff in the destination. There's always dirt and grime and snarling faces and warm soapy beer wherever you go, even in England.

Lots of what's in this book will certainly go over a lot of heads in America, the only place in the world where the average person's vision stops working once it meets the horizon. Try watching an episode of made-for-Britain BBC news and you'll see what I mean. There's a lot going on in countries other than ours and those of our neighbors. In fact, there ARE other countries out there, believe it or not. But for those folks with a working knowledge of England and its history, this book is a keeper.

So Bill Bryson returns to England, without ever leaving it, to give it one last run-through. He starts where he landed in the first place, sighting the White Cliffs of Dover and picking up a job in a hospital, pushes through Wales, up to Scotland. He ruined some of my fantasies about places like Stonehenge, but I guess that's okay, as it will save me some money in the long run, although I suspect I'll someday pay to hop on a rickety, overpriced bus and ride out to see it anyway. The really funny thing about this book is that it's all about a "flubba-wubba" (in his son's own words) from Iowa walking around England poo-pooing their manners. Has the world flipped upside-down?

Of course, with Bill Bryson you get humor, with plenty of "LOL" moments. There's nothing like a good curmudgeon unafraid to share his opinions to get one laughing. What I want to know is, when is it my turn? When is it politically correct to turn the curmudgeony corner and write whatever the hell you want?

I can't wait.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I Am Third by Gale Sayers

Why I read it: Saw Brian's Song as a kid and always had great respect for Gale Sayers; wanted to see if it was well-founded.

Summary: Meant to be the story of a major professional football star recovering from a devastating knee injury, the book became the inspiration for the movie Brian's Song. But that was just one chapter in the book, a short story in a longer tale that rises from the ghetto to the top of the National Football League, from shy insignificance to super sports stardom.

My Thoughts: I'd have to be an idiot to think that after forty years, I could add anything to the discussion on this book. But I will say one thing; my reading of I Am Third was long overdue.

I was introduced to the Gale Sayers/Brian Piccolo story as a middle schooler, when we were shown the movie on a reel-to-reel projector. And if you haven't seen it, you've missed one of the most important movies of the twentieth century. So, before I picked up the book - long before - I knew the Hollywood story. I had set feelings about Gale Sayers. I was hopeful that they would be reinforced by the book. That's always a dangerous proposition, to trust Hollywood to have told you the truth.

Gladly, I was not disappointed. Sayers' writing style rings honest, which is all the more saddening. Having grown up in a middle class family, never rich, but never dirt poor, I've never been able to imagine the level of poverty the likes of which Sayers lived through in his early years. Descriptions of life without heat, without food, without the basics, including, at times, members of his family, make his accomplishments in life all the more amazing.

Again, to comment broadly on I Am Third at this point puts me at the end of a very long line. But if I could say one word about this book, it would be inspiration. Gale Sayers was, and is much more than the character Billy Dee Williams portrayed in Brian's Song.

Thank you, Hollywood, for not screwing this one up.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Cruise of the Dashing Wave: Rounding Cape Horn in 1860 by Philip Hichborn, edited by WIlliam H. Thiesen

Why I read it: I know the editor.

Summary: Ship's carpenter Philip Hichborn, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, native, shipped out to take on a new job in San Francisco, en route to a fantastic career as a naval architect. Along the way he kept a journal that stands out from the typical ship's recordings. He hates the captain, and has no problem writing his thoughts about that fact. He constantly discusses his place on the ship in relation to the mates and the rest of the crew. His journal goes beyond dates and latitudes and into social aspects of life aboard a ship that most accounts leave out.

My Thoughts: Could I do it?

I just don't know. The passage of the Dashing Wave from Boston to San Francisco in 1860 took 143 days, nearly five months. There were becalmed times, and winter storms. But I don't know if that would have been my problem. I live in New England. I revel in the instability of nature.

No, I think that I'm too much a child of the late twentieth century. I love my creature comforts. I can go without my Wii. I can go without my cell phone. But I don't know how long I could go without showering. Call me a wuss. Go ahead. Then think about whether or not you could do it.

People of the 1800s were tougher than I am, and there's nothing wrong in admitting it. Philip Hichborn was born in to a world without daily showers, and lived in a world - for at least 143 days - in which he had to constantly prove his manliness. He expected to get into fights, and his anger poured out of his head and into his journal. Showering is, of course, just a metaphor. I just don't know if I could stand the life.

Hichborn was an intelligent man, that much shines through. He was one of two boys to graduate from Cambridge schools in 1855, and that puts him in an odd place when he boards the ship. He is, as far as one can tell, more learned, more literate than most of the men around him, though he does discuss swapping reading material with one of the mates. He was, in some ways, a fish out of water.

Living the passage through the eyes of one who was there, who drifted at sea knowing that the 1860 American presidential race had come and gone, and that he had no idea when he would find out who the winner was, was certainly an eye-opening experience. After all, the study of life is best attacked through varying perspectives. Ultimately, I'm glad Hichborn wrote the journal, and even happier that Bill Thiesen brought it back to life a century and a half after the journey.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Creating One Happy Island: The Story of Aruba's Tourism by Evert Bongers

Why I read it: I've vacationed in Aruba several times, and have always wanted to know more about the history of the island.

Summary: The author covers the story of the transition the people of Aruba made from their oil refinery heydays to the current age of tourism. He interviews the key leaders in the change, profiles the premier properties and discusses the ups and downs of the island's last half century.

My Thoughts: I took a fifteen-year hiatus from Aruba, not necessaily by personal choice. Finances have always had a say in where I go on vacation, and sometimes whether or not I go on vacation at all. I just got back yesterday from my third visit.

Wow, has Aruba changed.

The island itself is only 19 miles long and 6 miles wide, a thin sliver off the northern coast of Venezuela. It's arid, rugged and windblown. But a small piece of the island has what many Americans (among people from many other nationalities) think of when they consider a week away from home: sand, sunshine and salt water.

Aruba came late to the table, but has certainly taken its share of its just desserts. Bongers outlines the important moments in Aruba's tourism history, the opening of the earliest hotels, the formation of the leading tourism associations, and more. He traces the subject's history from 64 hotel rooms and fewer than 1000 visitors in 1956 to the nearly 7500 rooms and more than 700,000 annual visitors today.

Importantly, Bongers does not shy away from the tougher moments in Aruba's history. Rioting in support of Aruba's quest for "status aparte" from the ruling government of Curacao (seeking independent nation status within the Dutch colonial system) led to four days of near-panic for thousands of tourists on island in 1976. The effects of September 11, 2001, had barely begun to fade when the Holloway murder case negatively impacted tourism in 2005, and just as that momentum began to move in reverse gear, the world economic crisis of 2008 left even more hotel rooms empty.

For a visitor, travel to Aruba is an online hotel booking, a search for a flight and joyous packing of skimpy bathing costumes and tubes of sunblock. But tourism has meant so much more for Arubans. During peak times, it's mant 0% unemployment. During bad times, it's meant major population shifts and even exoduses. Behind the scenes there have been hotels that were never built, projects stopped mid-construction, and today, the controversy of another yet hotel being built after the government had informed its of a halt to new projects. It's a fluid, dynamic entity, one which Bongers has frozen and captured for us all to understand.

I feel much better as a visitor to the island after having read this book. I feel like I can now see beyond the glitzy hotel facades and directly into their pasts.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Flights of Passage: Recollections of a World War II Aviator by Samuel Hynes

Why I read it: Finished the set.

Summary: Hynes recounts his World War II days, training to fly and fight for the Marines, eventually joining combat in a dive bomber in the Pacific during the last months of the war.

My Thoughts: The melancholy tone from Hynes' first book, The Growing Seasons, returned with this follow-up tome. World War II, he will have us know, was not what the newsreels showed us, not what the generic press releass to local newspapers claimed it to be.

His World War II was one of the temporary friendships forged by war. Friends separated to join the various services. New friends parted during training, as some washed out, and assignments scattered men to all corners of the country for further refininement. Death took more. Camaraderie came with a good bottle of whiskey, in a bawdy song sung at a seedy bar. Morale was at its highest when units formed and solidified, and entered combat together.

Hynes' war was one of tests, with a capital "T." Tests of manhood included the conquering of women, the first shot fired in anger. He constantly wondered whether or not he would pass life's tests. In reality, he was his own harsh grader.

His gently flowing prose leads one from his midwestern home to the Plains to the southeast to California and out to the weather beaten rocks of the Pacific. He pulls the veil off the blankly smiling facade that is pre-Vietnam America. Men chased women, sometimes got them, and talked rudely about their experiences. There were dirty jokes in the 1940s. Young men awash in a sea of alcohol with nothing to do but wait to die will do what we all know young men do: get drunk, fight, womanize.

As a flight officer, though, the nineteen-year-old Hynes learned responsibility. He even got married just before shipping out, accepting the terms of that test, knowing he didn't know if he would come back to support the woman he believed he loved, though he admitted he really didn't even know her that well.

By the end of the war, when he had lost friends, including some very close to him, he experienced the soulless callousness combat bears. Men crashed and died before his eyes, and movies paused only long enough for the darkness to re-envelop the burning crash sites.

Only the survivors could grab that ultimate title of lifelong friend. The men who died during the war had their lives cut short in the many stupid ways men die during times of political upheaval, and never got the chance to let their friendships mature.

The Growing Seasons and Flights of Passage should be read back-to-back and are, in my opinion, destined to be all-time classic works of American history. They are among the best books I have ever read on any subject.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

By This Wing: Letters by Celia Thaxter to Bradford Torrey about birds at the Isles of Shoals 1888 to 1894 Edited by Donna Marion Titus

Why I read it: Annual trips to the Isles of Shoals, and I lived at the time in the hometown of Bradford Torrey.

Summary: Pretty self-explanatory title! Celia lived at the Shoals part-time, and began a correspondence with fellow nature writer Torrey after finding a killdeer wing on the island. They maintained a correspondence until her death, never meeting face to face.

My Thoughts: What was Torrey's problem?

Bradford Torrey is certainly an interesting historical figure, one of the giants of 19th century American nature literature. Celia was right there with him, not nearly as prolific, but beloved for what she did write (An Island Garden, Among the Isles of Shoals, and numerous articles for popular magazines of the day). For parts of seven years they kept up their correspondence, trading copies of books, discussing birds and wildflowers, with Celia asking, pleading, eventually begging Torrey to make a visit to the Isles of Shoals off the Maine and New Hampshire coast. She begged until her final letter to him in 1894, less than a month before her death.

But Torrey never showed. Why?

He prided himself on his ambling, his Thoreau-like walking and appreciation of nature. Did he have a fear of boat travel? It's the only thing I can come up with. The Shoals are now, and have been for more than a century, a Mecca, a pilgrimage point for folks interested in history and nature, in spiritual rejuvenation. In other words, it was right up Torrey's alley. He lived in Weymouth, Massachusetts, three hours from the Shoals by boat (the town I live in now). She even sent him boat schedules, but no, he never appeared.

I guess to find my answer, I'll have to read the other side, find out more about the life of Torrey. I visit the Shoals annually, stand in Celia's Garden, which is still there, despite the fact her house is gone. Perhaps I'll find my answer there, but I think, instead, I'll find all the more reasons why he should have made the trip.

The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation by Jim Cullen

Why I read it: Just loved the concept from the moment I read it.

Summary: The author traces the concept from the Puritans to the modern day, touching on the Declaration of Independence, upward mobility, home ownership and more.

My Thoughts: I agree with the author. The topic is certainly one worth researching, ruminating upon and writing about. Apparently, according to his own notes in the book, some of the academics to whom he spoke said he was dealing with a topic unworthy of a historian's time.

Phooey. Let's move on.

The American dream is, of course, personal in nature. Is it truly possible to trace the idea's history? Yes, in general terms. While not every Puritan may have had the same exact dream, they all had a general one: freedom from religious persecution. How they further interpreted that notion individually could fill a volume unto itself. But the author chose to follow the dream over time, through Thomas Jefferson's ideals to Abraham Lincoln's birthplace, to Plessy vs. Ferguson, to Martin Luther's King's assassination. The same strains can be followed: a place of our own, personal freedom, the chance to grow unbound by the repressive forces of governments.

Comedian Eddie Izzard once commented that the American dream is to make all the money in the world, stick it in your ears and blow raspberries at people. An interesting image, and not that far from the truth. Cullen states that a current general dream includes moving to the coast, particularly California, and making money without effort (i.e. being "found" in Hollywood). There's no doubt that many, many Americans think this way. Maybe Eddie Izzard is right.

The follow-up question to the book must be this one: has America filled the bill? Is it in actuality a place where one person can dream, and reach heights unachievable elsewhere in the world? Does it offer the freedoms for which we've always strived ("we" being a strange term in itself, used by everyone from the first settlers to last week's immigrants)? Or does that change with each presidential election?

Whatever the answer, I know I have my dream, and that thus far the only thing holding me back from reaching my goals is me. I believe in my personal version of the American dream.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Remembering Lubec: Stories from the Easternmost Point by Ronald Pesha

Why I read it: Annual trips to Lubec each year, and I know the author.

Summary: Lubec, Maine's history is told through West Quoddy Lighthouse, its sardine canneries, school days, local families, the building of the Roosevelt Memorial Bridge to Campobello and more.

My Thoughts: I don't often get angry at the Coast Guard. But this made me mad as hell.

It's not Ron Pesha's fault. After all, as he says, since he's from "away," he can be no more than a chronicler and researcher of the local history of Lubec, although I think he has obviously short-changed himself. He writes as if he was there all along.

The situation is this one: the Coast Guard visited Lubec in the mid-1970s and exhumed the remains of Hopley Yeaton, the captain of the first revenue cutter and known as the Father of the Coast Guard, from his family farm for reinterment at the Coast Guard Academy in New London.

Good God! Why?!

Is a memorial monument not enough for the Academy? Would anybody look at it any differently if they knew that Yeaton was not actually buried at the Academy, a place he had absolutely no connection to other than the fact that more then a century after he died New London became the learning ground for the young men and women who were training for duty in a service that a century later grew out of the service with which he once sailed?

Yes, they got their permissions from family members - whatever that means two centuries after his death - but it left a void in Lubec. I can tell you one thing. If the Coast Guard ever gets the notion of moving the body of Captain Joshua James from my hometown, the bulldozers will have to go through me.

Coast Guard history is spread across the country, and each duty station can be a learning station for the men and women who serve. I've introduced hundreds of Coasties to Joshua James' gravesite over the past decade and a half. The men and women who serve at Jonesport should have the option of visiting Hopley Yeaton's gravesite where it originally was in Lubec, understanding him in his context, his surroundings, rather than meeting him in New London.

Sorry Coast Guard, you got this one completely wrong. And sorry, Ron. I promise you a thorough, proper review in print. You did excellent work.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Not Enough Angels: A Memoir by Vincent Lubrano

Why I read it: I sat on a panel at a library event with the author, and was entranced by his story.
Summary: World War II veteran Vincent Lubrano remembers the thirty months that changed his life for good, spent with the United States Army, mostly in France after D-Day.

My Thoughts: Another ho-hum World War II memoir, right? No. I’ve always maintained that World War II is the biggest story that has ever unfolded on this planet, comprised of millions of individual stories, and that every angle, every perspective is worth a read. Everybody alive during that period has a story to tell of who they lost, what they did, and where they were when.

I had the pleasure of meeting the author at a recent event, and was impressed with his approach to the topic. To be fair, though, and he would tell you this fact himself, he never fired a shot in anger during his time in service. His lot was guarding pipelines and almost operating teletypes (the war ended before he was incongruously forced into that role in the Pacific, never having seen a teletype machine in his life). He was no Audie Murphy, but then, neither would Audie Murphy have been had he been assigned to guard duty behind the lines.

Instead, much of what the author shares with us has to do with romance. A young man wearing an American military uniform in Europe in World War II had many opportunities to find love, in its many forms. He found his, although he tried to downplay it, especially to himself. Suzanne was her name, a French farmer's daughter who took a liking to him. But the cruelty of the war, the unpredictability, the suddenness, meant it was not to be. They spent some wonderful times together, but his unit moved before he could get word to Suzanne, and after a few letters that stretched across the Atlantic after the war, Suzanne faded from Vincent's life.

Decades later, when his wife encouraged him to write his wartime memoir, he said “Not without Suzanne.” It took him two years, but he tracked her down, in the same Normandy town in which she lived when she knew him.Their story is one of "what ifs," of how just a slight change in direction at a moment's notice can alter a life forever. Problems with his landing craft kept him safe from D-Day, meaning that other men went and died in his place, if fate is to be believed in. He, in the end, was lucky enough to carry an angel on his shoulder throughout the conflict, when there were obviously not enough to go around.

Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch by Dan O'Brien

Why I read it: A love of the outdoors, and a fascination with the wide open places of the west.

Summary: The author, an Ohio boy turned Great Plains rancher, converts his ranch from cattle to buffalo, keeping in line with his desire to return at least his corner of the land to its original, pre-European settlement state. He recounts the history of the land and its use, including stories of those early settlers, and hints that there is much more to the restoration than just the introduction of the buffao herd. His life gets reinvigorated, too, after a divorce that left him angry at himself for letting his life run away from him.

My Thoughts: These are the words I grew up to, the poetry of Schoolhouse Rock. Westward expansion was not, to a six-year-old in the mid-1970s, told through the theories of Frederick Jackson Turner, but instead impressed upon us by "Elbow Room."

"The trappers, traders and the peddlars,
The politicians and the settlers,
They got here by any way they could,
The Gold Rush trampled down the wilderness,
The railroads spread across from east to west,
And soon the west was opened up for good."

I remember the visual vividly: a train rushing across the continent crushing trees, clearing the way for America to follow in its wake. Perhaps in three and a half decades our sensibilities have changed, but back then, the trampling of the wilderness, and all of the species of birds, mammals and other animals associated with it, was seen by most as nothing more than progress.

Dan O'Brien is fighting the good fight to bring back the wilderness.

Long before he was involved with buffalo, he had a passion for peregrine falcons, helping with their reintroduction to the land. Of course, all of these animals are tied together in some way. We forced domesticated cattle onto the land, creatures bred for centuries to graze on the green grassy fields of Europe, hoping that they would thrive in the unpredictability of the open Plains. Whether or not it has worked is up for debate; yes, Americans eat a lot of beef, but the land, the ranchers and the cattle have suffered in many ways.

Cattle tend to overgraze their land, at least in comparison to buffalo. That habit leads to habitat destruction for numerous species of animals that historically have thrived on the plains, shrubland birds and more. What the author has done by reintroducing the buffalo is restore the old habits of that creature, more nomadic browsing, scraping for pockets of water, trasforming the land.

The book is eye-opening for East Coast huggers especially, those of us who grew up in large cities and look to the west for the mythic American cowboy. The author tries to debunk the myths, and rightly so, but there is some truth in the historical vision. There is romanticism in the solitude of the Plains, in the thought of living life your way, of unchaining one's self from the world of cubicles and commutes. Sure, it has its hardships, but some of us would certainly take a crack at it, even if it's just an even swap for stresses in life.

I hope that the author has found happiness in the end. I get the sense that his thoughts were at the right depths when he penned this title, that he could use his solitude for healing and not end up pondering suicide, as so many others have, including some close to him. At least in one sense, his transformation has been completed. Check out the Wild Idea Buffalo Company at your leisure.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

Why I read it: Gladwell was a hot author at the time, and figured I'd give him a read.

Summary: Marketing for the 21st century will be mostly word-of-mouth, as we've reached the saturation point with telemarketing, e-mailed ads, TV commercials and magazine spreads. We need to identify how rumors spread and insert ourseves into the chain.

My Thoughts: In 1996, I was working for Champs, a sporting goods and gear store. We had the whole gamut, from Nike to Reebok to Adidas, baseball bats to hockey sticks to soccer balls. Like many a red-blooded young American male, I had my major sports down pat; I had to learn the rules and equipment for lacrosse, which swim goggles worked best, etc. But even they were traditional American athletic pursuits.

But there was another, foreign world intruding on our baseball-football-basketball turf. It was the infancy of the X-Games, the rise of the skateboarding culture. Somehow it made its way onto our store shelves. But it never seemed to be in the right place.

I don't think I ever sold a pair of Airwalks among the hundreds of pairs of shoes I fitted onto the feet of our customers. I don't think I ever fielded a question about them, despite the fact I knew the product inside and out. And it had nothing to do with the fact that the Air Jordan craze was at its height. There just was no market for Airwalks at our store. They sat on the shelves, a lonely specimen or two surrounded by the rubber shoe versions of Deion Sanders, Jason Kidd and Allen Iverson. Airwalk's marketing reached our part of the country, but at least in this case fell on deaf ears.

Gladwell brings up the Airwalk rise and fall as a study in word-of-mouth marketing success. A small company focusing on California skateboarder lifestyle pushed its way east and around the world, became ridiculously successful for two years, then was gone. He gives reasons for its collapse, lessons learned by the company, but he misses one point that only a salesman would know. Although they were advertised everywhere, shipped everywhere, they didn't sell everywhere. Perhaps suburban Massachusetts was just too far away from the culture of California, physically and spiritually. Perhaps they sold in other stores in the region; they were just too much of a stretch at Champs, as far as I could see. They didn't belong to that store's identity.

The lesson of The Tipping Point is recognizing where one falls in the world of innovators, news dissenminators and consumers and figuring out how to find and utilize the rest of the network to spread the word about the good we do or offer. Let's face it - we're all in business of one kind or another, and we can all use another dollar, another engaged mind to further our cause, be it for profit or not-for-profit. We have to find out how to reach that Tipping Point where an idea takes off, and, conversely, how to avoid the next one, where our idea fails through oversaturation, overextension, etc.

Taking the lessons of this book means stepping out of the bounds of the way we normally, traditionally think. That's hard for some people, too easy for others, but somewhere in the midde lies success. I work for a nature conservancy. Where should I go to find my audience? Schools? Birdwatchers' clubs? Sure, but they will only take me so far. Or will I find that our conservation message must flow through a supermarket to reach that next group of people who haven't yet discovered they have a passion for the environment that can be satisfied through naure walks and other outings with our leaders?

I have my ideas. Do you have yours?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis

Why I read it: Christmas gift, and I had read Moneyball.

Summary: Michael Lewis, better known as the author of Moneyball and The Blind Side, also one of the country's top finance writers, tackles the story of his own fatherhood foibles trough the journals he wrote during the formative years of his children Quinn, Dixie and Walker.

My Thoughts: I'm just twenty months into this fatherhood thing, but I can certainly see what Lewis is talking about.

While there are some things I will never relate to in his book - like dropping everything to live in Paris for a while, or setting up permanent camp in Berkeley, California; we just don't have that sort of financial freedom - a lot more hits very close to what I call home in suburban Boston. Lewis brings up the situations that a new dad goes through, like attempting to soothe a baby with a superhuman capacity to scream and cry, and ponders his own reactions to such distressing situations. Do all fathers really take these things in stride, or are they just, like him, putting on a face for show, while secretly thinking about what the consequences would be if he simply placed the child in his crib and ran into the wilderness for good?

The transformation to fatherhood from the freedom of male youth is a shock to the ego. Teenage boys don't spend their time seeking out cousins and young aunts with babies so they can hold them, feed them and change them. They're skills that just are not inherent in a young man. They've been told most of their lives, in fact, to make sure they don't have kids until the right time comes. Why should they spend their time coddling and cooing a baby, when there are video games to play, sports to watch, beer to drink and women to chase (sometimes all at the same time)? During the teens and early twenties, babies are simply not on the radar screen.

Yet, the change occurs, sometimes subconsciously. Lewis refers to a movie in which there is an abduction scene, a child stolen from a public pool. Three years previously, to him, it would simply have been a plot twist. Now, with a youngster at home, the thought puts his gut into a twist. He's right. I read a story today about a man in South Carolina arrested on the disappearance of his two-year-old, and it turned my stomach.

The growth starts there. A father is a juggler, tryng to keep everybody happy at all times. Lewis doesn't even get into extended families and holidays, and he has no need to. Doing his share of the parenting of three children while attempting to maintain a career as a writer is enough to fill a book. There are hospital visits for all involved, children to soothe in the face of loss of attention from a parent during the birth of a new sibling, overnight camping trips, lack of sleep and more.

If this book is a guide, as the title states, then perhaps the main lesson to be learned is to approach it all with humor, or, at least, to know that what you go through as a new father will be laughed at later on. Hopefully by you.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky

Why I read it: Already read Cod, and I've always found the regionalization of trends in the U.S. interesting.

Summary: Kurlansky, author of Cod and Salt, among others, found an unpublished manuscript - or at least the barebones makings of one - of a Depression era Federal Writers' Project project and has edited it down to the current book. America Eats was supposed to be a snapshot of the American dinner table in the 1930s. The Food of a Younger Land takes that snapshot and photoshops it seventy years in the future.

My Thoughts: Stumbling across a lost manuscript can be, for a writer, a magical moment. Thoughts race, with the ultimate winning notion being, "what can I do with this?" Can it be published as is? Can I expound upon it? Can I be the one who brings it to light after all these years?

In many cases, there's a reason why the book never saw that light. It's incomplete. It's incorrect. The author quarreled with a publisher or an editor, and scrapped the project in disgust. In this case, war got in the way. The Depression ended, federal funds were diverted away from America Eats and into war causes. The book vanished into a pile of similar documents, to gather dust for eternity.

But Kurlansky has resurrected America Eats, and has given us exactly what its creators intended: a picture of that Depression era dinner table. And think about it! In the 1930s, there was no interstate highway system. Read: there was no fast food. Americans ate what they ate locally in those days, and nowhere was there a chain restaurant recognizable to someone in Florida as well as someone in Washington State. Vermonters ate pancakes and sausages, Kentuckians quarreled over the proper way to make a mint julep, Oregonians struggled with geoducks, an southerners apparently poured Worcestershire sauce into everything.

If there is one drawback to the book, it's that it's incomplete, through no fault of Kurlansky's. Certain states just never did their fair share. Massachusetts and Missouri top that list. Of course, baked beans make the grade, complete with the reason for their deep ties to New England (religion - you could cook them on Saturday and avoid work on Sunday), but beyond that, my home state is barely touched.

Kurlansky adds not only gastronomic history to the book, but has researched the writers as well. Some famous names, like Eudora Welty, are here, but many times the writers are as anonoymous as...well, I don't know who's anonymous. I guess if I knew them, they wouldn't be anonymous. One thing to note is the inclusion of a section on the Basques in Iowa. My suspicion is that is how Kurlansky found the manuscript in the first place, he being the writer of an acclaimed book on the subject of those people in their native land in the Pyrenees.

It's a long journey through The Food of a Younger Land, but then, it's a big country. Food history is cultural history, and this book proves how regionally diverse we once were in America, from Long Island hassenpfeffer to Montana fried beaver tail.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most Astonishing Number by Mario Livio

Why I read it: An unnerving love of numbers.

Summary: The irrational number Phi (pronounced "fee") has baffled mathematicians for centuries, much like Pi. The author defines it and seeks its historical applications. He works hard to debunk theories of its usage in ancient times in the construction of the pyramids, in Greek architecture, etc. He also discusses its theological ties through time, as science played with the border between cold hard facts and the unknown and supernatural.

My Thoughts: Ha! Where do I begin? I guess with nature, as I'm a naturalist by profession (these days). The concept of the logarithmic spiral is the key to linking the number to nature. To define Phi in basic terms, if you have a straight line cut into two parts, and the ratio of the sum of the quantities of the two parts is equal to the ratio of the larger to the smaller, you have the Golden Ratio:

a + b/a = a/b = Phi

The number attained is approximately 1.6, but like Pi, it goes on forever with no discernible pattern. Hence the determiner "irrational." More on that in a minute.

As for the logarithmic spiral, if you took a Golden Ratio rectangle and drew a line across it at the point where the ratio is defined, you would find that you've created a second, smaller, Golden Ratio rectangle. Do it again with that smaller one, and you've done it again. This process can continue forever, falling into ever smaller rectangles. You've created a spiral that manifests itself in nature repeatedly: in spirally-formed seashells, in the spiral arms of galaxies, even in the way a peregrine falcon dives for its prey. Because of the fact that its eyes are on the side of its head, it cannot dive straightforward. If we were to stand at the top of the falcon's dive and watch it fade farther and farther away, we'd see the Golden Ratio in action.

Here's my contribution to the topic: chimney swifts. If you've ever watched a chimney swift diving for its nest in, yes, a chimney, you've noticed that it does not dive in a straight line either. It has an arc to it, due, again, to the positioning of its eyes on its head, that I'll bet is relative to the Golden Ratio. But the bigger question remains: what were chimney swifts called before chimneys? If they nested in hollowed out dead trees, were they known as snag swifts? Anyway, back to the math.

Livio's book is filled with the history of the number, and the history of speculation about the use of the number in art, architecture, poetry, etc. From this standpoint, it is thoroughly entertaining. He spends a lot of time debunking, as good scientists will do, and I now wonder who's rebutted his debunking. Such is the beauty of the study of any singular topic in history. There's always another opinion.

I read a term in this book I had not encountered before: recreational mathematics. Math for fun. As a high schooler, I hated math, hated it with vigor. Oddly enough, though, when it came time for my SAT's, I scored much higher on my math test than I did my English. Go figure. Well, I did. I looked back at my life. As a toddler, I memorized the serial numbers on the undersides of my Matchbox cars. When baseball cards were discovered, well, I don't even have to go into that. Every player, every stat. My friends and I even developed statistically-based baseball and professional wrestling games that generally fell into the right results: Jim Rice always had more home runs than Spike Owen. Today, I lead our local citizen science efforts, compiling reams of data that I twist and turn every way possible looking for trends, sometimes answers. Ive been a recreational mathematician all my life.

My favorite story in this book, though, had to do with the Pythagoreans. What a wacky bunch. They were so upset when a colleague discovered an irrational number that they built a tomb for him and acted like he was dead. I don't know if the world's professional mathematicians today would react so strongly, but it's amazing to me how passionate they were about math and its consequences. I think, though, that it's a key to life; without that internal fire, is life really worth living?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Man Who Swam the Amazon by Martin Strel and Matthew Mohlke

Why I read it: I was interested to see who would do such a thing and why.

Summary: The title is self-explanatory. Martin Strel swam from the river's source to its mouth, at an amazing pace of fifty to sixty miles per day. The true author of the book, Matthew Mohlke, served as one of his navigators. The book is written in journal form, covering the sights and sounds of the Amazon rainforests, the villages and cities and the people that inhabit them. Mohlke also details the physical and mental toll the swim takes on Strel, not to mention the rest of the 22-person crew along in support of is Guinness Book of World Records record setting event.

My Thoughts: There are times I am simply embarrassed to be an American. Why did I never hear of this story? One would think that someone swimming the Amazon from end to end might have made headline news as it was happening. Perhaps it did. I missed it.

But that's not a surprise, really. Americans do not care about world events if a) they happen outside of the Unuted States, and b) they do not involve Americans. Watch our nightly news. We'd rather - apparently - watch a ten-minute story about how a local news team exposed a political appointee who rigged a copier at the State House to register only one of two copies so that he could pocket the profit than learn about floods in China or unrest in an African country. Blissful ignorace of international concerns has pushed us into problems before, and wil do so again (see Pearl Harbor, 9/11...).

Had Martin Strel been American, not Slovenian, I would have known he had pulled off his feat as it happened. It would have been all over the news, and he'd be on the front of a Wheaties box. In some ways, I envy the people of Slovenia who had the chance to follow his exploits as they happened. What a source of national pride it must have been.

But the greater theme of the book, for me, was posterity. What will we leave behind? Strel and Mohlke ask the question. If a slightly fat, slightly old man can swim the Amazon, what can you do? It's made me look deeply at what I've done and what I plan to do. I've worked for nonprofits all my life, fundraising, awareness raising for causes. I've written 34 books, most of which have done all of the above. And I have plenty of projects in the works. But, in the end, will I have truly done my part to improve the world? Will my effort have been a big enough deal?

Not Martin Strel big. What an inspiration. I have some thinking to do.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson

Why I read it: ALready read A Walk in the Woods, and find this Bryson guy kind of funny.

Summary: Bill Bryson grew up in the 1950s and '60s in Des Moines, Iowa, and for him, kidhood was Saturday matinees in palatial movie theaters, the Golden Age of Television (in black and white), figuring out how to skip school and barely slide by grades-wise, learning that adults cannot be trusted in any way, shape or form and wondering at the bewildering antics of his parents. In many ways, a typical American upbringing.

His memoir wraps his boyhood frame in the snuggly blanket of 1950s America: buzzcuts, Sky King, Burns and Allen, state fairs and more. It ends sadly, as all memoirs must; the Des Monies of today is no longer the exciting place of his youth. But the journey is one of joyful remembrance and superhyperbolic tales. He even, in what was also the Golden Age of Comic Books, develops his own hero persona, the Thunderbolt Kid, able to disintegrate the inconsiderate and the downright mean with a single staring glance.

My Thoughts: Right out of the chute: when will the world be ready for a memoir of childhood in the 1970s and 1980s? While much of what Bryson writes about has direct parallels to my childhood - he had a paper route, I had a paper route, his father had a habit of walking around naked at the most inopportune times... - just those twenty years of difference are enough to paint a profoundly different picture.

As a troll in a cartoon I once saw said, "Let me give ya a frinstance." While plenty of what Bryson writes about is deeply funny, and, more importantly, driven by real-life statistics of the era, the one concept that jumps out at me is the notion that there were simply more kids around in that period than ever in American history. Think about it! The millions of baby boomers as pre-pubescent pains-in-the-asses. It must not have been a problem at all to find a kid to do anything in those days: hockey, baseball, hopscotch, whipping rocks at passing cars, whatever struck your fancy.

My generation was the one that followed. My parents are the baby boomers, and while they helped repopulate the country after World War II, their broods were smaller; there were many more families, just fewer kids per. Don't get me wrong, there was plenty to do, but I just can't imagine what the '50s must have been like from that perspective.

Bryson's book is a lesson in aging. It happens to all of us, but so gradually and relatively that we often don't realize what we're missing. I, for one, am writing my memories down now. I want them to be there when I'm older, so that I can tell my son what his great-great-grandmother was like, what Zarex tasted like, and why I turned out to be the person I am.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before the War by Samuel Hynes

Why I read it: Just my standard fascination with American history.

Summary: Hynes graduated from high school in June 1941, in an America already consumed by the war in Europe. His would be the generation that took on the challenge of saving the world. But that story is saved for another book; The Growing Seasons brings the reader through the late 1920s and the Depression.
Hynes lost his mother when he was young, and traveled with his father and older brother as his dad sought work. Eventually, his father - a stoic, of sorts, unwilling or unable to stoop to the off-color humor of the general class of men who surrounded him - remarried, to a woman who young Samuel never fully grew to love. Life settled down in Minnesota, with older stepsiblings, all the pranks and foibles of boyhood, and eventually even the temptations of the opposite sex.
Hynes' book has an overall sadness to it, of never having enough, of never fully achieving boyhood dreams. He lived in a time of forced frugality, when folks either "made do" or were constantly frustrated over the lack of, well, just about everything. It's specifically a boy's tale, in many ways, a truly moving memoir of simpler times that were, in fact, quite difficult to live in.

My Thoughts: As I wandered through Hynes' well-written early life story, I drew parallels to my own, yet saw many lines that never met, not even out over the horizon. For the first time in my life, I've now read about someone who skipped a grade in school as I did; although he gradudated in 1941, he was too young to go off and fight immediately, as he was 16. I graduated two months after my 17th birthday. He talks of always being a step behind, socially. I was there.

But, growing up on a peninsula jutting into Boston Harbor, I don't think I can quite fathom what life in farm country is, or was, like. My grandfather had a garden, one that we thought was enormous as kids, but it would have been just that - a kitchen garden - on the farms on which Samuel spent a summer or two as his dad tried to raise money for the family. ANd he moved from there into the heart of a city. My life has been strictly suburban.
I, too, lost a parent early, but not to death: to divorce. I know what it's like to live with one and not the other. The only difference is that when I was of age and out of the range of court-ordered visitation restrictions, I got mine back. Poor Samuel never did. And he's right, stepmoms and stepdads never fill the void.
To me, the most unfathomable aspect of Sam Hynes' young life was watching his classmates leave for and temporarily return from military life. I just cannot imagine seeing my friends walk off to war knowing that some, many, most would never come back. I suppose that if I grew up in that age, I, too, would have followed Samuel's path into the military. But modern perceptions of war are altered greatly from those of the past, and service in uniform represents a lack of freedom to many who would today be giving up their bountiful, materialistic existences, rather than gaining the tools of survival as they did in the Depression. Back then a roof and three squares a day beat not having a job and forever wondering where the next bit of food would come from.