Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter

Why I read it: Huge fan of his work.

Summary: The full, authorized biography of the author of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, among many other notable works.

My Thoughts: I dabble in languages. Tolkien created them.

The inspiration hit him when he was young, and therein lies the question of nature and nurture. What was it about his young mind that drove him toward philology? Was he trained to think that way, or was his mond so wired from the start to love languages? He went beyond toying with the romance and germanic languages to delving into the ancient European tongues, forming, for example, his own club that met solely to read Icelandic sagas in their original written form.

It all started from the most difficult of beginnings. He lost both his mother and father when he was young and lived in foster homes until he came of age. Even with such challenges he shone brightly as a scholar, studying at Oxford, where he would eventually teach.

Carpenter is mindful that what Tolkien devotees really want to know is where all the components came from. What was the inpiration for Gandalf? How did hobbits emerge as a fictitious race, and who are they supposed to reflect? Who are the elves and what are they supposed to represent? Are there any ties to contemporary events mirrored in the story of The Lord of the Rings?

There's no doubt Tolkien was a genius. And with genius often comes temperamentality. A goodly portion of his life was spent wrestling with publishers, finalizing and then rewriting chapters and short stories in exacting tones and answering fan mail about obscure inaccuracies and redundancies in his mythology. But once his major works took off as international bestsellers, life changed for good. Money poured in. Privacy deserted him. He had to move.

Thouands of fantasy and science fiction writers have followed Tolkien, but his works remain the standard up to which they all gaze reverentially. Major motion pictures, a massive multi-player online game and more continue to thrill new audiences every year, all grown from a single line written on a blank page of a student's test about a "hobbit" in the 1930s.

Writers, know this: Tolkien's lesson is to keep writing, and to follow the strange tales to which your mind takes you. As he wrote, characters emerged from odd places, with no preordained goals. Let it flow through your pen and let the story take you places within you that you never knew existed.

The History of the World According to Facebook by Wylie Overstreet

Why I read it: Needed a laugh, history geek style.

Summary: A parody history of the world using the Facebook format.

My Thoughts: It's sad, so sad, that I can read this book and understand it.

But that is the world we live in today, the one that will be so parodied in the future. Most of today's written communication includes LOLs, OMGs, ROFLMAOs and more. Or, should I say, less.

That said, Overstreet did a fantastic job of summarizing world history - from the Big Bang to the death of bin Laden - in 150 pages of short, choppy slang-ridden FB entries. Think about that! Here's a typical entry:

"Norma Jean Mortenson changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.
Joe DiMaggio and 18 million men like this."

Boiling down historical events to just a few, perfectly descriptive words is not easy, and doing so in a way that makes one laugh with every page is even harder. But wait, like with the Ginsu knife, there's more...

The book was printed in full color, which adds an entirely different dimension to it, from the Facebook Blue to the icons chosen to represent the historical characters voicing their opinions throughout. The one that made me laugh out loud was the first time "England" appeared - in the persona of Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean.

Sure, it was a waste of valuable time in which I could have been learning Italian, writing my own books or drawing up plans for a cathedral, but what the hell. We all need to laugh once in a while.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

American Nerd, The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent

Why I read it: Fear that I might be one of his people.

Summary: The author takes us on a journey through his life as a nerd, tracking down the creature in all its current forms, while delivering a history of the species, and the etymology of the word itself.

My Thoughts: I wonder if I ever ran into Benjamin Nugent. While the dates are fuzzy, he does allude to growing up in Amherst, Massachusetts, and coming of age in the same time period I was a student there at the University of Massachusetts. While we would never have intentionally crossed paths - I was heavily into my college studies and he was a pre-teen playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends - I wouldn't be surprised for a minute to find that we had passed each other in one of the local malls or in downtown Amherst. But I digress...

What this book did to me was make me wonder where I fall on the nerd/jock spectrum. Let's face it - I'm writing a blog about the books I read. Nerdy. On the other hand, I work out at the gym every day for a full hour. Score one for the jocks. I played Dungeons & Dragons for hours on end as a kid. Nerd! But I also stood out in hockey, baseball and wrestling as a kid. Jock! I lead nature walks and share my knowledge about birds, salamanders and other creatures, but often climb mountains to do so. I write books, but sometimes they're about trail walking endurance challenges I put myself through. In some ways, I feel like I've gotten the best of both worlds. I love a mental challenge as much I do a physical one. That's it! I'm a Renaissance man. Too bad the Renaissance was four hundred years ago.

Nugent, though, writes with an underlying anger that lets us know that his childhood nerddom and what it made him do to friends in the long run (forsaking some for the chance at being seen as cool) still torments his soul. He's mad that he was ever a nerd, and tries to find someone to blame for letting him be that way. But being a nerd is not a choice. You either are or are not.

In the end, though, the nerds usually win in life. Say what you want about Bill Gates, but he won't hear you sitting way up there atop his humoungous pile of money. Exercising the mind at a young age - debating, studying, reading, learning - can lead to being a nerd, but it also gives one a leg up when the competition becomes real, away from the bullshit cliques and social pressures of high school.

So where do I stand? Half nerd, half jock, fully proud.

Twinkie, Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger

Why I read it: Cod, Salt, Twinkie - deep focus on a single item and its place in the world.

Summary: The author's journey around the world to find the ingredients that make up one of America's most iconic snack foods.

My Thoughts: Disclaimer: the copy I purchased at Barnes & Noble in Hingham, Massachusetts, is missing pages 111 to 142.

It's truly scary to look at a food label and honestly face the notion that we know not what we are putting in our bodies. We are trusting manufacturers and our government to protect us and nourish us, and in some cases to simply gastronomically delight us. I don't think "nourish" and "Twinkie" need be in the same sentence.

So off the author goes, taking the ingredients on the Twinkies package in order, from top (most abundant) to bottom. He deciphers the vitamins we've come to know we need, if not what for, and describes the roles they play in making the food "work," what they do in our bodies, and, most importantly, where they come from. To put it simply, a Twinkie is as international a foodstuff as one can get. Its ingredients are produced, mined, extracted and otherwise gathered from all corners of the globe.

The one major personal challenge I took away from reading this book was not to stop eating Twinkies - believe it or not, even after all I read, they don't particularly scare me - but instead to focus on stopping the flow of high fructose corn syrup into my system. It's not easy to do, especially in the United States, which are just saturated with it, but I think it's a key to a healthier life.

I wish I had the middle pages of the book so that I could have seen the roles Cellulose Gum, Whey and Leavinings play in Twinkies, but I think the message was clear enough. Our food production system is ridiculously complicated, but creates wondrous things - like small cakes that can sit on store shelves in thin plastic wrappers for weeks without going bad. Now that is scary.

A Team for America by Randy Roberts

Why I read it: World War II history, in any form, intrigues me.

Summary: Red Blaik's 1944 Army team finally finds a way to beat Navy, as the country struggles through yet another year of World War II.

My Thoughts: I don't think I've ever fully formed my thoughts on the World War II generation. Every time I read a book on the subject, something stirs in my soul. At times I wonder if I'm falling victim to nostalgic fantasy; were these people really as heroic as I make them out to be (or as authors portray them)? More often than not, though, I err on the side of respect. As a cartoon troll from my childhood once said, let me give you a frinstance...

The story of A Team for America revolves around Red Blaik, for several reasons. First, yes, he was the coach that made history for Army. Second, though, he was the only constant. His players were at West Point. For the most part their primary goals were not football related (although some were recruited specifically to play ball and not for their potential military leadership abilities). But being at West Point during World War II also meant that their futures were in grave doubt once they left the football field for the last time. They faced death in the greatest meat-grinder in history. Blaik might find that once-in-a-lifetime back, but chances were he'd lose him before he reached his full potential.

That, to me, was the most heart-rending theme of this book. Of course, it is all ancient history now. We can Google the names of Glen Davis and Doc Blanchard and all the rest and learn of their fates, but when reading the book you're living in the moment, and live and die with the characters playing out the story.

I could go on a long rant right here about the current world not knowing the meaning of sacrifice, but I'll leave it be. But that, to me, is the story of World War II, a selflessness and sacrifice of personal freedoms on behalf of country that the modern American world will never fully understand.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

How to Survive the Titanic or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson

Why I read it: Centennial of the event, plus, hey, it's maritime history.

Summary: The Titanic disaster as examined through the life of the White Star Line owner.

My Thoughts: Thank god it wasn't me.

What would you do? You're the head of the firm that owns the ship that's going down on its maiden voyage, the largest moving thing on earth. You see an open spot on a lifeboat and know that by taking it you can live to fight another day. But you know that there are not enough lifeboats to fit every passenger - the Titanic sinking? Unthinkable! - and undoubtedly people will die.

And therein is the beauty of the approach taken in this book. The great ethic and moral question presented to us all must be answered. In the boat, or not?

Moreover, though, Wilson takes another unexpected course, winding us through the story of Lord Jim and a similar fictitious tragedy that was published 12 years before Titanic. With Lord Jim, Ismay hasd a kindred spirit, one whom he probably never met in the pages of Joseph Conrad's book.

Drawing heavily from inquiry testimonials, Wilson conducts her own cross-examination of Ismay, showing his inconsistencies and the muddiness of the final moments aboard the ship. Did he help others into lifeboats, or did he just race for his own seat? And the inquiries themselves! When Ismay stood up to questioning, it ultimately was aimed at finding out why, when others had died, did he live? Any good captain goes down with his ship (and he did). But what of the owner?

What would you do?

Arctic Autumn: A Journey to Season's Edge by Pete Dunne

Why I read it: A personal fascination with the coldest regions on the planet, plus Dunne has a menu full of books I should be reading.

Summary: Dunne parallels themes from fall nature explorations of the arctic region with the autumn of his life.

My Thoughts: Let's get it out of the way - I'm not a big fan of Dunne's writing style in this book. But I can work around that for the important messages he is attempting to deliver.

Unfortunately, we're getting to the point where folks are seeing the plight of the polar bear as cliche. I have the fantastic luck to work in the nature field full time, and can tell you that, no pun intended, the polar bear is just the tip of the iceberg. Changes that should take millenia are taking centuries, and those that should take centuries are taking decades. The planet is heating up, and we are facing mass extinctions as animals genetically unready to adapt are being forced out of habitats and climates they need.

Dunne takes the life stories of several species, of caribou, of geese, of songbirds, and, ultimately, of polar bears, and shows how we, even in the deepest reaches of the north, have already affected their lives. Oil drilling, national defense, hunting and so much more has already taken its toll on one of the world's final natural frontiers. The 55-gallon drum is now the "state flower" of Alaska, left behind when plans called for mobilization during the Cold War, but did not provide for cleanup when operations concluded.

In his typically comical way, Dunne diverts to topics like the ongoing struggle between a birder and a nature photographer (read: him and his wife) and the relative slovenliness of a group of men gathered together in the far north to track elusive bird species. He concludes that what "tidy" means depends on whether you're male or female.

But these tales are, simply diversions in an otherwise poignant book. It's sad, but here's yet another title that shows us what we've wrought, and asks us to examine our own vanity, as life on earth as we know it changes before our eyes.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life by Len Fisher

Why I read it: Math, math, math...

Summary: Can the world's problems be solved through game theory?

My Thoughts: Yes. Yes they can.

We all played it as kids, and we all threw rock way more than we should have. Perhaps that's just an American thing, where we've learned that the best way to victory is to pummel people with our fists like Superman or Hulk Hogan or Joe Louis. And we all understood the game. Think that you're outthinking your opponent. Predict what he or she is going to throw, and counter it. The only thing more frustrating as a kid was "bucking up." I got evens!

In Rock, Paper, Scissors, Len Fisher dumbs down game theory for us by speaking in our language, that of movies and television and sports heroes and the other bits of "culture" in which we dwell. He diagrams it all out for us logically. If A reacts this way and B reacts this way, C occurs. By breaking down the major conflicts that can arise between opposing parties - wives and husbands, nuclear nations, interplanetary combatants (OK, that's my extrapolation), the members of a group supposedly pulling for a common good - he shows us how we can work through them, then ultimately delivers a list of hints on how to avoid or settle arguments with the best possible consequences.

And lord knows the world needs it. You may be stuck in a Prisnor's Dilemma right now, or wrestling with the Tragedy of the Commons. How will you reach that perfect conclusion? Well, I can tell you one thing. Don't throw rock.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Why I read it: A going-out-of-business sale at my local Borders.

Summary: An American classic; George and Lennie struggling to keep the American dream alive during the Great Depression.

My Thoughts: There are certain books we avoid as high schoolers, that list that English teachers gush over. The Fountainhead. Wuthering Heights. Anything by a Bronte. In most cases, attempting to get anyone between the ages of 13 and 18 to appreciate the beauty of classic literature is an exercise in futility.

Somewhere down the line, though, the connection is made. The realization that you may have missed out on a cornerstone of the American experience (or, perhaps, British) hits you. You start to look at the list. Read that, missed that, never read that...haven't even heard of that one. Recognition turns to slight shame, then sudden desire. You dive into the classics.

I'm there.

And now it all makes sense. Bugs Bunny once ran into an abominable snow monster who delivered a famous line that stuck with me through my childhood, and apparently into the extended childhood that is my current life. He picks up Bugs and locks him into a bear hug: "I will love him and hug him and call him George!" Unknowing of his own strength, he practically crushes Bugs. (*Slap to the forehead*). He's Lennie! It took me until 40 years of age to figure that out?

The novel is a place of broken dreams for a failed wannabe actress, an African-American forever locked in an incongruous place, a one-handed ranch hand who knows he will someday soon be deemed useless and discarded, wanderers living only in the present. As much as they all dream about a future, it doesn't exist.

George and Lennie are bound together for life. George promised to bring Lennie with him through life, to protect him, and finds that most of the time he has to protect him from himself. Steinbeck's portrayals are brutal, as were the times in which the story is set. Nobody gets any more than their fair shake.

So yes, I'm there. I've got the list, and it's time to catch up with the rest of society.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Grendel by John Gardner

Why I read it: Read Beowulf, wanted to hear the second opinion.

Summary: Beowulf, from the monster's point of view.

My Thoughts: This book is a fantastic achievement. Taking the opposite point of view of any story is always fascinating - see the recent movies on Iwo Jima, one from the American side, one from the Japanese, for example - and it's something that should be done more often. It's only when we step out of the bounds of our own thoughtways that we truly understand the world. Unfortunately, most of us never get there.

More, though, needs to be said of Gardner's work itself. He creates a singular, unique voice in Grendel, who tells the story from the first person, and, as you might imagine, in doing so he had two tasks. First, he had to be true to Beowulf and its many themes and characters. To do so, he sends Grendel out as a lurker, always watching from the shadows. He witnesses conversations that shape the story, and shape the very way Grendel approaches his interactions with the Scylds and, later, the Geats. Second, he must fill the gaps, in place and time, where Grendel is alone, with his mother, with the dragon.

Gardner's great point with this work, though, is about society's downfalls. Grendel debates, mostly internally, the institutions of government, war and religion. In the end, he warns one and all, with his dying breath, to look into the mirror, and realize that he was not the only monster.

I bought this book in the literature section of a closing Borders store, at 60% off. Had I known it was this good, I would have bought it earlier at full price, just to give the author his due.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Unsinkable by Abby Sunderland

Why I read it: Maritime history is as much a vocation for me as an avocation; if the sea wets it, I'll read it.

Summary: The author, at 13, sets a goal, to sail around the world single-handedly. By doing so she has the chance to become the youngest person in the history of the world to do so. Attacked by critics, but bolstered by supporters, she sets out on her first attempt at a "solo-round."

My Thoughts: I can remember the frustration of being told "You're too young. You have to wait." There's a point in all of our lives when we hear those words. But there's a difference. I produced. I wrote articles for newspapers. I slaved over my historical research. My name, and work, faceless, appeared in print. But when it came time to meet someone face to face, to apply for a job, I was often told, that no, I couldn't do the job, I was too young.

Capital B, Capital S.

Society has just never come to grasp with the fact that youth can outperform wisdom from time to time, that the young sometimes have what it takes to do amazing things that older people cannot. So it was with Abby. She set sail and did her absolute best to shut the critics up. She did n't make it all the way around the world, but she made in more than 12,000 miles before an Indian Ocean storm dismasted her sailboat during a rollover. In the end, it wasn't age, wisdom or contrariness that won the day, it was Mother Nature.

Good for you, Abby. You're a role model for the young; don't ever let the world say you can't try.

Finding Everett Ruess by David Roberts

Why I read it: Unending fascination with the open spaces of the American West.

Summary: Bull-headed teen Everett Ruess heads into the southwestern desert with dreams of spending a life wandering and creating works of art based on the landscapes he finds. Ultimately, he disappears, and a cult builds around his story. Roberts brings us from his first foray to his last, then from the first search party to the modern day.

My Thoughts: I don't like Everett Ruess.

It might be sacrilege to say it, but I think this book has given me too much to think about. Had I discovered Everett Ruess the way that millions of others have, through small excerpts from his letters and diaries, philosophical words that examine the beauty of the American southwest and man's place in it, I would have found him benign, perhaps even a bit of a kindred soul. But the tale that Roberts tells was not meant to be a sugar coating, it was designed to exhibit every possible clue as to his final whereabouts.

Toward that end, we get more of his words than are typically printed. We learn of his relationships with friends, the way he treats his parents and brother, the night he beat his dog until it ran into the desert for good, what he thought of the people of the southwest. He was young. He was pig-headed. He treated people poorly when he felt like it - at least in his written words. He was an unfortunate victim of the fieriness of youth.

Still, the journeys are fascinating, both alongside Ruess and the people who have searched for him. Roberts made an attempt to find him, and even thought he had, but Ruess slipped away once again, and today remains one of the American southwest's most elusive figures.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Beowulf translated by Burton Raffel

Why I read it: Memories of reading it in high school, and the notion I would do it justice as an adult when it was not a forced school read.

Summary: An epic poem from, purportedly, the middle of the first millenium. Beowulf, the world's most powerful man, faces Grendel, Grendel's mother and a dragon in one of the English-speaking world's first heroic tales, oddly enough, set in Scandinavia.

My Thoughts: It was wasted on me as a kid. I know that now. I'm glad I read it again. Of course, besides just being older, I'm also wiser than some, at least as far as this particular field goes. I say that without boastfulness. I studied at the knee of a medieval historian of everlasting influence on my life. It was thanks to him that I came away from this translation with questions.

The translator, writing in 1963, states that he has no doubt the work was by one man, and that man was Christian. I can go with the former, and kind of have to. I haven't read the Old English, and cannot comment on style in the slightest. I'm not qualified. But as to Christianity, well, I have questions.

Much of our earliest knowledge was carried through the Middle Ages by the monks who kept old documents alive by re-writing them time and again. This document, I felt, must have been one of those burdens. If so, who's to say that some monk along the way did not impress Christianity on it, inserting phrases here and there to take away from what may have been a fantastic pagan document? So I went to Yale. I asked a professor there (mine, sadly, having passed on) her thoughts. Christianity, she said, had been in the area for four centuries, and furthermore, certain specific words in the Old English were unmistakably Christian. She deftly defended Raffel's statement, and I accepted it.

On the other hand, she noted, we should question whether or not this was the work of one man, or perhaps even a woman. Not wishing to overstay my welcome in her inbox, I did not respond to this last comment. Women are portrayed, at times, poorly in this work, which is full of dragons and spears and shields and blood and big piles of gold and torn-off arms. I saw nothing womanly in the story, which is, of course, nearly mysogynistic on my part to say. But there are and have always been tomboys. What I don't know about the daily life of the people of seventh century England, well, let's just say it's a sizable thing, without getting into metaphors.

Beowulf's writer will always be a mystery, or so it seems, but as I told the professor, whether Christian or pagan, man or woman, it doesn't matter to me. I love Beowulf! Long may his poem live.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Drama: An Actor's Education by John Lithgow

Why I read it: An unexpected interest in teh author's life. I'd been following him for more than two decades without realizing it.

Summary: Actor John Lithgow's autobiography covers everything from his first stage appearance at age 2 to the present day, detailing the influences on his life that have created the actor he has become today.

My Thoughts: My first remembered experience with John Lithgow was watching the movie The World According to Garp. Although I was far too young, at 11 years old, to truly understand the finer points of the film (and I still don't understand most of what John Irving wrote about; I also saw Hotel New Hampshire around that time and was equally baffled, though Witches of Eastwick certainly was a blast), just the notion of tall, broad-shouldered Lithgow playing the cross-dressing Roberta Muldoon, a former football player, was enough to make me remember the name and the face.

Then, despite the fact that he played a major role in Footloose, one of the signature movies of my generation, I lost track of John Lithgow for years. I now know why.

Movies are not his love. It's "legitimate" theater, backdrops and footlights, blocked-out scenes, curtain calls and final bows that make him feel at home. And what a life he has led.

The story begins with his father's passion for the theater, and how that passion was instilled in the son. Throughout his life, especially the younger years, Lithgow's dad is there, sometimes in the forefront as a co-conspirator, sometimes in the background with a word of encouragement, and sometimes without. I wouldn't describe their relationship as a roller coaster, as the love never faded, but distance, both physically and emotionally, wavers and changes through time.

I'm sad knowing that I may never see the best of John Lithgow. Theater is such an in-the-moment experience, and, while he is still hard at work, some of the roles he describes in his book are now simply gone, remembered by the relative few who had the pleasure of seeing them live. Yes, there were times when he shouted "You're gorgeous!" standing in front of a mirror as Dr. Dick Solomon in the television show 3rd Rock from the Sun that made me fall out of my chair, and the moment he shared with John Cleese on a golf course on that show is permanently etched in my memory, but these were mere tiny glimpses into the actor's life.

Personally, there are the local connections, his roots in Massachusetts. There's a momentary rush of the blood when a celebrity mentions a local landmark, despite the silliness of thinking it's anything special. They inhabit the same earth we do, of course. But the notion that as a child he played on Laurel Hill in Stockbridge puts a smile on my face. I climbed Laurel Hill this year for the first time; adding Lithgow's footsteps brings historicity to that already special place.

It's wonderful to read about a passionate person chasing down their dreams, and this book was one of those experiences.

The Last Fish Tale by Mark Kurlansky

Why I read it: My third Kurlansky read, and, living so close to Gloucester, the book was a bit of local history for me.

Summary: Kurlansky, author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, focuses his talented eye on the Massachusetts seaport town of Gloucester, subtitling his book "The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town." He details how both fish and fishermen are endangered, and ponders how to bring them both back from the edge of extinction.

My Thoughts: Well, this is my third Kurlansky book. Does that make me a fan? I guess it does.

Kurlansky has an interesting way of writing deep, interesting history and then surprising the reader with a recipe. Along you go, thinking you're in for a straight history lesson on the Portuguese and their role in the life of Gloucester, when suddenly you're hit with a recipe for linguica. Not being the cook I would love to be, I tend to skim the recipes over, as they're just lists to me; I wish I had the ability to consider how all the elements work together. Not even the Food Network has drilled that into my head yet.

Being a Massachusetts resident and having visited Gloucester on numerous occasions, especially these last few years, the scenery was all familiar to me: the wharves, the statue (and I do mean the statue), the exclusivity of Eastern Point, everything. Kurlansky's picture is as accurate and beautiful as the works of the many artists who discovered the beauty of the community decades ago and made it a painter's destination.

Concomitantly, being the great-grandson of Italian immigrants, I found the stories of first and second generation Italian Gloucester fishermen engrossing.

All this said, the book holds a truly larger scope, expanding one's thoughts to the entire Atlantic Ocean, and ostensibly the world's fish stocks. We've destroyed them through overfishing and bad regulatory practices. Yesterday's by-catch has become today's main haul, and today's by-catch, being discarded entirely, will someday become critically important if we want to keep fishermen at work. That is, unless we can figure out how to rebuild and manage the world's fish populations in a way that balances out for all involved.

No community can expect to remain exactly the same through time, especially with the way we've overdeveloped the planet and shoved nature to the side. Things are bound to change. Still, I love Gloucester for all it was and is, and am hopeful it can survive with fishing always a part of its life.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices by Frank Moss

(Subtitle: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab are Creating the Innovative Technologies that Will Transform Our Lives)

Why I read it: Futurism is always a fun topic to explore.

Summary: Former director of the Media Lab Moss recounts some of the Lab's greatest recent successes and discusses a picture of the future that includes personal robots, enhanced prosthetic devices and more.

My Thoughts: Too heavy on the pitch, right from the start. It's difficult not to see this book as a giant marketing tool for the Media Lab, a document designed with potential funders in mind first, general readers second.

With that out of the way, I'd say that in my mind, two other notions stand out. First, I have an issue with this whole concept of "Human 2.0," the intended outcome of many of the inventions. Second, I want to work at the Lab.

Regarding the former, I'll just put it like this; we've already been there. Saying that what we are now is Human 1.0 is ludicrous. How many millions of years has it taken us to get to this point, slow, adaptive changes taking place in our DNA, manifested in forehead slope and posture, and more? The Human 2.0 goal, while catchy and marketable, is, to me, just wrong. We are well beyond phase 2 of our existence. Yes, technologies developed at the Lab are changing our lives and will continue to in the future. Probably a picky point, but it stuck with me.

That said, the atmosphere in which these inventions are being made - a student can talk to a mentor about a concept, and then is free to actually design, build and test it at his own pace - is the key to my success in life. Without freedom to think, to create, I'm nothing. Given that time, that freedom, I've come up with fundraising ideas for nonprofits, the frameworks of books that I've written, and ways to improve the lives of those around me.

With the concept of Lifelong Kindergarten, the students at the Lab will continue to amaze us with the things they create, from the Drawdio to Guitar Hero to a digital interface system that allows a two-dimensional screener to gather information on a patient about to see a doctor in ways a human never could.
Long live the Media Lab! It's what the world needs more of.

Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds by Olivia Gentile

Why I read it: A passion for obsession.

Summary: The life of competitive birder Phoebe Snetsinger is retold through the voices of the people that knew her best, and also her own.

My thoughts: That was meant to be ambiguous, the words you just read above, for I don't think Phoebe Snetsinger really knew herself that well.

That's one of the messages the author tries to push across. A brilliant thinker as a young woman, prepared to take on the world, Phoebe was forced into the pre-determined role of wife and mother most women were assigned to in pre-1960s America. She wailed, through secretive poetry, to be set free, and finally found her escape route through birdwatching, then birding.

But Phoebe's sprint from what she felt were unfair constraints turned into a lifelong marathon. It took her all over the world, numerous times, often for six months out of a given year. She missed her mother's funeral, her daughters' weddings and almost lost her marriage in her pursuit of the world's birds.

I'm a birder, professionally, but have never understood the competitive side to the pastime. I guess it's there in every field; stamp collectors probably treat each other like birders do their brethren. There's probably a lot of jealousy over collection sizes and ownership of rarities. And, like stamp collecting, or sports memorabilia collecting or movie poster collecting, in birding money can buy your way to the top.

But the obsession that birders develop when they get to the top levels of competitive birding, attempting to see the 8,000th species, the 9,000th species, leads to harsh choices. Stamp collectors can order stamps online; birders must travel. (The trade-off is that birding doesn't fill up your garage with boxes of stuff.) Greatness must come with sacrifice

Reading this book made me wonder, what is my limit? Could I become obsessed like Phoebe? Do I have that in me? Quick answer: absolutely not. Perhaps it's the sudden surge of fatherhood that hits my soul, but I just know that there is no way I will put myself in harm's way the way Phoebe did, in unsafe places geographically, politically or physically. I'm having a blast visiting America's National Parks and know that my list in the States will eventually run out, but even if that day comes, I have so much more to live for than a list of birds I've seen. I enjoy nature; I love my family.

Sadly, in my opinion, Phoebe allowed her priorities to be flip-flopped. It was her choice, of course, and she was entitled to it. There's much about Phoebe's life that should be commended, even applauded. But, as portrayed by talented author Olivia Gentile, Phoebe's also taught me some important lessons about what not to do in life.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life by Robin WIlson

Why I read it: Me and numbers, we're like this (fingers crossed).

Summary: He wasn't just about Alice in Wonderland; no, Charles Dodgson, the real man behind the pseudonym lived a real life almost as exciting as the one he created for his friend Alice. And it had to do with math.

My Thoughts: I found, immediately upon picking up the book, that I never, ever want to read Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass. Sounds harsh, I know. And it probably is, me just being a generationist. Perhaps Dodgson's writing style was simply a product of the time in which he lived, the Victorian Age, but to me, it was annoying as hell. Every character that poor little Alice meets in her "adventures underground," as the original title described them, remonsrates her on some point of logic in a smarmy voice.

On the other hand, I'd gladly read more by Robin Wilson, whether he's writing about Dodgson or not. He shows us the world of the author as seen through math-colored glasses. And it turns out that Dodgson was obsessed with mathematics in its many forms. He designed his own logic problems for publication, figured out how to calculate the day of the week for any date in history in his head, and taught a generation of both willing and unwilling students everything he knew.

The book is heavy on math itself, proofs, theorems, Euclid, all that fun. Certain sections are not for the faint of heart, or the geometrically-challenged. But if you are ready to think with the logical part of your brain, to have paper and pencil ready, this book is for you.

Some passages in the book are laugh-out-loud funny. One quote from Dodgson mentions how he tried to educate the child of a friend at a dinner table, asking her to help figure out a problem, only to have her scream to her mother, "I can't do it! I can't do it!" One can almost picture the look of shock and bewildement on the face of Dodgson. Another section tells of a famous incident (which may have never happened) in which Queen Victoria, after reading Alice in Woderland, told her underlings to bring her the next book that Dodgson wrote, as she was excited to read it; that turned out to be An Elementary Treatment on Determinants.

The basic premise of the book is to expose the other side of Lewis Carroll, and the author does that trick tremendously well. I was completely unaware of how extensive his math background was, but now, so much of Alice in Wonderland makes perfect sense. So much of his life was preoccupied with math that it easily bled over to Alice and more.

I guess that now that I've read this book, I'll have to read Alice. But I swear, if the smarminess overwhelms my enjoyment, I'll end up throwing the book down a rabbit hole.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Why I read it: Shakespeare and Bryson: two of my favorite authors.

Summary: Do we know who Shakespeare really was? Bryson corrals the facts, the legends and the outright lies in an attempt to reconstruct the poorly understood life of the most successful practitioner of the English language.

My Thoughts: He's one of those historical personalities for whom we need use only his surname. There is, there was, no other Shakespeare worthy of contemplating when the name is spoken. All names other than William sound like jokes. Ted Shakespeare? Bob Shakespeare? Perish the thoughts.

Yet, there had to have been more, if only to flesh out William's life: father, mother, siblings, wife, kids, grandparents, grandchildren. Who were they? What can their lives tell us about the master of the Elizabethan stage?

The fact is that we know very little about the man who penned Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet. And that fact seems amazing, when we consider that he is attributed with adding about 10% of the words we use today in modern English. His plays each could generate more than 100 new words, or lexemes, for the language, some of which stuck, some of which did not.

We have some legal documents, most concerning birth, marriage and death, but beyond that, we're lost when it comes to defining the life of William Shakespeare. Did he write the plays attributed to him? Five thousand publications over the past few centuries have attempted to prove that any one of 50 other individuals may have "written Shakespeare." Are the answers to the questions in his life in the text of his plays in code form? Did he try to speak to us about himself through his sonnets, or the dedications that preceded his works?

There are gaps in time that lead even the most level-headed historian down erroneous paths. Did his absence from any kind of English record in 1592-1593, plague years in the city of London, and the emergence of plays written with Italian backgrounds in the coming years mean that he took a Mediterreanean sojourn during that time? As an historian, and an Italian, I found that notion intriguing, and would love to find the answer. But where does one start? Venice (as in The Merchant of)? Verona? Did Italian inn keepers keep good records back then, and have any of them survived? Can anybody fly me to Italy so I can start this quest?

This book is slightly off the typical Bill Bryson path, in that his witty indignation is tamed by the topic and the format. Indignation is borne of frustration and disbelief with human actions, and while there are many, many people through time who have messed with the legacy of the most celebrated playwright of all, critics who are deserved of a good old'fashioned Bryon tongue lashing, the author refrains from letting fly. Instead, we get a technical, dissecting look at the facts, with classic Bryson humor sprinkled here and there as warranted.

In the end, we know a lot more about Shakespeare, but find that for every answer we now have, there are ten more questions.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Beloved Island: Franklin & Eleanor and the Legacy of Campobello by Jonas Klein

Why I read it: Annual trips to Campobello.

Summary: James and Sara Roosevelt brought their infant son Franklin to Campobello, New Brunswick, Canada, to soothe his teething, purchasing a cottage. When Franklin and Eleanor came together, they found no reason to leave the island behind. Their greater story is told through the lens of the small island and its community.

My Thoughts: First, I'm privileged to visit Campobello every year as part of my full-time job. I've toured the house and the historic pathways through the dense woods Franklin and family used to wander, and I've even practiced a little citizen science on behalf of Canadian bird conservators. It's one of North America's enchanted places.

Of course, I was not the first to think so. The Roosevelts discovered Campobello at the beginning of its tourism heyday, a period that lasted from 1881 to 1907. At its height, Campobello was a more rustic Bar Harbor, a place focused more on natural beauty than high society, a true escape. Franklin and Eleanor returned regularly for years, bringing up their children there during the summers, allowing them to roam the woods and the waters. As the years advanced and Franklin's career interfered, his visits grew more sporadic. In the end, every step he made came with pomp and circumstance, and a visit to the island meant Navy escorts and hordes of reporters and other followers.

Campobello, too, though, was a place of sadness for FDR. While his youthful days were spent in tennis and boating and "hare and hound" chases through the boreal forests on the island, it was also the place where he was struck down by "infantile paralysis," or polio. He suffered greatly during the first days when he was being diagnosed.

The overall story is of love. It's of the relationship between Eleanor and Franklin, which certainly had its rocky, Clinton-like, moments. It's of Eleanor's upbringing, of Franklin's mother's doting, of the birth and growth of their children. Through it all, the author keeps Campobello at the center of the storm, showing how the island and the cottage (which strangely never received a name) changed FDR and Eleanor, and how the Roosevelts changed Campobello.

Their Campobello home is now part of a joint United States-Canada international park, spectacular to visit in summer. If you've done Hyde Park, put Campobello on the list, and buy this book at the gift shop.

War by Sebastian Junger

Why I read it: Read The Perfect Storm when it came out, figured Junger was worth another shot.

Summary: Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, embeds with an Army unit in Afghanistan for the purpose of documenting their lives in the recent war. He joins them on patrols, falls into firefights and watches men die.

My Thoughts: My thought? What a waste.

Not of Junger's time, of course, but of human life. The overall message of this book is that young men are dying on behalf of the United States and nobody but a select few seem to care. We get the news delivered nightly, the story of the world in sixty minutes, and occasionally we glimpse a picture of a clean-cut, uniformed all-American boy with the flag draped behind his shoulder and the message that he's gone. The two hundred or so people in his life that truly know and care about him mourn. The rest of us move on to the commercial break.

War fleshes out the story, in the truest sense. A handful of the soldiers Junger profiles come with greater stories: hometowns, backgrounds, family ties, maybe a life's purpose. That's what makes it so hard when they die. As you read, 19-year-olds, 27-year-olds take bullets to the head. It's far too early for anyone to go, and it seems so unfair.

The story of combat in Afghanistan is remarkably like Vietnam in some ways. Small villages are held, well, perhaps hostage is the right word, by Taliban fighters, much like the Viet Cong held theirs. Supplies are hidden. Locals are forced to lie to save their lives and the lives of their families. By day, Americans move into the villages to talk with the elders, to negotiate with them. By night, the enemy fighters emerge.

And despite the firepower of the American military, despite centuries of tactical study, sometimes combat in Afghanistan comes down to the enemy throwing rocks at American soldiers to get them to jump as if reacting to a grenade.

The psychology of modern combat is a focus of the book, from the rush of a firefight to post-traumatic stress disorder. For many soldiers, the war may never end. Sadly, it's the same old story.

The blame, of course, is on the failure of politics. Our military men and women follow orders, and sometimes those orders result in death. It's a horrible situation of which they are forced to make the best. The best we can do is lobby for change, and thank our soldiers, sailors and marines for the sacrifices they make.

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown

Why I read it: Took some astronomy in college and toyed with majoring in it.

Summary: The discovery of one, perhaps two new planets, based on the old definition of "wanderer" of the night sky, as described by the ancient Greeks, brought the whole question of that definition into question. Mike Brown, one of the discoverers of those new bodies, gives his first hand account of how Pluto went from member of the family to outcast because of his own work.

My Thoughts: I took some astronomy at UMASS Amherst, and had a blast doing so. The hardest part for me was the numbers. They just made no sense. I could grasp distance when someone told me it was 100 miles between the college and my home; I ddin't get the 93,000,000 miles between the earth and the sun. All I knew was I'd never make it to the sun on a single tank of gas.

That said, neither siderophobes nor numerophobes need fear this book. Mike Brown understands that the general public is not fluent in the special language reserved for astronomers and physicists and does a wonderful job of keeping the book flowing even through some necessarily inserted large calculations. Astronomical odddities, or simply generally lesser known phenomena, are easily described.

And though it deals heavily with the deepest reaches of outer space, this story is ultimately human. It's about the moral issues of discoverers and the thieves who underhandedly steal their discoveries; about the petty jealousies of chatroom mavens who believe they can stop the naming of a new stellar body, or judge when information on that body should have been delievered; about the international gathering of astronomers who deal in the politics of topics like the definition of "planet"; and it's about the author himself, his personal growth during the time period in which the latest chapter of the Pluto story unfurled, from single life to fatherhood.

The book is eye-opening, too, for the connections between astronomy and ancient cultures. Those men and women dedicating themselves to finding new planets have to know not only the stars, but some mythology, as well. And you'll be amused to find out what Xena the Warrior Princess, of television mythology, has to do with Pluto.

In the end, it's just one side of the story. There are plenty out there who stand against Mike Brown, and will tell you other things. But it's one heck of a good read. (It was also my first read on an e-reader).

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See it All by Luke Dempsey

Why I read it: As with The Man Who Swam the Amazon, I'm interested in monomaniacal passions.

Summary: An Englishman going through a divorce finds solace in American birds, and the companionship of two grown adults who never learned to drive a car.

My thoughts: It's an odd thing when you read a book - those sacred, bound containers of real, permanently-recorded information - and see the names of people you know, or know of as part of one of your life's circles. I guess that means you've inserted yourself into the sphere of information being discussed, become part of that world. I found some names in this book that were all too familiar.

But it's the places that really ring true. Birders across the United States have meccas, like roller coasters enthusiasts and football fans and opera aficionados and oenophiles have theirs. Just say you've seen a Kirtland's warbler and half the birding population around the U.S. will blurt out, "Oh, you've been to Michigan, have you?" Dempsey and his friends Don and Donna hit the high points in this book, from Florida to Texas to Arizona to Colorado.

I was somewhat unsure of the full premise of the book, I'm sorry to say. Early on the author mentions his marriage falling apart and how he begins to miss his daughters. The free time he suddenly, and sadly, has allows him to travel with his friends for extended weekends to birding hotspots as he descends from a guy who saw something colorful in his backyard into a fullblown "lister." As the birding increases, the family story gets less and less focus. By the end, they're almost forgotten. Still, it's a fun journey, one that most American birders will find familiar.

All that said, only one thing truly bothered me about this book, and that's the afterword rebuttal by Don. Noting numerous unfair reviews, he shoots back. My first reaction was "Oh, no, no, no!" Here's my note to the author and his friends: let your work stand the way it is. Do not allow reviewers to get to you. Reviewing books is a very individualized, comepletely subjective artform. You won't please everybody, and you shouldn't try. Take everything said - including what I've written above - with a grain of salt, consider the source, and rest happy in knowing that your story has been told to the best of your ability. Authors work far too hard in the United States to be bothered by the overtly and oftentimes egregious negativity of reviewers.

I enjoyed this book, and I hope to someday meet Luke, Don and Donna on the birding trail.