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.