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.