Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Winter Count by Barry Lopez




Why I read it: Still fascinated by the world's extremes, and Lopez has always come highly recommended.

Summary: Ten short tales of fiction, interweaving nature, mysticism and history.

My Thoughts: The concept itself recalls a time and life we will never understand, when years (summer to summer) were marked by the depiction of significant events on ceremonial robes of Northern Plains tribes. When recounted together, they formed a "winter count," a remembrance of the life of the tribe.

Lopez's stories wander from the Plains to other remote and distant places - seashores, lonely mountains, from Spain to California. Their overall tone reminds me of Peter Mathiessen's The Snow Leopard, with a deep layering of mysticism and spirituality, of connectedness with the natural world.

But the theme I felt strongest was loss. Every protagonist deals with it in some way, whether it be something tangible, like the great buffalo herds, or something abstract and personal - a relationship, a pleasant memory, pride. Lopez uses perspective to draw us into these tales. A lecture-goer, as genuinely interested in the lives of the Native Americans, can never grasp the emotions of one of them sitting in an auditorium listening to a recital of facts about long lost tribes as interpreted by non-indigneous people. How much can we really know?

Be prepared to think a little harder than usual for this book.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson



Why I read it: Yet another Bryson book. Like a bluefish in August off Boston, I think I'm hooked.

Summary: The author takes his famous grousing act across Europe.

My Thoughts: There are so many things I could say about this book - the love Bryson shows for my people, the Italians, the fact that the French are still sooo French, etc., but one passage stood out above all for me.

He's in Austria at the time that the notion strikes him. He reminisces about a Disney film about the Vienna Boys' Choir. "It all seemed so engaging and agreeably old-fashioned compared with the sleek and modern world I knew, and it left me with the unshakable impression that Austria was somehow more European than the rest of Europe. And so it seemed here in Innsbruck. For the first time in a long while, certainly for the first time on this trip, I felt a palpable sense of wonder to find myself here, on these streets, in this body, at this time. I was in Europe now. It was an oddly profound notion."

I've been twice. When I was 14, I joined a school exchange trip to Italy. We landed in Rome, took a train down the Italian coastline to Reggio di Calabria, the train boarded a ferry, crossed the Straits of Messina, and deposited us in Siracusa for two and a half weeks. If you've never been to Europe, it's hard to explain how it felt, but Bryson comes close. It's no longer a shape on a map, a social studies topic defined by its terrain, principal language and chief exports. You're there. You're not able to run down the street to your favorite convenience store to intercept a craving, and in fact, most of the foods you normally eat are out of reach entirely, as are pretty much everbody you've ever known in your life. Many of the buildings around you reach well beyond a few hundred years old - in America, 1620 is antiquity - and can be a couple thousand years old. It hit me so at 14 as I stood in awe of the Colosseum.

At 29, I took full advantage of it, in London. I was there for research with a dear friend, who guided me through the city. We did the sights in our down time, over Thanksgiving weekend, no less. I watched BBC television, listened to BBC radio, I bought a pair of "Mind the Gap" boxer shorts, visited the Tower of London and took in Big Ben in big gulping eyefuls while the rest of the tourists on the boat on the Thames practically tipped us over trying to catch a glimpse of the London Eye. I absorbed London like I never could have taken in Italy at that age.

Bryson forced me into a LOL moment when talking about visiting the Vatican City. He mentions having to fight his way through a small army of men attempting to sell him slides - oh my god! I was there just a few years before he was, and had the same exact experience. What are the chances that we were accosted by the same men? I'd say pretty damn good.

Whether you are neither here nor there, the world is a smaller place than one might guess.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage




Why I read it: I'm always interested in histories of the world told through specific drivers. Second Standage book, too.

Summary: A fluid history of the world.

My Thoughts: I was thrilled when I finally read the line on the bottom of the cover, under the author's name: "Author of The Victorian Internet..." I had picked up the book just for its concept, not worrying at all about who wrote it. But, as it turns out, I'm already a Standage fan. The Victorian Internet was one of my favorite books of all time, read well before I was a blogger - nay, before there were blogs. The section on pneumatic tubes alone was worth the price of admission to its pages.

Onto this book. The six glasses? Beer in Mesopotamia, wine in the Mediterreanean, spirits in the Carribean and the New World, coffee in England and France, tea in China and India, and Coca-Cola in America. Each product placement in time comes with grander themes - think coffee and enlightenment and revolution, tea and British imperialism, Coca-Cola and Americanism and globalization.

Remarkably, as the author points out, more than two millenia later we still divide ourseves along the beer/wine lines in Europe. Northern, Germanic peoples? Beer, ale, lager. Southern peoples, in the former Greek and Roman empire lands? Vino. And other traditions continue as well. Every time my wife orders "Captain with diet and lime," she's generally ordering grog, the concoction that empowered the British navy during the age of sail. No wonder she's never had scurvy. Keep up the good work, honey.

The growth of Coca-Cola from patent medicine to the second most recognizable utterance in the world (care to guess the first?) may be the most interesting journey, but that, perhaps, is because the others are generally basic themes of historical study. Coca-Cola, being current, is both understudied and fraught with company rhetoric and outright marketing myths about its origins.

I think, too, that it's pretty amazing that all six continue to evolve and change in the modern day, winemakers dropping the facade of snobbery to reach into wider demographics, beer going lite, light, or ice, and coffee, well, new coffee empires are formed every day. Change is not always a good thing, though. I survived New Coke, for instance. In the end, Standage brings it all back to the beginning, and the continuing problems of finding disease-free potable water for large portions of the world's population.

Now, as Kramer once said on Seinfeld, "These pretzels are making me thirsty..."

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson



Why I read it: Closing in on finalizing the Bryson library.

Summary: Bill Bryson grouses his way across "small town America."

My Thoughts: I still haven't figured out the formula yet. Somehow, Bill Bryson manages to insult just about everybody in America - waitresses, state highway patrolmen, Shriners - and in the end remains one of the most popular and widely-read American authors of the modern day. We give him money to write books about how awful we all are. He hasn't hit me yet, so it's not like I'm sitting here in a fez with my Shriner buddies going, "Well, he is right after all, we are a bunch of jerks." So maybe that's the key.

He does hit things on the head, though, and that's the sad part about it. The book was written in the 1980s, so if you can slide past the Ronald Reagan jokes to catch the grander themes, the "dumbening" of America, as Lisa Simpson called it, the vapidness of the American tourist in his own country, it's all there. We just are too polite to say anything about it. Bill's not. Thank god, Bill's not.

I found myself, while wrapped in the pages of this book, anticipating his visits to certain places, places I know well. He nailed Boston. He just talked about its traffic as he drove through in an utter panic. That's so us.When he did write about those special spots I know so well, I wanted to read the passages aloud to my family and friends, ending with "I know that place! I was there last summer with my friend Greg, remember?" It was the equivalent of being in a plane and shouting "I can see my house from here!" Nobody really cared, but me.

So, I secretly laugh aloud to Bill Bryson's books. I'm up to 5 so far, I think. Lots to go. But I want that formula! How can I be a curmudgeon and not lose my standing in the community? When do I get to vent on paper and have people love me for it? As George Costanza's father said on Festivus, "I got a lot to say about you people!"

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Big Hair and Plastic Grass by Dan Epstein



Why I read it: The cover looked like my first baseball card collection.

Summary: A chronological summarization of 1970s baseball, spiked with the baseball-related tales that made the decade unique.

My Thoughts: Although it sounds harsh to call Epstein's book a "summary," in a way, it's true. He gives us the whole picture from '70-'79, sharing the major stories of the baseball seasons from the diamond, then spicing them up with all sorts of cultural references, everything from political campaign slogans to television commercial jingle lyrics. It's a dip back in the pool that was the 1970s, the most funkadelic decade America ever saw.

For a child of the '70s like me, it was fantastic. I was born in 1971, and came of baseball age around 1976. I wanted to be Fred Lynn. Still do when I grow up. While the first half of the book, therefore, was a world of which I knew the characters but none of the plot lines (save for what I could read from the backs of baseball cards as a kid), the latter half was a walk down Yawkey Way to the Fenway Park of yore. It was, in effect, a chance to relive that part of my youth through a different set of eyes.

And one thing struck me overall. Being an historian, I'm well aware of the concept of the Revolutionary War vet shaking hands with the young boy who would go on to the Civil War, who, as a G.A.R. man grabs the hand of a boy who will one day march off to World War II. Baseball has those same ghosts, best personified in W.P. Kinsella's Iowa Baseball Confederacy. In any baseball decade, there is crossover. Players from the 1950s were leaving the game as players who would play in the 1990s were entering it. It's a cycle that runs throughout time, the mixing of the generations. It doesn't happen so prevalently in any other sport, save for with an occasional aging back-up quarterback or an ageless goaltender or two. Hank Aaron out, Rickey Henderson in. As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., woud say, "And so it goes."

Epstein is probably right in singling out the 1970s as untouchable when it comes to baseball history. Defining the decades just by their numbers is, of course, ludicrous, but think "1970s" and certain images pop up. Reggie Jackson's home runs in the 1977 World Series. Carlton Fisk's home run in the 1975 World Series. "We Are Family." Aaron's 715th. Lou Brock stealing bases. Chicago White Sox in shorts. The Houston Astros uniforms. Their Astroturf. Oscar Gamble's afro. Rollie Fingers' mustache. Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. Disco Demolition Night.

But there's more. Free agency. The designated hitter. Expansion. Baseball changed in the 1970s, in important ways.

Still, I'd love to see a "Baseball in the 80s" book written, if just to continue the narrative. Think about it. George Brett's .390. Dan Quisenberry's submarine pitching style. Fred Lynn's 1983 All-Star Game grand slam off Atlee Hammaker. Roger Clemens' 20 strikeouts. Harvey's Wallbangers. Ozzie Smith. The cocaine scandals. The beginning of the steroid era. This story could roll on.

But Epstein's book is a stand-alone triumph. It's one of those books you have to read and then think to yourself, "You can't make this crap up." That's the 1970s in a nutshell.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Rambler's Lease by Bradford Torrey




Why I read it: Torrey historically lived right down the street from where I resided at the time I read it.

Summary: A series of short essays on nature, set in New England.

My Thoughts: I travel Torrey Street, and pass Rambler Road, just across from the Bradford Torrey Bird Sanctuary, just about every day, but I dont think many people in his hometown know who he was.

I live in his hometown of W______, as he calls it in that sublimely Victorian style. He references it in the book, decribing his own property, a road that once wandered alongside a river to the sea, farmers' fields he traversed as a child in search of berries, and the wildlife - mostly the birds - that lived there and he knew well. But his wanderings took him, in this book, to the Green Mountains, the White Mountains, along the shorelines north of Boston, and more. His "lease," as he terms it, is a spiritual one, a self-proclaimed partial ownership of farms and forests he walks.

I usually escape books without too much introspection. But Torrey caught me.

"Some men (not many, it is hoped) are specialists, and nothing else. They are absorbed in farming, or shoemaking, in chemistry, or in Latin grammar, and have no thought for anything beyond or beside. Others of us, which there may be two or three subjects toward which we feel some special drawing, have nevertheless a general interest in whatever concerns humanity. We are different men on different days. There is a certain part of the year, say from April to July, when I am an ornithologist; for the time being, as often as I go out-of-doors, I have an eye for birds, and, comparativley speaking, for nothing else. Then comes a season during which my walks all take on a botanical complexion. I have had my turn at butterflies, also; for one or two summers I may be said to have seen little else but these winged blossoms of the air. I know, too, what it means to visit the seashore, and scarcely to notice the breaking waves because of the shells scattered along the beach...There are several men in me, and not more than one or two of them are ever at the window at once."

Yup, that's me. As a friend once said to me, "Specialization is for the weak!" (though I would never say so as harshly). One professor at my alma mater told me that if I didn't watch out with my varied interests, though, I'd suffer from pluralistic ignorance, and spend my life reading U.S. News and World Report. But there's more.

"How shall one blest with a feeling for the woods put into language the delight he experiences in sauntering along their shady aisles? He enjoys the stillness, the sense of seclusion, the flicker of sunlight and shadow, the rustle of leaves, the insect's hum, the passing of the chance butterfly, the chirp of the bird, or its full-voiced song, the tracery of lichens on rock and tree, the tuft of ferns, the carpet of moss, the brightness of blossom and fruit, - all the numberless sights and sounds of the forest; but it is not any of these, nor all of them together, that make the glory of the place. It is the wood - and this is something more than the sum of all its parts - which lays hold upon him, taking him, as it were, out of the world and out of himself."

I've done my share of walking (see my other blogs) and can say, using an oddly inapproriate euphemism, that Torrey hits the nail on the head. We, the wood saunterers, get lost, on purpose.

Torrey was one of the great American nature writers of the nineteenth century, behind Thoreau and Muir, but not many more. I've found a kindred soul in him so far; I'm looking forward to seeing what else he has to say, where else he went, and how far our kinship can reach.

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane



Why I read it: The Civil War was my first historical fascination as a kid.

Summary: The fictitious tale of one young man's battlefield experiences with the Union Army in the American Civil War.

My Thoughts: You can search the world's history over and over, but nothing you will find in the military history genre reads like an authentic telling of Civil War combat action. I wonder, though, if, say English Civil War stories, though they were compiled two centuries earlier, might have some of the flavor, driven, I think, by the familiarity between the warring sides.

I daresay Crane did a good job of baffling us with the question of hero or antihero. As for our protagonist, he's caught. He's caught up in the fire of youth and the desire to prove his manhood, caught unaware by his mother's reaction to his enlistment. He's caught in a swirl of his own self-hatred and shame, his distrust of his commanding officers, and in a blind rage that turns him from object of derision to object of inspiration. He goes from shameful skedaddling to lurching boldly across the battlefield with the colors, and somehow survives to fight another day.

The Red Badge of Courage reminds us of the randomness of war, and the fact that one can never use logic to determine why this one died, that one lived. Young Henry made it through this one day, but did he survive the next?

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling



Why I read it: Saw the movie when I was young and loved it.

Summary: In a chance encounter, a newspaperman in India meets an itinerant troublemaker who plans to become a king.

My Thoughts: I don't know who it was that came up with the concept of the wide-eyed first person reporter of secondhand stories, but Kipling perfected it.

Think about it. There is no safer way to tell a story, to give it credulity, than to do so through an astonished listener who can then turn to the audience at the end and say, "Now I cannot vouch for the tale myself, but I can rely it to you as it was passed on to me." There's a bit of Commander McBragg in Peachey Carnehan, and a little of his foil in the newspaperman. Quite.

The story itself flows from the train cars to the mountains of Afghanistan, and is certainly showing of its time, especially in epithetical references to the natives. And Kipling's distrust of women shows through in the culmination of the reign of Daniel Dravot and Carnehan. It doesn't take long between the breaking of their pact (no booze, no women) and the collapse of their empire.

I remember being enthralled by the Sean Connery adaptation of the story as a youth, and vowing to read the story. But that was more than 30 years ago. Eh, that's what a long, well-led life is for. Keep building the list, you'll get to it eventually. Read on!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Old Christmas by Washington Irving




Why I read it: Poking around Kindle, found it for free, realized I had never read any Washington Irving.

Summary: The writer laments the passing of the age of a classic English countryside Christmas, then finds one.

My Thoughts: I guess that as I age, I shouldn't be affected by this singular notion, but it seems to always get me. Irving wants things to be like they used to be when he was younger. Why does it seem so odd to me that someone in 1819 might think that their early days represented the way life should be? Why do I think that it's only our generation that is allowed to think in those directions? I guess the time machine would have been as valuable to them as it will be for us. Someday...

The tale is free of conflict, and as such, is simply a beautifully descriptive remembrance of what an old-time countryside Christmas might have been like. It holds, too, some secrets to the Christmas traditions of today that I had never considered. For instance, there are supposed to be berries on the mistletoe. Each time a young man steals a kiss from a young girl, he takes a berry; when they are gone, the game is over.

I never knew that. I've been standing there like a chump under the greenery. That's why the girls won't kiss me.

Beethoven by George Alexander Fischer




Why I read it: Free on Kindle, and I've always been a fan.

Summary: A very positive review of the life of the master.

My Thoughts: Beethoven read Shakespeare. That blows me away.

This book was written in 1905, and there is a bit of suspension of disbelief I had to deploy while reading it in the modern day (which meant I had less available for some upcoming science fiction novels, but here we are).

I have read a lot in 1905, and by that I mean that I have read entire years' worth of newspapers from that time. I keep a running column in my hometown paper called "100 Years Ago." To compile it, I read every word from every corresponding edition. And imagine, I'm so anti-news that I haven't picked up a modern newspaper for more than a decade - save for my hometown Times. I know more about the news of 1912 than I do about the news of 2012.

I also know more about the mind-set of the average 1905 American than most, what interested, titillated and spooked him. Try reading the "Thinking Machine" mysteries of Jacques Futrelle, and you'll see what I mean. Our notion of what is a basic writing motif has evolved over time, in grandiose ways. What then was a groundbreaking idea, an earth shattering notion, is now what we gloss over to get to the real story.

So, to Beethoven. I wanted to know more about the man, how he created, perhaps some words of wisdom. Fischer, though, was more intent on explaining away some of the man's troubles, which is just fine; I didn't know many of those troubles had existed in his life, like the legal guardianship of his nephew and the private and constant harrassment from the boy's mother. Much of what we have come to believe about Beethoven is in this book, his haughtiness, his short temper, his disrespect for many societal formalities, the things we now associate with "true genius." Had he never produced any works of value, would he have just been seen as an egotistical jerk? Man, how I wish Monty Python was still putting together sketches.

Three specific passages caught my attention. First, there was the notion of the Advanced Genius Theory appearing in print a hundred years ago (see the book, reviewed on this blog). "The artist lives in the future; he is always in advance of his time." It's a perfectly plausible argument, that a genius like Beethoven has raced past us and is working in another dimension.

Second, there was the notion that he continually dunked his head in cold water because it got so overheated from all the heavy use of his brain. I'd like to see this one scientifically explained. Does excess thinking cause the head to get hot? More likely it was the intensive aerobic exercise he put himself through as he created that led to overall overheating, not just the head. Imagine a world where a teacher could say to a student, "have you been working on that math problem?" and then grab his head to check the temperature to see if he was lying.

And then there was Beethoven's death. It was, of course, a dark and stormy night, at the culmination of a long, drawn-out illness allegedly generated by a cold and raw carriage ride away from a relative with whom he had just fought: "The storm was of unusual severity, covering the glacis wth snow and sleet. The situation of the building was such that it was exposed to the full fury of the tempest. No sign was given by the master that he was conscious of this commotion of the elements. With the subsidence of the storm at dusk, the watcher was startled by a flash of lightning, which illumined everything. This was succeeded by a terrific peal of thunder wich penetrated even Beethoven's ears. Startled into consciousness by the unusual event, the dying man suddenly raised his head from Huttenbrenner's embrace, threw out his right arm with the fist doubled, remained in this position a moment as if in defience, and fell back dead."

Damn, and I really wanted to get into that SciFi.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dream Team by Jack McCallum




Why I read it: These were the NBA stars of my youth.

Summary (also the subtitle): How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever.

My Thoughts: How soon we forget.

The average non-NBA fan in America is now a Dream Team hater. There's this reactionary belief out there that it's the big, bad Americans flexing their muscles by allowing their top professional basketball players to take to the court during the Olympics and obliterate the competiton. How sad. How ignorant, and how sad.

First and foremost, it wasn't even an American idea. It was a Yugoslavian, Boris Stankovic, who came forth with the concept, and presented it to the Americans. Let's face it, other countries were already using professionals by the 1980s, so if we're talking level playing field, there is no discussion to be had. You want to send your pros? Fine, we'll send ours. Yes, there was a lot to lose (the innocent sense of amateurism that came with the games), but there was so much more to gain - for all basketball players around the world.

The NBA was in no position to simply let its players walk onto the national stage without handwringing. These were franchise players (save for Christian Laettner, who at that time was at Duke, not yet a pro) whose fortunes drove the fortunes of their respective teams. And, at the beginning of the individualistic era of the NBA, names like Michael and Charles would drive the prosperity of the league. The NBA collectively had a lot to lose if anything went wrong.

So yes, Magic, Larry and the gang marched into Barcelona and kicked the world's basketball ass.

Since that time, the game has grown tremendously around the world. Look at NBA rosters now - would Yao Ming have played on an NBA team in the 1960s? - and witness the globalism represented. Kids all over the world got to watch the American stars they had hear or read about, and inspiration hit. Do Canadians root for their hockey team to lose, just because they're so damn good at it? Do the Brits hate their national soccer team? Basketball was born in the United States, like baseball; we should be good at it by now.

McCallum's book brings back the memories of the Golden Age of '80s NBA basketball, when just the mention of a first name brought smiles - Clyde, Charles, Michael. It's almost completely behind the scenes, as McCallum followed the team for Sports Illustrated. There are laughs in the book that are nostalgic. I laughed at some of Charles Barkley's antics like I was a teenager again. If you miss those days, read this book.

But please, the next time you watch Olympic basketball, don't hate the Americans for being damn good at what they do. You have my permission to dislike LeBron for his ridiculous ego or Kobe for whatever it is you dislike about Kobe. But think more broadly about what the Dream Team concept has done for the basketball world.

Disaster Off Martha's Vineyard: The Sinking of the City of Columbus by Thomas Dresser




Why I read it: Good old-fashioned local maritime history.

Summary: The story of an early morning disaster, the saving of lives and the search for blame.

My Thoughts: Progress.

The story of the 19th century was progress, from horsepower to small engines, from handwritten letters to telephone calls, from walking long distances or riding in stagecoaches to railroads opening up the west. From sail to steam.

It was this latter transition that proved to be the most deadly of all the new technologies. More power meant bigger vessels, which could carry more people. And when those ships went down, more people died than had with the shipwrecks of old.

It must have been a devastating night, both aboard and ashore, the night the City of Columbus struck the Devil's Bridge off Martha's Vineyard. In years to come, it would look paltry; "only" 103 people died, about a tenth of the number killed on Titanic 28 years later. But carry the number out exponentially - the number of family members and friends grieving for the lost, the number of Vineyarders who found dead bodies on the beach and how it affected their lives, even the people who read the grisly details in the newspapers. The tragedy reached many more than just the 103 killed.

Dresser breaks down the story for us, feeding us the information in bits: The Ship, The Crew, The Rescue, The Bodies. He even places us, through a second-person narrative, in the mind of a passenger at the time the ship strikes the underwater ledge. And, like a good historian, he follows the story to its end, through the culpability hearings, to the rediscovery of the shipwreck a century later.

Yes, it is a Martha's Vineyard tale, but it's a greater 19th century story as well, of accepting the consequences of the riskiness of new technology.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby




Why I read it: Recommended by a friend.

Summary: The author, after suffering a massive stroke leaving him with locked-in syndrome, tells the story of life inside a lifeless body.

My Thoughts: I'm not qualified to review this book. I don't have enough of a vocabulary with which to describe the depths of emotions this book plumbs. But I have a few thoughts to share.

We've all thought about it, when faced with wheelchair-bound, voice-stilled unfortunates. What's it like? How do you cope with sudden, unexpected disabilities, inabilities? At what point does your mind accept you can't do what you used to do, or does it ever? Is it hell on earth?

Bauby tells us the story, one eyelid batting at a time (how he wrote the book, in a dictation code, letter by letter), and one can see that it is indeed hell.

But what got me about this tale is his particular past, his circumstance, his memories. He had lived a good life. He was the editor of the French magazine Elle. He had visited faraway places, met famous people, attended galas and parties. In short, the memories that ran through his head in the final days of his all-too-short life were good ones, or at least he had good thoughts to fall back on if he so chose to consider them.

What would it be like for someone not so fortunate in life? What if the person who had written this book had been abused as a child? had been born into a world of violence and hatred? never knew love? then ended up locked in with nothing but memories of pain and angst? Would that be an even deeper level of hell?

Requiescat in Pace, Jean-Do.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sea of Troubles by JoAnn Semones



Why I read it: To review it for Wreck & Rescue and Sea History magazines.

Summary: The stories of the major wrecks that have occurred off California's Point Sur, south of Monterery.

My Thoughts: I've studied shipwrecks for nearly two decades, now, as a student and writer of Coast Guard history, and for some reason it took this book to drive home one important point for me.

I love shipwreck books (that's not the point). But what it took me this long to realize is the randomness of them in relation to the points - and by points I mean peninsulas, bays, shoals, ledges, etc. - about which we write. Let me explain.

As a writer working in Massachusetts, I may choose, oh, let's say, Boston Lighthouse and the Brewster Islands. If I were to do a shipwreck survey book, I'd be talking about ships of different sizes, wrecking over three hundred years, carrying different cargoes, and passengers from numerous different places around the Atlantic world.

In short, Semones' book, her third in the genre, captures stories of wrecked ships that have nothing more in common than the fact that they wrecked in the same general area. Even the hows and whys are different - collisions, strandings, fires, etc. The wrecks of Point Sur are also classified in another way, though, as they all fall under the umbrella of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. They didn't know that at the time they wrecked, though.

There's one thing about Semones' writing that warrants further mentioning, and that is that she loves the stories of the people as well as the ships, and does a great job of humanizing these often tragic tales. That might seem a little macabre, but a little personality goes a long way. Anybody can tell the story of the airship Macon, but who was at the controls?

Scapegoats of the Empire by George Witton



Why I read it: Saw the movie in college while taking a British history course.

Summary: The backstory behind the movie Breaker Morant, four officers from an Australian unit charged with murdering enemy prisoners during the Boer War.

My Thoughts: First, yes, like most others, I read the book after seeing the movie. I was taking a class at UMASS Amherst about British history, and the professor, a movie buff, showed us a few clips. I was hooked. I took the book out of the library and read pieces, but it got lost in the shuffle of college life and the ridiculous reading workload of a student taking five history courses simultaneiously.

This time I got it on Kindle.

The story is just as gripping now as it was in 1991. Witton is ordered to execute Boer prisoners - a previous commanding officer, Captain Hunt, savagely murdered by the Boers, ordered a "take no prisoners" situation - and is caught in military hell. Execute them, face court-martial. Disobey the order, face court-martial. In the end, with three others he is tried and convicted of numerous murders. Two of the men, including the infamous Lieutenant "Breaker" Morant, are executed. Witton is given the death sentence, which is then commuted by Lord Kitchener to life imprisonment.

The story reaches well beyond the wilds of South Africa, far past the blurred lines of the combat zone. With various nationalities involved - the countries of the empire, the natives of South Africa, the Dutch Boers, and a murdered German missionary - restitution is demanded. Scapegoat becomes the buzz word; someone has to pay. In the end, the executions of Morant and Handcock do the trick. While Witton sits in prison - for following orders - the Boers see that the British took the situation seriously, and decide to come to peace. The Boer generals are invited to England as guests of the nation as Witton petitions for his release from his 3x7x7 room.

Eventually, it is granted, and he returns home to Australia five years after he left it. He publishes this book, and it is quickly censored in the spirit of keeping relations between Australia and England on the up-and-up.

It takes a bit of suspension of ignorance to read through quickly. South African place names fly fast and hard through the first half of the book, and the stories of the incidents in question are told repeatedly, but the facts must be presented. Witton relied heavily on primary sources to tell the story, but if there's one thing the American people today have shown they like, it's a good courtroom drama. This was the real thing.

Beyond the movie is the story Witton tells of prison life in early twenty-first century England. Was he a scapegoat? It seems so, and in the end he lost three years of his freedom. Morant and Handcock, though, lost it all in the cause of empire.

Road to Valor by Aili and Andres McConnon



Why I read it: Another tale of World War II, this from my family's ancestral home of Italy.

Summary: An Italian cyclist, Gino Bartali, finds himself at the peak of his career as Fascism, then World War II overrun his country. He uses his cycling ability to help save the Jews of Italy from the hands of the Nazis.

My Thoughts: I've said it before and I'll say it ad nauseum. We'll never understand the full story of World War II. There were too many people involved, too many minor tales to ever be collected, too many, in fact, that have already left us forever.

Bartali's heroics comprise just one of those tales. His rise to cycling fame coincided with the rise of Mussolini to power, and it affected his career, as the government chose who would race where and when, in an effort to control nationalistic image. Mussolini was only photographed from low angles, to make him look taller, for instance, lest the world think of Italians as small and weak (which they were through World War I - read more in the book). If the government felt Bartali stood no chance in the Tour de France, he could not go. Totalitarianism still holds such cards today in certain parts of the world.

When the war struck, Bartali did his military duty, then went beyond, clandestinely aiding the Jews of his home country by smuggling materials for fake identification papers to printers willing to do the work under the risk of death. Bartali, of course, faced the same. He never even told his wife what he was doing at the time. It was calculated, of course, but he obviously reached a point in his life, in the war, when he realized that life was about more than just him, that there were greater causes than self-preservation.

The amazing irony of the book comes after the war, when political turmoil strikes Italy, and riots are about to break out. All the while, Bartali is in the Alps, racing the Tour de France once again, ten years after his pre-war victory. News of his placing could swing the future of Italy in one direction or another.

Bartali had the temperament of many a superior athlete, and that probably gets underplayed in this book. But when the chips were down, he threw in and showed supreme selflessness. One wonders how today's athletes would react.

No, I'd rather not even think about it.

Bunch of Amateurs by Jack Hitt



Why I read it: I liked the underlying theme, of Americans tinkering in their garages trying to create the next great thing.

Summary: Americans never give up on the notion that there always exists the potential for a better mouse-trap.

My Thoughts: He had me until the very last words, but I'll save that for the end.

Much of what the author says is true. Americans are tinkerers, dreamers. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it's dangerous. Too many people, for instance, have achieved backyard nuclear fusion. But there are many others who have made real scientific discoveries through avocational pursuits, to the disappointment of the people actually paid to make them.

The author runs through the sciences - ornithology, archaeology, genetics, robotics, etc. - and shows how Americans are at work in their garages, in their parlors under assumed company names, or simply sitting behind a computer screen, finding out truths.

We've all met them - the crackpots, the nutjobs, the people we look at and say, "can you imagine spending your entire life like that guy? focused on nothing but that one thing?" For some of us it's birders who can break down an avocet feather by feather, for others it's the guy who has worked in accounting his whole life but swears an ancient meteor struck in his backyard, and my god, his evidence when he presents it is pretty damn enticing.

Hitt shows us that sometimes avocation overpowers vocation. We hate our jobs, for which we are paid to be experts; we love our passions, because we are free to explore them without restraint. University professors have to pick and choose projects based on funding, backing; backyard archaeologists can dig and dig and dig.

I just wish he didn't use the final words he chose, "the amateur's dream is the American dream." The American dream changes with the generations. He has the right to espouse it; it is one version of the American dream, but the whole thing is just now way too cliche. I felt the book was wrapping up in a much stronger way. Oh well.

Read it, though, and become inspired. Figure out why we are the way we are, why you do the things you do on the weekends, tinkering with the hot rod, gazing into the starry sky, flipping over rocks in search of snakes, or whatever it is that you do with your free time, or your time of freedom, to be more precise.

Las Vegas Soul by Brian DeVido



Why I read it: A love of boxing history.

Summary: "TNT" Timmons and his trainer "Scrap Iron" Fletcher take the heavyweight title, lose it, and fight their way back.

My Thoughts: When one cursorily looks at it, there's not much to it. Stand toe-to-toe, bash each other's brains out. Right?

Wrong, of course. Watch one fight, then watch thirty more. Pick out the nuances, how and why the big punches get thrown, why they land. It can be a simple as a feint, a head bob, a step in the wrong direction, or an unanticipated jab step in the right one. DeVido's book, the sequel to Every Time I Talk to Liston, dives into the details of boxing skills and strategy. Along the way, as TNT and Scrap move from the chamopinship bout to the rematch and beyond, DeVido shows the evils of overthinking, overstrategizing, and how sometimes the easiest route to redepmtion follows the simplest, most comfortable path. He also shows that one man's version of redemption is not necessarily the same as the next man's, even if those men are training partners.

What I enjoyed most about this book was DeVido's deep knowledge of boxing history. He funnels it through his characters. Scrap and his uncle, who dispenses advice to both his nephew and TNT, from one generation back, talk in old issues of Ring magazine, taking the lessons of boxing's past and applying them to TNT's fights. More than that, he inserts the characters into that world. The heavyweight title in Las Vegas Soul once laid across the shoulders of Mike Tyson, of Muhammad Ali. TNT takes his place in that long ancestry. He someday will be an the topic of an article in an old issue of Ring magazine that a future champion will read.

In an interesting subplot, Scrap, in particular, is haunted, seeing what he believes to be the ghost of Sonny Liston, former heavyweight champ. Despite numerous trips to Liston's graveside to talk to him, Scrap sees his ghost in a jazz musician in a club, a man who shares the same first name, is about the same age as Liston would have been had he not died, and bares a strong resemblance to the former champ. He wrestles with asking the question when he meets the man, finally getting up the courage to find out if there is any connection.

Driven to achieve, Scrap pushes his fighter to the limit, taking the title, but then losing it quickly. Theirs was a maturity problem. They peaked too soon, on the raw energy of youth. They had much to learn. The story is of the journey from the top of the mountain back to its base, and the climb back up again.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Johnson's Life of London: The People Who Made the City that Made the World



Why I read it: Self-professed Anglophile.

Summary: The story of the city seen through the accmplishments of 18 of her most well-known historical residents, from Boudica to Keith Richards.

My Thoughts: The Olympics are coming. I wonder how much that had to do with the timing of this book's release.

But, and I say this as the biggest of all possible buts, that wouldn't matter to me one way or the other. I studied British history in college. I didn't have a concentration for my bachelor's degree in history, but if I had, it might have been just that subject. I've been a self-professed Anglophile for more than 20 years, more, if we count my teenage Monty Python memorization years.

The concept is a fun one. Take a city over time, figure out what it's contributed to the world, and who made the contributions. But then, step back. Look at the city. Has London really been London for 2000 years? Or is today's city in any way at all related to the one of Alfred the Great and William the Conqueror? In some ways, obviously yes; physically, geographically, yes. The strange thing is that just like a human being, like an osprey, like a northern right whale, it changes over time; some would like to say "matures," but that is not always the case. Is the London that built a huge ferris wheel on the Thames amidst some of the most historical buildings on the planet the same one that Samuel Johnson or John Wilkes envisioned it would be?

I think it hits me most strongly when I consider fashion. Bill Bryson said it best in At Home. He pointed to the Elizabethen age, when people were walking around with tight-fitting clothes dyed as dark as possible (to show wealth), with pale skin and large ruffs around their necks. "We must have looked a fright" are the words he used. How did London get to that point? How did London escape that point? Somehow the city rolled on and on and thankfully Beau Brummel came along to straighten them all out.

Johnson, the Mayor of London, picks some obvious choices - Chaucer, Shakespeare, Churchill, etc. You can't write a book about London without them, and they do fit perfectly into this scheme. But then there are others, like W.T. Stead, who will make any American sound like an owl. "Who? Who?" But they are just as important to London's exportation as the others.

What gets me most about reading this book, though, is the comfort the British have in their own skins. If any American mayor of a major city used the words "pubic hair" in public, it would be the end of his or her career. But Johnson does - in perfectly proper historical context, I will say - and throws out other opinions and phrases that would make the ridiculously puritan average American politician cringe. The notion of the freedom of the British spirit is part of the dichotomy of the Brit, the split personality. Which is it? The zaniness of cross-dressing comedian Eddie Izzard, or the stiffness of the Queen mother? Is the average Londonder closer to Michael Palin doing the fish-slapping dance, or the hapless politicians and BBC executives Monty Python mocked?

Either way, I love it. England will alwys have one thing over the United States. The U.S. can claim "greatest country in the world" as much as it wants, but it will never, ever have the richness of culture that the great European and Asian centers do. This book is a perfect example. Be sure to pick it up after leaving the 100 meter dash for people with no sense of direction and on your way to the 400 meters for non-swimmers, as it would be sacrilege for London to hold an Olympics without adding the Silly Olympiad events to the schedule.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lefty: An American Odyssey by Vernona Gomez and Lawrence Goldstone



Why I read it: After a full life studying baseball history, I found Gomez to be one of those few major characters of whom I knew very little.

Summary: The amazing life story of Vernon "Lefty" Gomez, New York Yankee.

My Thoughts: I just didn't want him to go. As the pages in my right hand dwindled down to a precious few, I knew the end was near. I didn't want to say goodbye to Lefty Gomez.

Amazing. And me a Red Sox fan.

Lefty started out poor, with a "cannon for an arm," but unable to afford a glove for the other one. He rose through the ranks in the way it was once done, discovered on the dusty playing fields of far-off places (I guess it is still done that way today, outside of the United States). Told the Yankees wanted him, he struggled to get up cross country train fare and food money and starved his way from San Francisco to Florida to his first spring training.

Soon, he was on the mound with Babe Ruth looking over his shoulder from right field, and Lou Gehrig looking on from first base. Soon, he was married to a starlet. Soon, he was the hero to every kid who ever grew up in his hometown. Soon, he was a World Series champ, starting the first All-Star Game and rubbing elbows with Bing Crosby and Ernest Hemingway.

Along the way, he spread his wit - we can thank him for "go-fer ball" for instance - and became in demand behind the microphone.

Lefty's tale is one of the American Dream, of impossible odds, of unquenchable desire, and a life lived well. Long live El Goofo.

Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption and Baseball's Longest Game by Dan Barry


Why I read it: Baseball history, Red Sox history, in my lifetime.

Summary: The human stories wrapped into the longest game in professional baseball history.

My Thoughts: It helps if you can tell the players without a scorecard.

Actually, not knowing the characters that played out the longest game, a cold, Rochester Red Wings-Pawtucket Red Sox tilt stretching well beyond both sides of mindnight on April 18-19, 1981, wouldn't detract whatsoever from this telling. But being a boy of 10 when the game unfolded, growing up an already twice-wounded Red Sox fan, I did know the players. Wade Boggs, Marty Barrett, Bob Ojeda, Rich Gedman, Bruce Hurst, Mike Smithson? The obvious ones.

Julio Valdez, Roger LaFrancois, Chico Walker, Luis Aponte, Winn Remmerswaal? That's where backyard baseball hero worship kicks in. Not only do I know who they are, if I took a bat in my hands or stood on a mound today, 30 years later, I could show you how they played the game. Sam Bowen? Once I saw his name in the lineup in the book, I wondered whether or not they'd talk about his home run. I saw it live on television, and couldn't believe he never made it back to the major leagues. Such was the beauty of childhood sports viewing. All I cared about, all I knew was what happened on the field during the television broadcasts.

The story is one of a comedy of human idiocy. Seriously, 32 innings in near-freezing temps (33 was played later)? Did the umpires really have to wait for official word from the International League to stop the game? Apparently, yes, because somewhere a piece of paper said the game had to go on, the game had to go on.

The never-ending march of innings gave author Barry innumerable opportunities to tell the tales of the players, from the aforementioned PawSox to the Red Wings, led by Cal Ripkien, Jr. They all teeter on the brink of superstardom; some gain it; some have tasted it, and are never to go back; some will never even sip that cup of coffee. For every Wade Boogs, there is a Drungo Hazewood and a Bobby Bonner.

The city, Pawtucket, its stadium and the people who run it are featured. The fans, the few that actually stuck around for the duration - it was, after all, the eve of Easter when the first pitch was tossed - get print space, as well they should; they were as much of the story of the game as the players. Barry covers all bases in telling the tale.

In the end, the story drops onto the broad shoulders of Dave Koza, the PawSox heavy-batted first baseman, his journey to the game, and the years beyond.

Each of the 219 at-bats in the longest game came with hope: for a hit, a run batted in, a call-up to the major leagues. When we stop to think about the odds - 30 teams, 25 players per roster, some men lasting 20 years in the majors; several levels of minor league teams jammed with hopefuls - it's sad how many dreams are crushed every year.

But don't listen to me. Let Dan Barry and his beautiful prose tell you the story.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Imperfect: An Improbable Life by Jim Abbott and Tim Brown



Why I read it: Followed the author's career, and always found his accomplishments to be amazing.

Summary: The life story of Jim Abbott, major league baseball pitcher, juxtaposed with the story of his no-hitter.

My Thoughts: Right out of the gate, I felt that it was overwritten, but that may be stereotyping. Having never met Jim Abbott, I have no way of knowing how he speaks, or how he writes. My gut told me that the coauthor, a longtime sports reporter, shared his voice with us and not the subject's. I could certainly bre wrong.

What struck me most deeply about this memoir was the depth to which Abbott allowed himself to delve. Athletes, espcailly baseball players, are mostly guarded, unwilling to let anyone see behind the 10-foot-tall, bulletproof shields they believe they carry. Yet, not one of them is Superman, despite what they may tell you.

Abbott knew that coming in. Born without a right hand, he had something to prove, from the ballfields of Flint, Michigan, to Yankee Stadium. And he's correct - you can't write about him or what he's done without mentioning his deformity. It's a damn shame, but it's an essential facet of his story.

The Jim Abbott we saw was the professional athlete, going to the mound, throwing his innings and leaving the game ahead or behind. We marveled at his mindless use of his glove, as if the transitions were the most natural movements in the world. What we didn't see was what was going on inside his head. And sometimes, neither did he. His subconscious sometimes got the better of him.

There were a lot of bad days in Jim Abbott's career, days that left him with inner turmoil. But he also had the best day of all, no-hitting the Cleveland Indians. Did it offset the bad? Probably not, but it didn't hurt either. In the end, Jim Abbott is (seems?) happy with his career, and more importantly, his life.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter by Frank Deford



Why I read it: Since his days in beer commercials, the author has always been on the edge of my sports consciousness.

Summary: Various and sundry observations of a supremely talented writer who chose to cover sports.

My Thoughts: Rock on, Frank.

I suppose if I met him, I might walk away with the notion of pomposity that others have shared, though who knows. A callousness develops over time with members of the media. The sporting public wants the truth, but only if it doesn't demean their heroes. "Enemies" are made, over trivial, stupid things. Hell, I've received hate mail from people who think I've said bad things about their ancestors in a history article, seven or eight generations back, as if somehow me mentioning that person was a pirate a thief or a rogue makes the modern-day descendant susceptible to public scrutiny. Frank has stood in the limelight and stated his opinions of living, breathing people. So what, you say? Sportscasters do that every day? Few do it with grace, my friend. If he comes across haughty, it's because he's seen too much.

I've said it before, but I can't wait until I'm old enough for cantankerousness to be a virtue. Frank's not there; he's not bitching for the sake of bitching. But when he says he doesn't like Vince McMahon from personal experience, I'll take him at his word. After 50 years in his industry, he deserves that much. And he still has time to develop that cantankerous side if he wants to.

Frank's writing in defense of sportswriters is commendable. As he states, sports sells papers, yet sportswriters are seen as the pole dancers of the literary world. There is a definite imbalance in perception and reality.

The ultimate irony for me, being just a casual observer of the Frank Deford story through time, came when I read that his daughter had died of cystic fibrosis three decades ago. For you see, at the time I read the sentence, I was at a hospital in Boston as my newborn son was being tested for cystic fibrosis. I was a lucky one. My son ultimately tested negative. Still, the scare alone made me feel a kinship with the author.

Frank lived in the golden age of magazines, working for Sports Illustrated before the multimedia explosion of the current day. I was born too late to hit that wave. Jealous? Hell yeah, I'm jealous. I would have loved to see what Frank saw, meet the people he met. If you ask me, his has been a life well spent to this point, and I hope there's much more to come.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Candide by Voltaire



Why I read it: Read it once in college and loved it, wanted to read it again, with a deeper appreciation of world history.

Summary: The ultimate optimist searches for the best of all possible worlds.

My Thoughts: I read this classic when I was in college, before I knew what an Anabaptist was. Now that I do, the book is a lot more funny.

And that was the point, in a way. Voltaire was making political statements about his world, both France and the other countries France came in contact with. It was satire. Today it's comedy. Back then, it made people's blood boil. But those people are long gone now. The book has to be read today with footnotes to put it in context.

Voltaire deals in the impossible. People who are obviously, even publicly killed in the early parts of the book return to life later on. Candide, a young, love-starved German, loses the love of his life, only to run into her across the Atlantic as he and his cohorts cris-cross the known world (of about 1759) and lose her again. The book is a work of fantasy, but that opens up a world of possibilities. Voltaire takes shots at every government, at warfare, at greed, at nobility.

The end of the book, literally the last five words, are as telling as any in the story: "We must cultivate our garden." No words are more applicable across space and time to any state, country or other political body.

I'm so glad that when it comes to books I'm a pack rat. I loved this book in college twenty years ago, and I love it even more now. I wonder what else I've got stored away in those old boxes.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing's Invisible Champion by W.K. Stratton



Why I read it: A love of boxing history, and Patterson's story was one I had not read in depth.

Summary: A bio of the youngest heavyweight champion and the first two-time champ.

My Thoughts: Boxing's heyday has come and gone, we know that. Unfortunately, it was pretty heavily controlled and fixed during that time (so why should we be surprised by such shenanigans today?). Still, a knockout punch is a knockout punch. Boxing's gentleman, a man of pureness and honesty - he once stopped fighting an opponent mid-match to help him find the mouthpiece he'd dropped - was Floyd Patterson, who rose above all the deviousness and made his living in the sport in the fairest possible way.

Is that why we forget him?

We remember Joe Louis for his role in World War II, and Muhammad Ali (Patterson was the only man who was allowed to call him Cassius after his conversion) for obvious reasons. We remember Mike Tyson for biting the ear off Evander Holyfield. But we don't remember Floyd Patterson as one of the all-time greats, despite his record, 55-8-1, and his monumental bouts with Ingemar Johansson, Sonny Liston and even Ali.

Stratton's bio of Patterson shows us that we'e been missing something, and that the professional boxing world today is missing something, that it is possible to rise to the top and be a good person. Floyd spent his career doing good works outside the ring, helping schoolboys escape poverty and despair as he had, giving communion to shut-ins and so much more. His life was one of contradictions. In the ring, he could be as fierce as anyone, as long as the clock was ticking; when the final bell sounded, he often rushed to embrace his opponents, to even help them off the mat.

There is one more side to the Patterson story. His rise coincided with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, and he contributed to it in numerous ways, financially, representationally, even physically, in person, when called upon. He was a soft-spoken man, but often his actions spoke volumes. In a time of turmoil when African-Americans were even fighting among themselves over how Civil Rights should be achieved, he was ostracized as an "Uncle Tom." Stratton stresses this was an unfair classification.

In the end, this book left me feeling like boxing needs another Floyd Patterson if the heavyweight title is ever to rise again. Alas, the Golden Age is gone.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson



Why I read it: The Bryson train continues.

Summary: A tour of Bill Bryson's house and how it got that way.

My Thoughts: We all stop and do it at some point in life. We look at something we've taken for granted for our entire lives and we think, "Wait a minute...why is that like that?" For some of us, the practice becomes a runaway freight train.

Bryson makes just such a move with At Home, but instead of just picking up on a few items around the house, he takes us room-by-room through the original plans and the finished product, bathing his mid-nineteenth century British cottage in the era in which it was born. The year of its construction - and so it goes for any house - can tell a lot about building materials, floor plan, paint color choices and more.

Each room, then, becomes an adventure in the history of western civilization, told only, though, as Bill Bryson can describe it. He has a particular knack for finding the oddballs of history and dropping them into their places within his books, until the cast of characters resembles a roll call of buffoons, misguided schemers and inept aristocrats. When we consider the time period he studies heavily in this book - from about 1750 to 1900, we understand why; no time in history was more overwhelmingly ostentatious than the Victorian Era.

So if you've ever wondered why it's pepper and salt on your table, why we have mudrooms, when the first toilet was introduced or who invented the term bigwig (Bryson is big on etymology, which makes me want to sit on his knee like he's my grandpa and chat with him), then this book is for you.

Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game by Philip E. Orbanes



Why I read it: Why not? Played the game all my life, wanted to know how it became what it did.

Summary: The rest of the subtitle is "& How it Got That Way," so you can divine the rest.

My Thoughts: It should have been more obvious to me as a student of history that Monopoly wasn't simply drafted in some focus group-driven testing center. I knew from playing that it had the old-time Atlantic City story, but beyond that, I was pretty hazy.

Orbanes is more than just your run-of-the-mill historian. He's been in the board game industry for years, and has been tied directly to Monopoly along the way. If you've ever watched the Monopoly world tournament finals on ESPN (okay, you won't find them there, but they do exist) then you've seen him as a judge. The man knows the game inside and out.

As such, his book is about as deep as you need to get to know the story. He traces the game back to the time before the game, when other landlord and property tax-based board games were seen as instructional, controversial and even too politically-charged to stake a company's reputation on. The roots reach into the late 1800s, and today the game branches out across continents and genres. Along the way there have been winners, losers, false inventors, international champion players and now obsessed collectors.

I wish I could say that the book changed the way I will look at the board, but the fact is that I don't play, and probably won't for many, many years. The author claims that a properly played game takes 90 minutes. Well, then I've done something wrong for my entire life. I don't ever remember a Monopoly game that didn't wear me out. But, alas, I have a 3 year-old and a 6 day-old, and the day will come when I'm forced to play the game that I forced my parents to play. And so it will continue.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My Life as an Experiment by A.J. Jacobs



Why I read it: Running down all the Jacobs books.

Summary: Ten more lifestyle changes by A.J. Jacobs, after reading the encyclopedia and living Biblically.

My Thoughts: On one level, one might think that Jacobs was a neglected kid, starving for attention. Each of his experiments - living like George Washington for 30 days, outsourcing his life, etc. - might be seen as a cry for help, an attempt to lure in a psychiatrist to unravel layers of mental, physical, emotional and drug abuse.

I don't know A.J. from Adam, but I don't think that's it.

I think what we have in A.J. Jacobs is a man just seriously interested in the world around him, and his creative talents have allowed him the opportunity to play with his own life in ways of which most others only dream. Who has time to think rationally? or speak honestly?

Perhaps I'm, speaking in defense of A.J. because I feel a kindred connection to him. Let's face it - in 2009, I took a 30-minute walk every single day in a different place. In 2011, I took a nature walk in each of the 351 towns in Massachusetts. I live to test myself. And I have other plans for the future. Believe me, once you've done one such experiment, you start thinking, "What's next?" A.J. is just in the self-flagellation loop, and it's going to be extremely hard to get out of it.

Especially now that there's a TV series being developed about his experimental life. Go, A.J., go.

The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship by David Halberstam



Why I read it: Baseball history, Red Sox history, and I'm from Boston.

Summary: Johnny Pesky and Dominic DiMaggio take one final ride from Massachusetts to Florida together by car, to see their old teammate, Ted Williams, before he passes on.

My Thoughts: I'm glad that David Halberstam stuck with it. He could have given up on the Red Sox of the 1940s after finishing Summer of '49, but stayed in contact with the subjects of that book, and came back around to tell this tale.

I have no idea what it is that makes me a fan of old-time baseball. I read Summer of '49 with reverence - probably a measure of how good a writer Halberstam was - and felt when I finished like I did at the end of James Clavell's Shogun. I didn't want the story to end. I wanted to continue following the lives of the people involved. Somehow, I became nostalgic for an age I never knew.

Perhaps there's genetic memory involved. Perhaps the stories my dad told me when I was a kid had seeped into my psyche. He watched Ted Williams. Johnny Pesky sat on the Red Sox bench for most of my baseball-watching life. Perhaps that has something to do with it. I don't know.

Halberstam's "little book," as her termed it, is a beautiful one, reaching beyond the foul lines and bleacher seats and into the friendship shared by the three ballplayers mentioned above and their teammate Bobby Doerr, who, living on the opposite coast, could not make the trip. It's a classic tale of aging, of losing faculties and abilities in ways that seem impossible. Ted Williams was always strong and quick - how did he end up in a wheelchair, unable to stay awake for long periods of time? But if the physical was gone, the mental lived on. He could still recall his home runs, which pitches he had hit and off whom. He always had the final word, even until he said his final words. The spirit of Ted Williams was still strong even when his wrists and biceps had given out.

Baseball fans are married to their laundry, as Jerry Seinfeld once suggested. This book affected me more deeply than it would, say, a Seattle Mariners fan, simply because of the settings, the names, the uniforms. It's Red Sox lore. It's my team. And life's too short not to have innocent passions, or to try to fully understand why you do.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Advanced Genius Theory by Jason Hartley



Why I read it: An interesting concept.

Summary: The author and a friend create a subjective system of classifying everyone and everything based on achievement over long periods of time, sunglasses and leather jackets. Mostly it's about Lou Reed.

My Thoughts: So you're not into Lou Reed. Do you know why?

According to the author, the theory of Advancement states that Advanced artists go through a phase of general acceptance, or Overtness, but then move into realms we cannot yet understand. We're listening to Prince sing in 1985 while he's partying in 1999. During this period, since we can't understand why Advanced artists are thinking about what they're thinking about, we think they've "lost it." In reality, they've just moved beyond the sensory capabilities of regular humans. You lost Lou Reed after "Walk on the Wild Side." But in reality, he's even better today at what he does than any of us could imagine.

The problem with this theory is its subjectiveness. But the author knows that. And he knows to that his presentation of the theory and the way he thinks about it is flawed. In other words, in regard to many artists, he may be talked off the ledge that straddles Advancement and lifelong Overtness. Case in point? Through 250 pages, he does not recognize a single woman as being Advanced. And he recognizes the lack of recognition. He argues against Madonna and Patty Smyth, but says that Britney Spears may get there someday. But that's about it. He even states that perhaps Advancement is just a male thing. There could be no greater backwards statement. But he's working it out. Advancement is just a theory, not a proven scientific fact.

Be ready to read about music if you pick up this book. The author spends about 60% of the book on the topic, mostly because it's what he knows best, and because the theory works well with people in that industry (sunglasses, leather jackets...).

If this book had a subtitle, it might be Two Guys, a Theory and a Pizza Place. Another would be The Lou Reed Story. The great thing is that as the theory is a living. breathing, changing thing, it's right here on Blogspot:

http://advancedtheory.blogspot.com/

Check it out.