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.