Saturday, December 14, 2013

Final Flight: 10 Northeastern Birding Spots at Risk from Climate Change by Trevor Lloyd-Evans and David McGlinchey



Why I read it: I know the authors, one better than the other, and I'm a huge fan of Trevor's work.

Summary: Short profiles (the book is only 26 pages long) of ten places birders in the region know, how climate change is affecting them, and how those effects will affect wildlife.

My Thoughts: I've been in the birding game for a decade, and on more than a life list pursuit level. I've been involved in the citizen science end of things. I've seen the climate change data. I helped write the new Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas 2 with amazing colleagues.

I've come to learn it's all a dynamic process. I've examined thirty year comparisons of ten square mile blocks in Massachusetts and seen the turnover, how little changes in habitat can cause huge fluctuations in avian life in an area. And now I'm watching as southern bird species are invading my northeastern home like never before.

In a way, I find this booklet interesting because it shows how marginalized habitats - barrier beaches, pine barrens, tundra-like mountaintops - are going to be the areas most affected, or perhaps the first affected. If global climate change continues at the rate it is now, the barrier beaches will be underwater, the pine barrens will be invaded by unwanted insects (they already are), and the warming of the mountaintops will force creatures that live there now to seek similar habitat farther north - and when that runs out, so do they.

Kudos to Trevor and David for providing us with this quick reference to some of the known affects of climate change on our bird life. It's almost made me feel like I have to get to some of these places soon, to cherish them just a little bit more. The changes won't be complete within my lifetime, but they certainly will be well underway.

In Small Things Forgotten by James Deetz




Why I read it: Local historical ties. Couldn't resist.

Summary: "An Archaeology of Early American Life"; a study of the minutiae in which historical archaeologists work to piece together the early days of Amercan history.

My Thoughts: Yum, yum, yum.

This book is just full of the stuff I wonder about when I visit old, historic homes. Knowing that the written record is so poor, that so few early Americans wrote down their observations, and even fewer thought to write about the mundane aspects of the day (do we write about how we shop at grocery stores? about how we mow our lawns? Ok, different age.), I often want to know, how do we know what life was like?

It turns out that in many cases it's the material culture, not the written word, that tells about what life was like. But it's the combining of several differents bits of evidence - the dates on the tombstones, the symbolism carved into them, the bore hole sizes on pipe stems, the type of pottery found at house sites - that bring us to the right points in history.

For me, living on the South Shore of Boston, working in the history realm, this book speaks volumes. Plymouth, Kingston, Plympton, all places mentioned in the text, are my historical playground. Reading about the Parting Ways settlement was eye-opening (and why it got its name never occurred to me, one of those local history overlooks we all suffer from). To find out that the first fork ever mentioned in a probate inventory in Plymouth County was in Marshfield, where I worked for the last decade, was pretty cool, and the fact that the fork was an Italian invention was even better. It's a refreshing thing to read a chapter in a book about a historical or archaeological site and say, "I think I'll drive by and check it out."

But it goes even further. How do we play musical instruments today? Like our European forbears, or like those of the African-Americans who came over as slaves? How do we hold our forks? Like whom do we design our houses? It's those questions that we can answer through a book like this one.

I was utterly fascinated form end to end.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson



Why I read it: Still questing my way through all the Bill Bryson titles.

Summary: A Bryson-style ramble through Australia and its history.

My Thoughts: Well, who would have guessed that Bill Bryson had it in him? Although he occasionally slips into his old surly self - after all, not every hotel owner is perfect - for the most part he glows about the country and its people. I'm starting to wonder which Australian agency paid him to write an oversized tourism brochure.

As usual, Bryson uncovers the cads and kooks of history, and proves that the more removed people are from society at large (and in this case I refer to the general isolation of Australia relative to the rest of the English-speaking world), the kookier they can get. The country has produced its share of loonies. Bryson's prose probably makes them seem even more so, but that's the fun of his books. And the funny thing about it is that so many of them we've never heard of. How often does your nightly news refer to Australia? for any reason? It's just not on the American radar screen.

One line in this book caught me by surprise. Being of a naturalist bent, as my fulltime job is as the director of education of a natural science center, I was taken aback by the thought that there are such vast spaces of Australia yet unexplored that there may very well be plants that go extinct before anyone ever sees them. What a sad, weird thought.

I happened to grab a copy of the book that had the added pages from Bryson's newspaper writing on the Sydney Olympic games. If you should get a chance to read it, take it in from above, compare it to the rest of his work. It's funny to see how he pulls his punches in his newspaper work. It's understandable, of course, as one must always consider audience, but he's deftly able to suppress his inner crab when necessary, and unleash it when its allowable.

There are many people out there who are desirous of visiting Australia, but for whatever reason are unable to do so. This book let's you do so from the armchair by the fire next to the six pack of Foster's, but do yourself a favor - grab a map and keep it handy. While we uncosmopolitan Americans may have some notion of where cities in Europe are, we're instantly lost in Australia. The geography lesson will be worth it.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Inside the Winter Olympic Games by Marc Jenner



Why I read it: The author sent me a review copy, which was serendipitous, as I've always been a huge fan of the Winter Games.

Summary: A short guidebook to the Winter Olympics, with breakdowns of the various sports and their changes over time, many of the traditions and how they began, and more.

My thoughts: I have ties.

Back in the late 1970s, my dad was a hockey coach. Apparently, he was a very good one (I would later come to see it in action, on the ice, as I skated with some of his teams). In 1979 he was given an opportunity to coach some young men from Massachusetts competing in a tournament in Colorado to determine who would represent the U.S. on the 1980 Olympic team. Yes, those guys.

Being a hockey fan, I was drawn to the Winter Olympics, watching the 1984 team in Sarajevo and the 1988 team in Calgary. I was such a fan of the games that I taped - on VHS - the entirety of the Calgary Olympics coverage, and did the same in 1992. Tomba, Witt, Mueller...for two weeks, those names were my life.

So, yes, I know my fair share of Winter Olympics history. But I apparently didn't know that much, as Jenner's book surprised me with several facts. For instance, how abot this irony (or, I suppose, oversight): when the Olympic motto was chosen, "Citius, Altius, Fortius," it was done so in Latin. But, as his history states, it was the Ancient Romans who killed the Ancient Olympics, citing the fact they were contested in homage to Zeus. Shouldn't the motto be in Greek?

One facet of the Ancient Olympics that has long fascinated me is that the four year periods between the games known as Olympiads are actually used in the study of technical chronology. Ancient  texts can refer to things like "On the third day before Easter in the second year of the fourteenth Olympiad..." and historians (or perhaps, their mathematician friends) can pinpoint not only the year, but the day.

Jenner's book is one to keep handy for reference when the next Winter Olympics roll around. I've fallen off track with them, but now that I have kids who are near the level of understanding them, perhaps I'll find the time again to tune in. Perhaps just for my dad's sake, as he rests in peace up there in amateur hockey heaven!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World at War, December 1941 by Stanley Weintraub



Why I read it: I have an undying fascination about where everybody was when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.

Summary: The story of America's entry into World War II, the terrifying first days in the Pacific, and the early strategizing of the Allies, all set to the backdrop of a world attempting to continue holiday traditions in the darkest of days.

My Thoughts: I don't know what the author has against General Douglas MacArthur, but it shows.

The two central characters in this story are the two biggest personalities of World War II, British Prime Minister WInston Churchill and American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But, of course, they were surrounded by so many other people with names we recognize: Beaverbrook, Eden, Eisenhower, Marshall, etc. They all appear in this brief telling.

As to MacArthur, his story is well-known. Forced to retreat from the Phillipines, he vows to return. The author, though, takes shots at him like a Japanese sniper with every mention of his name.Yes, MacArthur had his flaws, but wow.

A book like this one sucks me in. Yes, I already know the outcomes. I know where Roosevelt ends up, and I know what Churchill says and does in the years to come. But it's the focus on the moment, the minutiae that doesn't get covered in the broader histories, that make it so interesting. For instance, I had already seen the iconic "bulldog" photo portrait of Churchill, but I hadn't taken the time to look up the when and where of it; it turns out to be a major moment in this book.

It's unfathomable to us today in the States. The Depression was one thing; economic downturns be what they are, we will never (hopefully) understand how bad the Depression really was. But the country was also strictly isolationist at the time. To be roused from that self-induced slumber took something massive, something shocking. Even with 9/11 - while it opened Americans' eyes to a wider world picture - we can never fully understand the effect of Pearl Harbor. Add to that fact the notion that less than three weeks before Christmas, young men were joining the armed forces by the thousands, tearing families apart and throwing them into uncertainty, and you'll perhaps see what I mean.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy's Journey to Becoming a Big Kid by Simon Pegg



Why I read it: I've been a fan of Pegg's movies since Shaun of the Dead was released in the U.S.; i.e., from the beginning.

Summary: Unfinished autobiography.

My Thoughts: The good thing is that I'm still a fan.

It's happened to me before. I can't remember with whom or when, but I remember reading a memoir, learning more about a person than I had previously known, and becoming deeply disappointed by the realization that I really didn't like them any more. And that's saying something, as I'm a very accepting person, willing to see life from any perspective. So, I guess, in that sense, Pegg was always pretty much generally safe.

But then, he is a British actor, and probably would have beaten the odds anyway. Since my early Monty Python days I've looked to England for comedy, and have become well acquainted with everything from Hancock's Half Hour and The Goon Show to Life on Mars (OK, not a comedy series, but with some true comedic moments thanks to character Detective Gene Hunt played by Philip Glenister). The problem is that as far as Americans know there are only twelve British actors in total, and they appear in everything: Bill Nighy, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, etc. Every few years, another one or two, like Pegg and Nick Frost, rotate into the mix, but the others don't leave. Still, there are only twelve. I know the math doesn't work, but it's my theory and I'm sticking to it.

Case in point: at several points in the book, Pegg mentions things like "I remember the first time I worked with Adrian Edmonson..." Of course he would! He's one of the Twelve, starting with the Young Ones and going forward. And they all appear in each other's films. I recently went to see Pegg's latest film, The World's End, and simply waited for the cameos. And there they were, Pierce Brosnan and, of course, Bill Nighy.

Pegg's autobiography is loaded with wit, as one would expect, and in the beginning works wonderfully in defining the road he followed to reach ridiculous stardom from broken-home internalization of fears and worries. Toward the end, it begins to ramble, but he notices that fact and shuts it down abruptly. After all, he's in his early forties, at the height of his career. How does one finish an autobiography at that point in his life? Hopefully, there's so much more to come that there will be a second volume, something like Pegg Strikes Back. He is, after all, one of the world's preeminent Star Wars geeks. Prediction: he lands a role in episode 7, now being talked about.

The book features lots of great photos and a science fiction short story intermingled with the autobiographical chapters, featuring Pegg as an international man of mystery who is absolutely nothing like James Bond, written in the same humorous style as his movies. Who knows? Maybe someday it'll be one.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Founding Foodies by Dave DeWitt



Why I read it: Another window through which to read our American history: food.

Summary: How Washington, Jefferson and Franklin (though him not so much, comparatively) affected the history of American foods.

My Thoughts: If he had just used any word but "Foodies." Ugh. But I get his point - what do you use? "Gourmets" is not the correct term. So we move on.

As a sometime gardener, experimental cook and lover of connecting to history in its many forms, I've enjoyed digging into tales like this one. Who championed corn in America? Who salted the first fish? Living in the northeast, I come across many tales of the fishing industry and how it began, but that's on the grand scale. How did a resident of the Isles of Shoals prepare his cod in 1820? What was the drink of choice for celebrations in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1775?

So the author carries us through some of the most important moments in colonial American history, sharing with us the stories of Jefferson and his chefs, Washington and his distillery. Other "Founding Foodies" are identified for one-off contributions, but the bulk of the book focuses on the two Virginians.

Best of all, this book comes with recipes. I wanted to try one kind of quickly, and identified a concoction of rum, ale, sugar, nutmeg and eggs drank at the tavern where Washington gave his farewell speech. How's that for extended historicity? As my brother-in-law sipped the warmed brew on a cool September evening, we couldn't help think to themselves, "Dear God, people really drank this stuff?" But it was worth the taste, if just for the name: "A Yard of Flannel." And it wasn't 100% bad. Onto Whipped Syllabub!

What America ate and drank drove us to become the nation we are today. Imagine how we may have turned out on a different diet! It's beyond my head to figure that out, but there has to be a story there.

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle



Why I read it: Another classic turned into a Disney tale; I wanted to see where they met and diverged.

Summary: The well-known story of the heroic underdog who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

My Thoughts: Well, I feel sick.

I had no idea how Robin Hood's life ended, having never gotten to that point in his story before. In a way, it was the only way he could go. He couldn't be bested in combat, not after his many years in Sherwood Forest and the subsequent days spent at the side of King Richard in the battles of the East. And he couldn't fall prey to a misstep or a fall, as nimble and surefooted as he had always been. Bled to death by a nun, his cousin, no less. Who would have guessed?

But, to the story. Pyle was just the latest, in his time, to take up the tale. Robin Hood stories had been around for five hundred years before he took them on. But what flourish he added! The language alone is worthy of the read, the consistency with which he constructs the conversations full of "anons" and "tut" and other archaic-sounding turns of phrase. Immersion into the life of Sherwood Forest comes simply through this device, not to mention the sweeping descriptions of the lush greenery that is the land Robin and his men inhabit and love.

The story begins and ends darkly, with bloodshed and death, with even the hated Sherriff of Nottingham seeing his demise violently, but in between, Pyle writes with comedy. Merry is the correct word, and perhaps this book helped define the way we use it today. Robin does most everything with a smile on his face, robbing a bishop or shooting an arrow in a contest before the king. In the end he meets King Richard, who perhaps is the merriest monarch of all time, certainly a match for Robin Hood's roguishness at heart. Robin finds a kindred soul in the King, and accompanies him until that man's final days.

I wonder, too, how Tolkien was inspired by this telling of the tale, or of others. I suppose comparisons are inevitable, but at times the story had a Hobbit-like feel to it. Perhaps, though, terms like "a good, stout yew bow" are just bound to pop up from time to time in the genre. Either way, it left me pondering.

So what of this grave of Robin Hood, 1247 A.D., outsitde the Kirklees Priory? While Pyle's version of the tale is fanciful, how much truth lies behind the character of Robin Hood? It's a deep world into which I am excited to delve.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Sea Their Graves by David J. Stewart



Why I read it: Chose it from a list to review for Sea History magazine, figuring that since I'm in the midst of walking graveyards to read 50,000 epitaphs in a year, and I'm a practicing mariitme historian, I might be sort of an expert on the topic, if (another) one exists.

Summary: "An archaeology of death and remembrance in maritime culture," the subtitle. How did Americans and Brits remember their dead lost at sea in the Age of Sail?

My Thoughts: So, I've "read," by now, dozens of graveyards in coastal communities. Along the way I've found numerous memorials and cenotaphs for sailors who died at sea, who were either recovered or lost forever, and each one tells such a different story: naval battles, shipboard accidents, shipwrecks. As far as our graveyards go, these stones provide oftentimes the only bit of color in an otherwise drab, macabre world.

David Stewart, as assistant professor at Eastern Carolina University, hotbed for maritime archaeology studies, makes the case that there is maritime archaeology to be conducted ashore. The last chapter of a shipwreck's story, for instance, can be told in the words and imagery symbolically placed on the tombstones or other items of remembrance for the sailors lost in those tragedies. In his book he focuses on British and American mariners lost in the Age of Sail, fully admitting that the whole story cannot be told until we make comparative studies in the other nations that plied the Atlantic during that time: France, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, etc.

What I really enjoyed about this scholarly look at the subject was the way it stepped outside of the bounds of maritime history to contextualize trends within it. Why was there an increase in religious symbolism on stones in the early part of the nineteenth century? The answer, he suggests, lies in the great religious awakening of the period; sailors who once considered a holy man aboard a ship a taboo were now being buried under crosses and clasped hands pointing skyward.

He also dives into the emotional side of the story. How do Americans today deal with the inability to recover a body from the sea, and has the trend always remained the same? What does the wording on a stone truly say about the people who did the memorializing? Were sentiments the same on state-sponsored, family-erected and comrade-funded stones?

For stone gawkers like me, this book is an instant Bible, one to keep on the shelf as reference as my own thoughts take shape. 33,000 stones in, I'm thinking that I not only have a short-term research project, but a lifelong hobby brewing. With a little focus, I'm sure I can contribute to this study, if it's wanted.

http://halfanhouraday.blogspot.com/2013/04/15817-andrew-fuller-collamore.html
http://halfanhouraday.blogspot.com/2013/04/15486-benjamin-o-witherell.html
http://halfanhouraday.blogspot.com/2013/04/14194-haviland-barstow.html

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II by Charles Glass



Why I read it: Ongoing fascination with World War II; I'll read pretty much anything that has to do with the war.

Summary: The life stories of several American and British deserters.

My Thoughts: This book asks us one question: what would you do?

We all like to think that if faced with certain situations, we'd come out nobly and as unscathed as possible. But no matter what we think, we are not superheroes. We cannot dodge every bullet, no matter how hard we try.

America's World War II soldiers (and Australia's, and China's, and Burma's...you get the point) faced impossible odds. I remember once reading a document at the National Archives that stated that the officers of a specific outfit expected 90% casualties upon hitting a beachhead. Ninety percent! Through no fault of their own - not for lack of training, not for lack of courage or will - nine out of ten men were expected to be mowed down and killed before reaching their objective.

The soldiers profiled in this book were like many, many others. They trained, headed into battle and at some point snapped. Due to poor timing, some of them ended up with long prison sentences for simply following logic (if I stay here, I'm going to die; therefore, my best course of action for self-preservation is to leave). With bombs falling all around, indiscriminately picking off our friends and comrades one at a time or in bunches, what would we do? What would I do?

Glass weaves a wondrous narrative through the North African, Mediterranean and European theaters, one that takes us eventually into the post-war underworlds of western Europe. I think what affected me most was the storyline about the disgraced servicemen who turned to crime in the streets of Paris, London and other cities. There's possible reclamation of one's life and reputation after desertion; is there any after conviction for armed robbery? I think, too, that I'm too often embarrassed to be an American, and that, although it happened seven decades in the past, I'm embarrassed by the actions of men our country trained to carry out a noble mission who instead sought to profit from the misery of others.

Way off base, of course, but Glass certainly got me thinking. I do question one charachter in particular, deserter Sergeant Whitehead. Knowing he was a liar, as proven by Glass, I found it hard to know what was real and what was made up about his life. In the end, I wonder why Glass went with him as a subject, other than the fact that his life - true or not - makes for a good tale.

The beauty of such a book is that it reminds us that it was just a relative few who deserted, a relative few who turned to crime for survival. Most of the World War II soldiers we meet today (as few as they are becoming) still deserve our respect as it has always been given, unconditionally.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Bad Guys Won! by Jeff Pearlman



Why I read it: I was fifteen and a Red Sox fan when the ball went through Buckner's legs. This book is the other side of the story for me.

Summary: "A season of brawling, boozing, bimbo chasing, and championship baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, the Kid, and the rest of the 1986 Mets, the rowdiest team ever to put on a New York uniform - and maybe the best" (also the subtitle).

My Thoughts: It wasn't as hard to read as I thought it would be.

There are people out there who claim that they're not fans of any team in particular, that they're fans of "the game." It's so hard to imagine that any love affair with baseball didn't start on a local level. I find it hard to believe that any 4-year-old, when asked by his dad if he wanted to attend his first Major League Baseball game, has ever said, "OK, I'll do it, but I'm not rooting for either side to win; I'm a fan of 'the game.'"

For me, the only game in town was the Red Sox, so for 27 years now, I've had memories of the loss of the 1986 World Series. Strangely, I never really hated the Mets. Disliked, sure. They were from New York, land of the Yankees. Even at 15 I knew that made them bad people. Funny how our world view can get so twisted through the goggles of the sports fan.

Sadly, Pearlman confirms that even at 15, I was in some ways right.

Rather than just a simple, on-the-field-focused recap of the season - a standard avenue for books about World Series-winning teams - this book dives off the deep end. Everything is in play: the drugs, the womanizing, the f-bombs, the violence. In the end I felt like I learned way too much about specific players to ever want to root for them again, and by that I mean in life, their sports careers now well in the past.

There's a wall that's put up by athletes and their agents, a facade they attempt to maintain that presents wholesomeness, but we all know that every fifth person we meet in life has an issue (heck, probably every other): drug addicts, closet drinkers, spouse abusers. Baseball as a sport does not generate an entire army of all-American clean cut boys. Some of these guys are flat-out jerks. We just don't know because it's hidden in the haze they present in the name of potential endorsements and post career broadcasting jobs. I've heard the tale before from sports writers I know. Yes, we start out with idolization of pro athletes and dreams of eventually being near the sport somehow. We have to be careful what we wish for.

Not every Met in '86 was a bad guy, of course, but a lot of them were. And books like these, written about the athletes playing during our childhoods, bring back floods of memories, not only of specific moments in time, but of names we had long forgotten, like Al Nipper. I once lived and died as a fan by whether or not Nipper was on the mound as compared to Roger Clemens, but I can honestly say it's been twenty years since I've thought of him. Such memory joggers, no matter the content they conjure, are priceless. For me, this book was loaded with them.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Night of the Grizzlies by Jack Olsen



Why I read it: Visited Glacier National Park once as the designated carrier of bear mace.

Summary: Grizzlies attacked and killed two 19 year-old young women in separate incidents within a few hours of each other at Glacier, the first definitively recorded grizzly bear kills of humans in the park's history.

My Thoughts: I'm not buying it.

Oh, I believe that everything that happened that August night in 1967 is true as presented in the book. What I'm not buying is that it never, ever happened before.

Think about it. For 57 years prior to these attacks, hikers had invaded this last bastion home of the grizzlies, and numerous people who went in never came back, were never found. The author makes a good point about the fact that after World War II visitation numbers jumped, stressing out the bears, maybe leading them to this event, but that large tourist population may be the key to another answer. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody's around to hear it...? With the Granite Park Chalet filled beyond capacity with a nightly grizzly show on a well-lit, food garbage dump stage, there were dozens of people within earshot of the first attack. Had they not been there, would the first victim's cries have been heard? In quieter days, before the large increase in hiker volume, it's very possible that people ran afoul of grizzlies and got themselves killed, but that nobody was around to witness and report on attacks. They could have simply "vanished."

Secondly, the notion that grizzlies suddenly started killing humans that night in 1967 needs some re-examination. The author makes good points about the continued cornering of the bears into smaller and smaller areas through time, but what about just basic animal instincts? The nightly search for food? Candy was found in the dragging path of the second victim, believed to have fallen out of her pocket during the attack. Could the bear have just smelled the candy and gone in for a bite? Grizzlies are super smellers, and had become experts in Glacier at picking up backpacks and other sacks containing food and running off with them. Sleeping bags that smell like candy would just look like bigger bags to them, bigger targets of opportunity.

Jack Olsen's prose is superb, and one is on edge from the first page. Without skipping ahead and seeing the names of the victims, the reader is left guessing as to which hiker is going to get it; somebody is going to get killed by the end of the book, but whom?

For me, the book takes on that added value of personal historicity; I've been there, I've set foot on the trails. The sights and places described in the book are fresh in my mind. The first few pages of scene setting took me right back into the park and onto the trails to see the marmots, the mule deer, the bighorn sheep, the Columbian ground squirrels, the mountain goats, the moose, the glacier lilies, the bear grass. It was my first experience with the national parks of the west, and those scenes will always stick with me. The author's highly descriptive writing style dropped me right back to where I was in August 2011.

Oddly, after reading this book, I want to go back now more than ever. Not to see a grizzly, but just to be there again in that magnificent world.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way by Bill Bryson



Why I read it: Had I not been a historian, I might have been a forensic etymologist.

Summary: Bryson looks chronologically at the development of English, then shoots off into subtopics like profanity, dialects, dictionaries and more.

My thoughts: Bryson overheard a conversation my dad and I had years ago while landscaping. It's possible he was hiding in a nearby rhododendron bush as we were chatting, tucked behind a big, pink flower; we didn't check all of them for spies.

Anyway, we were talking about the fact that we had just made three unintelligible syllables into a full conversation.

"Jeet?"

"No, Jew?"

We completely understood each other, and bought matching cheesburgers to prove it. And this was just one example, we realized, of how we regularly slurred, twisted and generally poorly enunciated the English language into our own form of communication. But, I know now, we were not alone. Bryson recorded part of the conversation in his book as an example of the American tendency to do just such horrid things to the language.

And so I was taken back, through this book, not only to shady rich people's backyards on summer days in the 1990s, but my medieval history professor's office at UMASS. One day I walked in and said, "Where did the 'w' sound come from in 'one,' and where did it go in 'two?'" He didn't know. It was just the beginning of one of many word origins conversations we had over the years.

Bryson's work, which, being from the late '80s, is charmingly full of Soviet Union and Paul Hogan references, asks us to look at our language from many angles. Think about how what is written on the page - say, "coffee," for instance - might look the same to any reader of English, but is spoken and sounds different based on where you are in the world. Especially New York. And coffee's an easy one; there are some words, usually place names, that we mash and mangle into pronunciations that are not even close to the arranged letters. It's what makes travel so fun. One man's "PEA-body" is another man's "pee-ba-dee."

He reminds us, too, of how the language is ever-evolving. Heck, when he wrote the book and listed the expansion of media, he didn't even use the word "internet." Hadn't been in widespread use yet (the word was coined in 1982. And why do words get "coined?"). We add words to English all the time, for good or bad. We may look back and think of how funny our forbears spoke a hundred years ago, how archaic it all must have sounded, but guess what English speakers will be thinking about us in 2113? English is as dynamic as the oceans.

There was a belief - probably still is - that Americans and Brits will not be able to understand each other in the next century, that the languages will simply drift so far apart as to become two. I whoeheartedly disagree, but  have one thing Bryson couldn't contemplate when he wrote the book: the aforementioned worldwide web. We are conversing now more than ever on a weekly, daily, hourly, minutely (?) basis. I think we'll still be able to chat, trade, conspire and argue for years into the future.

If the history of language development is for you, so is this book. If you are bored to tears by it. read it anyway, as Bryson is one of the country's top literary wits, and at the very least makes the topic, like any he writes about, fun.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Superfly: The Jimmy Snuka Story by Jimmy Snuka with Jon Chattman



Why I read it: I was 11 when the Superfly flew off the cage. How could I not tune in from that point on?

Summary: A first-person telling of the life of one of the greatest professional wrestling superstars in American history.

My Thoughts: Jimmy Snuka is not the man I thought I knew. And there's good and bad in that statement.

The Jimmy Snuka I knew was a hero, through the eyes of an 11-year-old. He battled Roddy Piper, for goodness sake, the most evil man on the planet (although even then, Piper made me laugh). He flew from the top of the turnbuckles, and more, from the top of the cage. He did things that made my jaw drop, things no other wrestler would dare try.

That was before I knew what was going on, before I understood it was all an act. Even after I did figure it out, I followed the Superfly as much as I could. I never understood why he dropped so low out of the WWF (now the WWE) picture. I read his name in results from Eastern Championship Wrestling, but, as there was no broadcasted program in the area where I lived, I didn't get to see him during those years.

Over the years I came to understand the roughness of life in professional wrestling, always on the road, often injured with no chance of an offseason to heal. I began to see that the life was split; definitely glamorous on the stage, tedious, even painful on the road. I watched the Von Erichs die, one by one, for instance, and inwardly winced every time one did. A sadness overwhelmed me at times for these men to whom I looked up as a child - obviously erroneously, but what the hell did I know?

With the Superfly, I just had no idea. Cocaine and drinking problems grounded him, caused him to make some bad decisions. He had been beaten as a child, had a terrible upbringing. Ho took steroids, although they weren't as villified in those days as they have become today. And I had no idea that he was involved in an incident with a girlfriend that preceded her death. She had cuts, bruises and major head trauma when the ambulance came for her. The case was never really closed. The question remains, does his story fly? Did she slip and hit her head, or was there physical abuse that led to her death?

I'm conflicted on him. He's made great strides to turn his life around and by many people's admissions is one of the kindest, gentlest people you'll ever want to meet - at least those people quoted in his book, who, of course, are a biased crowd. I can understand his humanity, and I even get the effect his childhood had on his adult life. But the whole Nancy Argentino story just troubles me, more deeply than I ever thought anything from that era would at this point in my life.

So Jimmy Snuka has hurt me, brudda (as he would say). I want to love him like I did as a kid, but don't know if I can any more. He's definitely a fallen hero in my eyes, but I'm not sure how far he's fallen.

(As a complete aside - I was interested in the story he told in the book of how Tommy Dreamer was the first wrestler to ever kick out of the Superfly splash. Finishers like that one are sacred; you don't just give them away easily. But the story is mistaken. Just Google Kevin Von Erich and Jimmy Snuka from the early 1980s, and you'll see Kevin kick out more than a decade earlier.)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem





Why I read it: I'm a conservationist by training and at heart.

Summary: (also the subtitle) A sometimes dismaying, weirdly reassuring story about people looking at people looking at animals in America.

My Thoughts: Ugh. Where do I begin.

I guess I begin with my own experiences. I worked for Mass Audubon for about a decade, and spent a lot of time outdoors. And that may be the understatement of the millenium. When I was not leading public programming on some nature trail, I was standing in the woods counting birds or identifying amphibian sounds or flipping logs for salamanders. I witnessed nature's majesty, a few acres at a time, and still do, whenever I can.

I read the old accounts of wildlife. I wrote the new ones. I know what we've lost, where we've lost it and why we've lost it. I wish I could turn back the clock, but I can't. We'll never see the passenger pigeon again, nor the eskimo curlew, and it's all thanks to "us." Somehow, we're all tabbed as guilty with the degradation of the planet just by being human.

What bothers me most is that most of the world will never understand, or care to take the time to understand what we're losing. We've "greened" up quite a bit in the past few decades, but are hybrid cars and solar panels and wind farms enough to save the planet's species? And is saving them what we are supposed to do? If nature took its course, would all of the American kestrels die anyway, or do we have an obligation to try to keep a species around seemingly against its will to live with us because we posioned it or stole its habitat?

Mooallem takes a wide look at not the endangered species, but the people saving the endangered species. He covers some basic tenets, like shifting baseline syndrome (the notion that as each generation enters the world, the world they see is the baseline, and they don't truly get a sense of loss until their later years; as the next generation is born, the baseline reforms, etc.), and shows how humanity is not equipped to deal with longterm problems. We just don't live long enough.

The only reassurance I gained from this book is that people will always be willing to try. Zealousness goes a long way with conservation causes, but often the zealots are crackpots, hard to work with. Burnout happens, either from overexertion, or overexposure to difficult partners. But there's always somebody willing to step into the breach.

Mooallem tells his tale through the polar bear, the Lange's metalmark butterfly and the whooping crane, but he may as well have used any of thousands of other species. The story would be - and will always be - the same.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs



Why I read it: Taking on a classic once in a while.

Summary: A boy rasied by apes discovers his true heritage and chases the woman he loves.

My Thoughts: This book may be the first romantic tragedy I ever read.

I guess that somewhere in my past, probably in my childhood, I got the notion that Tarzan and Jane were a matched pair for life. I had no idea that he lost her in the end.

But that's the end, and we'll return to those thoughts. One of the first things that struck me about this book was the timing of it all. Tarzan arrives on the literary scene in 1912, at a time when the notion of evolution was still being hotly contested. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species came out in 1859; the Scopes Monkey Trial wasn't until 1925. Burroughs saw enough similarities between man and ape that he brought the mother ape Kala together with baby Tarzan in the most intimate bond between mother and child, nursing - albeit without using that very word.

Sweeping evolution aside, we come next to the contextual struggle of race. Burroughs is constantly comparing the various races represented in the book - the black tribesmen, the whites (pirates, French sailors, etc.), the ape tribes, and more. Tarzan tries to parse out just who is above whom at all times, and mostly the black peoples lose out. Keep in mind Burroughs was writing in 1912, and the world had a lot of growing pains to go through before the notion of equality for all was truly entertained. Even Esmerelda, the mistress of Jane Porter, is there solely for comic relief in the way that actor Stepin Fetchit was in all his movies.

And so we chase toward the finish of the tale, and Tarzan transforms. He learns his true identity thanks to the work of French naval officer Paul D'Arnot and a fingerprint expert with the police department in Paris, and a clue from the father of Jane Porter. He chases Jane all the way to Wisconsin and stands on the brink of pure happiness, only to find that she has been betrothed to another - his own cousin - and that with one word he could change everything. Knowing now that he is Lord Greystoke, he can take all of Wiliam Clayton's money and castles, and perhaps even Jane, but he still has the killer instinct in him borne in the jungle. But only he nd D'Arnot know his identity, and when asked who he really is, he silently disclaims his own heritage, and claims descendancy from Kala. He assures Jane's happiness, even if it means forging his own sorrow.

And so it must be, if we are ever to have a sequel. And there were two dozen, so it was certainly the right decision for Burroughs. I feel that the novel could have stood alone, that a sequel would simply be gratuitous in the way that today's filmmakers only produce blockbuster films if they come in packs of three. But, I so enjoyed Tarzan of the Apes that I'm willing to go against my own instincts and try the next in line.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Steve Blass: A Pirate for Life by Steve Blass with Erik Sherman



Why I read it: Impulse buy while in Pennsylvania; I love baseball history, and here was a bit I didn't know.

Summary: The autobiography of Steve Blass, Pirate World Series hero pitcher who lost control of his pitching and had to end his career. For modern equivalents, see Steve Sax, Mackey Sasser, Mark Wohlers, Rick Ankiel.

My thoughts: The baseball books are piling up on my shelves. Some wax poetic, others reach for laughs. This book does both.

Steve loves a lot of stuff in life: his wife and kids, baseball, his Connecticut roots, and everything there is about Pittsburgh. But at times, baseball, for one, didn't love him back.

If there was a reason for his sudden loss of control, he's not sharing it. But suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, Steve Blass, slider specialist, became Steve Blass, nervous wreck. The strike zone left him. After battling it in any way he could think to do, not wanting to let his teammates down any more, he walked away from the game.

So what did he do? Well, for the nuts and the bolts, see the book. In general he tried to replace the void in his life by taking on too much. He settled into baseball broadcasting, but learned a ton about himself along the way.

I've always maintained that the funniest baseball book I've ever read was Bullet Bob Comes to Louisville by John Morris, but this book may be the new champ. Blass has obviously reached the point beyond caring what people think of what he says, as he gets down and dirty with stories about himself and his teammates in ways that make you laugh out loud. We must always keep in mind that professional baseball is played by men 18-45; that's a lot of youth, a lot of money, and a lot of free time. From that comes a lot of pranks, a lot of irreverence.

For Pirates fans, the names are all there: Clemente, Stargell, Mazeroski and on. In a way, now that I think about it, it was nice reading a book about baseball that didn't mention steroids. I'm sure he encountered them - Barry Bonds played for the Pirates, for instance - but he chose to ignore them. Heck, after fifty years in baseball, he had plenty to talk about anyway.

Winged Warfare in World War I by Billy Bishop

Why I read it: One of my earliest history passions, military aviation.

Summary: The story of Billy Bishop, Canada's most successful fighter pilot of the Forst World War.

My Thoughts: Imagine being so far ahead of everybody else, at anything that you want to do, that no one can even see your smoke. Then imagine being lucky on top of that.

Billy Bishop had it all. He "got it" long before anyone else in the aerial combat world. Just more than a decade after the plane first flew, it was being used as a weapon of war. Imagine the learning curve. Few people knew how to fly before the war; during the war they had to become experts at pursuit and evasion.

So Billy was thinking on a different plane (ha ha) than the rest. He scored 72 confirmed victories during the war. Ace status comes at just 5 downed enemy planes. He squared off against Baron von Richtofen, strafed German airfields, and took on the enemy in lopsided mismatches. He came back alive every time, but often with bullet holes in his machine just inches from where he sat - and therein lies the luck.

His book details not only his aerial victories, but his downtime as well, what passed for fun and relaxation on the front lines in World War I France.

World War I was a different animal than its sequel. With aviation in its infancy, and the world coming out of the Victorian Age, a lot of bravado and machismo still reigned. Pilots found it unmanly to wear parachutes. For every victory tallied when a machine went down, at least one man went to his death.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman



Why I read it: Fascination with all things Victorian.

Summary: Competing New York newspapers launch female journalists in a race against Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg and one another.

My Thoughts: Truth be told, Nellie Bly did not know for a long time that she was racing Elizabeth Bisland. Bisland was a throw-in by a competing newspaper that wanted to get in on the marketing of a race around the world. Nellie's race was against Fogg. Bisland, on the other hand, was sent on her circumnavigation practically against her will, and in direct competition with Bly.

The question nagged at me, though, as I read the book - what is "around the world" according to the standards of the day? It was certainly not an equatorial race. It seems that it was meant to be around the civilized world of the northern hemisphere. No parameters were ever set forth, other than to generally follow the route taken by Fogg. Had Bisland won (no need for a spoiler alert here, as the name Nellie Bly is much more of the household variety, and from that fact deductions can be made), would the New York World have quibbled over routes?

That, too, was a fascinating feature of the story. Bly went east, crossing the Atlantic straight out of  Jersey City. Bisland went west, crossing the continent by train before departing for her transpacific journey from San Francisco. They both paid for it in the end. Bisland faced horrific storms on the Atlantic in January, while Bly found herself snowbound like the Donner Party in California.

The post-race study is just as interesting as the race itself. Who really won in the long run? Was Nellie's burst of glory worth the longterm effects of instant stardom?

It's a story that will never be repeated, one that caught the world's attention in ways we may never understand.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Perfect Lady: A Pictorial History of the U.S. Coast Guard Barque Eagle by Tido Holtkamp



Why I read it: I am a Coast Guard historian, if nothing else.

Summary: A look at the Eagle through the eyes of one who sailed her in her former life.

My Thoughts: It's always been hard for me to look at the Germans of World War II and think anything but bad thoughts. It's not like it was drilled into our heads that all Germans were bad; it's just that in the limited time we learned about the war in school, the only Germans we heard about were the Nazis.

And so it was with the German barque Horst Wessel. Like the Bismarck, it represented our World War II enemy, those evil people from that evil place. But the more we live, the more we learn.

Tido Holtkamp's book changed my impression of the ship, and, of course, of the German people who lived during that time. I think it was one passage in particular, when the captain of the training vessel commented after Adolf Hitler left the ship that he wasn't fond of the man. He couldn't stop blinking, he said. He read those fluttering eyes to represent an unsettled, nervous mind. It reinforced the fact for me that not all Germans were blindly allegiant to the Nazi cause.

The first half of this book shows the exuberance of German youths taking to the rigging on grand adventures, perhaps away from home for the first time, seeing the world, eventually seeing bits of it blown to pieces in the war. That war rolled back to their homeland and they watched as thousands upon thousands died in massive bombing raids and finally an infantry push toward the German capital.

So Holtkamp pulled off the miraculous for me. He made me sympathetic toward the German people of World War II, toward the regular army soldier, the regular navy sailor, the professional soldier just trying to stay alive and come home to his family. Let's face it, first impressions die hard. And what's that you say? This blog post hints that perhaps Americans learn history from an America first perspective (and not an America First perspective, which would be completely different)? Yes, I was told certain things as a kid; but I'm glad I'm smart enough to make my own observations and learn new tricks, even as an aging dog.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Pox and the Covenant by Tony Williams



Why I read it: I'm always available for another tale from Boston's past.

Summary: Cotton Mather, James and Ben Franklin and the smallpox epidemic that struck the city in 1721.

My Thoughts: Well, it was definitely the first time I've ever come across a story in which Ben Franklin was the bad guy.

And I have to admit that when I read a story about the 17-teens and see Franklin's name prominently mentioned, it's feels strange, like he lived too long a life to be human, like he's intemporal. I think of  him at the heart of the American Revolution a half century later. But there he was, rousing the rabble in 1721.

What a terrible occurrence the epidemic was. At the time, Boston was the busiest port town in the New World, 11,000 residents strong with a board of selectmen running things (now, try 2 million and a "maya"!). Before the epidemic petered out, the virus had afflicted more than half of the population - an unfathomable number. SARS, the bird flu, throw at me whatever you like, they never reached the proportions that this event did. I can't imagine what it must have been like to watch the world around me crumble like it did for so many families during the epidemic.

The clash in the story - and every good tale has conflict - came when Cotton Mather, a religious man, suggested the first-ever New World use of inoculation. Puritan Boston revolted at the thought, and one man even threw a bomb through Mather's chamber windows. One doctor, Zabdiel Boylston (and that's not even my favorite name in the book; that belonged to Waitstill Winthrop), risked public ridicule and governmental punishment and inoculated patients wanting to build immunity. He ended up setting precedence, making history.

On the other side of the debate was James Franklin, older brother of our beloved Ben. He was the agitator, a young printer hoping to make a name for himself. The war of words in the newspapers spilled into the streets, and let's face it, in a town of 11,000, eventually people will come face-to-face. (Trust me - it's the exact proportions of my hometown, and I've seen such pots boil over). In the end, more than a decade later, Mather and Boylston were proven right, but they went through hell to get there.

As for Ben? He was James' puppet for a while, apprenticed to him, eventually breaking away, only to be effectively blacklisted in Boston at his own brother's hand. He fled south and got a fresh start in Philadelphia. Had he stayed in Boston, would he have become the most famous American of his generation, or the most villified? History will never know.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra by Charles F. McGlashan



Why I read it: I was engrossed by the Ken Burns documentary while in college, and have even visited Donner Pass.

Summary: America's most famous tragedy inolving cannibalism. Pioneers heading for California cannot beat winter to the Sierra-Nevada Mountains.

My Thoughts: I wasn't around when it happened, so I might not truly have the right to say these words fairly, but I don't think there's any blame to be had in ths tale as far as the cannibalism goes.

The problems are many-fold, though. First, I'm temporally out of context. I'm not living in 1847 reading the newspapers of the day, and am unsure of what societal mores I would have carried, what early Victorian sensibilities would have swayed my thoughts. I also don't know if America has since had a "coming to grips" with the notion of "survival at all costs." If we have, it probably had to do with this very event. It was the precedent.

I think, too, though, that never having been in the position of starving to death with a warm dead body lying beside me, I am noit qualified to say whether or not I would do it. I am willing to bypass passing judgment under the weight of the evidence as I have it.

But the book itself provides another problem. The author, a late Victorian Era journalist, interviewed survivors of the tragedy (a little more than half of the 90 pioneers made it through) and, in the fashion of the day, made exalted heroes of them. Every character sounds, in quotes, like an English professor, using words no one ever uses in average convsersation. The accusation against the author was that he was too close to many of the people he interviewed, and the story was skewed into their favor because of it. If that is true, then I don't have the proper evidence to pass judgment.

In the end, that's the big question that looms over your head as you read. What would you have done? Cannibalize or die?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Ten-Gallon War by John Eisenberg



Why I read it: Sucker for sports history, and there are gaps in my pro football history knowledge I'd like to overcome.

Summary: The NFL's Cowboys, the AFL's Texans and the feud for Dallas' pro football future. (Also the subtitle).
My Thoughts: One passage in the book set things straight in my mind. It talks about why football was becoming America's game, why baseball was lagging behind. It was simple. Football mirrored the 1960s: violent and chaotic. "Pastoral and timeless" was gone from the American psyche. The Kennedy assassination and Vietnam did them in.

The book is pro-AFL, which is just as good an angle to take as any. Lamar Hunt comes off as a hero, while others from the NFL side saw him as public enemy #1. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

For me, this book served dual purposes. First, the microstory of the war fought in Dallas was as interesting a tale as you're going to get. A start-up league picks its cities; the old guard places an expansion franchise right in the heart of one of those cities in an attempt to beat the upstarts before they can get rolling. But the wider backstory of the days prior to the merger of the AFL and NFL helped fill a gap in my knowledge, and made several modern-day problems clear as well, like Los Angeles never being able to support a team longterm despite its obvious size and audience potential. It's not a modern thing. It's always been the case.

And names from football history come to life: Hunt, Tex Schramm, Hank Stram, Abner Haynes, Don Meredith, Tom Landry. Some still had roles in the sport when I started watching, but others had moved on. I know them all so well now.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Road Warriors: Danger, Death and the Rush of Wrestling by Joe Laurinaitis



Why I read it: The Road Warriors hit the wrestling scene as I was coming of age, when wrestling was still all too real to me.

Summary: With Kay Fabian dead, Road Warrior Animal tells all. (Wrestlers used to get access backstage at their shows by saying that they knew a fictitious "Kay Fabian"; remaining in character in public and pushing the notion that the sport was real became known as "kayfabe." That wall was finally broken when the WWF (today's WWE) let the world know it was fake, or, at least, scripted, in the early 1990s. With "kayfabe" dead, once-sacred secrets were revealed, and suddenly thousands of behind-the-scenes stories could be told).

My Thoughts: They were as advertised, larger than life, both physically and as a box office draw. When the first strum of "Iron Man" hit, you knew mayhem was on its way. They were just so damned dominant. It seemed they would never be beaten.

As a young kid growing up in the northeast, the WWF (as it was then called) dominated my Saturday morning airwaves. Wrestling once worked in territories: the AWA in Minnesota, WCCW in Texas, etc. Owners and promoters respected boundaries, some even shared talent. And thus, at first, the Road Warriors were a magazine-based story for me, and not something I saw on television. That was Bob Backlund, the Wild Samoans, Chief Jay Strongbow, Sgt. Slaughter, the Moondogs, Hulk Hogan taking down the Iron Sheik, Roddy Piper smashing a coconut on Jimmy Snuka's head.

But then, we got cable, and Gordon Solie told us all about the new faces we were seeing from the south: Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Buzz Sawyer. Enter the Road Warriors. They crashed wrestling's party like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Today's wrestling scene is nothing but run-ins and unpredictability. Thank the Road Warriors for setting the trend. Today, heels (the bad guys) often get cheered for being counter-culture. Thank them for that, too. They were so badass, you had to root for them.

Animal keeps nothing in reserve in telling his tale. It starts with steroids, ends in the death of his partner, Hawk (Mike Hegstrand). He shares with us the personal side of his life, tales of his kids, his wife, his newfound religion. He turns from Animal, superhero in facepaint and spiked shoulder pads, to Joe, loving dad and husband.

If you were ever in a crowd awed by the Road Warriors; if you know your Nikita Koloff from your Ivan Koloff; if you watched wrestling at all in the 1980s and 1990s, you have to read this book. I came away from it with a touch of sadness at the loss of Hawk, and how it affected Animal. Their story shouldn't have ended the way it did. But Animal lives to tell the tale. And I'll bet you that if he walked through the curtain today in any stadium in America, he'd still get that Road Warrior pop from the crowd.

Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by Sabine Baring Gould



Why I read it: Focused on medieval history in college, sort of an undeclared minor.

Summary: An attempt to debunk the longstanding myths of medieval times.

My Thoughts: I once had a professor at UMASS Amherst, a dear friend who has since passed on, who took a statement from a student and stood it on its head. The student, when asked a question about medieval history, said, "I wouldn't know. I only study American history."

Professor Ware looked at him and said, "Oh, I see. What's that, like 400 years, in one language?"

Gould escorted me back to those days at UMASS, but brought my studies to a whole new level. We didn't get into myths. We didn't have time. The beautiful tapestry of life in the Middle Ages - which, of course, featured the Bayeaux Tapestry - was too complex, too interwoven to complete in twenty-eight weeks (broken into early and later Middle Ages courses). Myths were just a theme we didn't get to.

But we all know so many of them - the Wandering Jew, William Tell, etc. Some have survived to the modern day as folk tales, but we know them to be just that - tales. There was a time, say, in the Middle Ages, when folks believed them to be true. That's because they had never met Sabine Baring Gould.

Gould was the nineteenth century destroyer of Medieval European myths. He wrote this particular study in 1866, and didn't just debunk them, he proved that across international borders the same stories had been told for generations with just names, faces and minor themes changed. The book is fascinating in the sense that first he tells the myth, then rips it apart before our eyes.

My only disappointment in reading this book is the loss of my friend. If only I could have sat with Professor Ware one morning in his office and started the debate. "Yes, I've heard of the Wandering Jew, but according to S. Baring Gould..." I so miss those days.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Pinocchio, The Tale of a Puppet by Carlo Collodi



Why did I read it? Stuck on reading the books that inspired the early Disney movies.

Summary: A wooden puppet strives to become a real boy, but has to learn some lessons along the
way.

My Thoughts: Well, it had to come from somewhere, the movie, that is. And there's a lot of the original story that made it into the Disney film.

And it's understandable why Disney changed the character of the protagonist as he did. Pinocchio as written by Collodi in the earliest chapters was a brat, a petulant and self-absorbed youngster who did anything get out of school, work or responsibility in any form. Disney - and this was a Walt Disney production in its truest sense - made him more gullible, hapless, easily-swayed by the people and talking animals that came into his life. And there were a lot of talking animals.

Consider this one little change: Pinocchio meets Talking Cricket early in the book, and flings a hammer handle at him and kills him; Disney turns that cricket into Jiminy Cricket, and makes him the conscience of the puppet. Jiminy becomes one of the earliest and best-loved animated characters of all time.

As for the book itself, if you read it back-to-back with Voltaire's Candide, you would swear they were written by the same author. Action comes fast, and it's always overly dramatic. Every few pages, Pinocchio - being very Italian (as one, I feel confident saying it) - is on his knees weeping and begging for somebody to spare him his life if only so he can see his papa again. Characters weave in and out of the story, returning and disappearing, as Pinnochio moves from one venue to another over a wide expanse of time. He gains and loses small fortunes. It's as bizarre a fantasy world as any other.

The moral? Be a good boy and good things happen to you, just like my mama always said. He gets there in the end, but, wow, what a rough road!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie


Why did I read it? A sudden interest in the stories behind the Disney movies.

Summary: A collection of stories about the mythical world of the Kensington Gardens, including the genesis of the Peter Pan legends.

My Thoughts: There's more to J.M. Barrie than meets the eye. Now, I'm no big city psychiatrist, but if I had to guess, I'd say that he had some deep issues.

But first, Peter. No, he's not the Peter Pan you're thinking of. He was definitely Disneyized, and it's probably a good thing. This Peter Pan was a lost boy, "Betwixt-and-Between" the worlds of humans, fairies and birds, and he did have a set of pipes, but beyond that, he had some sad experiences that to me would never make it into a children's book today. And he's tiny, bigger than the fairies, but small enough to sail the ponds of Kensington Gardens in a Thrush's Nest.

The stories are mostly cutesy, dealing with those fairies and life in the Gardens after the gates are closed at night. The saddest, I believe, describes how Peter decides he wants to return home to his mother, but finds he's been replaced. Ugh. This one tale I'm going to let my sons read when they're good and ready. There's a lot of magic in Peter Pan for them right now, what with his occasional appearances on their favorite show Jake and the Neverland Pirates. They don't need to know his depressing beginnings.

I guess what's most amazing is how Disney took these tales and made what he did.

Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas


Why did I read it? I visited Walt Disney World with my boys, and kept up my string of unending curiosity with every place I ever visit by buying a book about its history.

Summary: A biography of Walt Disney.

My Thoughts: Disney was always a little spooky to me, and still can be. I wonder, though, how I would have reacted sixty years ago to the wonderful world he created.

Let's face it: since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, our lives have turned. I wasn't alive to witness the change, but there was a time, before television, when life was more controlled, information held back if deemed necessary. We didn't know about FDR dying in his mistress' arms. War casualties came through the newspapers as photographs of stoic young men in uniform, bracketed by tiny printed American flags. With Kennedy's death, all bets were off. The Vietnam War marched right into our living rooms in color. We began serious distrust of our own government. We became jaded. We became skeptics. We became wary. The nuclear bombs were on the way at any minute. We became distrustful.

That's the world I grew up in. It was a world that had been forged in battle. The twentieth century was the bloodiest ever: WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars. There was a lot of death, grief, pain from 1900 onward.

And then there was Walt Disney.

Disney never let those things affect his vision. Oh, he participated. He drove for the Red Cross in France just after the end of World War I, lying about his age for the right to participate. As a cartoonist in World War II, he lent his talents - and his facilities - to the war effort. But he never lost that vision for what was good and wholesome in American life. He was an anomaly. He remained corny, happily and knowingly corny, for the sake of the entertainment of the American family. He wanted nothing more than to put smiles on faces, to make life just a little bit better for all of us.

As a teen, I waffled on what Disney produced - that Disney by then being the huge business entity, not the man himself, who died before I was born - but always figured it was not meant for me anyway. Now that I'm a dad, it all makes sense. And it's weird, ever since reading this book, learning how he made his way to the top, I've been adhering to some of his tenets. I don't think "What would Walt Disney do? (WWWDD?)," but I do find myself making comparisons from his life and thinking to mine.

If nothing else, this book gave me a much, much greater appreciation for Disney and what he strove to do. I'm sure there are gaps, as the book is published by Disney Editions, but now that my interest is piqued, I'm sure I'll be reading more about the man.

Bill Bryson's African Diary


Why did I read it? I've read a whole mess of Bryson books. Going for the full sweep.

Summary: A fundraiser for CARE, detailing the author's visit to the Dark Continent.

My Thoughts: It's not easy to write a book with a blatant agenda and still make it enjoyable. The book is intended to be a hook that catches you and reels you in to donating to CARE. To that end it's short, gets quickly to the point, and utilizes one of the world's most prominent travel writers to tell you why it's important we act quickly to help the people of Africa.

Bryson has made a living out of grousing and cantankerousness, and I often wondered when I perused his titles what he would have to say about the African people. But he also has a way of positively judging communities and populations when they claw their way up to his standards; I mean, he's not a total bastard. With as much bleakness as comes from that continent (note to Americans: for information on anything that happens outside of the continental United States at any time, please refer to BBC News), war, starvation, plague, etc., it seemed it would be the one section of the world unworthy of a Bryson book.

Bryson, though, agenda and all, tells it like it is, the scary transportation infrastructure (bitching about the horrors of missed plane connections, trains running off-schedule, etc., is practically a British genre), fears of violence, etc. But he also tells us about the amazing things that both CARE and the people of Africa do in the face of overwhelming odds. In the end, he makes you care.

And, if you bought the book, you've already donated, as Bryson and his publishers made it a 100% donation to CARE. That is, unless you bought it second hand. Like me.

Oops. Where do I send that check?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs



Why I read it: Getting close to finishing the A.J. Jacobs suite.

Summary: A.J. takes his third step in his quest for the betterment of his mind, spirit and body.

My Thoughts: There are a lot of nuts in New York City. And this is not a blind squirrel joke.

A.J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically, My Life as an Experiment, The Know-It-All) took it upon himself to better himself physically in two years. His method? One month, one body part; next month, move onto the next; combine all that was learned into a new, healthier lifestyle. He dives in with his usual zealousness, dragging his family with him.

Along the way, he consults the best in every field, "best" being a relative term; same for "field." There are some real crackpots out there espousing all kinds of remedies and treatments and methods. But A.J.'s lucky. He lives amongst them in New York City. Want to take up barefoot running? There's a group in Central Park, of course. Need acupuncture? Want to try pole dancing as exercise? Don't go far.

The only thing I found missing from the book was the "after" shot. We get a "before," a sad sack affair (very creatively described by one of his doctors as a "python that swallowed a goat"), but we never see the results. Come on, A.J.! You did all that work over two years, did the triathlon, you deserve to show it off.

Putting the book down and thinking about what I wanted to take away from it, I came up with this: we have a long way to go before we understand our own bodies. Evidence is contradictory on almost any biological subject. The same herb that one study says hurts us is touted as salubrious in others. A.J. took it to the extreme, trying to make every movement count, every second of his life productive. No doubt he's since backed off. He found that if you followed all the advice out there, your life would be one of several hours of routine per day. We just don't have that kind of time.

But thank you, A.J., for your pioneering work. I'm already putting your Appendices to good use.