Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Old Coast Road from Boston to Plymouth by Agnes Edwards Rothery

Why I Read It: Some backyard history; I cover the same region for a magazine.

Summary: From Beacon Hill to Plymouth Rock by automobile in 1920; one very opinionated woman's thoughts.

My Thoughts: Well, I have never been so insulted by a 95-year-old book in my life.

But it's all relative, of course. Taking time, place and economic class into perspective, it was inevitable. And in reality it was only one comment, which made me laugh out loud with a "Hey, what's up with that?!" In discussing the changes to the Boston neighborhoods in the first two decades of the twentieth century, the author comments that the North End hadn't fared as well as others, inhabited then as they were by the "sons of Abraham and the Italians."

I'd like to think that we have moved past such things, so I'll give Ms. Rothery a pass on this one. Quite frankly, it's her sort of ridiculous frankness that makes the book so interesting. For instance, she has no problem telling us that the history of one of the towns on the road from Boston to Plymouth, Weymouth, is painfully boring. She felt that the first few years of Morton and Merrymount were the pinnacle of Weymouth history, that the next few centuries were drab. If only she could see the town now, after a naval air station has come and gone. Boring is hardly the word.

She also points to the old Plymouth records she had access to, and makes a case that the people of the 1920s were less lecherous, generally higher brow than even the Pilgrims. She describes the old portico over Plymouth Rock as horrid (it would be replaced within two years of publication of the book, so maybe she had a point).

While most of the book is hyperbole built off solid history lessons, one sentence she used caused me to think vividly. Imagine Plymouth Harbor, she pleaded, with naught but a small shallop in it. I couldn't. The Plymouth waterfront bustles all throughout the year - people, cars, boats, birds - and thus she stumped me. I couldn't fathom what it must have meant for the Pilgrims to watch the Mayflower disappear over the horizon.

In the end, the book was a lesson in historiography as well as anything else. There's no special depth to it as a history book, but it reads as at least a primer on the history of the South Shore towns, and makes for a fun trip down a familiar road, for me, at least.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard by John Branch

Why I Read It: Hockey is in my blood.

Summary: The life of an enforcer in the NHL; how he got there from small town roots, and what finally brought him down.

My Thoughts: I can never look at professional hockey, a sport I love, the same way again.

I knew it when I was a kid. I wasn't smart enough to say it, but I knew it. I was sitting in the stands of a hockey game in Montreal, watching the Bruins and Canadiens, as a pre-teen. A man doing a survey stuck a microphone in my face and asked about fighting in hockey. I said "It's part of the game, it's always been there, always will be." But then, moments later, when I really thought about it, I reflected on the recent Olympic games. It boasted the best hockey I had ever seen - and by that age, it was a considerable amount - and there was no fighting. Yet there, down on the ice, Jay Miller and Lyndon Byers were squaring off with John Kordic and Steve Fletcher, and the place was going nuts.

Now that I've read this book, I'm done with fighting in hockey.

There's a simple common sense notion to it all. They're fighting! How stupid is that? We let them square off and pummel each other, often just because that's what those particular players excel at. They can't score, they can't pass, heck, some of them can't even skate that well (yes, I'm speaking relatively; they did make it to the NHL, after all). In no other team sport do we stand by and let two athletes punch the hell out of each other until one is knocked to the surface. It's just plain dumb.

And what comes of it? Derek Boogaard had wounds on his hands that reopened repeatedly. His nasal passages had been crushed so many times trainers sat on his chest and tried to wrestle his nose back into position. Shoulders, knees, back, all ached. And the head...that's where it completely unravels for me.

We're in the concussion age. We - apparently everybody but the NHL - take it seriously when a head injury occurs. Yes, if someone gets dinged on the ice and shows obvious signs of a potential concussion, he's removed from the game, most of the time temporarily. But what about the guy who gets in a fight and has his face punched repeatedly by a 250-pound man? Five minutes in the penalty box, back on the ice as soon as he can be. Gotta be tough. Can't let them see you wince, otherwise you might lose your job.

Derek suffered one hell of a concussion during his last fight, never returning to a game. He took pills, from wherever he could get them, and as a pro athlete, he had no problem obtaining them by the hundreds: sleep aids, pain killers, narcotics. He got them from team doctors and he got them from dealers. He ultimately killed himself with them.

The author paints a picture of a man-child who never fully matured, a two-time rehab failure who couldn't get past denial. His size pushed him to places he never should have gone; he wasn't talented enough to be a top level pro hockey player. But in his day and time, in his moment, enforcers were called for, and roster spots were opened up to men like him instead of goal scorers and playmakers. We're still in that age, and many of the men he bloodied his own knuckles against are still playing, being paid millions of dollars to give each other concussions, robbing each other - and their families - of the future.

The Boogaards did a wonderful thing by donating Derek's brain to the Sports Legacy Institute for study, furthering the knowledge of CTE and its effects. Had Derek lived, with the condition his brain was in, he would have suffered from dementia in the 30s. Hopefully his case pushes us out of this dark age of hockey.

Hockey, at its best, is a beautiful sport. I can't even begin to describe the feeling I get watching a well executed breakout melding into an odd-man rush culminating in a scoring opportunity. And the finality of that moment, whether it comes as a jaw-dropping save or a netted puck, is equally as exquisite. Yet, we stop it all to allow two men grab each other's shirts and pound the hell out of each other. What a waste - of a good game, and otherwise good human lives.

I hope Derek rests in peace, and I hope his family finds it, too. And I hope that someday, very soon, the NHL figures a way out of this barbaric idiocy. We see the fists fly, we see the momentum change, and we think it's all good. We don't see the dark side, until we read books like this one.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Life in a Medieval Village by Joseph and Frances Gies

Why I Read It: Aside from latent Anglophilia, one of my earliest passions centered on medieval history.

Summary: A snapshot view of the village of Elton, Huntingdonshire, England in the Middle Ages, representative of the village system as it stood at that time.

My Thoughts: The Gies just had a way of simplifying the history of the Middle Ages for broad public consumption through their light, easy-flowing writing style. But I think there is a hidden secret to their success.

They are among the greatest medievalists to ever work in the field, the irony being that they lived in Michigan (which has become a hotbed of medieval studies in the United States). The time period they study in this book, the 11th to 14th centuries or so, represented "pre-history" in the United States, as ugly a term as there ever was. But in England it was decades, then centuries after the invasion of William the Conqueror. New forms of governance were coming to light, the first steps on the road to modern types of government. The open field village was one of those steps.

That said, enter the sauciness.

Many of the documents available to medievalists studying small communities like Elton consist of court records, in whatever form the "courts" were in those days. Little about daily life was recorded - do you like to journal about your laundry? and if so, have you sent a copy to the local historical society? - so much of what we know about the norms of medieval life are drawn from records of the abnormalities. Murder, rape, theft, drunkenness, hamsoken (assaulting someone in their own home), all of these items were recorded in sometimes lecherous detail. And it makes for great reading.

This book centers on one representative village, and is almost a screenplay unto itself. The first houses are built, the roads laid out, the church constructed. Harvest fairs are held, taxes are paid, livestock are stolen, crops rotated. The community gathers at hallmote ("hall meeting") and decides what's best for the village, knowing that the lord always has final say. Births, marriages, deaths race past until that fateful day when the Black Plague strikes the countryside. There are not enough people left to harvest the fields. The mills fall to pieces, with no one to repair them. The village we came to know and love is all but lost, to arise again and become today's community. Wooden buildings fall, hardier stone-based structures rise. The main road that ran through town became today's B671; Middle Street ran west to the manor house of the lord.

One of the most intriguing notions I gained from this book is the possibilities of aerial archaeology, using photography from planes to locate ancient villages, like that at Wharram Percy. With Google Maps and Google Earth, we have greater resources at our own fingertips to do this at any time we like. The Gies wrote this book in 1990, after 21 years of other work in the field, and did not have access to such technologies at the time. But it's a race against development, as our bulging population continues its inexorable march to the decimation of the countryside.

Their overarching premise that the village system was unique in history is well-stated. One can hardly imagine living under the system as it was, but then, we weren't there then. It might have seemed as natural as small-town life feels to us today.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Baseball Economist by J.C. Bradbury

Why I Read It: Bought it at the MIT Press bookstore; and I'm still looking for a baseball book I don't like.

Summary: Looking deeply between the numbers at baseball, finding true value, missed opportunities, etc.

My Thoughts: I've always been one of those people who has thought that sabermatricians are doing a lot to tear down the fun of baseball, much like fantasy football players have done to that sport. But I haven't stood outside of my front door and yelled at them all to get off my lawn or anything like that; far from it. In fact, I'm a stat geek. I've always just thought that there's room for a basic, pure love of the game that should not be forsaken. There's nothing like the anticipation of a long fly ball edging its way toward the fence, then the exuberance that erupts when it crosses that line. The immediate reaction should be "YEAH!" and not, "Well, that's going to do wonders for his OPS."

But I do think that once we step outside the stadium and reduce major league baseball players to heaps of numbers (which we do), there is a lot of fascinating information therein. And, true to the title, the author does expose some, like why Bartolo Colon never should have won his Cy Young Award and why Derrek Lee was stiffed out of an MVP.

The author digs into many long-term nagging questions about baseball, some of which bring up questions of my own. For example, the author goes into pretty fine detail about the advantages and disadvantages of left and right-handedness behind the plate, debunking the old notion, for instance, that left-handed-throwing catchers can't throw runners out trying to steal third base. Steals of third happen so rarely, and generally are not worth the gamble anyway, that having a left-handed catcher would hardly influence a game, or a season. He mentions that right-handed catchers have no problem throwing to first, but fails to mention that nobody ever tries to steal first. The timing is different when you're just trying to pick somebody off. But there are more issues to be raised.

First, when a catcher attempts to throw out a runner stealing a base, he is in his stance to catch the ball for quick release well before the pitch arrives. Whether he's righty or lefty, the mechanics are the same, and the results should be the same.

The problem arises with the handedness of the batter. The major leagues have a preponderance of right-handed hitters. When a runner steals second and a right-handed catcher jumps up to throw, most of the time the batter at the plate is right-handed, meaning that the catcher has a clear path to throw the ball. For a left-handed catcher, most of the time the batter is in the way. That, to me, would be a hindrance. And the fact is that when baseball was young, there were very few left-handers in general. One writer, Bugs Baer, wrote in 1923 about the lack of left-handed catchers, saying that this was in fact the reason, that before they were so policed, batters would make hell for a left-handed catcher trying to throw to second.

The author brings up a Bill James quote at the end of the chapter, in which James states that since there are so few left-handed throwing major leaguers, teams should prize the best arms, which they do, by not using them as catchers, but instead as pitchers. But there's more to pitching than just a live arm. Without control and accuracy, a 95 mph fastball is for naught.

So, in the end, as far as the left-handed catcher question goes, I am just not convinced, at least by this argument.

As for other topics: The author dedicates a chapter to the big market vs. small market question (does a large population guarantee success?), and in the end states that the belief in the idea is misleading. Yes, a large fanbase can have an effect (i.e., New York, population 18 million, should outplay Kansas City, ten times smaller, as the former can afford to pay for better talent), but that other factors are involved outside of money. True. But he misses one. "The bigger problem appears to be inept management of a few clubs that happen to be smaller market teams." Doesn't it stand to reason that if a team can't afford to pay top notch baseball talent, that it also can't afford to pay top notch managerial, administration and baseball operations personnel as well? Can't "inept management" fall right back under the small market blues?

One question I'd really like answered is sudden regional variability. Why does the NFC South go south? Why does the Western Conference dominate the NBA right now? Is it just pure coincidence that all of the teams in one NHL division can, for lack of a better word, suck at the same time? Do teams generally attempt to build their rosters to defeat their nearest neighbors, just to "get in the tournament" and worry about the big prizes at the end later?

I think I could go on and on, but will stop here.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Birds of Pandemonium by Michele Raffin

Why I Read It: Free copy sent to the nature center at which I work; the front desk staff thought I would be the one who would give it the best review.

Summary: A woman finds and cares for an injured dove and discovers her passion.

My Thoughts: Oh, the obsession. It's an amazing thing that birds do to us. The sheer number of species in the world has driven birders to the very ends of the earth in search of glimpses of each and every one. Although this book uses a number in the 9000s, other estimates suggest 11,000 or more species may be out there.

In this case, it's birds brought home that have done the damage. It's incredible that the author has kept her marriage; I've seen and read about more than one that has died on the vine in the face of an avian obsession. Michele started small, and didn't heed the advice of other breeders. Before she knew it, she had aviary after aviary filled with injured, abandoned and otherwise down-on-their-luck birds, from parrots to pigeons to parakeets. The common link? Exotic and/or endangered. My diagnosis? An overexercised nurturing instinct.

But Michele did the right thing (in my opinion, of course) and turned her passion for breeding, raising and rescuing birds into a nonprofit organization. Why not? She always had a mission, so why not legitimize it with 501(c)(3) status? The work she was already doing can now be supported by grants, and by the work of volunteers.

The question for me whenever I read about an exoctics rescue system is why? The United States has plenty of species of birds that are declining or disappearing. Golden-winged Warblers, quite common forty years ago in my home state of Massachusetts, are all but gone. In ten years of birding, I've never seen one. Bachman's Warblers may be gone as well, the last one seen in Virginia possibly in the 1960s. Red Knots, shorebirds that once flew in huge numbers up and down the East Coast, are nearly as rare as those Golden-wings, destroyed by our greed for horseshoe crabs as a bait source; the Knots ate their eggs as sustenance for their migrations. Don't they all deserve a home?

But, reading this book, it struck me. When I think in terms of "native" species, I think the U.S., but in fact, at this point in world history, as we sit in the middle of the sixth great extinction of life on earth, "native" means much more. The birds of Pandemonium, from the Green-naped Pheasant-pigeons to the Lady Ross' Turacos (one pictured on the cover of the book), are native to our planet. Everything else has gone global these days, why shouldn't conservation?

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh

Why I Read It: Interesting intersection of my passions.

Summary: The true meaning of The Simpsons is finally revealed.

My Thoughts: I think I'm geekier than even I have ever thought.

Now, I'm no mathemagician (probably the only math joke that the author overlooked researching math references in the history of The Simpsons TV series), but I do enjoy me a good formula  or two. I love big spreadsheets, I dig charts, I seek trends. There's nothing about math in its many, many forms that I don't like.

I think, perhaps, that's why I have always loved The Simpsons.

It turns out that though there have been books written about The Simpsons and philosophy, theology and more, the true meaning lies in its mathematical constructs. And this is no joke. Many of the writers over the years have held PhDs in math-related fields. They've worked hard to drop math jokes into the episodes, sometimes knowing they were way over the heads of the general viewing public.

Simon Singh's book is one that provides us with that next layer of understanding, almost the behind-the-scenes peek, of how math is inserted into the show. It gives us a few of those freeze frame moments, when we say, "Wait a minute - that equation that just flew by Homer as he was walking in the dreaded 3rd dimension - was it random and meaningless, or was there something to it?" Usually, there was purpose behind it.

The book slides through The Simpsons and right into Matt Groening's other master television creation, Futurama, which, being based in the distant future, is depicted as a world in which math and science are king, but will that be the case, with today's learning trends? I guess that's a debate for another blog. But there's a reason why Madison Cube Garden is such a cool and funny reference. Only geeks like the writers of the show would take the "square" in Madison Square Garden as the literal shape, and figure out what the next geometric configuration should be.

So whether it's Lisa practicing sabremetrics, Home spouting theorems while wearing Henry Kissinger's glasses, or Futurama dropping BASIC language into background scenery, the math you see is not only real, it's going deeper than you think. Grab a seat, cut yourself a slice of pi, and enjoy this fantastical mathematical journey!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Playing with the Enemy by Gary W. Moore

Why I Read It: Baseball and World War II? Come on. Do you know me at all by now?

Summary: A baseball prodigy is of fighting age when the big war starts, and risks his career by serving with the Navy; after several twists and turns, his career is over before it starts.

My Thoughts: I have to admit I was disappointed in this book if for only the nagging pulls of a personal pet peeve. But let me get the "good" out of the way first.

It's a fantastic story, one of hope, loss, redemption and rebirth. It's got everything a good World War II baseball story should have: Brooklyn Dodgers, Nazi mortar attacks, Patton, U-boats, and more. The protagonist is one for whom you want to pull. The story rises and falls where it should, and in the end the hero is just that, a man who rose above the forces in life holding him down and forged a great life for his family.

But much of it is fictional, in the sense that names are changed, characters are conglomerations of different people, and one can't tell what is truth and what is not. Historic conversations are fabricated (with lots of exclamation points). Characters are overemotional. The book's billed as nonfiction, but reads like a novel for the reasons stated above. And I'll be the first to admit that I have a problem suspending disbelief when something billed as fact is so hard to nail down as such.

Now, I am sure that the author has done his due diligence. One of my favorite lines falls at the end of the book, the kind of "a-ha" moment conclusion that gives one hope that truth has been realized, that history has been uncovered. I believe Gene Moore did most of what happened in the book. But being a historian myself, I have trouble with the blurriness.

All of that said, it was one of my favorite books of all time. (Weird, huh?). I think my heartstrings are pulled particularly hard by Gene Moore's story because it's told by his son. I, too, like many of us out there, am the son of a military man who went through his own hell but came out the other side as a better person in the long run. I understand where Gary Moore is coming from; the father-son bond is hard to understand if you've never been tied into it.

Here is where I would typically curtly sign off with a line like, "I just wish it was all true," but I won't. I love the story as it is and can bury my problems with it in a pet peeve cemetery. Gene Moore is a hero in the sense that most dads are. And that's good enough for me.

*Check out the December 2014 issue of Vietnam for the story of my dad's war experiences. I was privileged to write them up for the magazine, given the honor to memorialize my dad's contributions.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard

Why I Read It: Continuing my lifelong fascination with the Civil War; also, Glory! is one of my favorite movies of all time.

Summary: The story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

My Thoughts: I, of course, wondered what would be different about the book, having seen the movie as a teenager. But I didn't linger on that notion. There were a few major departures, like iconic lines attributed to one historic figure in the movie but actually uttered by another in the historic record, the displacement of events from ships to the shore, etc. But they in no way ruined the memories of the movie for me; I now just know where they are.

The key to reading this story in the wake of the movie is to know that it is biographical in nature, following the life of Robert Gould Shaw from childhood to death. The book in no way "fleshes out" the handful of leading African-American characters in the film. That was just never the author's intent. We learn a little about Shaw's superiors and the men who reported directly to him, somewhat about his family, but mostly about Shaw himself, what fueled him, and what fears ultimately consumed him.

The book is also a wonderful immersion into Victorian Boston, the world of Governor John Andrew, of William Lloyd Garrison and others. It brings us back to a place fired by a notion, the eradication of slavery. It brings us into the presence of Frederick Douglass. It brings us into the heads of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, as they maneuvered the chess pieces that led to the arming of African-Americans - including some former slaves - and, in Davis' case, the divining of consequences for the captured officers who oversaw them. While the South promised swift "justice," the North promised to retaliate in kind, eye for an eye, with Confederate prisoners, should anything happen to Union officers of African-American troops.

I think when we consider this book, we have to take two things into account. One, it was published in 1965, during the centenary of the Civil War. Two, it was published in 1965, during the Civil Rights movement. I would love to know how it was received when it was released, for if nothing else it is a story of inspiration, as portrayed in the movie two decades later.

Last year I spent a lot of time walking in cemeteries, and each time I came across a 54th soldier, I stopped and paid respect. I had to. For some reason, I couldn't just walk on by.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Why I Read It: The story seemed too interesting to pass up.

Summary: A reporter follows the story of the "immortal" HeLa cells back to the "donor's" family, then walks with them through their own journey of discovery about their past.

My Thoughts: We're only a hundred years removed from dirt roads and horses and buggies, and in some places not even that much. We're only a century and a half beyond the American Civil War, the conflict that ended slavery in the United States. We've come a long way, but we are not as advanced as we think we are.

In some ways, the rushes to advance have occurred in misstep. Nowhere is this reality better exemplified than in the juxtaposition of the American medical industry of the 1940s and 1950s and the home life of the Lacks family in rural Virginia at that same time. Physicians at Johns Hopkins diagnosed patients there using words the latter never had a chance of learning.

For many Americans the concept of rural poverty is undecipherable. We can say we understand poverty and get what is meant by living a rural life, but until we've seen it in action, considered it from all angles, we just don't truly know what it's all about. And so we come to the story of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta lived that life in the Jim Crow South, marrying a cousin and dying of cancer at a young age. Her cancerous cells - without any familial consent - were taken for lab use and became the standard experimental cells used in research around the world. They are sold today for large sums of money, yet her descendants cannot afford health care.

Skloot takes us on the road with her as she does her research. The book is not a straight history (though in some places it certainly is), but rather a first-person walkthrough of meeting the Lacks family and participating in their exploration of Henrietta's life and legacy. The story eventually centers on one daughter and her quest for knowledge about her mom and a sister mysteriously lost in the past as well.

The story is remarkable, when we consider that the HeLa cells have replicated themselves so many times that they could wrap the earth numerous times, still splitting sixty years after Henrietta died. We stand by  as the family comes to grips with their existence. Are they her mother or aren't they? Can they say, since her cells were shot into outer space, that their mother has been there, too?

The book wanders us into the waters of medical ethics from the 1800s to today, and begs us to consider the issues of research for the benefit of the greater population vs. personal ownership of our own cells. Should doctors and researchers be free to keep what is gathered from an operating table or an exam room and do with it whatever they wish? or should we, as patients, have the right to sell our cells to the highest bidder? Where is the line drawn?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Ted W. Lawson

Why I Read It: I'm still pursuing every story ever told about World War II.

Summary: A first-person narrative of the Doolittle raid in April 1942 by a B-25 pilot who survived it.

My Thoughts: I grabbed this book from a box of old tomes I had stashed away. When I pulled it out, it just felt right in my hands. My copy is an original 1943 edition, with nothing but a little top-down silhouette of a B-25 on the cover. It just drew me in, and I knew it's time had come.

When I purchased it, years ago, I did so because of the familiarity of the title, tying it into the movie of the same name. I've been a World War II-era movie buff for as long as I've been fascinated with reading books about the conflict. I had no idea, though, that the tale would be so gripping.

There are no chapters, no natural breaks in the story, and because of that fact, the book moves. And, due to the nature of the tale - training, transit, mission, crash, escape, repatriation, recovery - breaks are unnecessary. I found it hard to stop reading anywhere, not because there were no convenient places to bookmark, but because there was no stopping the flow. Once the crash occurs, every page brings another bit of tension. How close are the Japanese troops? Will they catch them, or will the Americans get away? What will become of the people who help them if the Japanese find them?

The book is full of raw World War II-style hatred for the enemy, and is a great immersion in the thought cycles of the day. In some ways, it's spooky to see the old style printing of names like "Dr. C_____," knowing that the author was protecting the identity of someone who was still at deep risk of capture and death at the hands of the Japanese. Lawson practices the same routine with the names of the villages he wound through during the tumultuous escape attempt, not wanting to give the Japanese a trail to follow.

In retrospect, it's amazing what was pulled off by the bombers on the Doolittle raid, a slug back into the face of the enemy in response to Pearl Harbor. The logistics of the raid called for guts in the extreme. Launching B-25's off an aircraft carrier had never been done, and for this raid the plan was to land in Chinese airfields, refuel and keep going. But being spooked by the presence of Japanese ships at sea, the planes flew earlier than expected off the Hornet and mostly ran out of or very low on fuel searching for the airfields in a storm. It was a miracle that the men who made it home did so.

Lawson lost a lot, personally, as a result of the mission, but did it for the right reasons for the time. He waved the American flag with his words at a time when many Americans needed such encouragement. That old school patriotism is generally lost now, but it was a building block to the world of today.

But no matter what one's opinions on those topics may be, as a piece of literature, this book is as thrilling as anything I've ever read. It's now permanently out of the box and onto my shelf.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Stones and Bones of New England by Lisa Rogak

Why I Read It: I am a self-professed taphophile.

Summary: A reference guide to some of the most historic and interesting cemeteries in the six New England states.

My Thoughts: It'd be easy for me to go on a rant about opportunities missed, but I think there's an important note that needs to be made about this book. The subtitle calls it  "a guide to unusual historic and otherwise notable cemeteries," not "the guide."

For you see, this is New England! We have such great depth of history (note - yes, Medievalists and researchers of antiquity, American history is but current events, but work with me here) that cemeteries in every town hold tales. Even the remotest of communities, in the deepest, darkest corners of New England, have secrets that rival all others around them.

So I won't even mention my list of cemeteries that could have been mentioned in this book. Instead, I'll simply applaud it for what it is: a wonderful survey. Sometimes, the place is the story. In other places, it may be an individual stone. In still others, it's a stonecarver who left his unique stamp on the local history. The author takes us on a quick journey through a few dozen of New England's most hallowed and most fascinating burial grounds.

As a collector - not of anything in particular, just one who tends to gather things - I've found cemeteries among my most beloved treasures. Use this book to get you started, then remember that no matter where you are, a cemetery will have a story for you.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

Why I Read It: I'd read the other three A.J. Jacobs titles.

Summary: Jacobs continues his pursuit of self-improvement, this time focusing on his soul.

My Thoughts: When I first read the subtitle ("One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible"), I thought to myself, "How funny is that?! Why would anybody ever want to do such a thing?"

And the cover of the book, I think, fueled those thoughts. The robe, the sandals, the big beard, all juxtaposed with the New York City skyline, are meant to draw you in. Imagine, somebody walking around a modern-day American city dressed like a Jew from more than 2000 years ago! What will they think of next...

And it is funny. Jacobs is a talented writer. But I liken this work to Tony Horwitz' Confederates in the Attic. In that book, the author toured the South to find the places where the Civil War was still being fought, and found it in myriad places. In this book, Jacobs sought those places where the Bible is being taken at its literal word, the places where the ancient beliefs of the Middle Eastern lands still resonate today.

Much like Horwitz, Jacobs finds that hatred is rampant. Horwitz found racism, Jacobs finds antisemitism, misogyny and homophobia, all of which are derived from - and justified by - interpretations of the Bible. Of course, he finds plenty of good in the religious world, always seeking both sides to every debate. And while the book focuses on the beard, the clothing, and blowing a horn on the first day of the new month, the true story lies in the spiritual transformation Jacobs undergoes. He searches his soul during his Biblical year for signs of increased passion for religion, for deeper belief.

As usual with Jacobs, his family life plays heavily in the story, and why not? If you've got it, flaunt it. His collection of aunts, uncles and cousins provides entertainment enough in the many side stories he presents as his beard gets bigger and his list of OCD-like rituals grows. Life lessons play out before his eyes, and he finds their parallels in Biblical passages, reminding him that while a situation might seem new - a death in the family, etc. - it never is; somebody, somewhere has fought their way through it before.

If you've got heavy religious sensitivities in any way, this book is not for you. If you're agnostic and have ever wondered how the other half lives, or if you've got an open mind as far as religion goes, and are willing to let one voice tell you the story of one man's immersion in that world, then pick it up.

Friday, July 25, 2014

No Way Home by David S. Wilcove

Why I read it: I'm a nature nut at heart.

Summary: The demise of the world's great migrations, on land, in the air and the seas.

My Thoughts: This story is more poignant this year than ever, as September 1, 2014 marks the centennial of the loss of the last Passenger Pigeon. The bird that once darkened the sky for hours in migration has now been eradicated from our planet for 100 years. The act was unconscionable. It seemed impossible, even at the time, but it happened.

And we all know about the American Bison, as nineteenth century overhunting diminished its numbers to near extinction. The same can be said of Right Whales. It seems that in the latter half of the 1800s we just perfected the art of mass slaughter of abundant animals.

But what we haven't paid much attention to is the habitat destruction and fragmentation that have disrupted the flow of migrations. The author discusses the plight of the Red Knot, a shorebird that has crashed in numbers because of our greed. We harvest and chop up Horseshoe Crabs for bait  in such numbers that the knots, which once fed on them extensively at a mid-Atlantic refueling station, can no longer sustain themselves on their northward migration to their Arctic breeding grounds.

How much of the American West has been fenced in? How much of the African corridors through which Springbok once migrated? And what does a sea full of lobster traps mean for a Humpback Whale in migration? And what have dams on major rivers done to Atlantic Salmon populations?

We, as a world, have to consider the entirety of a species' existence - breeding, migrating, wintering - if we are to preserve them. But we are talking about transnational collaboration between countries of varying economic capabilities, not to mention conservation sensitivities and political intentions.

Can it be done? Yes.

Will it?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit by Corey Olsen

Why I Read It: I read Tolkien as a kid, have read a biography, love the movies and have played LOTRO (Lord of the Rings Online). Purchased at the MIT Loading Dock Sale.

Summary: One man's interpretation of The Hobbit.

My Thoughts: Somewhere along the way I must have read a book about reading a book. I mean, literary criticism has been around forever.

This, though, is a first for me, taking the journey of Bilbo Baggins through yet another set of eyes. So, let me set this up for you. The book itself is told through the eyes of a narrator, making it a third-person perspective. We are now taking a step back and through Olsen's eyes are seeing the journey from a fourth-person perspective; he sees the narrator as a character in the telling of the tale. Yet, in the end, as we know, we are told that Bilbo wrote the book upon which the narrative is based, There and Back Again. So we land somewhere about second-and-a-half perspective when all is said and done.

Olsen made this a straight interpretation on his part, meaning that he didn't attempt to pry into Tolkien's mind and say, "I think what he was trying to say was this." His Exploring is just that, a journey in itself, wandering alongside Bilbo, seeing the sights he sees and listening to the songs Bilbo hears from the elves, goblins and dwarves. It's also a psychological study of Bilbo himself, a scrutiny of which side of his personality, Took or Baggins (his family lines) wins out in each situation.

There are times, though, when Olsen evokes some offline Tolkien information, either from Tolkien's other works of fiction or his own explanations of the story. We learn about changes made to the original text when The Fellowship of the Ring came out, and what his original plan was for the killing of Smaug.

The question is, now, whether or not I should go back and read The Hobbit, which I haven't for a few decades, though I fear I've doomed myself by reading too deeply on the topic now. I took science fiction criticism classes at college and have never been able to enjoy a sci fi film again. Ehh...we'll see.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Rescue of the Bounty by Michael Tougias and Douglas Campbell

Why I read it: To review it for Sea History, the magazine of the National Maritime Historical Society.

Summary: We all watched it live on TV during Hurricane Sandy; the old wooden sailing ship Bounty is claimed by the storm and most of its crew is rescued by the Coast Guard.

My Thoughts: Some of these books are hitting closer to home than I would like them to.

First, I know one of the authors. Mike Tougias is a fellow Massachusetts writer, who flipped from nature topics to the sea. As he did so, I was navigating those same waters, and asked him to submit a few articles, book blurbs, really, to a magazine I was editing. I also arranged for him to speak at a few events I was leading in the region.

Second, I knew the boat. I'll never forget seeing Bounty at Fall River, near Battleship Cove, tied up to the pier. I knew it had a very cool history, appearing out in the South Pacific in the movie for which it was built, Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando. I didn't know that Disney then lay in its future, nor that this event would ever happen. What I saw was an old sailing ship with a wonderful backstory that was in rumored financial trouble; I had no way of knowing what its ultimate fate would be.

Third, I can pinpoint personal proximity to Captain Robin Walbridge, who went down with the ship during the storm, to a specific date and place. About two decades ago, on the 200th anniversary of the launch of the USS Constitution, the Navy sailed her around Boston Harbor. I was on a friend's fishing boat that day, joining with the thousands of others in the spectacle out on the sea. Robin Walbridge was up on deck of Constitution, the fill-in for the Navy captain should he become incapacitated. It's a weird connection to make - and it's one that those other thousands can now make as well - but here it is.

The book is half the tale of the Bounty, and half the tale of the rescue. One can hear Tougias' sea adventure voice coming through as loudly as Campbell's technical knowledge of sailing ships. They make for a good tandem in attacking the topic. And they don't shy away from the obvious question, the one we all asked when we first heard the ship was in trouble during the storm: what the hell are they doing out there? It's the underlying foundation of the book. Who was Robin Walbridge and why did he make such a poor decision, in retrospect? One wonders how the media coverage would have been had Bounty made it through unharmed. There would probably have been a mid-page mention of the "harrowing tale" of passage on rough seas rather than front-page headlines screaming for the captain's head.

Since this book was completed (I read it in galley form) the Coast Guard has released its investigation report, pointing the finger at the captain. Aside from his own, the decision to sail toward the storm took a second life, ironically the sole crew member who claimed distant relation to Fletcher Christian, the master's mate on the real Bounty in the 1700s. But should Walbridge's entire life be judged by this one bad decision? It's hard to say "yes," but saying "no" doesn't exactly make one feel good either.

My last thought is the historic impact. When Titanic sank and the world realized there were not enough lifeboats aboard the ship, passenger vessels around the United States scrambled to come up to new codes for the number of lifeboats now legally necessary. Will there be any fallout in the historic sailing ship fleet governance, any rules implemented because of the actions of Walbridge and the Bounty crew? Or was the error in sailing toward the hurricane so egregious that no such rules about weather states, pump power, etc. need creation?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Propaganda Technique in World War I by Harold D. Lasswell

Why I Read It: Picked it up at the MIT loading dock book sale. Gotta love a bargain.

Summary: An examination of the topic through the eyes of several of the major nations involved in the conflict.

My Thoughts: What is real and what is fake in wartime? How can we tell when words are delivered to us whether or not they are truly worth heeding, or generated in some foreign office intending to sway our opinions?

Lasswell's book, published originally in 1927 as Propaganda Technique in the World War, looks at not only what we consider to be standard usage of propaganda - for instance, dropping leaflets onto the enemy lines, trying to get soldiers to desert, defect or otherwise change their perspective on the conflict - but other important ways as well. How should we sway the thoughts of the citizens of enemy countries (Germany bought several American newspapers, the French published works in German, etc.)? How should we get the neutrals to best accept our point of view? How should we approach the maintenance of existing friendships between nations? How can we demonize our enemies in the minds of our own people while concurrently demoralizing the enemy's troops and citizenry?

Who should deliver the message? Was it feasible to send German speakers to America in the 19-teens to have them attempt to rally support, or would the message to Americans best come from Americans themselves? What are the traits of the best diplomats working with foreign governments?

When one considers the world in the second decade of the twentieth century, it's amazing the chips fell where they did. France and England had been at war for a thousand years, off and on. Could they unite to face a common enemy, in the face of that enemy spreading reminders of those past hatreds, and false tales about England taking over Calais for the next 99 years? America was strictly neutral, but populated by thousands of recent immigrants still connected to their home countries. Which way would they go? Would Central and South America follow, or could they be moved in another direction? And would America align with Great Britain, after all they had been through?

Lasswell also studies who should be in charge of propaganda (an individual? a standing governmental committee? a committee formed for the purpose?) and the perils of party politics dominating the propaganda messaging. Sometimes, the effectiveness of propaganda came down to cultural differences. The famous German example comes in a story about nurses. Germany executed a French nurse, and the French propaganda machine used the incident to great extent; when France countered and executed two German nurses, Germany's propaganda office did nothing. When asked why, the old Prussian officer in charge said, "They deserved it!"

The book reports on the physical delivery of those messages, and in World War I one of the most effective tools was balloons. The author makes a point of noting that the Allies had the advantage with this method, simply because of prevailing westerly winds.

Oh, how the world has changed, yet in some ways remains exactly the same.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sky Pilot of the Great Lakes by John Kotzian

Why I Read It: I was happy to act as an editor for the author.

Summary: A missionary in rural Michigan in the late 1800s finds his true calling when rescued by a United States Life-Saving Service crew off Bois Blanc Island.
My Thoughts: I've spent the past decade and a half as an expert in the field of maritime history, specifically that of the United States Life-Saving Service, a forerunner to the Coast Guard. For the most part, it seems, the story has been told; rarely does a new tale come along. But, the thing is, I know that they are out there. The magazine I edited on the topic probably touched on the experiences of 50-75 station crews throughout the United States. But there were 279 of them. There are more stories to tell. Sometimes the stories tangential to the world of the Life-Saving Service are as compelling as the tales of the deeds of the life-savers themselves.

John Kotzian's tale about the Reverend William H. Law is not just such a tale, it's a family history, as John is a descendant of the "Sky Pilot." No one was better positioned to tell this story.

Law stumbled into the lighthouse and Life-Saving Service worlds while living on Lake Huron in the late 1800s. He'd gone into missionary work in the area to serve the lumberjacks, sailors and the local Native Americans, but a chance encounter with the Life-Saving Service on Bois Blanc Island set the course for the rest of his life. In need of assistance in the teeth of a storm, his boat receiving a battering by the waves, Law never lost hope, but realized the danger he was in. Then, from seemingly out of nowhere, the life-saving crew arrived and carried him easily to safety. He spent a few days with them, heard their stories, began to understand how lonely and unrewarding life could be in both services, and dedicated the rest of his life to them.

His contributions were multitudinous, from the compilations of traveling libraries to the delivery of his own annual "messages," printed bulletins full of hope and good cheer. The most important action he took, though, was to personally wage a campaign for the pensioning of life-savers and lighthouse keepers. We'll never know how important his work truly was in creating the Coast Guard (by giving the life-savers at least quasi-military status in 1915 and taking them out of civil service, the federal government avoided, at the time, having to establish pensions for the entire civil service sector of the government), but we know he played a role. Lighthouse keepers would have to wait until years after his death, but they, too, would get their due.

Law's adventures carried him well beyond the Great Lakes, out to the Atlantic coast, where he interacted with one of the most well-known lighthouse families in American history, due mostly to the fact that the matron, Connie Small, wrote her memoirs and lived until 2005. Small's own book cross-references the tales of interaction with Law, his visit to her Maine lighthouse home and the letters they sent back and forth.

Had John Kotzian not chased down his ancestor's tale, we may have entirely missed the William H. Law story. Thankfully, due to this work, this odd but inspiring piece of Coast Guard history survives.

John McGraw by Charles Alexander

John McGraw
by Charles Alexander
The definitive biography of baseball’s greatest manager.
Release Date: May 15, 2014
Available from Kindle, iBooks,
and other major distributors
Published by Summer Game
For media inquiries, promotional materials, and ordering information,
contact Kent Weber:

Why I read it: I was asked to review it by Summer Game Books, the company publishing the ebook in 2014.

Summary: The biography of the first great dynastic manager in baseball history.

My Thoughts: I've been a student of the history of baseball since I was a kid. Yes, I have my own baseline from which I started, flipping Topps baseball cards with friends in the late 1970s, so my history is different than the next guy's. But as I grew, I became more than just a student of baseball history, I became a historian by training and trade.

So long before I picked up my Kindle and started advancing through the pages of John McGraw, back when I was a twelve-year-old, I knew who John McGraw was, in the way that I knew who Smoky Joe Wood or Willie Keeler was. I knew the era in which he managed (I honestly didn't know about his playing career), the stars of his day, and the success he forged in the sport.

But what I didn't know about John McGraw could fit into a 350-page book.

McGraw's career spanned from the 1890s to the 1930s, and just consider the changes he saw in the game. His playing career included parts of seventeen seasons, and his managing career thirty-three, with major overlap in the sense that he was, as were many of his contemporaries in the deadball era, a longtime player-manager. He watched the game evolve from the days of Cy Young and Ty Cobb to Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell. He played with men who had roots in the very beginning of the sport of organized baseball, and managed young men who would play in the 1950s, long after he had passed on.

If the author wanted us to carry one word forward about the life of John McGraw, it might be "tumultuous." The deadball era might well have been known as the bareknuckles era of baseball, with John McGraw its John L. Sullivan. His fieriness at the helmn of a baseball squad was probably only matched in the latter half of the twentieth century by Earl Weaver, who at least kept his hands to himself. McGraw was known for his vulgarity, his fists and his baseball acumen, by many people in that exact order. But however he got there, he became one of the most successful managers in baseball history.

As McGraw aged with the sport, his problems grew deeper. His on-field incident suspensions waned with time, but poor investments, gambling, drinking during Prohibition (and mistakenly publicly admitting to doing so) and issues with cohorts with the New York Giants ownership and management landed him in court on more than one occasion. His players loved him or hated him, and some, when traded to his team, downright refused to play for him on reputation alone.

Charles Alexander takes us season-by-season through the life of McGraw - he never needed a first name, it seems, as even today there's a certain comfort to just using his surname - and we, as "modern-day" baseball fans are much the better for it. Rube Marquard is no longer just a line of stats on a website to us, and Bill Terry is no longer just a player who made the jump to manager. The stars (and scrubs) of the first four decades of twentieth century baseball come to life as they orbit around the polarizing figure who helped define the era, possibly the greatest baseball manager who ever lived.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sergeant Stubby by Ann Bausum

Why I Read It: Advanced copy from Vine program.

Summary: "How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation" (also the subtitle).

My Thoughts: You may say to yourself, "Seriously? A dog helped win the war?"

Then, step back. OK, bigger picture - every action by an allied soldier (well, most, anyways) - helped win the war. Then you say, "But you said soldier." Correct. But trust me when I say Stubby played his part.

He meandered into the Yankee Division in New Haven, Connecticut, and found his way overseas with doughboy Robert Conroy, and at least experienced what the average American soldier did in World War I. He was present at many major battles, and even has been credited with capturing a German soldier. War hero? Maybe not. But symbol of all that was good about that average World War I doughboy? I'd say so.

Whether or not he deserved the attention and fame, he got it, and he was beloved by many who called upon his owner to be sure he was at the head of many veterans parades in the years after the war. He was vilified, too, by folks who felt the spotlight shining on him should have been cast elsewhere, toward the young men who lost arms and legs and minds on the battlefields of France.

Due to the relative scarcity of information about his life, the author provides contextual background for Stubby's story. She sets all the scenes and extrapolates what Stubby might have done. This is not a work of fiction, but carefully phrased facts.

Perhaps the most fascinating tale of all is how Stubby got to his ultimate destination. He's on display at the Smithsonian Institution. He didn't get there immediately, but he's there now. There's a whole psychological study to be done regarding Stubby and Conroy, why Conroy held onto what he did as far as Stubby's materials go after finally donating him to the institution, whether or not his relationship with the dog affected his relationships with women, or his ability to hold a job. Then, too, there is the question of why Conroy would hang his medals on his dog's back and claim they belonged to the canine, as it seems he did.

It's an interesting sidelight of history, not about two of the major players of World War I, but certainly about two of the players without whom the full story of the war cannot be told.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan

Why I Read It: Gift from a friend, a fellow sufferer.

Summary: Thoughts on parenting from a dad of 5.

My Thoughts: I guess I only have two immediate references on which to base my thoughts on this book. The first is Michael Lewis' Home Game, which I ultimately was somewhat distanced from. I just couldn't relate to the fact that when he and his wife wanted to do something different with the kids they picked up and moved to Paris (among other things; he generally outspent my life, making it hard for me to relate, though I will say that his thoughts on his experiences in trying to be a writer while raising young kids were spot on. I think about that more every day). The second reference I have is my own life.

Gaffigan has more kids than me, so what he has is multiplied in comparison to the insanity of the household I currently co-run. A friend once explained to me that the first five or six years of your children's lives you just try to make sure they don't do something so stupid that they will kill themselves. And he was right. In order to accomplish this feat, my wife and I have to resort to "divide and conquer" techniques; she takes one one way, I take one another, and we indulge each child in separate passions. That way no one child is teetering on the edge of the stairs or running full speed into the other to bonk heads. Gaffigan and his wife Jeannie have no such chance, especially living in a two-bedroom apartment in New York City.

Gaffigan and I share one more thing in common, too, in that we work at night. He's a stand-up comedian, and I stand up in front of crowds and lecture on history and nature, typically about once a week. His circuit is a bit bigger than mine, like the whole United States compared to my eastern Massachusetts, but the result is the same. I miss bedtime once, and I hear about it, many times from the kids themselves the next day. There's a bit of guilt that goes with being away for even a night, but if one wants any semblance of a career through the madness of the early years, sacrifices are made and guilt becomes a normal part of life. Besides, mommy and daddy do occasionally require the conversation of other adults. My wife's soccer games are her outlet.

The author tackles all the fun topics of youth: candy, children's books, where to take the kids when they're restless, school, vacationing (the stories I have from the White Mountains...sheesh!), and more.

While a book on parenting is not original, Gaffigan is a funny man, and subtly so. He's a self-professed clean comedian, never needing to resort to foul language or bathroom humor to get a laugh, and as such, his work is relatable to many of us out here toiling - lovingly - through our children's early years.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Best of the Britcoms by Garry Berman

Why I read it: Uncontrollable Anglophilia.

Summary: One-to-four page synopses and critiques of about 50 of the author's favorite British sitcoms, with other short chapters.

My Thoughts: So I'm halfway there.

I think it all started with Benny Hill. My dad would watch it when we were young, and either it or M*A*S*H* always seemed to be on the television whenever he was home. I had no idea what half of the double entendres meant, but I knew when Benny spliced in the fast action slapstick stuff, most of which ended up with him repeatedly smacking his old bald friend Jackie on the scalp with a very funny slapping noise, I would howl with laughter. From there it was probably Monthy Python in high school and college.

Soon enough, after taking in these forms of gateway British humor, I moved onto Fawlty Towers, strangely, though, through radio. My mother traveled to London and came back with audio cassette versions of the show. John Cleese was the link. And he was the reason I listened to old episodes of ISIRTA on the internet  ("I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again"). From there I was off: Hancock's Half Hour, The Goon Show, Dad's Army, Yes, Minister, To the Manor Born, you name it. I searched the PBS stations locally and came up with Keeping Up Appearances, Are You Being Served?, The Vicar of Dibley, Last of the Summer Wine, As Time Goes By, One Foot in the Grave, Coupling and more. Oftentimes it became the background noise of my life as I performed menial tasks like editing, or cropping photographs for one of my books. In short, I've laughed my way through the past thirty years or so at the expense of the British monarchy, the German army and the French in general.

Ironically, through DNA testing, I've recently found out I'm half British.

According to the British people, or at least those thousands who responded to the BBC's (British Broadcasting Company) poll to find the country's best sitcom, I'm very familiar, through either radio or television, with 25 of the top 50. Strangely, the number one British sitcom of all time, Only Fools and Horses, I've never seen.

And that was the effect of Berman's book on me. Reading through all of the descriptions of the various shows - he didn't stick entirely to the list, choosing to add a few that he, personally, thought had merit - I realized there were several that I now wanted to add to my list.

There's another whole conversation to be had about American vs. British television, why some shows work here and others don't, what themes we might never grasp, why the Brits are able to pull off period sitcoms and we can't, etc. Berman touches on these topics in fun ways. Hos book will now be a reference tool on my shelf as I continue pursuing my love of all things British.

Well, most.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros

Why I read it: I walk, a lot, so when Amazon Vine revealed this book as an option for pre-release review, I jumped at it.

Summary: What is walking, beyond the physical?

My Thoughts: I've written two books on walking, and have walked a lot in preparation for writing other titles on nature. Along the way I've had the opportunity to think both about what I'm seeing and what I'm doing.

I'm a big proponent of immersing myself in nature, in opening all my senses and forgetting the rest of my life for the few precious moments I get alone. Sound callous? So what. Let's face it, we're more connected now than ever, which means we get less solitude than ever. The people important to me are with me on every step, of course, but they share space in my mind with the flowers, butterflies, birds and whatever else I can find.

A lot of times when I walk my mind wanders away from my legs. They can take me down a trail. I can still smell the wildflowers and hear the birdsong, but in my head I'm writing my next book, or wrestling with a burning question or two. Mind you, that burning question has nothing to do with work or family, but may be along the lines of "If red-bellied woodpeckers are moving north with global climate change, will they force out the flickers?"

So each walk I take is a journey unto itself. This, in a way, is what the author attempts to capture in A Philosophy of Walking. He considers Thoreau and his thoughts on walking. He points to Gandhi and his political use of protest walks. He follows Nietzsche on his wanderings. He expounds upon the basics, like gravity, distance, purpose. He shows that walking, though many consider it to be the simplest form of rudimentary transportation, can be so much more.

Needless to say, I'm a believer, as the Monkees once said (now there's a group of philosophers right there!).

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Jeff Corwin's Explorer Series: Sharks

Why I Read It: Met Jeff, and he told me it was coming out. Grew up on a peninsula, too, which helped stoke my interest in everything in the sea as a kid.

Summary: Part life of the sharks of today, part Shark-o-pedia, wriiten for middle schoolers on up.

My Thoughts: I think the one thing I like best about Jeff Corwin's books is their bluntness about natural facts. He has a way of letting the reader know that nature is blunt. If an older sibling feels it needs to kill a younger sibling to survive, it will, heartlessly and wantonly. There are no societal mores at play when it's kill or be killed for survival.

This book is readable by middle schoolers, and as a naturalist at a nature center, I enjoyed thinking about how to use it to teach others about these fascinating creatures, only a few of which I've seen in the wild.

Now onto terrifying facts about sharks.

1. They have what are called ampullae of Lorenzini, sensors that can detect traces of metal, in their heads. When a hammerhead shark waves his head over the ground, he's acting as a metal detector.
2. Sharks probably rest only parts of their brain at a time. That means that white sharks can cruise the oceans without ever really being fully asleep.
3. Some sharks can lose a tooth, and then regenerate it within as little as a day. Oh, great.

But in actuality, your chances of being killed by a shark are 1 in 263,000,000. We've overhyped their dangers since the 1970s, since, you guessed it, Jaws. The real harrowing fact is that we kill them in unfathomable numbers and sadly, we've almost killed them all. They survived the first five great extinctions of life on earth, but as we live through the sixth, we're taking them down. Of the 2,000-3,000 species of sharks known to have been on the planet, we're down to about 400. And there are repercussions. Take out any apex predator and watch as the next level down multiplies.

As an added bonus, this book comes with embedded video, for those with the right platform.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Between Man and Beast: A Tale of Exploration & Evolution by Monte Reel

Why I Read It: Reviewed it for the Amazon Vine program, plus it was the perfect blend of nature and history for me.

Summary: The story of Paul Du Chaillu's adventures in Africa in pursuit of gorillas, and his lengthier, nastier encounters with the people of Great Britain.

My Thoughts: What a world we lived in, in those Victorian times.

I wasn't there, of course, but have sometimes been so immersed in research about the time period that it feels like I was. Even so, there are some things I don't think I could ever get used to, like the ideas on race that were widely held at that time. I just have a different baseline, and can't imagine slipping backwards to the baseline of 1855.

Our protagonist, an explorer of dubious origin - especially as it comes to race - sets off to Africa with the intent of bringing back the first gorillas to the civilized western world. He starts with America, where he is basically viewed as a sideshow peddler, and then visits England, where he becomes the most talked about person in the highest circles of London. But where there's fame, there are critics and jealousy. His apparent successes are torn down, his every scientific notion shredded, justly or unjustly. He returns to Africa to try again, and has an epiphany. He trades his guns for scientific observation tools.

The story is part African adventure, part Victorian London navigation. Du Chaillu has to weave his way through minefields of dissent and doubt, even accusations that he may be one of "them" (black) in a world that knew that people of African origin were more animalistic than uiman. It was a world that believed, with almost all of its heart, that black folk were closer kin to gorillas than white folk were to black folk - and, boy, was that world in for a rude awakening in a few short years.

Du Chaillu influenced many writers, including T.H. Huxley, Arthur Conan Doyle and Merian C. Cooper (King Kong). Strangely, Edgar Rice Burroughs is not mentioned, but I would guess that before embarking on the Tarzan saga, he would have at least known of Paul and his work.

Next step? We can go back to the beginning and read Paul's own work, which has been digitized: Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 by Harvey Sachs

Why I Read It: I'm a firm believer in setting the background before telling a story. What was the world around Beethoven like when he composed the Ninth?

Summary: The seminal moments of the year in which Beethoven debuted his Ninth Symphony, and a study of that masterpiece.

My Thoughts: What is it that has made Beethoven's Ninth Symphony stand out over time as one of the most revered pieces of music ever written and performed? Why does it affect us the way it does? Why does the repetitive sixteen-note score, played by different instruments at varying volumes and sung bu different voices, cause us to swell our breasts with the grand feeling of just being alive and able to appreciate such artistry?

Perhaps that's just me. But there is something magical about the way the music thrills with the concomitant fluidity of the strings and the abruptness of the drums. Yet, for us, it's old hat, a standard of classical music we can pull up on our iPods at any time. For 1824, it walked the precipice of being so unusual, so different as to be almost heretical. Music until that time had been written for state ceremonies, for religious purposes, for specific events. Beethoven infused his music with raw emotion, and he wrote it for himself. His Ninth signaled the end of the Classical period and the start of the Romantic.

Sachs carries us through the day of its first performance, imagining what it was that went through the master's mind in the moments leading to it. He bases his suppositions on the historic texts we have from Beethoven's life, the "conversation books" he had on hand to communicate with visitors, handlers and friends, a workaround for his deafness. But I think the author secretly reveled in the chance to "play" Beethoven in that crusty, haughty personality we all attribute to him.

He then carries us through the year, and the lives (and deaths) of Romantic era poets and writers, playwrights and more. He intertwines the lives of the great composers as they were so knotted up anyway; this one mentored that one, that one was influenced by this one. He then runs us through his interpretation of the piece, for the most part avoiding the temptation to lay out a manmade storyline.

I truly believe that we are empowered by, inspired by our times, our surroundings. I'm sure Beethoven was, too, but then, he had the perhaps unconscious ability to rise above it all and see the world from a different perspective, one that no one else could see. Actually, I take that back. I really feel he had more of an ability to draw deeply within himself and remove himself from society in the creative moment. He was a risk-taker, willing to break convention and present the world music as he thought it should be, not aligned by the rules of church or state.

If you don't think so, listen to his Ninth Symphony and perhaps then you'll understand.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A History of the Fish Hook by Hans Jorgen Hurum

Why I Read It: Why not? Any marine theme is in bounds, and this microhistory seemed about as interesting as anything else I had on the shelf at the moment.

Summary: The history of the hook as seen through the story of the Norwegain hook-making firm O. Mustad & Son.

My Thoughts: As with anything in the history of our planet, it turns out there's a lot more than meets the eye when one delves deeply into the story of the fish hook.

The author, an avid fisherman, does an excellent job at cataloguing for us the ancient hooks of the world's archaeological collections, showing us that they have been made from all sorts of materials, including plants. Perhaps the most harrowing fish hook tale comes from Easter Island. The people who lived there with little at their disposal used human bone for their hooks. Conjecture has even arisen that some of the human sacrifices that took place on the island may have been because the current stock of hooks was low and that the community needed it replenished for survivial. (To which, of course, I respond, "Hey, I know a few fishermen today who would go that route...").

While the book eventually trails into the history of the Mustad family and its super-secret hook-making operation - hidden rooms in factories like those with Mustad just complete the circuit; fishermen don't like to tell you where they fish, what bait they use, etc. - it covers as well some interesting generalities about the history of the endeavor. For instance, although he only hints at this idea, it's pretty easy to see that Mustad knows one thing we don't. Fishermen the world over are highly superstitious. Okay, we know that, but what they know is that fishermen in Cuba may order hooks with a specific barb tip and those in Florida may order them with a different tip because they know that it works better to catch the same fish. He describes international fishing tournaments in which fishermen are lined up along the banks of a river all using different hooks to catch the same fish. So what does Mustad do? It caters. At one point (the book was published in 1976) the company manufactured 108,000 varieties of hooks. How do you get rich in this industry? Listen to your clients.

There are other strange theories out there. The author proposes the notion that if the reversal of the trend of the decline in whales is not possible then we should consider a silver lining. More krill for human consumption! Of course, though, forty years later, krill are dying out, too. And then there's the story of the British gentleman who lined his clothing with fish hooks so that pickpockets would either get ripped or caught while attempting to get at him in London.

Off the beaten path, yes, but a fun read nonetheless, highly illustrated and with that twist of being of Norwegian origin, and not American.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places by Bernie Krause

Why I read it: Impulse buy with a gift card at an independent bookseller; besides, I conduct citizen science experiments that include some of the listening skills championed in this book.

Summary: Finding the sounds of the forest through the trees; what once was, and what we are losing.

My Thoughts: I come at this book from an odd angle. For the past ten years I've been training myself to be a good listener of the natural world. It's been part passion, part profession, perhaps a little obsession. It's all about the world of the citizen scientist in me. I collect data, and a lot of time I do it with my ears.

That's not an accident. I've always been musically inclined, if not talented. My dad showed me middle C on a keyboard when I was a kid, and from there, I began imitating what I heard on the radio. I never learned to read music, but if I figured out the first couple of notes I could carry the song through. I even had a woman walk toward me from across a yard staring at my left temple, saying "You have perfect pitch. I can see it in your aura." Do with that one what you will.

So this book brings both of those segments of my life together. The author, a naturalist-musician, throws some startling facts at us. He describes how, working in Hollywood gathering sound for movies, he was eventually thrown by the fact that directors always asked for a piece of nature - a bird's song, a frog's call - to be derived from the rest of the soundscape, when, in fact, Krause learned, the entirety of the soundscape was what we should all be paying attention to. He began to wander from the movie work to follow his own passion. He recorded the biophony of the African jungle and the geophony of reeds capturing the wind on the edge of a lake. He learned that the only thing that could and does disrupt the flow of these two forms of natural sound is anthrophony, noise generated by us and our cars and our planes and our cement mixers and our alarm clocks.

And we already know that we've ruined our planet in the sense of removing it from its wildest state. And, although we like to blame ourselves in the moment, we're 16,000 years too late for that accusation. The sixth great extinction of life on earth started when humans started the wholesale slaughter of animals for clothing, for food and for fashion accessories. We're just at the tail end of it. Extinctions, because of our stupidity, our greed, are now a regular facet of modern life.

Habitat loss and fragmentation are two of the biggest killers. While most biologists find it easy to understand that without adequate hunting and feeding grounds any animal is doomed, consider the necessities of communication in the animal world. A bird may find a patch of earth large enough on which to breed, but if it cant sing loudly enough - over the airplane noise, the taxi's horn, the hum of an HVAC system - it cannot attract a mate. So, there's wholesale slaughter, and then there's passively denying a right to life.

How bad is the fragmentation? Krause claims that it now takes him 200 times longer to capture an hour of uninterrupted natural sound today than it did just forty years ago. Places where one can find natural solitude, to just be alone with nature, are growing farther and farther apart, disappearing by the day.

I didn't need this book to convince me of the decline of the many species on the planet. I've seen it firsthand in the data I've helped gather over the past decade, especially when it is compared to similar data sets from the same locations from forty years in the past. What I did need this book for was another point of view, to open my eyes, and ears, to the coming deafening silence.

By the way - the book comes with a QR tag that leads to a website, to which passages in the text are keyed to audio clips. You get to hear what the author heard and was thinking about when writing the book.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Kissing Sailor by Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi

Why I Read It: My never-ending pursuit of every last story from World War II.

Summary: "The Mystery Behind the Photo That Ended World War II" (also the subtitle).

My Thoughts: It's one of those weird coincidences of history. After taking one of the most iconic photographs of the twentieth century, the photographer, Alfred Eisenstadt of Life magazine, never bothered to get the names of the sailor and (alleged) nurse who locked in an embrace on V-J Day, 1945 in Times Square. Let's face it - there was a lot of kissing going on in Times Square on that day, and in the tumult of activity, he probably figured such details would not be noteworthy. After all, the sailor and the nurse stood for just about everything that had to do with the day: passion, relief, and an unfathomable number of young Americans released from almost certain death in an invasion of mainland Japan.

So who were they? That's what the authors set out to find out.

There have been many pretenders to the crowns. Without picking sides, it's still correct to say so, as there can obviously only be one sailor and one nurse. And the authors make a point of stating that whether or not they are correct in their assertions, the many veterans who have come forward as "the" kissing sailor at least should be given the respect of being heard, after their service to and sacrifices for our country.

From the start, the authors' confidence is a bit overwhelming, so much so that it made me step back and say, "Well, now, they really have to convince me." Did they? I'm 95% convinced on the sailor, probably 100% on the "nurse" (who, if it really was her, was a dental assistant). There have been forensic studies conducted and testimonials shared from all concerned. The photographer made his choice of the nurse, and she carried that distinction to her death. But was she the one? Not according to the authors.

The authors write authoritatively, technically and succinctly. They bring out the pros and cons of each sailor claimant, including those of the man they ultimately choose, a point which I mentally considered early in the reading (would they detail the potential reasons why he was not the one, or shy away from them?). They bring Life magazine into the fold, in an almost personal way, calling the publishing giant out. After its initial call for the sailor to come forward (after which, Eisenstadt said, about 80 did so), Life stepped back and said that there would never be a conclusive answer to the question. Verria and Galdorisi believe there is one.

There will always be that contingent that says, "Why bother?" The picture stands on its own, and the subjects stand for us all. But if you're interested in knowing the names, of the heartache that ensued for decades after Life's call, this book is well worth the time.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg

Why I Read It: Pisces. Will read anything having to do with water.

Summary: Salmon, tuna, bass and cod. Will they survive as wild fish?

My Thoughts: I think that if we really think about it, we will see that the oceans are the last wild frontier. Find an archaeological site on land, wrap a national park around it, and it's generally protected. Find a shipwreck offshore, try to do the same, announce its general whereabouts, then watch its artifacts walk away. Without policing, without a guard standing over it, the site is doomed to be plundered. The same goes with hunting. Designate terrestrial places where hunters are not allowed to go for species protection or human safety, and generally they follow the letter of the law. Fishing? Whaling? Not as much. Like one of the fisherman-turned-conservation strategists in this book said, you don't want to get between a hog and a trough.

We've drawn down the number of living creatures in the sea to scary numbers. Sadly, we've done the same thing with birds. We destroy habitat. We overhunt. We take what we want without considering consequences. We are causing a great extinction of life on earth. It used to be that the job was left to asteroids.

This book deals with the question of sustainability, using the four most common fish found in your grocer's display case as examples. The oceans are remarkably resilient. Give fish a little room to repopulate, and they will, even if drawn down to ten percent of their estimated historic populations. But we don't give them the breathing room to do so. We tax their populations to no end, save for in little corners of the ocean where states or countries hold rights over patches of water that they can actively police.

Do these fish have a future in the wild? Sadly, we can't say for sure. We genetically tinker with fish, tuck them into pens and "farm" them, even tuna, which need great distances of open ocean to truly be tuna. We release farmed salmon into rivers, but based on survival rates in the wild and in captivity, we set free individuals that may not have survived in the wild in the first place, therefore diluting the gene pool. We now scoop up young tuna from the sea to place in farms, therefore not giving them a chance to procreate in the wild, and still give out prizes for the biggest fish caught, usually the BOFFs, the "big old fat females" who are the champion breeders. We are taking away tuna's chance to breed at both ends of its life cycle.

The author suggests we stop subsidizing fishermen and let the industry truly find its level. If it doesn't make financial sense to fish, many fishermen will have to walk away and find other work. In his words we need an "artisanal sector of respectful fishermen-herders who will steward the species" rather than the current system of hunter-gatherers. He states we need more protected, fishing-free zones in the ocean. We need to protect unmanageable species like tuna globally, rather than considering only what's in our own backyard; treat tuna like we treat whales. And we need to protect the rest of the food chain. If we take the small fish out of the chain, we starve the large fish.

Standing where I am, on the coast of Massachusetts, I watch this story play out on a daily basis, with friends on both sides of the fishing/science fence. And I've seen the straddlers, not wafflers, but people who truly understand that fishermen and scientists can work together to find the answers as to why our cod are vanishing, for instance. The science seems rational, but how do you tell a third generation fisherman to pack up, go home, and go drive a truck for a living? In so many ways, our lives are tied to these fish, and changing their future for the better changes ours, and not always in the same direction.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Boston's 100 Greatest Games by Rob Sneddon

Why I read it: The author requested a review on, and if there was ever a book in my "wheelhouse" (now there's a phrase of which I'd like to know the origins), this title would be it.

Summary: The opening salvo in the debate. These are the author's 100 greatest - what are yours?

My Thoughts: First, it isn't easy. I've written a few books myself, and twice I've taken on a similar format. In each case, I had to find different themes for more than 300 journal entries, and make them somehow come together cohesively in a narrative format (walking every day no matter the weather or my health, and walking every Massachusetts town in one calendar year). The author of this book had the same challenge: 100 games, 100 themes. Some naturally play themselves out, but some could be seen as repetitive if not given a twist by the writer. Give the author credit for finding those themes. I mean, how many times can you describe the Bill Russell era of Boston Celtics history without tripping over the same words over and over again?

As to the content, I have several thoughts. One, it's weird how Ted Williams never appears in the book. But that's the way it fell. Williams suffers for his lack of postseason success, as when you think about it, there are just far too many World Series wins, Super Bowls, etc. in Boston sports history to dive too deeply into regular season action. I don't think I saw Terry O'Reilly or Cam Neely's names in there either. But the logic works.

The author says he wants to get the conversation started, so here are some of my thoughts for inclusion in the next version of the book:

*The Red Sox final doubleheader of 1941; Williams goes 6-for-8 to raise his average to .406 on the last day of the season. OK, no postseason success, but what a day in Boston sports. Perhaps too much of an individual achievement, but if Roger Clemens' first 20 strikeout game is in the mix...
*May 13, 2007, the Mother's Day Massacre; the Red Sox pull an amazing ninth inning comeback out of their helmets to beat the Orioles, 6-5. Again, not postseason, but certainly setting up the run to the 2007 World Series.
*April 19, 2008, Bruins-Canadiens, conference quarterfinals; Marco Sturm scores the game-winning goal in Game 6 in stunning fashion, nearly pushing the Bruins past the Canadiens. The season came to a halt with the next game, but the energy created that night propelled the Bruins to become one of the best teams in the NHL for the next, well, who knows how many years, as they haven't really come down yet.
*How about the 1999 All-Star game at Fenway Park? The game itself was an afterthought, but the Ted Williams moment alone was worth mentioning.

The book is fun in that it challenges Boston sports fans to keep on their toes. One moment you're reading about Larry Bird and Michael Jordan squaring off and the next the names of the 1929 Bruins are being tossed at you. Books like this one bring back memories (heck, I was at the Tuck Rule game) just by invoking players you'd simply forgotten about because you can only keep so many names in your head (660, if I remember that study correctly!). But for every Tom Brady, there is a J.R. Redmond, a player from the past who played a role in a big game, big enough to be recorded for posterity, perhaps not remembered by name by every individual who saw the contest.

This book will be redone. The author decided to hold back its release so he could watch the 2013 World Series and put its games into the context of the book. And don't look now, but the Bruins are having another great year and the Patriots are the number 2 seed in their conference. And the Celtics...well, we love the Celtics.