Sunday, December 4, 2016

No Time for Sergeants by Mac Hyman

Why I Read It: Totally an outgrowth of reading a dual biography of Don Knotts and Andy Griffith (both of whom are in the movie version of the story).

Summary: Will Stockdale is drafted, completely unsuited for life in the military, and unwittingly torments his superior officers.

My Thoughts: While I loved this book to pieces, I wondered as I was reading it what it would have been like to read it when it was released.

Millions of men and women had shared the military experience in World War II, and for decades to come would also share the humor that grew out of its commonly identified moments of ridiculousness. They would laugh about KP, about latrine duties, bad food and much more. As an historian, I get it, and I laugh, But I wonder what it would have been like to have been in the know, in the moment.

It's all in this book, wrapped around the story of a country bumpkin drafted into the Air Force against his father's will, as his father, even more of a bumpkin, can't understand why a recruiter feels he has the right to come onto his land and order his son around. The son, Will Stockdale, is logical and level-headed, if under-educated. He thinks through every situation, oftentimes in his naivete exposing the silliness of aspects of military life. In doing so, he drives the people around him crazy, forever happily advancing through his life in a sort of fog, unaware of his effects on people. His superhuman strength and his ability to intake huge amounts of alcohol seemingly without effect make him that much harder to bring down.

Stockdale befriends Ben Whitledge, a young man descended from a long line of military men, including one who served under Stonewall Jackson in the Civil War. Whitledge believes he is destined to face glory as an infantryman, and is depressed when he finds out that he is heading to the Air Force.

Will and Ben are separated for a while, but eventually reunite for the book's crescendo, a comical series of events that ends with great foreboding, but leaves the reader with an informed fatalistic smile. Will and Ben made it through some tough scrapes; they'll make it through this one.

One topic I'd like to read about further is this book's effect on the future interpretation of World War II and the era. For instance, Will, as latrine orderly, rigs the seats to salute during inspection. Two decades later Major Frank Burns does the same on M*A*S*H. I'll bet there are plenty more such influences.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Frances and Joseph Gies

Why I Read It: I took a medieval history class in college and was inspired. I've never been able to shake it.

Summary: Subtitle: "Technology and Invention in the Middles Ages." We tend to think of the Middle Ages in Europe as dark, dim, unproductive. Were they?

My Thoughts: I've said it before, and I'm sure I will say it again in the future when I get to the next book on the list. I love the Gies and their contribution to medieval history research. Their books are so readable, even after, in this case, 80 years, that it makes you feel like they are across the table from you happily sharing a conversation on the topic.

As a quick aside, my own love for medieval history was solidified when I was a student at UMASS Amherst, studying under Professor R. Dean Ware. I'll never forget another student challenging him, haughtily commenting about how he wouldn't deign to study medieval history, that it was American history all the way. Professor Ware quickly shot back. "What's that, 400 years of one language?"

And that's the opposite of what we are faced with in this book - 1000 years, in many languages, and sometimes no language at all. For much of the historical period referenced here, there was no written information (its own form of darkness). Historical inferences were drawn from images, tapestries, portraits drawings and more. It's certainly an interesting way to do business.

So, what is their ultimate answer to the question posed above? Well, what do you think? Would they spend 300 pages disparaging the Middle Ages, as medievalists? Of course not! And they make quite a case - several dozen, actually - that describes the ways in which technology, in huge sweeping terms, advanced during the period from 500 to 1500 C.E. Not all successes were European. As trade routes opened, the flow of goods from the Middle East brought new technologies that could either be adopted or modified as needed.

Not everything worked, of course, but advances in road building, shipbuilding, navigation, milling and so many other disciplines took place, helping forge the modern world by incrementally moving us forward so that those technologies could be improved upon, as we are doing for generations to come. The Gies argue that it was sometimes reckless, often without thought for the future, but it was in the true spirit of invention, trial and error, much like at any other period in history.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show by Daniel de Vise

Why I Read It: Both actors were big - in re-runs - during my childhood.

Summary: A dual biography of Don Knotts and Andy Griffith, highlighting their years in Mayberry.

My Thoughts: Don Knotts was Mr. Furley to me, first, and then he was Mr. Limpet. Boston's two main UHF local television stations - when stations truly were local - in the late '70s and early '80s ran nightly movies. To keep perspectives fresh, they had theme weeks, like Don Knotts Week. If allowed to stay up past the 7 o'clock hour, we could catch The Incredible Mr. Limpet, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, or perhaps The Shakiest Gun in the West. Knotts' bugged-out eyes were all it took to get us rolling on the floor laughing as kids.

I didn't appreciate Andy Griffith 'til much later. It took the coming of the superstation, TBS, to bring the Andy Griffith Show into my home. I knew the theme song - everybody did - but had never really watched the show. Now, TV Land has brought it into my living room every late afternoon. Let's just say that it matched the hype.

Let's face it; it's old. It's black-and-white in the early years. And when it debuted, it told of a simpler time. That was in the mid-60s. For folks then, it was nostalgic. It was about friendship, honor, small-town life and the power of community. Today, folks who lived in the days it represented - people who longed for a return to those days - are almost gone. When I watch the show, I get nostalgic, but it's more like time travel for me, as it's definitely not reminiscence.

The story goes that Don and Andy met each other on Broadway in the 1950s, two southern boys with shared memories from different childhoods. Andy took the lead role in No Time for Sergeants, with Don getting a supporting role (Don having served in the Pacific in World War II). Later, when Andy lands his role as the sheriff of Mayberry - technically a spinoff from Danny Thomas' Make Room for Daddy - Don, freshly out of work, calls Andy and asks if his sheriff needs a deputy.

One wonders how the trajectories of both lives might have been different had that not happened.

Don clearly becomes the star of the show, with the Emmy's to prove it. Andy becomes his straight man, and when Don chooses to leave to pursue a movie career, Andy forges on, but the show is not the same. Neither is Andy's career. Don is a breakout star, riding his fame into the 1970s. Andy motors along from project to project, but never gets over the top again until Matlock comes along. Even then, who does he invite along to play a supporting character? Yup, Andy Taylor and Barney Fife are reunited. Had Andy never invited Don to Mayberry, would Don Knotts have become the star we all lovingly remember today? Would Andy Taylor have evolved differently, and Andy Griffith become the bigger star? Did Andy put his own career unwittingly on hold to boost that of Don?

The friendship was beautiful and lasted 'til the sad end, when Andy said goodbye to Don. On screen they were magic together, and that magic carried into their personal lives. They were so different, in stature, in voice, in comedic style, but they understood each other because they grew up together, in different places. They understood the value of sitting on the porch on a summer night, and the humor, as the author says, of old ladies fretting about their entries for the county fair pickle contest.

The author weaves together two biographies and carries us through both the public and private lives of both men, telling us more than we ever thought we would know about Andy's temper, Don's nerves, their six wives, their relationships with their own parents and kids and more. Through it all we feel a slight bit of shock - would Barney Fife really do something like that? - when we read about transgressions, or dirty jokes, unable to pull ourselves away from Andy Taylor and his deputy, as we have come to know and love Andy Griffith and Don Knotts.

Would you go back if you could? Would you walk the streets of Mayberry, stop to say hi to Opie on the way to Goober or Gomer's shop to check on your car before visiting Floyd's barber shop? Would you sit on the porch with Thelma Lou and Aunt Bee and let the time tick by, if just for a few hours? More importantly, could you do it, with the fast-paced life you lead today?

Mayberry, and Don, and Andy and Aunt Bee and all the rest, still have lessons to teach us today, a half century later.

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim DeFede

Why I Read It: Re-read it, actually. A friend had lent it to me about a decade ago, I loved it then, and recently realized I didn't have my own copy.

Summary: Planes heading across the Atlantic on 9/11 were ordered down, and to avoid U.S. airspace. Many landed in Gander, a small Newfie town with a regional airport that was suddenly overwhelmed by thousands of confused and even terrified people.

My Thoughts: It's amazing what happens when money is no longer an issue, when life is placed in front of all else.

Gander, population 9,651 at the time of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, welcomed 42 planes (38 civilian and 4 military) that day, really through no choice of their own. The planes brought an extra 6,600 people to town, people who needed to be fed, housed - indefinitely - and entertained. The town opened its schools, its church, its fraternal organization halls, every place the locals could think up, including their own homes.

They lined up at these places with sheets and blankets pulled right from their own beds, with home-cooked meals and with toys for the children on the flights. They gave, and they gave, and they gave, and they smiled as they did so. The "plane people" were worried and disconnected from loved ones, anxious to make phone calls. And they came from everywhere across Europe and North America. Stores opened up their doors and delivered anything and everything the plane people needed, at no charge.

9/11 had a strange effect on all of us. There was a certain survivor mentality among many of us, though most of us were never in danger. We pulled together and bonded in ways we definitely haven't since. We gave whatever we had - money for the firefighters' funds in New York City; volunteer time in so many ways; food and water; and so much more - and never considered the aftereffects, like a lightened bank account. It was just the right thing to do.

And so it was in Gander. They consider it the "Newfie way" to extend a hand to a stranger in town in need. While many of us were wondering how we could help, removed from the scenes of the attacks, distant from the people who died as a result, the people of Gander were helping a community almost the size of their own, squeezing them into every possible space in town.

The author regales us with the details, the names, the faces, the remarkable frozen-in-time situations that made each individual's story unique. He reminds us that in the face of evil, when the world is at its darkest, hope and love can still outshine everything else.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Age Curve by Kenneth W. Gronbach

Why I Read It: I heard the author speak at a conference, and immediately bought in.

Summary: Demographic changes on the horizon should make us all look closely at how we conduct businesses of many kinds.

My Thoughts: It's simple math, but it's math that many of us are overlooking. I know this for a fact, because I tried to throw out some long-term demographic thinking at a meeting recently that was brushed off as quickly as I got it out. It's the difference between thinking short-term and thinking long-term. For instance, I recently went to buy a car and was told that now was a good time to buy a hybrid, because the dealer was offering heavy incentives to do so. Why? Gas prices had dropped from a few months ago. Really, people are that short-sighted? They go back to Hummers because gas is $2.50 a gallon instead of $3? Doesn't the long-term forecast - as with every other consumable in the world - show that gas prices will eventually rise? With my extra $3000 off, I scooped up the hybrid and started saving money on gas immediately, knowing I was not only paying $2.50 a gallon now, but was only getting gas once a month. Long-term, not short-term.

The author's point is that time moves forward, inexorably, and we can't change the past to create the future we want. When we look at the chart of U.S. live births from 1905 forward, we see definite 20-year patterns - the G.I. Generation, the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X - and what looks like a 25-year grouping of Generation Y births, the Millenials. The main story we are faced with now is that the Boomers are retiring and Generation X is taking charge of the country's infrastructure, but there are 11% fewer of them (or, "us," I should say) than there were of the Boomers. Generation X won't be able to fill the shoes of the Boomers, not because of quality issues like work ethic, but because there were just way too many shoes in comparison. For every ten Boomer retirees, nine Gen X'ers stand ready to take their places.

So what does this mean for the country? If it's a service the Boomers want or need as retirees, expect a fifteen-or-so-year run, but then be faced with the fact that the population of retirees falls off the cliff when Generation X starts to hit 65. Businesses providing those services will need to consider consolidation, mergers or getting out of the business and moving into services that Generation Y can use, because that's where the greatest portion of the population will be.

Let me give you an example that I have been thinking about (not from the author's work, but inspired by his thinking). For many years I have worked with local historical societies. They have had a strong run since the beginning of the twentieth century (a reaction to immigration and the potential loss of local identity), but have always found it hard to do two things: find new board members and attract young families. The running joke is that local societies have always been run by "little old ladies in white tennis shoes" (women, on average, outliving men). And they've done a good job, but can they, as a force, sustain the pattern?

Consider what I stated above. Once Generation X hits 65, there will quickly become a dearth of retirees in comparison to the previous generation. That's strike one. There will simply be fewer people around who typically fit the description of local historical society leaders. Sadly, this also takes away a large portion of the membership that attends lectures, nostalgic programs and more. Fewer people will be available to run historical societies, and fewer will be interested in what they have to offer.

But there are more factors involved. The typical local historical society board member has strong ties to his or her community. He can say, "I was born on Main Street, right between the Smith house and the Washington house. My dad ran the local gas station, right over there, and my mom taught at the elementary school for 36 years." How many of us can say that any more? We have become transient as a society and no longer can claim that the old adage "you marry someone born within 25 miles of where you were born" is absolutely true. We're not local in nature any more. There will be fewer and fewer people with long, deep knowledge of local landscapes, people who are really dedicated to the preservation of their hometown history. That's strike two.

Can you see a pattern? Now, consider this final pitch. Local historical societies are just that - local. I had the pleasure of working with a friend who was as fiercely dedicated to his hometown as anybody I have ever met. He had this beat-up old pickup truck that he bumped all over town, and we used to joke that it had never seen the neighboring towns. Wouldn't you know it, one day he was driving it to next next town over, and it died on the town border. Local historical societies as they currently operate are just that myopic; they can't see beyond the borders of their towns. In coming years, with the factors above brewing, the first best course of action for historical societies will be consolidation of governance into regional boards of directors covering several local towns. But Springfield wants nothing to do with Shelbyville, and Shelbyville definitely wants nothing to do with North Haverbrook. The only saving grace here is that the generation that will be in charge, Generation X, will not have the fierce local fidelity of the Boomers, and might actually consider consolidation. But what happens if local towns can't work and play well together? A lot of padlocked buildings, the redistribution of artifacts to regional, state and national level institutions (there will still be costs like insurance that will have to be met, without revenue coming in from membership) and a loss of local identity.

So, what's the answer, to avoid the strikeout? Engage Generation Y. Exhibits will have to become less static, more digital. Programs will have to become kid-friendly, catering to young families. Membership packages must have perks the whole family can enjoy. Societies will have to teach history through fun at an early age, as kids no longer get it in school. Elementary schools now teach to standardized math and English tests and have made science and history sidelights of the school year. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) movement has arisen as a counterculture for the science side, and science museums and nature centers have become integral partners in science education; history has no such counterpart movement. And - most importantly - understand that American history is not as "white" as it used to be. Societies will have to embrace all of the cultures that make - and have made - their communities great, so that they might become a part of the future of the local history world. We are growing more diverse as a country, not less, and that must be reflected in our local historical societies. Then, with families engaged, and a broader spectrum of cultures involved, Generation Y may provide the leadership needed. If it benefits their kids, they will be willing to support it.

So, yes, once you understand the march of the generations through time, you can see how things have to change. Thank you, Ken Gronbach. My eyes have been opened!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Stars and Strikes by Dan Epstein

Why I Read It: Read Big Hair and Plastic Grass, and grooved on it.

Summary: Major League Baseball and the summer of 1976.

My Thoughts: I lived it - barely. To be truthful, I can't say that I remember anything specifically about the 1976 baseball season - I had just turned five years old - but just about everything about it is familiar.

I remember the names, especially those of the Red Sox. I remember hearing about Mark Fidrych from friends. But I definitely have no memories of Reggie Jackson in a Baltimore Orioles uniform. My earliest memories of him are with the Yankees.

But, I had the baseball cards.

Dan Epstein brings the season back to life, straight form the faces of those Topps cards, from the shaggy locks of Randy Jones (remember the card of him with his hat flying off?) to the mutton chops, from the stark white and black collared shirts of the White Sox to the rainbow of colors being worn around the leagues. He mixes in the stories of the Bicentennial, when America celebrated its founding with event after event, some of which went well, some, not so much. He revels in the music of the summer, of the slow birth of Disc, the emergence of FM rock, the growth of punk. He wraps it all into the baseball season, following the stories of owners like Bill Veeck and Ted Turner (and, of course, George Steinbrenner), managers like Billy Martin and Walter Alston, and players like George Foster, Thurman Munson and so many more that it makes your head spin with beloved nostalgia. If you love the game like I do, you'll remember most immediately, but a few names will make you say, "Holy crap...I almost forgot about that guy."

The book has no choice but to be funky in the best of ways. Every Mick Schmidt home run, George Brett ripped single and Pete Rose slap double, every twist of El Tiante's wind-up screams the '70s in its multi-hued, brash, outspoken glory.

We all know the ending - Big Red Machine over the Yanks - but this book is not about the ending. It's about enjoying the ride. And it's a top-down, slow cruise through the neighborhood with Boston's "More Than a Feeling" blaring at unacceptable levels.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

So Close to Home by Michael Tougias and Alison O'Leary

Why I Read It: Michael is an acquaintance, and a good guy. I read everything he publishes.

Summary: A family leaving Central America in the early days of World War II meets with disaster at sea.

My Thoughts: We've moved on from World War II in many ways, but, there's one thing I've always found odd about the way that we have treated its history. The average, knee-jerk reaction to the notion that German U-boats were off our coasts is unequivocally negative. There's no way they were here, I've been told time and again.

Perhaps it was the wartime press blackouts, the fact that newspapers and magazines and radio stations stayed away from publishing such news, at the urging of the federal government. But they were there, and there are hundreds of American families who can claim lost loved ones off our very own coasts thanks to U-boat attacks.

Tougias and O'Leary detail the pathways of the U-boats lurking in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 1942 with exact precision, recapturing the horrors of the true terror attacks of World War II. Survivors tell of explosions, abandoning ship, and strange encounters with U-boat captains who say they are sorry, but this is war, before delivering cigarettes and even baked goods to survivors in life rafts.

This story focuses on one family and their struggle to remain alive and together after the freighter on which they are heading home is torpedoed. It captures the darkness of the spring of 1942, when the U-boats controlled the seas, taking out ships at will, racking up tonnage at an alarming rate. The Germans celebrated their U-boat heroes; the Americans lived in abject fear of them.

Yes, the U-boat threat was real off the American coast in World War II. Let Tougias and O'Leary prove to you how real it was.

Project Puffin by Stephen W. Kress and Derrick Z. Jackson

Why I Read It: For many years, I led puffin trips.

Summary: The story of the reestablishment of the southernmost breeding colony of Atlantic Puffins in the United States.

My Thoughts: This book was a long time in coming. Those of us in the field, leading the birding trips throughout the northeast, had long associated Steven Kress with this amazing tale. We knew when we stepped onto the islands off the coast of Maine that miracles had happened in the world of Atlantic Puffins,

The trips I used to lead were not on the islands on which Kress worked so diligently, but much farther north, on Machias Seal Island, on the Maine-Canda border (the island is disputed). There's much that I could tell about our adventures out there, but they'd be extraneous to this tale, Suffice to say, a puffin colony is a different world, when mixed with a few Razorbills and a couple of Common Murres, perhaps Arctic Terns diving at your head as you make your way to the viewing blinds. I miss it.

Kress had a epiphany after reading that some Maine islands had formerly held puffin breeding colonies, but that those colonies had gone extinct, or, probably more accurately, had been extirpated. He thought something had to be done, but what? How could one attract a species back to a location on which it once thrived, but that was now overwhelmed by predators? Sure, the big problem had gone away, humans weren't hunting them any more, but gulls had moved in, gulls that would love to snack on "pufflings" before or after they came out of their eggs.

Kress believed that translocation of young puffins could lead to an eventual breeding colony. Puffin chicks raised on the island would, theoretically come back. But nobody had tested the theory. He set out to do so, and, in turn, changed the seabird colony restoration world.

This book details the journey, almost chick by chick, from the start in the 1970s to similar restoration projects taking place around the world today. It's a story of perseverance, above all else. It's a tale with a happy ending, so far, as who knows what will pop up next to endanger these little birds? So, let's celebrate it with Steven Kress while we can. He deserves it more than any of us can ever imagine.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Lost Hero of Cape Cod by Vincent Miles

Why I Read It: The author requested a review for Sea History magazine.

Summary: The life and times of Asa Eldridge of Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, a sea captain who did it all.

My Thoughts: The author contends that the sea captains who broke transatlantic speed records during the middle of the 1800s are an overlooked class of American heroes, and he is absolutely right.

There is a lot to consider when examining the era. Transatlantic packets had been operating for a long time, and would linger for years after major technological changes in the shipbuilding industry came along that marginalized their usage. The British were ahead of the U.S. as far as steam technology was concerned, but the Americans had better sailing ship designs. And so the race was on, for many reasons: the mail, news and passenger delivery, hidden military agendas. The two countries had been at war twice within modern memory, so it only made sense to keep the need to cross the ocean quickly in warships in the back of one's mind.

Eldridge, amazingly, took the helm of transatlantic packets, transatlantic steamers and clipper ships, playing a major role in the dropping of the crossing time from a month to just over nine days. We can't imagine it now, but consider an America that had to wait for a month to get news from Europe. Then imagine what it must have been like to have that shrunk down to about a week. It must have seemed like the world was spinning faster than anyone ever imagined it could.

The author does a magnificent job of pulling together the scant primary source material about Eldridge himself - one letter to a newspaper, a few official documents, etc. - and weaving them into the story of the era. We know, for the most part, what ships he captained (he had seagoing brothers as well, and sometimes they got confused in the press). Throw in the 1849 San Francisco gold rush, the Australian gold rush, the idea of cutting a canal through Central America, and you have an engaging saga about the seas in the middle of the nineteenth century. Still, there remains an air of mystery around Asa Eldridge, which, unfortunately, continues through his death at sea.

We've made heroes of much lesser Americans. Asa Eldridge and his contemporaries deserve far more recognition for the growth of early America than they currently receive.

Monday, May 23, 2016

One Wild Bird at a Time by Bernd Heinrich

Why I Read It: Grabbed from the Amazon Vine program; I loved Winter World.

Summary: Heinrich investigates the lives of several species of birds living near his cabin in Maine.

My Thoughts: Heinrich has done it again. Mostly what he has done is he has caused the world to slow down for just a few minutes and see it the way that he does, one piece of data at a time. The stories of each species he covers focus on the tight confines of his woods in Maine. He spends his days like I hope to some day, taking long observations and thinking deeply about what he sees. Why do redpolls burrow into the snow? How does a red-breasted nuthatch build its nest? Oftentimes, he challenges us to take the unexpected turn in the way we think, to challenge conventional wisdom.

Just as often, he makes us laugh with his experimentation techniques. When a black-capped chickadee slams into a window on his cabin and dies, he doesn't just let it become food for another bird, or even give it a "proper" burial; he skins it and examines the contents of its guts to find out what species of caterpillars it's been eating. When he wants to find out whether or not a ruffed grouse is more apt to create a subnivian burrow in an area where others already exist, he tests his theory by taking a dead bantam rooster on a rope out to a clearing and pitching it head first into the snow, to mimic the grouse's holes.

As someone who has dabbled in citizen science, I bow to the master! This book makes me wish I had more free time to explore the world like Bernd Heinrich does.

Split Season by Jeff Katz

Why I Read It: I lived it, like millions of other baseball fans.

Summary: "Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo and the Strike That Saved Baseball"; the 1981 players' strike and the season that surrounded it.

My Thoughts: In 1981 I was ten years old. I had no reason to be a true baseball fan just yet - my hometown Red Sox weren't exactly lighting the world afire - but I was. It probably had more to do with baseball cards and collecting them than the game itself. I was heading for Little League and the Sox had a few stars to whom I could look up, in that innocent way kids do. Carl Yastrzemski was nearing the end, but Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk and so many others were in their primes.

And then, it came to a halt. The players went on strike. Mind you, it didn't really affect me that much that I can remember. My love for listening to and watching baseball has grown with the years. At that time there was much more to do with my life. But I do have one strong memory of the strike.

I remember listening to the radio one night. The 1981 Sox were taking on...the 1967 Sox. It sounded like so much fun, and due to the magic of radio, it could happen. There was Tony Conigliaro coming to the plate, Jim Lonborg on the mound pitching to Dwight Evans. I'm sure somewhere somebody had pulled out the old Strat-O-Matic and come up with the game result, but there was one obvious human touch. At one point in the game, I can't remember when, Carl Yastrzemski came to the plate (1981 Yaz). Before the first pitch was thrown, 1967 Yaz motioned to the right fielder that he wanted to switch positions, from left to right. And there it was. 1981 Yaz swung and launched a mighty drive to right, way back, toward the bullpen, and 1967 Yaz leaped and robbed himself of a future home run! I may not have understood what was going on with baseball, but I knew I had just witnessed history that could never happen.

Katz brings us back there, to the days when Fernando Valenzuela turned baseball on its head, looking skyward all the way. Back to Pete Rose's all-time National League hit record, and Garry Templeton's ousting from the Cardinals. And he brings us into the backroom haranguing that eventually settled the dispute between players and owners, Marvin Miller and Ray Grebey. It was not baseball's last labor dispute, but it was one with major ramifications for many parties involved. That included the fans, many of whom walked away and only came back in a very gradual way, if they did at all. In the long run, the strike helped baseball, but in the short term, it made for some tough days.

So Anyway by John Cleese

Why I Read It: I kind of had no choice. John Cleese wrote it.

Summary: Cleese's a point.

My Thoughts: Just like everybody else who read it, I suspect, I got to a point in the book where I said, "Oh my god...he's not going to do Python."

Cleese is an amazing writer. It helps that we all have his voice in our heads. I actually feel that there are books that need no audiobook companions, because we can already hear the voice, the inflection, the cadence. When we read them, it's as if they're being read to us.

That said, I reiterate, Cleese is an amazing writer. Of course, he's been at it for decades. He knows how to string together words in ways that make us laugh, either as Basil Fawlty, Ann Elk or as president of Britain's Well Basically Club. Sure, I was not an innocent and previously disinterested bystander when I picked up the book. I wanted to know as much as I could about the author's life. But many times in the past, I've picked up an autobiography with sweating palms and been deeply disappointed. I walked away from this one enchanted.

We learn where it all began, the stories of mom and dad, and how young John came along. We learn, in more detail than I was expecting, about John's relationship with his mother. We learn, too, origin stories for many of the skits that Monty Python made famous (Cleese was bitten by a rabbit as a kid, for instance). We also learn that not everything we saw on screen was original material, that some skits were tried and true routines from years past that Python simply made famous.

Most of the book is pre-Python, and, in fact, Cleese even admits that he was going to end the book with the formation of the group, but that he couldn't stop there without adding a few final words. He feels he has to, that he cannot call this book complete without sharing some of his deep love and affection for our lost Python, Graham Chapman. It's touching and beautiful. But the book still feels incomplete; or, more precisely, it makes the reader feel like there has to be a follow-up tome.

Python fans, Fawlty Towers fans, even A Fish Called Wanda fans should love this book, as, above all else, it proves that nice guys sometimes do well in this world.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Road to Little Dribblng by Bill Bryson

Why I Read It: Self-diagnosed Anglophilia and a secret desire to be a societally-accepted curmudgeon.

Summary: Bryson repeats himself, walking England a second time, in mostly different places than he visited in Notes from a Small Island.

My Thoughts: I've thought about it myself. I have done 2 1/2 books on walking (the third in process) and I've thought about repeating my steps. When would it be appropriate? After ten years? After twenty? In my case, the topics were open space and nature, and I'm sure that if I returned to some places, things would be tragically different, at least in my eyes. Bryson's topic, generally, was British culture, and he opted for the 20-year approach.

His humor is unmatched in the genre. The pictures he paints are sublimely silly, when he is trying to be funny. But he is more than comedy. He is information and education. He is a statistician that finds deeply relevant numbers to crunch that most of us overlook. And he spews his own form of watchdoggerel (new word! yes!) directed at, well, everybody and anybody. He wants us to all get along, at a good, fair price and for a solid day's effort. He detests corner-cutters and skinflints as well as people who stare logic in the face and stick their tongues out at it.

He takes us back and forth through time, introducing us to some of the lesser known characters of British history, in their estates, in their gardens, in their woods. He visits museums and archaeological wonders, architectural landmarks and every bar and coffee shop in England, usually in that order. He wonders why the British people are the way they are, sometimes figuring it out, oftentimes leaving town with a scribble over his head like a Peanuts character, with a scowl and a few hushed obscenities on his lips. And before you label him as a prima donna or a turd, know that he is as self-deprecating as hell. He starts the book with a slapstick moment in which he is the foil. He knows who he is, and uses it to make us laugh.

If you've read Bryson's travel work before, you know what to expect. If you haven't, read, laugh, learn. If' you're British, read the last 5 to 10 pages to see what he truly believes about England. Treasure him for who he is and what he does, for, if nothing else, he is a conversation catalyst, and conversation drives us toward change and societal improvement.

Now, I sit and wait for the next Bryson book to come out, and continue to ponder how to take my next steps, both as a wanderer and a writer.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Ty Cobb by Charles C. Alexander

Why I Read It: Baseball has been my passion since I was a very small boy. Ty Cobb was a name I grew up with in my head, but I never really knew who he was.

Summary: A true baseball biography, sometimes a game-by-game account.

My Thoughts: Ty Cobb was disliked, and I think that's where I now stand on him after reading this biography. Other people may go much further, to defining him as despicable or hated. I don't think I want to go that far.

Cobb suffered from a ferocious drive that fueled a hatred for the people around him, sometimes even his own teammates. But it was, unfortunately, what ultimately made him so successful on the baseball diamond. He always had to be better than the other guy, and felt he had to constantly prove that he was through his actions. It was him against the world, and he was nasty about it.

He played on the cusp of baseball eras, the Cobbian and the Ruthian. His was a game of bunts and steals and gamesmanship. Ruth's was of swinging for the fences. Stolen bases came back late in the 20th century, and now we live in a sort of blended age (steroids jerked us back to the Babe's game; we're now settling back toward the middle). He hated everything about the new game, and went to his grave thinking that players who played prior to 1920 were the game's all-time greats.

Had he not shown his cutthroat behavior before he made the majors, we might have cut him some slack for what happened on the eve of his coming of age. His mother blew away his father with a shotgun in what was termed an accident. Cobb had fought his whole youth for his father's acceptance, and was about to prove to him once and for all that baseball had been a wise choice, and his dad was taken away in a gruesome, horrifying scene. Naturally, that stayed with Cobb his whole life.

Cobb died a lonely, angry man, leaning toward repentance at the very end, wondering if he'd made the right choices along the way. The author brings out the best and worst of Cobb, and the book sadly tilts toward the latter, but the facts are the facts. Ty Cobb was not a nice man. He did incredible things on the baseball field, and the records books will always tell us so. He became the first independently wealthy star athlete, and he did much to help those around him with his money. I just wish he had seen the error of his ways long before he did, and could have died a happier man.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Birds in the Bush by Bradford Torrey

Why I read it: I lived, for a short time, a stone's throw from the Bradford Torrey Bird Sanctuary in Weymouth, Massachusetts.

Summary: A series of short essays on birdlife around New England in the 1880s.

My Thoughts: Bradford Torrey had that gentlemanly birder way about him, always excusing himself for intruding on the lives of the birds he was seeking. But that was the way it was in the 19th century. If you weren't shooting them and building up huge piles of feathers and bones, you were meandering about gathering behavioral data, on the cutting edge of ornithology (one might say we're still there today; we have so much to learn!).

For those folks who have never read a 19th century birding book, start with the oldest bird ID guide you can find. Eastern Towhees weren't towhees, they were "chewinks." Yellow Warblers weren't warblers, they were Summer Yellow Birds. The names alone add a lyrical bent to the storytelling, sometimes reminding us of the evolution in nomenclature we take for granted.

And, if this is your first foray into Victorian birding in the Boston area, know, too, that not all is the same. Torrey talks of flocks of Fox-colored Sparrows; a single bird spotted today will make your winter. He talks of the rarity of Northern Cardinals, and he was right. They arrived, en masse, as even winterers decades later. And he laments the arrival and overwhelming advance of House Sparrows. We lament it today as well, but he was there to see the transformation, the loss of the cavity nesters, the movement of the sparrows (at that point they were still classified as sparrows, eventually to be recognized as weaver finches, though retaining the name) from the cities and into the suburbs and countryside.

Torrey moves out across New England, to Vermont and New Hampshire, in the days when to do so meant taking a carriage to a train to a - or, the - hotel in a given area. In what has to remain one of the most interesting birding experiences of all time, Torrey rode on a slow-moving flatbed railroad car through the White Mountains' Franconia Notch while sitting on a freshly-made coffin being transported to a - the - hotel for immediate use. Quite frankly, if given the opportunity, I would have done the same thing.

One interesting sidelight to the book is the direct parallels to today. Torrey spends several paragraphs detailing the life of the hunter, how he wantonly kills the birds (as it was in those days) just for sport, and then compares it to his own hobby. Why, he says, am I labeled as the odd one, for just looking at them? Birders still live by this stigma today in America. (Note: Believe me, individual birders give the world plenty of reasons to think they're all nuts, but in truth, they're not).

Torrey's voice is one that is lost to time, but should be right there with Thoreau (whom he championed) and Muir as the great describers of the American wilderness in their days. He was a pen pal of the Isles of Shoals' Celia Thaxter, too, deeply tied into the corps of writers defining New England in the late nineteenth century.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Tales from the Dugout by Mike Shannon

Why I Read It: I'm a Krank from way back, and this was a gift from my friend Tom from Texas.

Summary: A collection of baseball anecdotes, a little heavy on the Cincinnati side, gathered in the 1990s.

My Thoughts: Mike Shannon wanted to do a book of baseball anecdotes, but he wanted to make sure that he gathered tales that had not been told before. Baseball is a wonderful thing in that sense. It has such ridiculous depth that it is possible to turn over new stones every year and find such stories.

And the author did well. It was only on page 89 that I realized I had heard one story before, as well read as I am on the history of the sport and its characters.

These books generally age well. Baseball will always be a game of balls and sticks and gloves, of 90 feet between the bases, of short right field porches and hot shots down the third base line. The bones will always be there. It's the personalities that come and go, that fill the uniforms and the positions and lineup cards and bullpens that will change. So, even though time-stamped - for instance, when Shannon mentions that Ken Singleton is "currently" the radio announcer for the Montreal Expos - these books can proudly go onto the baseball bookshelf, despite the fact they occasionally make us stick our heads in the air and look at the calendar to check what year we're actually in.

The stories are wonderful, arranged alphabetically by subject. The one thing the book is missing is a postscript, or some other way of wrapping up the collection. In a way, it ends with triumph, but only because of its alphabetical arrangement. In the last few words, Anthony Young is carried away on the shoulders of teammates after breaking his major league record losing streak.

There was plenty in this book that I had never read before. It's the kind of book that you like to put on a shelf, knowing you may never read it all the way through again, but makes you smile when you see the spine, as you're reminded of how much you loved the book, and how much you love the game.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

For Cause & Comrades by James McPherson

Why I Read It: A Civil War topic with which I've always been fascinated.

Summary: A deep examination of the reasons of why northern and southern soldiers alike fought in the Civil War,

My Thoughts: The author, a talented Civil War historian, dove into this subject with vigor and determination, much like the men of whom he wrote approached the war they fought over a century and a half ago. His tally was somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 letters read, from all the states that existed at the time, plenty of occupations, different levels of social class.

I approached the book with some preconceived ideas. To me, the main reason men stood shoulder-to-shoulder and fired their guns at armies doing the same a few dozen yards away was the fact that most units were formed from hometowns. If you skedaddled, news beat you home, and you couldn't go home. And that notion was validated by McPherson's research. It was a factor. But it was only one.

Men signed up at the beginning of the war for different reasons than they reenlisted for three years later. At the beginning there was a cause, and though they were different on either side of the lines, causes were equally as powerful whether you wore blue or gray. Plenty of other factors
- ideology, religion, patriotism, etc. - all came into play, as did loyalty to one's comrades. Many men couldn't pull themselves away from their friends, couldn't fathom leaving them at the front and returning home. Some fought for the people at home. Some fought because they were more scared of their own officers than they were of the enemy. Northerners fought to hold together what the Revolution had wrought; southerners fought against the tyrannical rule of the North, to maintain their rights as given to them by the Declaration of Independence. It was all in the interpretation.

As the war moved on, reasons changed. Slavery became an issue, where before it was masked under states' rights. Politics heated up in 1864 with the presidential election, and the North feared a loss of professionalism as original enlistments ran out and the idea of bounty men filling the ranks permeated. Why did men fight? It depended on the year, the occupation, the personal conviction.

What this book really asks, if you read deeply enough, is why would you have fought (or would you fight today, and why)? Do we carry the same nobility of spirit as we believe they did, and as they believe their American Revolution forbears did?

It's been almost 80 years since manpower was needed in a war to the extent that the Civil War claimed it. I wonder how I would have reacted had my name been called.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Andy Warhol was a Hoarder by Claudia Kalb

Why I Read It: Grabbed from the Amazon Vine program.

Summary: An exercise in historical diagnoses of some of the world's greatest minds.

My Thoughts: The author lets us know right off the bat that there is nothing binding in what she says. Her musings are not true diagnoses. We have to accept it, that everything in the book is conjecture, retroactive dabbling.

So let's have fun with it.

There are certain famous figures at whom we look back - Howard Hughes, for instance - who we know had their issues. And then, there are others, like, say, Abraham Lincoln. Sure, he looked morose, but then he was President at the most trying time in American history, when war raged across its landscape. I think you or I might be pretty stressed out, too. But who knew that long before he took the oath of office he was suicidal?

Who knew that Dostoevsky was a gambling addict?

This book is full of such juicy tidbits, and really, that's a lot of what this book is about. It's dead celebrity gawking, with the added twist that we're looking inside their heads. The celebrity bit gives the book its power; if this was a tome about twelve Joe Schmoes, we wouldn't care nearly as much. So, we look at George Gershwin, and we think about Porgy and Bess and An American in Paris (for reference, look up 1990s United Airlines commercials and listen to the background music). But did anybody in his time consider him to "be ADHD"? The signs are all there, today, as we look back. And was Einstein on the spectrum? Boy, it sure looks like it. We always have just taken him as brilliant, quirky, but not a candidate for autism or Asperger's. Yet, try to talk your way out of it after reading this book.

It's all here, from Frank Lloyd Wright's narcissism to Betty Ford's alcoholism. The question is raised about the connection between fame and extreme behavior. Can you be a superstar in any field without a little bit of, well, something? Usually, when I read a book like this one, I start to look in the mirror and tremble just a little bit. But not this one. Nope, these people are way too far out there.

Guess I'm not headed toward a life of fame. My mother will never believe it.