Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford

Why I Read It: I read A Christmas Carol every year; I figured I should know why.

Summary: The story of Charles Dickens and his amazingly enduring tale.

My Thoughts: The author states that Charles Dickens has been called "the man who invented Christmas" in the past, and admits that it might be a bit hyperbolic, but tells a pretty convincing story to that effect.

Nearly two hundred years removed from the origins of the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, we have more or less glossed over the story of its author, at least in relation to the details of his life as it concerned the writing of this book. Christmas is a beast, starting in late September each year. We don't stop to smell ancient roses like we should. But A Christmas Carol is one of them to which we should pay specific attention.

Dickens was struggling as a writer at the moment the idea hit him. Moreover, he had already dabbled in Christmas-themed stories before he penned this work, and would continue to do so for a few more years, never again reaching the same level of success. It turned out to be the perfect confluence of forces for him and, as it turns out, millions of readers living well into the future.

The underlying message of A Christmas Carol is charity, avoidance of greed, and it was published in a time, in 1843, when London was in dire need of such reflection. Life was tough, all around. There is probably a direct connection between the book's publication in late 1843 and the founding of the YMCA in the same city in 1844. As all -pervasive as Dickens' story was, it probably had at least a tangential effect on the Y's founders. Interestingly, the story comes with the ironic twist that Dickens was angered by the lacking paycheck he received from its first run.

A fun feature of this printing is that the book also contains the full text of A Christmas Carol, so we can seamlessly step from the Dickens story to the Scrooge story.

So, did he invent Christmas? No, obviously not. But he did help shape the holiday we celebrate today, helping to cement traditions we often inherit without much thought as to their origins.

Mad Dog: The Maurice Vachon Story by Bertrand Hebert and Pat Laprade

Why I Read It: "Mad Dog" Vachon was a legend by the time I started watching pro wrestling in the late 1970s.

Summary: The life story of one of French Canada's wrestling legends.

My Thoughts: Wrestlers, like any other athletes, tend to fade away when they leave the limelight. They occasionally show up in the background shots of sketches, barely recognizable as an extra referee or in some other capacity, sometimes trotted out one last time to lift up a current star, to put them over. The WWE has done a great thing by establishing its Hall of Fame, and opening it up to wrestlers from all across the United States, reversing its ancient trend of not recognizing other associations, a lingering aftereffect of the territorial era. Through it we get to see and hear our heroes and villains one last time.

Maurice Vachon was one of those wrestlers with whom I'd lost touch through time. Honestly, I don't know that I ever saw him wrestle, as his most accessible home turf to me in the early 1980s, the American Wrestling Association, was just beginning to be televised in my region before it was swallowed up by the then-WWF. Now, his brother, Paul "The Butcher" Vachon, was a different story. By that time he was a jobber, collecting a paycheck week to week by getting his shoulders pinned to the mat to highlight established and up-and-coming stars. I didn't see him at his prime, but at least I saw him in action. I read about Mad Dog in the many magazines of the day.

So it was almost a blank slate with which I approached this biography. I had previously read the authors' work in a history of Montreal wrestling, which, in turn, spawned this book. The book is translated from the French version, with minor interruptions to its flow, overall very well done.

The basic story is that "Mad Dog" was a gimmick, and Maurice Vachon had a heart of gold. In the days when fans truly believed what they were seeing, before "kayfabe" was broken for good, it was hard to believe that there was an ounce of good in him, but it was true.

There are recurring themes in his life. From a hardscrabble childhood, he followed the typical YMCA redemption story (life was tough, I went to the Y and it changed for the better) by taking up boxing and then wrestling. Maurice represented his country at the Olympics as a wrestler, gaining national recognition that would follow him for the rest of his life. He cheated death several times, eventually losing part of a leg to an accident. He went through several marriages. and rode the ups and downs of the industry.

I think, for me, the enduring image will be of Mad Dog, fire in his eyes, working on building a casket for an opponent in his backyard for a televised sketch. That type of far-fetched lunacy was what fueled the future of wrestling, for better or worse, depending on your point of view, microphone skills becoming as important as physical talent. But in the end, it was indicative of the creativity of the performer that showed through and his passion in connection with his pursuit.

Mad Dog may rest in peace, but there are generations still left who are still riled up by his act.

American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee

Why I Read It: As a citizen scientist, the idea of telling a wolf's story through collected data seemed interesting.

Summary: Forces collide and decide the fate of an iconic wolf.

My Thoughts: The basic story told through this book is that as a country we are so deeply divided on so many issues that we are blind to the consequences of our own selfishness. And that goes for all sides of any argument.

In this case, it's wolves and wolf-watchers vs. ranchers and hunters, politicians standing on either side to get elected, the National Park Service caught in the middle and already-elected officials in Washington, D.C., attaching the lives of wolves to bills as poison pills to block passage of unrelated laws. In many ways, this is the most disgusting of practices.

The author follows the life of 0-6, a wolf claimed to be un-anthropomorphized (due to the fact that she was never given a proper name, instead called by the last two numbers of the year of her birth). Unfortunately, whether she was 0-6 or Sheila, she still gathered a following who watched her every move and made her a member of their extended family, exactly what scientists are trained not to do. The scientific disconnect was just not there, and because of it, there was an epic blow-up when she was shot and killed.

It takes moments like this, of course, to cause change, but in this case, all sides have ground on which to stand. Conservationists want wolves back at Yellowstone, to restore the natural order, to cause that tropic cascade that controls the elk population, which in turn changes plant colonies for the better, etc. Ranchers want their cattle protected, and who the hell can blame them? Hunters want to hunt, and not just for sport. They want to provide food for their families, and they see wolves as competition. It's a nasty snarl of a question that leads to back-and-forth situations in which states have jurisdiction over the lives of the animals, and then the federal government does, and vice versa as the political winds blow. Wolves, clueless as to man-made boundaries, the current state of their placement on the endangered species list and other human whims, have no idea when they transition from a safe zone to one in which anyone with a gun can shoot and kill them, and wander into and out of rifle and spotting scopes.

No matter which side you land on in this debate, you'll be mad when you finish this book, because the story doesn't end. There will be more to come.