Sunday, December 1, 2019

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Eric Idle

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Why I Read It: I wasn't the seventh Python, but I was the ninth. Actually, they started before I was born, but who's counting? Probably Eddie Izzard. He probably thinks he's the ninth.

Summary: Eric's "sortabiography."

My Thoughts: I will say this right up front, and I'm sure Eric Idle will appreciate it: I don't want him to die.

I say that because when I read a good autobiography and it creeps toward its inevitable end I always become a little bit too morose, a bit too nostalgic. Yes, I fall in love with people. Unfortunately, I was already in love with the Pythons as dear old friends before I opened this book. It is, in fact, the reason I bought it. So, yes, toward the end of this book, the feeling washed over me again.

And let's face it, there's a weird energy at work with our relationships with celebrities; we feel like we know them. And for me, we're now talking about more than 40 years of "friendship" with the Pythons. I've grown with them, checked in on them, followed them on Twitter, seen all their movies, bought all their merch, from cassette tapes to this book. They've been there for four decades of my life, whether they know it or not (they don't).

But, as it is, I've known the public face of Eric Idle through all these years, or should I say, the many public faces, from "Nudge Nudge" to Sir Robin to the man Chevy Chase continuously injured in European Vacation to the Nun on a Run. This book exposes the private side of life that most of us never really knew. Yes, I knew about his friendship with George Harrison, but not so much Robin Williams. I've followed the post-Python years closely, but never knew certain intricacies about the creative relationships the boys shared. This book gives those insights.

Surprisingly, I didn't know that Eric had performed "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"  at the closing ceremony for the London Olympics (the song, not the book, which would have been harder and taken MUCH longer). When I found out, I Googled it and must admit that tears came to my eyes as I watched. It was a piece of my youth, up there on the screen...forty years later. It brought me such joy to see him still bringing the world together in laughter and enjoyment.

That's when the realization hit me. Eric Idle will never die. He and his iconic song will live forever. Besides, at least one person in my familial home town of Hingham, Massachusetts, has already beaten him to the epitaph, so he can't die until he finds another one just as suitable:

So, it's settled then, Eric. The show must go on.

Don't Make Me Pull Over! by Richard Ratay

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Why I Read It: 1970s history is hitting me right where the nostalgia is.

Summary: "The Informal History of the Family Road Trip."

My Thoughts: See, what you have to imagine is being at the specific crossroads in time this book highlights. America's great transcontinental highways system was built in the 1950s (as a military measure, copying the German system). Great destinations existed, from the warm South to historic New England to the National Parks in the West. Trains once got us to all of them, but had gone out of fashion. Flights could get us there, but were ridiculously expense for a family to afford. So, in the 1970s, we drove.

The author's experience varies from mine, and from yours, but the basic underlying story is true, of, at first, long stretches of open highway on which dads pushed the limits of gas tanks, hoping to make just one more exit. It's the story of the rise of chain restaurants that promised the same food we could get near home, and of strings of hotels across the country offering the same exact room you found on last year's vacation. And it's the story of the stuff that you brought with you as a kid to pass the time, in days when you could sit up in the back window with your Mattel football game and wave to policemen passing by, before seat belt laws came to exist.

The day came when it all came to an end, in the 1980s when the price of flights dropped low enough that a family of four could finally pay for tickets and save a day or two of travel, to be spent at the destination rather than in the car. The days parodied in the National Lampoon's "Vacation" movies eventually died; only a relative few of us will truly understand why they were ever written in the first place. Now, to take a trip like those we took in the 1970s, a family has to plan to do it for the nostalgia, for the desire to see America like we can't from a plane, to experience the country from mountains to plains and sea to shining sea.

I'd do it again, for every glorious, sweaty, cramped memory of days gone by.

Moon Rush by Leonard David

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Why I Read It: Ongoing fascination with astronomy, the fault of an excellent professor at UMASS Amherst.

Summary: Things we all should know as we head back to the Moon (in this, the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing).

My Thoughts: There are questions of which I hadn't even thought. What is the Moon's origin story? It turns out I don't know because nobody knows. Did it race out of the heavens and fall into place in orbit around our planet? Did it break off of our planet as it formed? How the heck did it get there?

Why haven't we gone back after the first glorious series of landings a half century ago? As technology advanced, shouldn't we have been going more frequently? Why did we stop?

The author does a wonderful job of tackling the basics of Moon history and science, taking us all the way to the modern day and the fact that numerous other nations now have eyes on it like never before. Just this year - after reading the book and becoming hooked on the story - I watched with great interest as India attempted to land on the Moon and begin exploration. I was somewhat dumbfounded to find out that China had germinated cotton seeds on the Moon; the plants died, but it was an amazing start.

I now know more about what the future of the Moon can be. And I'll be paying a lot more attention than ever before.

Palm Beach, Mar-A-Lago and the Rise of America's Xanadu by Les Standiford

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Why I Read It: Advance copy from Amazon, and an interest in the history of the southern half of Florida in general due to past writing assignments.

Summary: The whole story, from Flagler to Trump.

My Thoughts: It would have been easy to target the current "lord of the manor" in today's political climate, but the author did a wonderful job of covering the entire tale from start to the modern day.

And by "start," I mean the Native tribes that lived in the area that became Palm Beach. We today forget, or just never knew, that the southern Florida story is a relatively new story. While we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims settling Massachusetts in 2020, we should think about how the southern Florida phenomenon really only began in the late 1800s. It took one man with vision, and lots of cash, to continue to stretch his empire southward and create the world we see as a sunny playground today.

Not all has always been rosy. Access was an issue for many, but then, that made it more exclusive for those who could afford it. As with other retreat enclaves around the country, hotels came first, then private homes. In Palm Beach they came on a grand scale, the likes of which most of us will never experience in person. The author reminds us of the heydays of the Posts and Huttons and Stoteburys, the 1920s market collapse and the many, many scandals that ran through the community.

Yes, the Trump Mar-A-Lago ownership era is included. He has brought change, and challenges, but not nearly as much scandal-ridden gossip as past owners. Well, perhaps he has, but one would not guess so after reading this particular book.

The book fills us in on the whole story, from the first Flagler railroad tracks to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit in April of 2018, from construction of the marvelous mansion to the question of how to preserve it in perpetuity.

A History of Video Games in 64 Objects

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Why I Read It: I witnessed the revolution.

Summary: 64 objects in the collection of the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York and their places in the history of video gaming.

My Thoughts: It's simply amazing how many of the items in the book touched me personally as I grew up, and continue to today.

I was born in 1971, and as such, I was a personal witness to much of the video game revolution. I wasn't there for the first few items in the collection, but from that year onward, I crossed paths with almost every item. We hooked up Pong to our TV set. I was working in an arcade - it was the "career" of my teen years - when everything from Pac Man to Mortal Kombat went live. I watched the rise and fall of the Atari 2600 (though never knew why the latter happened, which is explained here) and remember when the NES came home with Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt.

Strangely, I can also see where my interest waned, or, should I say, life took priority over such things. My college years were spent cheaply, frugally. My NES came with me, but never got upgraded. I left arcades in the mid-1990s and never looked back. The book presents a little bit of a black hole for me in those years, but after 2000 I felt right back at home again, thanks to the arrival of the Play Station 2.

So, yes, the book provides a nostalgic opportunity for readers, but it's highly packed with information we never knew, or even considered, while playing the games. I loved Activision's River Raid on the 2600, but never knew it was a milestone achievement for female software developers. The book helps humanize this highly technological world, to put names behind the revolution, the fortunes and the crashes.

Tales of a Low-Rent Birder by Pete Dunne

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Why I Read It: Dunne is one of the classic American birding writers.

Summary: A collection of short stories about birding.

My Thoughts: Birders have to gain a certain level of confidence before they can truly enjoy what they do. We can be marginalized and thought of as weirdos, and, a half century ago, even Communists sympathizing subversives.

There's a general wariness that American birders carry with them when they set out. But once a birder gains that confidence that sets him or her free, that feeling that whether or not someone sees you as different doesn't matter one bit, the future is golden.

Pete Dunne's book, now part of the growing older canon of birding and birdwatching titles, reminds us of all the people that we run into "in the field." They're not always friendly at first, but most will admit to some level of observation, if not birding. They often have their own names for birds they haven't studied in depth but have seen in the wild during the normal course of their lives. They even can tell you tendencies, behaviors, and what other birds they interact with. Read Edward Howe Forbush's works from the early 1900s, and just how many names he curated from birders across New England for individual species. More than birders are paying attention. Birders just do it in parkas and sunhats and whatever they need to be out in all sorts of weather at all times of the year.

I think that one of the most symbolic lessons in Tales of a Low-Rent Birder is the story about finding a kite string in the dunes, and the feeling he couldn't shake that he had to follow it find out what was at the other end. That's what birding and wildlife observation is all about: curiosity. As I write this review, I'm fresh off a "life bird" sighting in Plymouth, Massachusetts, just hours before a snowstorm. What was I doing out at all? Satisfying my curiosity. Spending time observing the world around me. Not caring a damn what other people think.

Pete got it.