Saturday, April 11, 2020

At Home by Beth Luey

At Home: Historic Houses of Eastern Massachusetts: Beth Luey ...
Why I Read It: I help run an historic house in Eastern Massachusetts (see "Summary").

Summary: The histories of eight historic houses in Eastern Massachusetts.

My Thoughts: The beauty of this template is that it can be used in any county in any state in America, and even in regions around the world. The author has profiled the life histories of eight historic homes. She's spread them out from the North Shore of Boston to Concord to New Bedford to Cape Cod, and stretched them from the early 1600s to the year 2000.

Working in the historic preservation field, I can see why she chose what she did, but can also see the breadth of what she left out. There are so many more historic houses being kept alive by preservation groups of all kind in the region that this is a mere sampling of what is out there to explore. That said, she chose the obscure - like the Fairbanks home in Dedham - and the famed, like the homes of John and John Quincy Adams, the Alcotts, Mary Baker Eddy and Edward Gorey. The obscure is where most of our history lies, in historic structures in which everyday people lived everyday lives. But a little bit of celebrity certainly helps tell a tale.

I found the biographical sketches of several of the characters - Bronson Alcott, Eddy and Gorey, in particular - to be fascinating. Ultimately, the book is about the homes, but they are what they are, from construction to decoration, because of the people who lived in them. Kicking off the book with the Fairbanks house and its grisly murder story was a great idea.

The author begs us to break the 60-mile rule. We tend to live in bubbles, seeing anything local as mundane. But as soon as somebody from the outside arrives, or we travel 60 miles distant, we find experts and new adventures. We need to look right in our own backyards. This book encourages us to explore our home regions, to come face-to-face with our local history. I've visited every town in this book; I've never visited any of the homes. I've got some work to do.

Find your local book, and explore your local world.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Self Help by Al Snow Self Help: Life Lessons from the Bizarre Wrestling ...
Why I Read It: Because Hulk Hogan pinned the Iron Sheik when I was 12 years old.

Summary: The bizarre wrestling career of a member of the J.O.B. Squad.

My Thoughts: Al Snow's career was mostly in that black hole of my wrestling viewing life. I was away from the game for the nineties, only finding WWF's Smackdown when it moved to the UPN network. No, I didn't have cable television as a kid.

So, I missed Al's high spots, which I think is a shame, because I've always thought of him as a good worker and one who understood the psychology of the fans at ringside and at home better than most. When I came to know him, he was already fighting his way out of the J.O.B. Squad. Call them what you want (jobbers, enhancement talent, etc.), there are wrestlers who have historically been dropped down to a level at which they will never win against superstars getting a push from a promoter. They are there to make the top guys look good. Some accept it and collect a paycheck week to week. Others reinvent themselves and seek new pastures if they feel they still have something left to give the sport at a high level.

Al's book is, as any of his fans might expect, really funny. There is one line I will never forget, about a trip across Canada with a van full of little people wrestlers, that just summed up the whole book, Al's whole life, for me. There were times I had to stop reading and run to tell somebody, anybody, what I had just read.

That said, I was surprised at the persecution complex Al displays throughout the book. It feels like every chapter (an exaggeration, I'm sure, but it feels that way) ends with a "woe is me" moment: nobody listened to me, if I had my way it would've turned out better, Vince left me high and dry. But I guess it's all part of what makes Al, Al.

I loved this book for who Al is and for what Al has done. He had his low times, like every wrestler does, but he has reinvented himself as a businessman several times over. Generally, wrestlers who write autobiographies are survivors, men and women who have faced down adversity in dozens of ways and lived to tell the tale. Al's been there and back again.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My ...
Why I Read It: I've read everything Alan Alda has ever published, and I don't intend to stop.

Summary: Getting to the roots of why scientists can have trouble communicating with laymen.

My Thoughts: M*A*S*H had a major impact on my life as a kid. It connected me to my dad in ways I'll never forget. Until the day he died we could quote lines back and forth to each other, or use them in disconnected situations to convey specific messages tat only we would understand. Alan Alda, and Hawkeye Pierce, had a lot to do with that connection.

Alda followed M*A*S*H with a long career that included, among many other roles, the role of grand inquisitor on Scientific American Frontiers. It was interesting to watch him explore his interest in and enthusiasm for science with each episode. There was always this vague, ethereal connection in my mind. "Of course he's interested in science. He played Hawkeye, a doctor." The fact that he was not a real doctor came back to me in this book when he mentioned surgical procedure he "performed" in a M*A*S*H episode as if he was hearing the term for the first time. Someday I'll get this all straight in my head.

My respect grew for Alda as I read this book and learned how he has taken his passion for science and coupled it with his other love, the stage, to create a pathway to a better world.

In this book, Alda explores the simple question of why the scientific community cannot always effectively communicate with the public, and how to bridge that gap. The answer, he finds, rests in empathy, reading the emotional responses of listeners and adjusting language to find the right way into that person's, or audience's, basic comprehension. But, like a good scientist, he doesn't just throw out a theory and a hypothesis. He puts his ideas into action, taking scientists through improv exercises and testing the results. He even financed a school dedicated to the study on Long Island.

Understanding, empathy, connection. These are all words the world needs right now. Take it from Alda, a master communicator if there ever was one.

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Strenuous Life by Ryan Swanson The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making ...
Why I Read It: I was introduced to the "Strenuous Life" through a local story, about a writer named John Boyle O'Reilly, who believed in vigorous exercise two decades before Roosevelt took office.

Summary: President Teddy Roosevelt's effects on American sports, and on how Americans view athletics in general.

My Thoughts: So, some of this I already knew.

I had done a study on the evolution of football as I attempted to interpret the news of an 1890s series of games on a local field for my local paper. It led me to the Roosevelt summit with college coaches and the rule changes enacted to reduce the brutality of the game at the time. So I knew that Roosevelt found the game manly enough for his tastes, but in need of reform (his own son was seriously injured in a game).

I knew, too, that Teddy was a boxer in college. But here's what I didn't know.

I had no idea that he had been given the Golden Ticket by baseball, invited to attend any games anywhere in the country. He, though, had no respect for the sport, finding it below his personal machismo threshold. Baseball never forgave him. Check out how many times the Teddy character has won the Presidents races at Washington Nationals games.

But his impacts didn't end there. He championed the New York City public schools' physical activity and the Public Schools Athletic League. He played tennis at the White House religiously, and took his cabinet and visiting dignitaries on brisk, somewhat insane walks through the wild places of Washington D.C. He also balked at connecting his name to the Olympics in any way.

If it was a sport extant during Roosevelt's tenure at the White House, he had an opinion of it or an effect on it. We can trace at least a portion of our enthusiasm for sport in the United States back to a man who believed that every American, whether he or she lived in the growing cities or the vanishing countryside, to Teddy. Bully!

Children of Nazis by Tania Crasnianski Children of Nazis: The Sons and Daughters of Himmler ...
Why I Read It: Birthday present from someone who knows my passion for World War II history.

Summary: The lives of the children of eight of the most notorious Nazis.

My Thoughts: Yeesh.

Even though World War II is a subject I've studied in depth, there's always another book out there that plunges me deeper. The one overriding learning I took away from this book was that there was no end to the depravity of the leaders of the Third Reich. What started out as a groundswell movement in the 1920s eventually led to untold excesses by the people at the top by the 1940s, the classic case of absolute power failing absolutely. The story is repeated in the tales of Himmler, Goring, Mengele and others.

The book, though, is about the children, and how each one dealt with the legacies their fathers left behind. The author doesn't state this as such, but there is a pattern. Children who were old enough to understand what was going on - save, perhaps, for the hidden horrors of the concentration camps - and who bought into the idea of Fascism and all of the Third Reich's strategic priorities stood by their fathers. The children who were too young to buy in typically learned of their fathers' crimes after they came to light publicly, and did whatever they could to escape their shadows.

Such an act was not easy when one carried specific surnames: Bormann, Hess, Speer, etc. Some chose to change their names, others did not. Some lost employment opportunities because of their fathers' past. Most spent the rest of their lives - some still do - trying to live down what their last names stand for historically.

The book is not for the faint of heart. It's yet another reminder of what can happen when tyrants are allowed to rule. Beyond that, it's also a study in the generational impacts of World War II.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The Boston Massacre by Serena Zabin

The Boston Massacre: A Family History: Zabin, Serena ...

Why I Read It: Growing up where I did, this is local history.

Summary: The author's specific focus is "A Family History," following the lives of Bostonians and soldiers up to and through the event.

My Thoughts: When I was a kid, it was another checkmark on the list. Why did the Revolution occur? The Massacre, the Stamp Act, the Tea Party, etc. For all we knew as young students it was a simple act of slaughter perpetrated by the "bad guys."

The author reminds us that these were real people, on both sides of the guns, who had led lives that brought them to this horrific moment. She brings us down to the ground level, away from the bird's-eye-view presented in Henry Pelham's drawing, and walks us through several important themes.

We meet the soldiers and their families. We learn what life was like for the wife of a soldier in the British army, which generally included families in their movements. We also learn how the soldiers and officers interacted with the local residents. It was a mixed bag. There was drunkenness, there was brawling, there were insults, but there also were marriages and babies.

Herein rested a problem. With supporters and detractors of the King waging wars of words and ideologies through both printed and shouted words, some welcomed the unions of soldiers and local women, others shunned them. One rebellious daughter of an outspoken dad defiantly married a soldier against her father's best wishes.

Strangely, there is another layer. When troops went AWOL, they often found themselves harbored and protected by residents in outlying communities. The locals would grab torches and pitchforks and form mobs hell-bent on protecting the wayward soldiers. The army made an example of one runaway - executing him on Boston Common - before catching onto the sentiment and going with lesser punishments, and even more clandestine approaches to retrieving AWOLs.

When the massacre does happen, we have a greater understanding of why, as well as a deeper understanding of multiple layers of impact it had on individuals, families, communities, governments and empire.

Fire in Paradise by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano

Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy: Alastair Gee, Dani Anguiano ...
Why I Read It: For the Amazon Vine project, but I'm also working on a firefighting history with a friend.

Summary: The November 2018 fire that consumed the town of Paradise, California, its causes and aftermaths.

My Thoughts: There are so many layers to this story.

First, there is the California landscape. As the outer edge of the arid southwest, it is extremely dry in many places, perfect for the dreaded combination of combustible material + oxygen + a spark that creates fires. Without decades of proscribed burning, which by now has become prohibitively expensive, considering the amount of land that needs it, the landscape has just become more and more adapted to that fatal spark.

Then, there is climate change. Higher temperatures are making things worse.

Third, we have to consider aging energy infrastructure, steel towers carrying power lines through the aforementioned landscape which have not been replaced for decades.

Finally, it's people. We are an old country now, with Baby Boomers retiring in great numbers. Some places, like Paradise, were "older" than others.

When the fire broke out near Paradise in November - caused by failing energy infrastructure sparking a brush fire in 60 mile-per-hour winds - even the best-laid escape plans were no match. People burned to death in their cars and houses. One man wheeled himself outside in his wheelchair to wait for a ride, and burned to death on the spot. Many older folks who had little capacity to move as quickly as needed died doing the best they could.

The authors cover Paradise from gold rush town to modern day, cover the landscape and all that affects it, the corporate entity whose misguided actions led to more than 80 deaths, the heroic actions of firefighters and volunteers, and the victims of the fire themselves.

I made the mistake of finding the town on Google Maps, just to situate myself. The satellite imagery currently used is from a time after the fire. We can walk down the streets mentioned in the book and "see" the empty lots where houses and businesses once stood, and remember the horror that consumed this once beautiful California town.