Thursday, August 20, 2015

Duty and a pile of coconuts

I've enjoyed a number of books about the great and not-so-great explorers who ventured into the unknown.  While there's certainly a romantic idea of being the first to see new lands and bring back great discoveries, more often than not the intrepid explorers faced dangers and incredible hardship in inhospitable places, and some were never heard from again.  For me, any thought of exploration kinda loses it's allure when the food runs out!  Even when expeditions were successful, the explorers didn't always return to fame and glory, but at least some got to sail in beautiful places like the south Pacific.  And I remember hearing in several of these books about "the mutiny on the Bounty."

While I was reading The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander, I was surprised that no one I mentioned it to had heard of it.  I remember seeing a book about it years ago and I know several movies have been made over the years, but apparently it's not one of those bits of trivia most bother to remember.  In 1789, Lieutenant William Bligh sailed the Bounty, with its crew of 46, to the beautiful island of Tahiti.  He'd been there before with Captain James Cook, but now his goal was commerce: he was to obtain breadfruit plants to start plantations in the West Indies.  Bligh was a conscientious captain who looked out for the health and welfare of his men, even while insisting upon order.  Unfortunately, a combination of combustible personalities, the beauty of Tahiti and its women, and a pile of stolen coconuts led to a mutiny that left Bligh and 18 of the sailors abandoned on the rough seas in a very small boat.  It was so heavily loaded that even small waves broke over the sides, and it seemed a certain death sentence.

But Bligh managed to sail this tiny boat and crew for 3,500 nautical miles (over 4,000 land miles) through violent storms and open ocean (with almost no food!) to a safe harbor.  Even more incredible was that only one man died, and that was in a clash with unfriendly natives.  News of this amazing feat and the eventual court martial of most of the mutineers who were apprehended a few years later in Tahiti, was talked about for decades.  Some were hanged for their crimes, but Fletcher Christian, the one who led the mutiny, was never seen again.

But the story doesn't end there.  With savvy legal help, two of the mutineers managed to get pardons from His Royal Majesty, and several of the families involved worked hard to change the narrative of the incident.  Bligh's temper and salty language – particularly over the stolen coconuts – was soon blamed for inciting the mutiny.  But Caroline Alexander sorts through the facts and weaves a surprisingly interesting tale of the challenges of living on a small ship in a big ocean – and even tells what happened to Christian.  And it's a very detailed story, with so much information that I found it slow reading in the beginning.  Before long, however, I was caught up in it and couldn't put it down.  She even tells where Christian and the others ended up, and what became of the community they established.  The maps and illustrations were great to help follow the story, but I wished it had included a list of the 46 men on the ship and their positions at the beginning, since it was hard to tell them all apart.  The extensive detail and backstory might put some readers off, but in spite of a slow start it turned out to be a great summer read.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The end of the world is fun

Fun to read about, that is.  (And no, I'm not talking about the Book of Revelations.)  People in the publishing industry have been saying dystopian books have run their course and we're moving on to realism  the contemporary kind of realism of John Green (not me, of course) who writes of nerds and cancer.  Perhaps, although every once in a while I run across a dystopia that falls in the "guilty pleasures" category, such as The Living by Matt De La Peña.  (If you were paying attention you downloaded a free audio version of it a few weeks ago.)

Shy, a Mexican-American kid from a small border-town near San Diego, is working on a cruise ship and earning good money. He's still dealing with his grandmother's recent death from Romero's Disease when a drunken guest approaches him near the railing.  They talk for a few moments, but before Shy knows what's going on, the man jumps overboard. Shy tried to hold on to his sleeve, but the man seemed intent on ending his life. But on the next cruise, a mysterious man in a suit wants to know exactly what the guy said to Shy before he jumped. But none of that matters when the ship is hit by a huge tsunami and he's fighting for his life... or does it?

Don't get me wrong: I had some problems with this book. First, the story is very predictable  it was hard NOT to see where it was headed almost from the beginning. Second, the profanity is pretty bad (and really stands out in the audio version). Plus, it drags when Shy and Addy  the snotty rich blonde girl (of course, you knew there had to be one)  are adrift on a raft, fending off sharks and trying to survive. And yet, in spite of all that, I couldn't stop listening. It's heavily plot-driven but the action kept me hooked.  Surprisingly, the characters are mostly well-developed and likeable. de la Pena is a pretty good storyteller.

In fact, when I saw an advance copy of book 2, The Hunted, on Amazon Vine, I jumped on it.  And in the interest of not giving away any spoilers, I'll only say that Shy and his friends finally reach Los Angeles and now face a city that has descended into chaos.  The government has walled off California and the people have set up zones to prevent the spread of thieves and disease. It wasn't as good as the first book even though it was less predictable (in some ways), but still a fun read. Some of the characters (Carmen, especially) seem less well-developed than in the first (she's almost a caricature), and aren't as likeable, but the 'dystopian' aspect of the series comes through more here than in the first one. It was still enough fun that I breezed through it in a few days.

So, if the end of the world is still fun for you, give Matt De La Peña a try.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Praying for rain

Southern California, where I live, has been suffering through a prolonged drought.  We've been asked to cut back on our water consumption, rates from the water company have been rising, people are converting lawns to ugly but "tolerant" landscapes, and even many religious leaders have called for fasting and prayer for an end to the drought.  Yet, in the years I've lived here I've also seen the rain coming down in buckets for days or even weeks on end.  I've had the pool filled to overflowing with rain and the backyard flooded, and seen torrents rushing in the gutters and filling intersections.  The skies can be very fickle.

Water is an essential element for humans.  Too much or too little can be devastating, but when it's just right we all get along happily.  But a book about rain?  What would you write about?  Cynthia Barnett found exactly what to write about in Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, a fascinating look at the effects of rain on the landscape, civilization and societies, and our culture.  She starts at the beginning of the planet, when the rains filled the oceans and compares Earth's history with that of Venus and Mars.  She talks about our efforts to live with it, including the invention of the rain coat  the mackintosh  in Scotland, and how Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings are notoriously leaky.  Thomas Jefferson tried to measure the rain at Monticello, but unfortunately built his home atop a hill and far from the sources of water down in the valleys.  Mankind has also tried to control the rain  everything from rain dances to cloud seeding and even burning witches who supposedly had meteorological influence.  Villages in India extract the scent of rain (which is different depending upon the soils where you live and other factors) and bottle it.  Rain has even seeped into our culture, becoming part of art, literature, and music.

Barnett has a wonderful voice in her writing - other reviewers have called it "lyrical"  that makes this a pleasant read.  I wondered how such a seemingly mundane topic could be made to fill a book, but it didn't take me long to be sucked into it and unable to put it down (the chapter on biblical floods and praying for rain was probably the 'driest' for me yes, pun intended).  I was even surprised to see a favorite song, "How Soon Is Now" by the Smiths, be discussed in it  Morrissey is from rainy Manchester and he's used a Bo Didley "rain riff" to evoke the drenched streets of his home (or something like that  I'm not musically intelligent enough to have understood it quite as well as I wish I had).  But I really enjoyed this book  even had to be on guard from my father-in-law who tried to borrow it after reading a few pages.  (I rec'd this book from the bloggingforbooks program.)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Where to sleep?

What did you worry about in 5th grade?  Homework and grades?  Friends?  What others thought about you?  Imagine being homeless at that age and worrying about where you would spend the night or what you would eat, or where you would take a shower or wash your clothes?  What if your friends started to complain that you smelled bad, or that your hair looked greasy?  How would you even do your homework when you have to spend the evening looking for a place to stay?

Before she died, eleven year-old Ari's mother wanted two things for her: that she get into the middle school for gifted students, and that she and her brother, Gage, stay together.  But when Gage's run-ins with their guardian, Janna, get worse, he moves out – and Ari chooses to stay with him.  The problem is that Gage doesn't actually have an apartment.  He's 19 but is having trouble getting a job because he doesn't have an address.  Instead, they end up 'couch surfing' at various friend's places, like Gage's girlfriend Chloe (and her roommates), or being snuck into a shelter where neither of them are the right age.  They even end up spending a night in a rented storage garage and in Chloe's car.  But it's hard to get homework done when you're moving back and forth every night, and Ari's grades are slipping and she's no longer at the top of her class.  Worst of all is that she's too afraid to say anything to her friends, and she worries that her clothes aren't clean and that she sometimes smells bad.  The dream of going to Carter seems to be slipping away from her.

Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson is a very well-written and heartfelt book, but I'll be honest: it made me very uncomfortable.  So uncomfortable through the first half, that I didn't enjoy reading it.  It's written for middle-grade kids and shows a side of life most will (thankfully!) never see but does it in a good way – I don't think parents need worry about anything inappropriate or the way it ends.  But it really highlights some of the challenges of normal things like school under such hardships.  It's not preachy but it shows other homeless people in a very sympathetic light (without touching on causes of homelessness like mental illness and addiction).  By the end I really liked the book a lot, but it was still an uncomfortable read.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The world's biggest stage

One of my favorite lines from the movie "Back to the Future" is when Doc Brown asks Marty McFly who the president is in the future.  When Marty answers "Ronald Reagan!," Doc laughs and asks incredulously, "The actor?!?"  And it's funny because we seldom associate actors with being deep thinkers – at least not the kind of thinkers we'd want to lead one of the most powerful nations on earth.

But Ronald Reagan was an actor in the beginning.  Actually, before that he was a radio sportscaster who then landed some roles in Hollywood, even becoming a rising star until World War II came along.  He tried to enlist but his eyesight was so poor that he wasn't allowed in a combat role, but his solid good looks were a natural fit for the government training and 'propaganda' films.  And when the plum movie roles dried up after the war, he found work in some less serious films such as "Bedtime for Bonzo" where he co-starred with a chimpanzee.  It's no wonder Doc Brown was dismissive.

In Reagan: The Life, H. W. Brands treats us to a fairly detailed (700+ pages) biography of the 40th President of the United States.  He covers his early years with an alcoholic father, his college foray into acting, and his desire for an ever-larger stage from which to perform.  When his Hollywood career stalled, he became the unlikely spokesman for corporate America on television's General Electric Theater where he honed his public speaking skills.  His political career began as union leader for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), following which he was elected California's governor.

But his presidency is the focus and bulk of this book, beginning around page 200 and consuming the next 500.  Brands covers it meticulously – almost to the level of minutiae – and frequently compares his impact with FDR's, Reagan's early hero.  I was a teenager during the early Reagan years, and saw him as restoring pride and confidence in America at a time when both were at historic lows.  Yet, I knew not everyone saw him as positively as I did: the editor of my high school newspaper went out of his way to criticize Reagan (I wonder how many high school newspapers were so overtly political?).  Later, I was out of the country (and out of touch with politics) during the final years when Iran-Contra and much of the negotiations with Gorbachev happened, so that was insightful to me.  And while Brands avoids 'falling in love with his subject,' as some biographers do, it's still a fairly friendly bio.  He frames Iran-Contra as Reagan's effort to bring hostages home and Nancy's reliance on astrologers as a possibly over-protective impulse after the assassination attempt, but in other places he is less than flattering and perhaps more objective.  That's probably how it should be, but if I had a complaint it's that the book sometimes feels passionless.

There will certainly be some on the far right who feel it's not praising enough, and some on the far left who feel it's not critical enough, but I found it to be an informative and entertaining read.  I've read a couple of books by his speechwriters – one was good but too patronizing and another too presumptuous.  I've read great books about Reagan's handling of the air traffic controller's strike and his near-assassination, and even one about a great speech he gave.  But Brand's bio does a good job of approaching scholarly while remaining readable.  I wish it had covered his pre-presidential life in more depth, but I guess that's worthy of a separate book or two.  For those primarily interested in his presidency, however, this one should please most readers.  (I received a free book from the publisher.)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Taylor's mission call

* I just have to explain his initial reaction: he was kind of hoping to go somewhere in the U.S.  He really is very excited.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Runaways

Did you ever try to run away from home as a kid?  For some reason I'm reminded of a Peanuts comic strip, and Linus tying his belongings up in his blanket and hanging it on the end of a stick.  Personally, I guess I never had a good enough reason.  My parents may not have been perfect but I always knew I was loved, which I guess is why I never made it past the corner the one time I can remember trying.  And if I remember correctly, Linus didn't make it very far either.  But maybe not everyone had it as good as he and I did.

Sixteen-year old Mary Iris Malone, otherwise known as Mim, is so unique that she's an anomaly.  After her parent's divorce she's in Mississippi with her dad when she discovers her mom is all alone back in Cleveland battling some disease, so she swipes her new step-mother's coffee can full of money and hops a Greyhound for Ohio.  Of course, she doesn't tell anyone – she just impulsively sets off for her objective.  But there are interesting people on the bus, like the old lady who smells like cookies and clutches a wooden box; Carl the bus driver whose "Carl-ness" is unquestionable; the extra-friendly "Poncho Man"; and the devastatingly handsome 17C.  And the trip turns out to have some interesting twists, as well as some unexpected friendships.

Okay, I know – that's about the blandest book summary in the history of the world, and doesn't begin to sum up the surprisingly interesting and compelling Mosquitoland by David Arnold.  Once I got started I had a hard time putting it down.  (The problem was that it's 350 pages and I don't have as much time to read as I used to, but I still stayed up late with it a couple of nights.)  As you might have guessed, this is one of those books where all the characters are damaged in some way, starting with Mim who is bitter over her parent's divorce, her father's remarriage (to the waitress at Denny's!), and having to move 1,000 miles away from her life.  The characters are all endearingly quirky with a bitingly sarcastic wit, which seems to be de rigueur these days for YA.  Then you throw them out on the open road with all its dangers, toss in some even quirkier characters (like a gay ninja, just for kicks), and we just can't help but hope for their success while we mourn as all the damages they've piled up in their short but dramatic lives are gradually revealed.  Sigh... yes, it's somewhat formulaic but it appeals to the teenager in us, whether or not we're still in those teen years.

Honestly, I wanted to hate this book (after I started it, that is – no one in their right mind picks up a book that looks interesting and wants to hate it).  I wanted to hate it because of the profanity, which is mostly the f-word (and is probably used somewhere north of a hundred times in those 350 pages).  I know, some kids talk that way and some readers won't object, but when the book is advertised for "12 and up" I'd like to think I could take that at face-value.  As a dad I can't recommend this to my 12 year old, and am wondering if I will recommend it to my 16 year old.  (Other than the language, there aren't any 'situations' I found objectionable.)  And yet I have to admit, I liked the characters – at least the one's you're supposed to like – and loved the ending (which was a bit predictable, but not completely).  It's well-written (the author is great at foreshadowing!) and pulls you in with a grip that doesn't let go, even clinging to you after finishing the last page, wishing you could spend a little more time with these people.  I just wish for a cleaner "children's" book.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Great Red God

"War is hell."
— William Tecumseh Sherman

As much as I enjoy reading military histories, I never had a desire to join the military.  And yet in some ways I envy the camaraderie soldiers must feel, particularly during wartime, and there's something interesting in knowing what war is like.  But as a quiet and rather bookish-person, my interest is purely intellectual – I don't really want to see any death and destruction!  But while military histories are all about death and destruction, most give you a mere taste of the unpleasantness of war but are still fairly sanitized.

Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima by Alexander Rose, however, is a bit different.  Rose takes three iconic American battles – Bunker Hill (American Revolution), Gettysburg (Civil War), and Iwo Jima (WWII) – and discusses them from a standpoint of the soldiers who fought in them.  He talks about the attitudes they would have brought to the battlefields, the terrain they faced, the weapons used, the enemy they fought, the wounds received and inflicted, and the results.  His focus for each battle is methodical but slightly different: "... for Bunker Hill, we [can] deduce a militiaman's experience of combat depending on his location (redoubt, beach, rail fence) and for Gettysburg we [can] do the same by deconstructing the era's formal templates (artillery bombardment, attack, defense), [and] for Iwo Jima [we] mostly examine combat method -- that is, how Marines first confronted obstacles and then surmounted them by watching, doing, adapting, and learning." (from pg 217 of the advance copy)

It's true, there's plenty of blood and guts in the writing, but it's told with a professional detachment that satisfies my weird curiosity but still leaves room for a healthy appreciation for the personal sacrifices. Yes, I squirmed while reading about the effects of cannonballs and bullets on the human body or the frightening descriptions of grenades and flame throwers in battle, but it's not all gore. Rose neither romanticizes warfare nor paints it simply as too horrific to even think about.  It's interesting to read how the battles happened from a soldier's perspective and how each differed, as well as why modern-day combat would be different still. It's also loaded with many of the individual observations from people involved in the fighting, the kind of quotes that don't always make it into the regular histories. One interesting note is how progressively "work-like" war had become by WWII, and how PTSD was almost unheard-of in earlier battles such as Bunker Hill. Another was the psychological effects of things like bombardments and bayonets – neither of which he says in the Bunker Hill section were as lethal as we might think in terms of physical damage inflicted.

It might not be the ideal book for someone with a weak stomach, but I found it so engrossing and well-written that it never really bothered me (and I read much of it while eating lunch). It's scholarly-like in its thoroughness and approach, but not difficult to read by any measure. I know a man who fought at Iwo Jima and he's criticized most books on the battle, but I suspect he might be more approving of this one. It certainly gave me a greater appreciation for his experience.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Friday, May 8, 2015

Ordinary magic that fits in your pocket

"I often think in music.  I live my daydreams in music.  I see my life in terms of music... I get most joy in life out of music."
— Albert Einstein

If there's one thing I regret it's that I never learned to play a musical instrument.  As a kid I wanted to learn how to play the piano, but there wasn't money for lessons let alone a piano at home.  Maybe that's why Jamie and I made sure our kids took lessons – and didn't let them quit even when we got tired of trying to get them to practice.  (And, of course, one of my favorite episodes of The Wonder Years dealt with this issue.)  And although I've frequently watched with envy as my kids sat down and played a beautiful piece of music, the problem now is time – I just don't have enough time to squeeze one more responsibility into my life, no matter how much I'd love to.

Three (actually four) stories meld into one in Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan, a charming tribute to the value of music.  When young Otto becomes lost in the woods he encounters three princess sisters and their story of being held captive by an evil witch.  They give him a magic harmonica which shows him the way out.  The harmonica then makes its way to three others with the power to change and save lives.  First is Friedrich, a young boy with a disfiguring birthmark that puts him in danger of the Nazis as they seek for a pure, unblemished race.  Second is Mike in Pennsylvania, who with his brother Frankie live in an orphanage but wish for a real family.  And third is Ivy, a young Mexican-American girl in California, whose brother has recently joined the army to serve during WWII. 

The stories and characters are compelling, and in spite of its length (nearly 600 pages) it reads quickly.  It was a little annoying, however, when Friedrich's story comes to an abrupt halt just as the danger is at its highest, and Mike's story takes over.  You have to read through all three to find out the final solution for each of them.  But they're nice stories and the central theme of how music can touch people's lives in different ways is nice if a bit heavy-handed.  It might encourage some kids to try learning an instrument – the harmonica, perhaps? – although the sheer bulk of the book may turn a few off.  Still, an enjoyable read that I think 4th to 7th graders will like whether or not they already play an instrument.  As for me, I know they say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but maybe someday I'll have some free time and see about those piano lessons.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Free audiobooks

In Brazil, they call someone who is really cheap "mao de vaca" which means literally "cow's hand."  If you look at a cow's hand (also known as a hoof) you'll see that it's closed; and in English we'd call that person "tight-fisted," which is the same meaning but much less colorful.  I am "mao de vaca," and if you're like me and would like some audiobooks for free you'll want to bookmark the audiobook sync site and visit it each week starting May 7 through August 14.

You'll need the OverDrive software on your computer to download the books, but I find the phone app a little wonky so I don't use it to listen.  I just transfer the mp3 files over and listen with the music app.  It's not as convenient, but at least it works.  (Maybe they've fixed the app by now – I guess I should give it another try at some point.  Or I could just burn it to a cd if I wasn't so lazy.)  The books – two each week – are only available for ONE WEEK, so don't forget to keep checking back.  And you don't have to listen to them right away – you just have to download them the week they're available.  (I've still got books from last year I haven't gotten around to.)  Here's the listing of books that will be offered this summer:
  • BEAUTIFUL CREATURES by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl (Hachette Audio)
  • A CORNER OF WHITE by Jaclyn Moriarty (Scholastic Audiobooks)
  • COURAGE HAS NO COLOR: THE TRUE STORY OF THE TRIPLE NICKLES by Tanya Lee Stone (Brilliance Audio)
  • CROWS & CARDS by Joseph Helgerson (Brilliance Audio)
  • DODGER by Terry Pratchett (HarperAudio)
  • ECHOES OF AN ANGEL by Aquanetta Gordon (christianaudio)
  • THE EXPLORERS CLUB by Nell Benjamin (L.A. Theatre Works)
  • THE LIVING by Matt de la Pena (Brilliance Audio)
  • MARCH by Geraldine Brooks (Penguin Audio)
  • MONSTER by Walter Dean Myers (Listening Library)
  • THE RING AND THE CROWN by Melissa de la Cruz (Recorded Books, Inc.)
  • ROSE UNDER FIRE by Elizabeth Wein (Bolinda Publishing)
  • UNDER A WAR-TORN SKY by L.M. Elliott (Tantor Audio)
  • X: A NOVEL by Ilyasah Shabazz & Kekla Magoon (Brilliance Audio)
  • THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain (Mission Audio)
  • ANNE FRANK REMEMBERED by Miep Gies & Alison Leslie Gold (Oasis Audio)
  • AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS by Jules Verne (Tantor Audio)
  • BUDDHA BOY by Kathe Koja (Full Cast Audio)
  • DRACULA by Bram Stoker (Naxos AudioBooks)
  • GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens (Naxos AudioBooks)
  • HERE IN HARLEM by Walter Dean Myers (Live Oak Media)
  • JOHN BALL’S IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT Adapted by Matt Pelfrey (L.A. Theatre Works)
  • LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott (Listening Library)
  • LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding (Listening Library)
  • THE OLD BROWN SUITCASE by Lillian Boraks-Nemetz (Post Hypnotic Press)
  • THE PERFECT STORM: A TRUE STORY OF MEN AGAINST THE SEA by Sebastian Junger (Recorded Books, Inc.)
  • REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier (Hachette Audio)
  • SEA HEARTS by Margo Lanagan (Bolinda Publishing)