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.

Rain is an important element in our survival.  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?  Apparently, 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).  I was even surprised to see a favorite song, "How Soon Is Now" by the Smiths, be discussed in it - apparently 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 having to keep it away 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)

Monday, April 27, 2015

Making it "Great"

(After reading an old econ book from college and a book about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, I thought I'd post this book review from 2008.)

Following the 1929 stock market crash the nation entered an economic recession. President Hoover implemented many policies in an attempt to turn things around, but succeeded only in driving more banks into insolvency and increasing unemployment. He also sought to have government replace business as the spending engine in the economy, and initiated numerous projects, such as Hoover Dam in Arizona. But when conditions hadn't improved by the next election he was overwhelmingly swept out of office by FDR and his New Deal.

Beginning in 1932 FDR had high ambitions for his first 100 days in office, and indeed was a whirlwind of activity. Unfortunately, there wasn't much logic or reason behind the activity, and the uncertainty of FDR's policies and actions further weakened the market. But he went even further by seeking to regulate business excessively and replace many private-run industries, such as utilities. Taxes were increased as high as 90% for wealthy individuals, and many new taxes were created such as the death tax, inheritance tax, undistributed profits, etc. Tax rules where changed retroactively and government prosecutors were kept busy persecuting those who'd already paid or had run afoul of the complex government rules.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes is a fascinating look at the Depression from a very convincing economic policy perspective. She skewers Hoover for turning a recession into a depression and FDR for having made it "Great." She points out why government policies failed to keep banks from failing, why the market lost confidence in government and how harsh tariff laws not only further weakened domestic industries but also exported the financial crisis abroad. She chronicles the various advisers to FDR, including many who were socialists in the many government bureaucracies created to tax anyone with money and spend it on New Deal programs that amounted to little more than expensive propaganda. She also points out that many of FDR's early New Deal successes were actually programs that Hoover started. As the depression deepened and lingered until the beginning of WWII, as many as 1 in 4 workers were either unemployed or in government work programs and people began to accept the depression as a fact of life.

Having studied economics for several years in college, I found the arguments to be logical and persuasive. I'm especially surprised, however, with the view this book paints of FDR and the lasting reverence so many in this country had for him. Some very brief research showed that the merits of the New Deal are indeed controversial, so for me further research is necessary to either validate or refute the claims of this book. Nevertheless, Ms. Shlaes has made a very logical argument against the legacy of the New Deal.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Gateway to hell... or heaven?

Leprosy isn't something we think about anymore unless we're reading the Bible, and although the word in scripture is used rather broadly, a stigma has attached to those suffering from Hansen's Disease.  In The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai, John Tayman explains that the skin disease usually affects the colder parts of the body – particularly the hands, feet, ears, and nose – destroying the underlying tissue.  Those afflicted suffer a loss of feeling and sometimes a curling in of the fingers or collapse of the nose often resulting in horrific disfigurement.  Because the tissue of the eyes is cooler it can destroy eyesight, so it's understandable why people were so fearful of the disease.  But not knowing what caused it (bacteria) or how it was spread (it is contagious only for those who are genetically susceptible) led to policies of exile, and Kalaupapa on Molokai is one of the most famous colonies.

A rocky and windswept peninsula on the north coast of Molokai was chosen because escape was difficult.  The seas were rough and cliffs thousands of feet tall separated it from the rest of the island.  The land was purchased cheap and the earliest exiles were often dropped in the surf and told to swim for shore.  A lawlessness pervaded the settlement and given the appearance of some of the exiles, it seemed a hellish place to those sent there and any who saw it.  Tayman describes the history of the colony from the early days until the early 2000s.  He tells the stories of many who were sent there over the years as well as the efforts of some to alleviate the suffering such as Father Damien, the Catholic priest who eventually shared his flock's fate, and Joseph Dutton, a Civil War soldier who just wanted to do good.  A cure for leprosy was found in the late 1940s which can halt or prevent the disease, but cannot reverse the damage already caused, and Tayman sounds a much more hopeful note in his account toward the end.

"The more we suffer, the more strength we have.  The more suffering, the closer we are to one another.  Life is that way.  If you haven't suffered, then you don't know what joy is.  The others may know something about joy, but those who have gone through hell and high water, I think they feel the joy deeper." 

As much as I enjoy all kinds of histories, I find that those of disease and sickness are often the more human side of history.  Toward the end of the book Tayman focuses on four individuals who were exiled in their youth, and he shows them not as 'lepers' but as real people whose ordinary hopes and dreams were interrupted by their disease.  I particularly liked the story of Makia who was exiled as a boy and yet earned a college degree after he was cured, in spite of being blind from the disease and not being able to read braille because he didn't have feeling in his fingers.  It's a fascinating history told with a very human viewpoint.