Friday, April 22, 2016

Has your water bill gone up in recent years?

Spring is the time when I start looking through all my gardening books, and dreaming of what changes I'd like to make and what I'd like to plant in the garden.  Since I live in an area that is normally quite dry and currently experiencing a drought, I'm always interested in finding ways to conserve water - and save on the watering bill!  And I really like the approach Pam Penick takes in The Water-Saving Garden: How to Grow a Gorgeous Garden with a Lot Less Water.  She offers a number of ways to save and conserve but isn't too heavy-handed or self-righteously preachy about it like I often see.

Penick explains different ways to take advantage of the rain like collecting it in cisterns, from rain barrels to giant thousand-gallon bins both above and below-ground.  That's something I'll try to do this summer.  She also talks about ways to keep the water on your yard longer with berms, swales, terraces, and permeable paving, giving it a chance to soak in instead of running off into the gutter.  I do wish the section on graywater had been a bit fuller, but one tip I found very interesting - and which I'd never considered before - was to catch the condensate from the air conditioning unit, and it shows a picture with a bucket dug into the ground under the pipe.

Of course, she also covers planting options, from selecting native plants to grouping plants with like water needs to changing the way you water.  She also discusses minimizing the lawn to what you really need and use - something I've always been hesitant about, since I grew up with a relatively expansive lawn where we ran over ever inch of it in our games and play.  The plant section I thought was a little on the weak side, but this is information that is often regional and is probably best approached on an individual basis.

My only real criticism of the book is the format - a rather small font-type (I'm guessing around 9 pt Times New Roman) that gets even smaller in the photo captions.  I probably just need to go get reading glasses, but I find it a bit of a strain on the eyes.  Also, some of the pictures are very small - about an inch square - and one of the things I most love about gardening books is looking at the pictures.  There's one in particular illustrating berms and basis where it took me a while to realize it was showing rain puddling around the trees and plants in a yard.  But this book is better than some Ten-Speed books at minimizing the number of small photos, and the ones included are mostly very good at illustrating the ideas and not just being pretty.

Overall, this is a good book for those of us looking to cut back on our water usage.  (I rec'd a free copy of this book from

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The boxer and a man named X

I've never been a fan of boxing and I'm no expert on the Civil Rights era, but Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X was a very compelling read.  Malcolm X was a minister for the Nation of Islam (NOI) and basically a black supremacist who believed segregation was essential.  Cassius Clay was a talented young boxer with a big mouth (early on he was nicknamed "The Louisville Lip") and a gift for self-promotion.  Their unlikely friendship, however, had dangerous results for both of them.

Malcolm X disagreed with the non-confrontational and patient "we shall overcome" approach of Martin Luther King, advocating instead for violent means if necessary to secure respect and rights for blacks.  A former thug with a prison record, he changed his ways and became an important figure in the NOI.  He was known as "The Messenger" for his captivating speaking ability and his fierce loyalty to Elijah Muhammad, the frail but self-proclaimed prophet of the NOI.

Cassius Clay was a rising star in the boxing world.  After winning a gold medal at the Rome Olympics, he commenced a professional boxing career, winning most of his fights by knockout.  After meeting a flamboyant wrestler named Gorgeous George, he adopted a loud and egotistical style and frequently proclaimed he was "the Greatest" or "the King of the World."  In truth, he was really a quiet and thoughtful person who strongly believed in clean living.  He was drawn to the doctrines of the NOI because of his father's warnings about the evils of white people and a budding friendship with Malcolm X.

At the time Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, Malcolm's standing in the NOI was declining.  He was bothered that the NOI didn't take a more aggressive stance on black rights.  He also felt they exploited poor blacks by forcing them to purchase and sell copies of the NOI's newspaper.  Furthermore, he had learned of Elijah Muhammad's many infidelities, including fathering a number of illegitimate children.  Clay, however, became caught in the middle between Malcolm and Elijah, both of whom attempted to manipulate him.  When Malcolm was ousted from the movement, Elijah pulled Clay into his inner circle and honored him by replacing his "slave name" with a new name: Muhammad Ali.

This is a fascinating look at the lives of both men and their relationship with the NOI – a relationship that eventually cost Malcolm X his life.  I remember watching part of the fights with Leon Spinks as a kid in 1978, but knew nothing of Ali's controversial past.  I knew even less about Malcolm X, and was surprised at his extreme racism prior to his split with the NOI.  Honestly, neither of the men come off as very likeable, but the authors do a very good job of illustrating the reasons behind their views and it's easy to understand why they felt as they did.  It's an interesting book, and I frequently found I could hardly put it down.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Bees in the garden

I love gardening, and luckily I married a girl who loves to have a beautiful garden.  Unfortunately, her idea of what makes a garden beautiful and my idea are a little different.  For me, I like it to be interesting and I don't always care if it looks as tidy or uniform as something you'd see in a magazine.  I love to see bees and butterflies and birds, and I want to smell the flowers.  She's a landscaper, however, and she has a rare eye (more rare than she knows) for knowing what looks good and what doesn't.  And as much as I appreciate her talent, I'd still like my garden to be interesting and useful, so as we plan for a re-do of the beds in our backyard, I'm hoping to incorporate more of the flowers I loved in my dad's garden (stuff like bee balm, black-eyed susans, cleome, and even the garish marigolds and red salvia), even though they might be a challenge for the overall scheme of things.

The Bee-Friendly Garden: Designing a Beautiful, Flower-Filled Landscape for the World's Most Prolific Pollinator by Kate Frey is an interesting book.  It focuses primarily on attracting bees - both honeybees and other native types - into our gardens.  They are, after all, not only helpful but essential to pollinating certain fruits and vegetables.  It even discusses concerns some gardeners may have, such as kids and bee stings, but says the concern is mostly over-rated (I would agree, but I'm not allergic).  It talks about the different kinds of bees a gardener is likely to see and why we should want them in our gardens.  There are some pictures, but I was disappointed that they are very small - about an inch square - and difficult to see very well.  Annuals and perennials are listed, as well as flowers that attract bees and hummingbirds, although the lists are a bit on the short side.  Interestingly enough, even plants to avoid are listed - something I hadn't thought of.

There are a lot of very beautiful pictures here.  As I mentioned, some of them are very small and more pretty than helpful.  There is also at least one page that has the credits for the pictures incorrectly - a middle row shows 3 pictures but only 2 descriptions (I think the 3rd picture is listed with the bottom row), and I suspect there's at least one picture that is incorrectly identified.  The text seems to be without such flaws, but with gardening books the pictures are as important as the information, so I feel obligated to mention it.  Otherwise, however, it's a very nice book and I'm using it to pick some flowers I want to plant this year.  (I received a copy of this book from for review purposes.)

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Don't disturb the universe

What's the worst thing about having your kids participate in activities like cheerleading and girl scouts?  Yep, the darn cookie and chocolate and whatever-else fundraising sales.  You want to help out the team or organization – heck, you want to help your child!  But I always feel uncomfortable putting a sign-up out at work, especially if I'm not the first one.  I've had employers who've made it easier and banned such things, but that doesn't help the kids.  I guess they ought to go door-to-door and do the work themselves, but honestly, I'm not comfortable with that either and I'd rather just write a check and be done with it.

But take that amusing situation and superimpose it over a not-so-amusing story of intimidation and mob mentality, and you've got the idea behind Robert Cormier's gritty 1974 novel The Chocolate War.  Jerry Renault attends an all-boys Catholic school where the chocolate fund-raiser is practically a sacred tradition.  And when Jerry refuses to sell the chocolates, he runs up against Brother Leon, the vice-principal, as well as Archie Costello, the manipulative leader behind a semi-secret student society called the Vigils. 

The Chocolate War is one of those books that's either praised for it's exploration of intimidation in social groups or challenged and banned for it's graphic language and portrayals of disturbing and sexist behavior by the boys – there's frequent talk of sex and the boys sexually objectify all women.  Sure, it's thought-provoking, and there's some interesting ideas and parallels going on – kind of like Lord of the Flies at a religious high school that's struggling economically. 

But while I found interesting and thoughtful aspects to the story, I wasn't impressed at all with the book.  First of all, the characters seem mostly unrealistic.  You've got kids pulling psychological strings and behaving in ways that I found completely unbelievable (some of the violence, however, is frighteningly believable).  I think Archie is 17 but he acts like a much older and smarter adult with a sickeningly sadistic streak.  And Brother Leon was another disturbing character – although, from what I could gather, the author was NOT anti-Catholic – quite the opposite, in fact.  But the worst is the language, and I'm not referring to the frequent profanity (although that's bad enough).  It's written with the "hard-boiled" style of the noir private detective stories – and the reader in the audio version really played it up.  Telephones "rupture the night" and dial-tones "explode" in your ear.  Characters always "thrust" themselves out of bed, usually with a "cold, hard ball of fury in [their] chest."  It's so over-the-top ridiculous that it made it even harder to take the story seriously. 

So, yeah – it's kind of interesting and it made me think a bit, but it's certainly not something I'd recommend to kids.  I probably wouldn't even recommend it to adults.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Judging books by their covers

Here's a little more of the YA books I've been reading and listening to lately, but for a slightly younger crowd:

Milo Pine and his parents run the Greenglass House, a place that has historically been used by smugglers and still attracts an interesting and not always lawful clientele.  Normally Milo has the place and his parents all to himself at Christmas, but this year they're surprised with an eclectic group of lodgers.  And when it turns out there's a thief among them, Milo decides to investigate and find the culprit.

I love love love the cover of Kate Milford's book – the artwork reminds me of books I read as a kid.  But it started very slowly for me, and I didn't get interested in the story until nearly halfway through.  In the end I honestly liked it, I just didn't love it.  First of all, time and place in the novel are very loose.  To me a smugglers inn lends itself to an earlier time period, yet it's set in a modern time (although no cell phones).  And the town of Nagspeake is fictional but very confusing as to where it might be located.  There's also a lot of talk about role-playing games and the dual-identity thing for Milo was kind of annoying (although I played a bit of D&D as a kid, it wasn't something that I felt any connection with).  Milford tries to tie the dual-identity theme to the idea that Milo was adopted by the Pines, but it felt flat to me.  The mystery of the story was what made it interesting, but too often a clue would pop up only to be immediately resolved.  There's plenty going on in the story but it never blended well for me (plus, one main character was kinda obvious).  Still, it wasn't a long read and it was kind of fun – even made me wish to spend Christmas time somewhere in the snow.

In Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer, Hope Yancey leaves Brooklyn with her aunt Addie for Wisconsin where her aunt has accepted a job as a chef in a small town.  Hope has a lot of baggage – as nearly every single NYC young person in novels seems to have.  Her mother didn't want her and she never knew her father.  But she deals with it well and tries to make the best of every situation.  She's 16 years old and gets to work in the restaurant as a waitress – a job she takes very seriously.  But the owner of the restaurant is battling leukemia, so it's a surprise when he enters the political fray against a crooked mayor. 

The cover of the edition I listened to is a bit misleading.  It shows a car with a U-Haul trailer and NYC in the background.  And while Hope's life in Brooklyn provides a backdrop for the story, it's not a NYC story.  It's more about family relationships – dysfunctional and broken – and the ugly side of small town politics.  Yet it's also a very nice story, with a kind and likeable protagonist who is nicer and more positive than she has any reason to be and makes the best of her situation while longing for a father figure.  The reader of the audiobook made Hope sound much younger than 16 which is probably more in line with the intended middle grade audience.  It's kind of a teary-eyed ending, but it's a nice story.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Salt to the Sea

The narrative of history in America usually focuses on those parts most closely concerning us.  I guess this is natural, and my own reading is almost entirely focused around history that is somewhat connected to my own.  If you were to ask me about maritime disasters I'd probably mention the Titanic which it an iceberg (about 1,500 died) or the Lusitania which was sunk by a German submarine (about 1,200 died) and drew the U.S. into WWI.  I might also think about the USS Indianapolis which was torpedoed during WWII (about 1,200 died), and the story is sometimes featured on television during "Shark Week."  I wouldn't have mentioned or even known about the half dozen German ships sunk in the Baltic Sea by Russian submarines near the end of WWII, when approximately 25,000 died, including over 9,000 on one ship alone – half of which were children!  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys tells the story of four young people among half a million refugees that were fleeing the advancing Russians as the German armies began to collapse.  Joanna is around 21 and from Lithuania, and is a skilled nurse.  Florian is from East Prussia and is around 18, and is a gifted artist.  Emilia is only 15 and from Poland, which makes her one of the 'lesser races' according to Hitler.  And Alfred is a doughy sailor aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship waiting to carry lucky refugees away from the barbaric Russian soldiers and to freedom.  Each, however, carries secrets – secrets that weigh heavily on them.

I'm not usually a fan of historical fiction – I find real facts mixed in with fiction confusing, but when I don't know that many facts to begin with, it's a lot easier to read.  And this was a very compelling story – told from each of the 4 perspectives in short alternating chapters.  Because each section is no more than a few pages at most, I often found myself reading more and more at each sitting, trying to find out what was happening.  One of the characters made me furious, but the others – and many of the peripheral characters – drew me into their collective stories.  It's the kind of story that readers who like historical fiction like The Nightingale will really enjoy.  And even though it highlights a lot of the suffering and tragedy of this time in history, it's a good read and a good story.  It's just one of those stories from the Eastern Front of WWII that I didn't know anything about.  (I rec'd an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Top Ten for 2015

One thing I like about Goodreads is the ability to keep track of what I've read on multiple levels.  Not only do I mark off the books and rate them, but I can create "shelves" to categorize the different kinds of fiction, history, etc. that I read. 

I also really like the "stats" feature which says I read 81 books / 23,687 pages last year, although I think that includes some that I "did-not-finish" and some I marked as "reference" and therefore didn't entirely read, such as cookbooks.  The longest was Nicholas Nickleby at nearly 1,000 pages (and it felt like it!).  I gave an average of 3.5 stars in ratings (3 is "liked" and 4 is "really liked").

But for my Top Ten list I've picked books that stand out most in my memory, regardless of the rating.  Even though I re-read some favorites (Harry Potter) and loved some continuing series (How To Catch a Bogle and Lockwood & Co.), I've chosen not to include them on this list.  So, here it is (in no special order except that 5 stars are before 4 stars) with links to my reviews:

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Orbiting Jupiter

I’m a sucker for almost anything by Gary D. Schmidt. Other than First Boy, which I thought was kind of lame (and never bothered to review), I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by him. Lizzy Bright and the Buckminster Boy and Okay For Now were both amazing, but my favorite was The Wednesday Wars. When I finished I wanted to shout "Chrysanthemum!" (If you’ve read it, you’ll understand.)

Schmidt's latest book, Orbiting Jupiter, is a little closer to Lizzie Bright in tone, except with a modern setting and situation. Jack, a 12 year old boy, lives with his parents on a farm in New Hampshire, and they’ve just taken in a troubled 14 year old boy named Joseph. Joseph got into some trouble that landed him in a youth correctional facility where he tried to strangle a teacher. But Joseph’s troubles surround his daughter – yes, Joseph became a father at 13. Her name is Jupiter and he’s never seen her, but he desperately wants to!

My fear was that Schmidt was trying to write 'John Green' – you know, the troubled and damaged young person(s) yearning for understanding and validation? But Schmidt handle’s a potentially touchy topic with perfect tact; the book never becomes maudlin or mushy and avoids the crassness and foul language that peppers so much of YA these days. And his writing is perfectly beautiful, almost poetic.
“Sometimes miracles are all around you... Sometimes they come big and loud, I guess - but I've never seen one of those. I think probably most miracles are a lot smaller, and sort of still, and so quiet, you could miss them.”
But with Schmidt it’s all about the characters. You can’t help but LOVE Jack and Joseph, Jack’s parents, several of the more understanding teachers at school, and even the cows! This is a short book but the reader is drawn into it at light speed (I nearly read it in a single sitting). A warning, however: Schmidt is not one to write a pat ending where everything works out perfectly. Instead, he mixes the bitter and the sweet in a way that the rest of my family never finds entirely satisfying, and you might want a box of tissues handy. For me, the ending kind of wilted the ‘Chrysanthemums!’ I was about to offer. But it's still a very good book. (I received an advance copy from the Amazon Vine program.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"The dreams in which I'm dying..."

I've always loved music, but growing up in the early 80s I especially loved new wave.  I still remember liking the sound of "Cars" by Gary Numan when it was new in 1979.  In fact, it was the 'different' songs like "Pop Music" by M and "I Ran" by A Flock of Seagulls that really resonated with me, and I got used to the 'are-you-kidding-me?' reactions from others.  Even though new wave was very popular where I grew up, most of my friends listened to rock and pop music so I always felt like I was on the musical outskirts.  I guess I still feel that way.
"In the U.K.... new wave was initially code adopted by journalists and disc jockeys eager to be perceived as cool but too nervous to actually use the word 'punk' with all its threatening implications. In America, new wave was an umbrella the size of a circus tent. It covered synth pop, ska, goth, alternative rock, bubblegum, Eurodance, industrial, new romantic, blue-eyed U.K. soul, and electronic dance music. It was a Tower of Babel populated by American bands who wanted to be British, British bands who wanted to be German, and German bands who wanted to be robots. It was an insane asylum whose patients were predominantly ambiguous, untouchable males with sucked-in cheeks, 3-D makeup, and wedding-cake hair."
Seldom have I laughed as much as while reading Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein.  I didn't have MTV at home so I didn't know a lot about the bands I loved – and I was surprised at the HUGE EGOs many of the new wave "artists" had – Limahl of Kajagoogoo and especially Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen – particularly considering their relatively modest popular success.  Some really saw themselves as "artists," and sometimes eschewed the popularity that came, while others actively and determinedly pursued it (Duran Duran).  And there was no shortage of competition and jealousy among them:
Curt Smith, Tears for Fears: 'People say, ‘music’s not what it used to be,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, it is.’ Most of the stuff we listened to sucked. What you remember is the really good stuff. But there was a ton of crap in the 80s. For every one of us, there was a Flock of Seagulls.'
Mike Score, A Flock of Seagulls: 'The word that springs to mind is jealousy. Curt Smith may be living in a little fantasyland that Tears for Fears was something spectacular.'
The book is made of edited interviews with 3 dozen new wave bands.  It's got a little history of each band (as well as a 'where-are-they-now' follow up) and focuses on an important song.  But it's all the little bits of info that I found so interesting, like how Mike Score of A Flock of Seagulls got his iconic hairdo, or Adam Ant giving fashion tips to Michael Jackson (the famous red hussar jacket), and how OMD drove an old car with mushrooms growing in the floor even while their songs were at the top of the charts because of the evil record companies. The only band profiled that I didn't know was The Normal, and the only other band I don't have any music from in my collection was Joy Division (I'm more of a New Order fan).  Still, the book sent me scurrying to listen to songs I somehow missed – like "Kings of the Wild Frontier" by Adam Ant and "Being Boiled" by the Human League – and digging out CDs I haven't listened to in a while (New Order).  Not all the chapters were interesting – ABC, Spandau Ballet, Dexy's Midnight Runners, and even Howard Jones (whose music I LOVE) – but I had so much fun reading it and wish there was a follow-up with more bands.  Just a few of the highlights for me (mostly paraphrased rather than quoted in full):
  • Peter Hook of New Order: 'Musically, I love Adam and the Ants. They’re one of my favorite groups. But it was very difficult for me as a Northern male to relate to the dandy look. We would’ve been laughed out of Manchester had we even considered it. Bernard [Sumner] and I used to go out in London with all them lot… We looked like working-class yobs, and everyone else was dressed up as a pirate.'
  • Kim Wilde: 'When it was a hit in America, they were like, 'Why East California'? Why not all the way over to the west? I was trying to come up with any excuse why my dad might have written 'to East California,' and if you ask, he'll just say 'Cause it sounded better'... When I feel self-conscious about saying 'New York to East California,' I think of The Police singing 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,' and I don't feel so bad.'
  • Andy Rourke, The Smiths: 'Morrissey used to buy his – I was going to say 'shirts,' but they were actually blouses – from a clothing place for fat women in Manchester. These women's blouses that nobody wanted became Morrissey's trademark. He used to like tearing them up and throwing them into the crowd.'
  • Midge Ure: 'People consume music in a very different way. It doesn't seem to be as all-important as it used to be for us. Kids have got computer games and a million other things to keep themselves entertained. We had music and our imaginations, and that was it.'

Monday, December 7, 2015

Just thirty seconds

Last summer I was able to visit a place I've wanted to see for a long time: Pearl Harbor.  I think my wife and kids were a little bored by it, but I appreciated seeing a place that was so important to 20th century American history.  And while the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was a demoralizing shock for the American people, I'd like to talk about the response that came less than six months later.  Lead by Jimmy Doolittle, American bombers staged a daring raid on the Japanese mainland that came as a complete surprise – to both Japan and America. If you've seen the movie Pearl Harbor, you might remember the Doolittle Raid at the end, which is a bit dramatized but not so far off. But what it doesn't convey is the huge impact such a small raid had on the war. The Japanese went from "fearless to fearful," their sense of isolated security and racial superiority suddenly threatened, and Americans realized they were still in the fight.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is the account of one of the pilots of those bombers, Capt. Ted Lawson, that implausibly took off from aircraft carriers. They had to take off much further from Japan than planned due to their sighting by a small monitoring ship (which was sunk) and didn't have enough fuel to fly to safe bases within China. The planes nonetheless completed their bombing missions – a pin prick, really – then made their way the best they could to the coast of China. Most planes crash landed and Lawson and his crew were severely injured (Lawson's leg had to be amputated). Spread out along the coast, only a few were captured by the Japanese but most managed, with a great deal of hardship and the self-sacrificing help of the oppressed Chinese, to escape and return to America.

I found the book much better written than I had expected and it caused me to cringe numerous times as I read what the crew went through in their ordeal. First-hand accounts are valuable, but can be limited in scope and even self-serving, but Captain Lawson's account is very well done. It's a short and easy read that gives the reader an insight into what went into such a daring raid.  (Winston Groom's recent book gives an excellent explanation of just how important for morale this incident was – and he even gives it a great deal of credit for turning the tide of the war.)