Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The ocean at the center of the world

I think the first time I saw the ocean was when we took a vacation to Southern California to visit my aunt and uncle and go to Disneyland when I was six years old. All I remember about it was standing on a pier at sunset - at least I think I remember it, I might only be remembering the pictures from our visit. I don't even think we went down onto the sand or to the water's edge. The next time I visited the ocean was when I was about 24 when Jamie and I were still dating - and mostly I remember large piles of smelly kelp swarming with little black sand flies. But I really gained a love of the beach about 10 years ago or so when we started spending a week every fall at Carpinteria. I was amazed at the waves that never stopped coming, at the way the tide would rise and fall throughout the day, the seashells to be found and the amazing world in the tide pools.

And now that I think about it, I've seen the Atlantic, too. It was February of 1987 and I was 19 and on my way to Brazil. Our plane was landing in New York City and had to circle for hours because of heavy air traffic. We would circle over the city, which was all brown and gray in winter, and then out over the water, which was choppy and turbulent. Each time we'd drop a little closer to those frigid whitecaps until finally it got too dark to see much of anything and the turbulence made everyone sick. Two years later while I was on my way home we had a few hours in Rio de Janeiro and a friend's parents took us to see Copacabana Beach. Unfortunately it was already dark so I had no idea how far the water was, but I remember volleyball nets on the sand and tram cables ascending behind us into the low-hanging clouds over Sugarloaf mountain with its Christ statue. I think I still have a little plastic film canister filled with sand from that beach.

Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms,and a Vast Ocean of a Million StoriesSo I'm not much of a traveler, but between my love of the ocean and my love of history, I was excited to see Simon Winchester's new book Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, which I got from Amazon Vine.

The Atlantic Ocean has been at the center of Western history even before mankind realized it was an ocean. And Winchester has done a fabulous job of writing an eminently readable history of it, from its beginnings some 190 million years ago to its predicted demise in another 180 million years. In between is everything from the early seafarers - Irish, Vikings, and Romans down to Columbus and Vespucci and beyond - to the current highways of commerce and the threats to the organisms that call it home. It has inspired visions of grandeur in the brave and profit in the merchants and art and literature in the painters and poets.

This is not a dry history that tediously delineates every fact and date known. The full history of the Atlantic - as far as it is known - is contained in piles of books that would take a lifetime of reading, but Winchester has written an enjoyable overview of the ocean's existence and mankind's doings above and below the waves. It is part history, part science, and part memoir as he writes frequently of his own experiences in his globe-trotting career. And for me, I felt that the science portion of the book was his greatest strength. Whether he's discussing the effects of unprecedented levels of ocean traffic or over-fishing, he brings the situation to light in an easily understood way and without taking sides in the many heated debates over climate change. When it comes to history he occasionally rambles somewhat, even slightly belittling the commercial strivings of his adopted America while praising the more noble pursuits of discovery from his native Europe (and his mystification at why Columbus remains honored in America was slightly annoying). But this is minor complaining on my part, and his depictions of the slave trade and the effects of pollution in particular were incredibly poignant. I truly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas 2010

Merry Christmas! 
I remember getting up as early as we could when I was a kid, but we're fortunate that our kids don't mind sleeping in.  Well, at least waiting until a decent hour - which this year I think was a little before 7:00am.  But Jamie always makes them wait before they go in and see their presents, which gives her a minute to comb the girls hair so they don't look bad in the pictures.

Waiting in the hallway.

After presents we had a wonderful breakfast and then went to see the new Narnia movie.  It wasn't supposed to be 3D but that's what they started showing and the theater staff quickly started passing out the glasses.  Honestly, the glasses kinda give me a headache, but I guess 3D is pretty cool.  And the movie was much better than I had expected.

Don't they look excited!

And after that we had Ben and Melissa and their girls and Johnny over for Christmas dinner (which was also wonderful - my wife's a very good cook!).  I especially like getting together with family, and I'm lucky to have in-laws that I like.  Of course, the kids did the Christmas story, which the older kids are always SO excited to do (but they're pretty good sports about it).  I hope you had a Merry Christmas, too.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Mushrooms anyone?

We've had a week or so of wet rains and I've seen quite a few mushrooms popping up around the yard.  And If you're like me you probably grew up somewhat fearful of mushrooms and being told by grownups to wash your hands after you'd touched one. I was even apprehensive of the little brown ones that came on pizzas. But occasionally I'd find a different mushroom than the usual ones in the lawn on a dead log or in a neglected corner of the yard, and there was always something oddly interesting about them. If you've felt that way too, Greg Marley understands and has taken it upon himself to educate others and share his passion for fungi in his book Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms.

Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of MushroomsMarley explains that mushrooms are as embraced by Eastern cultures as they are feared by Western ones, but with some knowledge and understanding (and a few good recipes) hitherto hidden culinary experiences await. I got this book from Amazon Vine expecting something of a fungi field guide but other than a few pages of color photos this book isn't meant to precisely identify which mushrooms are safe or not. Instead it seems part mycorrhizal memoir by Marley, and part attempt to break down the negative misconceptions and encourage people to look beyond the usual (and usually bland) varieties available in the grocery store. Marley covers the more commonly found edible varieties (and yes, with recipes), as well as those famous (or perhaps INfamous) poisonous varieties ("All mushrooms are edible, but some only once"). He even discusses their use in transcending the limits of the ordinary mind and religion - also known as "getting high" - from the so-called hallucinogenic `shrooms, but I preferred the section on their ecology. And his final chapter on cultivating mushrooms was interesting; enough that after reading his recipes and discussions on how tasty some of the less common varieties can be I thought it might even be fun to try growing them sometime.

But I've probably got more than enough to do with just trying to maintain a regular vegetable garden (which - between the heavy rains and the slugs - isn't looking so good right now). Still, it's kind of an interesting book to pull out and read a bit here and there on lazy Sunday afternoons when I like to reach for a gardening book. And who knows? Maybe if I get up enough courage I'll even try one of those mushrooms I find in the yard.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Misery loves an audience

After finishing Mockingjay last week, the final book of The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, I can see why a lot of readers weren't too sure if they liked the ending or not. For those who don't know, The Hunger Games takes place in a future where the United States has devolved into a nation called "Panem" with 12 tributary states surrounding a Capitol. The states (originally there were 13) had rebelled, but have since been pacified and as a result are required each year to offer two of their young people, ages 12 to 18, as "tributes" to compete in "the Hunger Games," a televised gladiator-style fight to the death with only one victor. Katniss, a 16 year old girl from District 12, volunteers when her younger sister is chosen. The other tribute from her district is a slightly older boy named Peeta who once saved her and her family from starving.

It's a plot-line that's been used many times, from Greek mythology to Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. I was initially put off by the first-person present-tense narration and a fairly sappy romantic sub-plot, but sympathetic characters and a rather unnerving reality-TV aspect make it a hard story to leave unfinished. But it's also a story with a good deal of misery and violence (although the violence is somewhat muted), and this misery creates a tension that pulls readers in, especially as the story progresses toward themes of rebellion and redemption.

But it's not the only popular series with a storyline heavy on misery. Those of us who love books and reading them can relate to the Inkheart series by Cornelia Funke. Sometimes characters in stories are so well-written that they seem to come alive and you wish you could join them in their world, or bring them out into yours. And some people seem to have a gift for reading aloud and bringing a story to life, and that's what happens in Inkheart. Meggie lives with her father, Mo (short for Mortimer), who repairs old books. But Mo doesn't read aloud to Meggie like he did when she was a child, years ago before her mother left. He doesn't because when he reads aloud sometimes things and even people from the story come out, and things and even people around him vanish into the world of the story. Maybe that's part of the puzzle why Meggie's mother left, and why strangers named Dustfinger and Capricorn are looking for Mo.

It's a compelling and intense story that doesn't let go until you've finished. But it feels a bit too intense as the trouble Meggie and her father find themselves in never seems to let up. It doesn't help that the bad guys in the story are some really mean characters. And the books are long for them to be in danger throughout with so little respite or peace, leaving you feeling wrung out by the time you're finished. In the end, I was glad to be done, although it would be unfair if I did not acknowledge how well-written I find the books to be - it certainly can weave a sort of spell around you and draw you into its world.

I've seen advice for would-be writers to constantly plunge their characters back into trouble, and these series certainly seem to have taken that advice to heart. Likeable characters keep you interested in their fate, but I kind of wonder how books filled with such misery and unrelenting tension become so popular. Do readers really like that anguished "can't put it down" tension for such a sustained length? And maybe the bigger question: Would I recommend these books? Probably not Inkheart even though I found it to be very cleverly-written; it was just too dark and seemed to have a lot of profanity for a "YA book."  I would probably recommend The Hunger Games though.  After I've had some time to think about the ending to Mockingjay - and gotten past the shock of it - and listened to parts again, I find the ending to have been very appropriate. Although I'm questioning the wisdom of having let my daughter Kate read both these series (and she's not even 12 yet).

Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games)The Hunger Games: Book 1Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games)

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (Hardcover)Inkdeath (Inkheart Trilogy)Inkspell

Friday, December 17, 2010

Like being a fly on the wall

All too often I think great historical figures such as the American Founding Fathers come across as distant and maybe even almost god-like in their achievements. The accomplishments for which we rightly honor them today can make them seem cold and unapproachable. And I wonder if this turns a lot of people off from learning about history, which would be a shame because once you discover how fascinating it is you want to read more.

First Family: Abigail and John AdamsOne writer who breaks this mold is Joseph Ellis, who has an amazing talent for introducing readers to the great figures of the American Revolution. He makes you feel as though you've lived in their homes, eaten family dinners with them, and become close friends. And perhaps none of his books do that so well as First Family: Abigail and John Adams.

In contrast to the reserved and aloof George and Martha Washington (who actually cultivated that air of distance), John and Abigail Adams left a small mountain of correspondence that bridge not only the time they spent apart but an ocean as well. In their frequent and highly personal letters we get a narrative of America as it fights for independence and struggles to remain independent. But we also get an intimate portrait of one of the most central families in the early years of the new nation, with the struggles they also faced as husband and wife and parents as well. And while Ellis has acknowledged that Adams is his favorite of the Founding Fathers, he doesn't shy away from revealing his immense vanity and hyperactive ambition. Instead he personalizes the man and his equally intelligent and capable wife, Abigail, who provided an appropriate counterbalance in his life. And that's another thing that makes this such an outstanding book - it's not often we hear so much about the great women who influenced the course of the Revolution.

Joseph Ellis' books aren't as much straightforward biographies and histories as they are character studies of what their subject's personalities were like and what they were thinking and what made them tick. Readers who want to read David McCullough's excellent John Adams but are put off by the length might want to consider starting with Ellis first. He eases you into the history in a way that makes it easier to later dive into the others. This is not to say that there's little substance to this book; on the contrary, I found myself constantly reaching for a pen to underline and mark sections that I thought were so insightful and important that I'd want to reference them again (not something I often do). You come away with a better feeling and appreciation for the issues and challenges those historical figures faced, and the nuances behind the actions and accomplishments. Very highly recommended! (I got this book from Amazon Vine).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

19 ½ years = 7,100 days = 150,000 miles

Last night I hit 150,000 miles on my little red Honda CRX. I had loved their sporty look since high school in the early 80s, but always thought it very impractical since it had only 2 seats. But eventually I decided to throw practicality to the wind and bought one. July 6, 1991 (which turned out to be the last year they made CRXs). And in case you're wondering why I can remember the exact date, it's because it was my sister Janet's birthday and she was the only one I told beforehand that I'd bought it. Yeah, I still remember driving it home... mainly because I had to learn how to drive a stick really fast and I stalled it several times right in the middle of afternoon traffic on State Street.

But yes, I soon figured out how to drive it and a couple months later I took a couple weeks off and went on my own little road trip. It wasn't far, just down to Phoenix and back to spend a few days with Grandma Alice, but I took the scenic route and stopped at every scenic overlook or monument or whatever happened to be on the side of the road. I saw Cedar Breaks and hiked to the beautiful Alpine Pond there, toured the Glen Canyon dam, and went to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I even got the car up over 100 miles per hour out in the middle of the desert (please note: this is not an activity I'd recommend for my children!). I had a lot of fun.

Of course, this was all back before I was married. I remember riding with my friend Joe and he made some comment like: "surely you don't think that just because you've got this car now, you'll get married?" (Joe sometimes seemed a bit obsessed with finding a wife.) I assured him that my reason was just that I'd wanted a CRX for a long time. But I no sooner got back to work from my little road trip than I really noticed for the first time that incredibly cute little blonde behind the front desk. She was so far out of my league, but I impulsively threw caution to the wind and asked her out. Less than a year later we got married and my friend Joe went out and bought himself a cool sports car.

But if I thought the car might be impractical then, how much less so nineteen years later when I've got 4 kids? The kids said I looked like Mr. Incredible driving it. Really?!? I've been working out, but I didn't realize... oh, they just meant I'm a big guy and it's a really little car. But it's had so few problems and still gets about 36 miles to the gallon. I probably should get something bigger and easier to fit kids in, but that would mean a car payment, too. We'll see how that goes, but for now I'm happy with 150,000 miles.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Books you HATE!

Ever read a book you hated? I'm not talking about the latest fad book that everyone's reading but just doesn't live up to expectations. I'm talking about a book that so bothered or offended you that if you'd had a fire in the fireplace - and if it hadn't been checked out from the library! - you'd have been seriously tempted to commit one of the most heinous acts possible and burn it then and there!

For me it's Lost Boys by Orson Scott Card. Yeah yeah, I know, lots and lots of people love his Ender's Game books; it's 'one of the greatest science fiction novels in the world' and all that. But I haven't read that one - instead I read this one because it was on the shelf at the library and looked good. You remember that really cool vampire movie, The Lost Boys with Kiefer Sutherland? Nope, that's not this story, and if for some unexplainable reason you're determined to read it you might not want to finish reading this post.

Lost Boys: A NovelIn this book a young Mormon family moves to North Carolina and struggles with the adjustment. The father, Step (short for Stephen), works in an awful job; the wife, DeAnn, is pregnant with their 4th child; and financial troubles don't leave them any freedom or options. The one with the biggest problem adjusting, however, is their oldest son, Stevie, who is about 8 years old. His school teacher treats him horribly and he has no friends, except for an increasing group of imaginary boys. Obviously, these turn out to be the same kids who've gone missing in town recently, but the parents don't make this connection until it's too late.

I must say first off that Mr. Card is an amazing writer. I thought he was masterful in creating a very creepy atmosphere. Some may call it boring but I disagree completely! If you have the patience he makes his characters come alive as real, normal, and sympathetic people. But the reason this is my most HATED book (and I read it nearly six years ago) and why I will probably never read another of his books is the absolutely horrible and unhappy ending. I checked online reviews when I began and many called it "beautiful" and "touching." I couldn't disagree more, and I wish I'd known this before I started. There was no "silver lining" or "light" at the end of this tunnel, just emptiness - a whole rushing freight train of emptiness that left me feeling devastated. And angry. And if I'd had a fire going in the fireplace, and if it hadn't been a library book... well, you know what would have happened.

So, what's your most HATED book?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Where can I get some of those seeds?

I haven't posted about a kids book for a while, so I thought I'd mention Weslandia by Paul Fleischman, which was always one of the boys favorites when they were little. I'm not sure what happened to the copy we had, but a while ago Maddie and I were in the library and saw it, so we checked it out and she loved it as much as the boys.  It's a perfect picture book for kids 4 to 8 years old.

WeslandiaWesley doesn't fit in. He doesn't like pizza, soda, or football, and refuses to shave half his head like all the other boys. Nor does he have any friends. But for a summer project he decides to establish his own civilization in the back yard, putting to use some of the things he's learned at school. And thanks to some strange seeds that blow in onto his plot of land, he does that and more.

When I read this to the kids they seemed to get more excited about Wesley's project with each page, and loved looking for all the animals that began appearing among his plants, and the way the other kids became curious about what Wesley was doing. And that's the fun thing about this book: it really pulls children in and they wish they could do the same thing as Wesley. Heck, I wish I could, too!

Monday, December 6, 2010

If I had to do it again I'd kill myself

I was looking at the calendar and my schedule for the week and noticed that tomorrow is Pearl Harbor Day. I've read many books on World War II but I could only think of one about the attack on Pearl Harbor: At Dawn We Slept by Gordon Prange. But I read it years ago and it's neither an easy read nor the kind of book I'd readily recommend. I recently watched "National Geographic Beyond the Movie - Pearl Harbor" which was pretty good. If you're like me you watched the movie "Pearl Harbor" and wondered how much of the story was real and how much was made up - this documentary explains what really happened and where the filmmakers took some liberties. But instead I'll review another WWII book I just finished, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand which I got from Amazon Vine.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionUnbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, who was one of those kids who make even the juvenile delinquents look like angels. He fought with everyone, stole from everyone, and was constantly in trouble with pretty much everyone. But in high school he discovered running and a talent for it that carried him to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Many even predicted him to be the first man to break the 4 minute mile and he looked forward to competing in the 1940 Olympics. But Pearl Harbor and WWII changed everything. He became a bombardier aboard a B-24 Liberator flying over the Pacific, and in May of 1943 his plane went down while on a search and rescue mission. Only he and two others survived the watery crash, and thus began an ordeal that was to last well beyond the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan.

Laura Hillenbrand (well-known for her best-seller Seabiscuit) covers Louie's history from his incorrigible youth in Torrance, California to carrying Olympic torches and riding skateboards in his 80s, and does so in a way that makes the book hard to put down. His triumphs on the track are inspiring, his trials as a castaway and POW are astonishing, and his post-war struggles with PTSD are heart-breaking. But through it all Louie remains "unbroken" even in the face of insurmountable difficulties and a sadistically brutal Japanese commander nicknamed The Bird who continued to haunt him even years after the war's end. At times his story sounds almost too good to be true and it drags a bit throughout the POW years, but I still found myself unable to put it down. I started it on vacation last week and our friend Ann picked it up and read the Preface and was ready to buy her own copy - it sounds that good. And I especially appreciated the histories of others in the story - Phil, the pilot of the plane; Bill Harris, a fellow POW; and even The Bird - and I wished there'd been even more on some of them. It might not be about Pearl Harbor but it's a compelling story and I think it's an easy bet that this will be another best-seller for Hillenbrand.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Thanksgiving week in Utah

Well, I'm only a week late posting this - hopefully it's "better late than never."  It's been a while since we've visited family in Salt Lake, and with the kids out of school for the whole week we thought it might be the best opportunity we'd get.  And, since the kids had never been skiing before we thought it would be fun to combine it with this trip. 

Personally, I was a bit apprehensive about the skiing part.  Jamie and I haven't skied for about 17 or 18 years - not since before we had children - and I like to make the joke that as I got older it got harder on both my knees and my wallet (not so much of a joke, I know!).  But apparently it's like riding a bike.  Jamie was always better than me (I still have to "snowplow") and the kids picked it up easily.  I don't remember resorts regularly opening before Thanksgiving, but luckily the ones in the canyons near Salt Lake opened the weekend before the holiday.  The only problem was that we were staying in a place called Eden just north and east of Ogden.  But what's a 2 hour drive when you've already driven 800 miles?  So, we spent a day early in the week skiing at Brighton (which is where I learned).  Even though Taylor insisted he wouldn't need lessons we signed them all up for a couple of hours of instruction at Brighton.  And they were all very good at turning and going back and forth across the hill to maintain a safe speed, but Maddie would just turn into the middle of the run and go straight down as fast as she could, narrowly swerving around other skiers and any trees that happened to be in her way.  I couldn't keep up with her, and it made for a tiring afternoon.  Ann and the boys went with us to Wolf Mountain after it opened on Thanksgiving (it was only 10 minutes from our condo) and Ben and Carter taught Taylor how to snowboard (Braiden decided to stick with skis), and other than a face plant that resulted in a bloody nose, he did really well at it, too.

What about the weather?  It was COLD!  It reminded me why I wanted to move somewhere warmer!  We left LA on a rainy morning that made driving miserable, and by the time we reached Provo it was snowing like crazy.  But the mother of all storms was to be The Giant Blizzard of 2010 on Tuesday.  We were told:
  • Not to travel unless absolutely necessary
  • Stock up on food, and the local market was abuzz with locals
  • The power would probably go out
  • Employers should send employees home early
  • There would be 2 feet of snow over night in our area, maybe more
  • And just "hunker down" and keep your family close!
Yeah, I'd forgotten how much Utah weathermen like to freak out about their predictions.  It was a bust and would be an exaggeration to say we got more than 2 inches!  But it was cold all week long - usually single digits in the morning and rising to the teens during the afternoons.

We also went to see the new Harry Potter movie, which we all loved and now we can't wait for the final movie to come out.  We had Thanksgiving dinner with my family at mom and dad's.  We even made it to see the lights on Temple Square Friday night, but didn't stay too long since it was so cold.  But even with the cold it was a nice trip.  It was good to see family and friends, and we had fun.  The kids didn't fight or argue or tease each other very much, and got along really well.  But we were all happy to get home to some warmer weather... until Monday morning rolled around and we all had to go back to work and school!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Good Quote

"Most putts don't drop.  Most beef is tough.  Most children grow up to be just people.  Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration.  Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise.  Life is like and old-time rail journey -- delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.  The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride."
Jenkins Lloyd Jones, but quoted often by Gordon B. Hinkley

Monday, November 29, 2010


(I meant to post this last week while we were on vacation but never really got around to it.  But, since I haven't had a chance to write up something about our trip I'll go ahead and post it now.)

The very name of 'Darwin' is a polarizing force in today's society; reviled by some and practically worshiped by others. But both perspectives ignore to some degree that Charles Darwin was a real person with real joys and real sorrows, neither the monster nor the saint some want to believe. Although he decided that there was no afterlife and death was the end, his name and books have given him a different kind of immortality than he may have anticipated upon his own deathbed. As George Fredrick Handel said of him, "His body is buried in peace, but his name liveth evermore."

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of FaithCharles and Emma Darwin were married for 42 years and had 10 children (3 of which died young). Charles was very methodical and scientific in his ways, even writing up a list of pros and cons before getting married. Although initially he studied for and considered a religious occupation, his scientific studies persuaded him that the prevailing view of Creation was in error. His wife, Emma, on the other hand, was deeply religious and remained so throughout her life. In spite of this difference, both remained respectful of the other and believed that faith or a lack of should not keep people from talking to each other - which should apply to us today, as well.

I did not realize Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith was a YA book when I read it (or rather, when I listened to the audio book), which perhaps explains the lack of depth I found in it. Still, I think it appropriate for high-schoolers, and many adults might enjoy it as well. I found the frequent comparisons of the Darwin's relationship to Jane Austen books rather nauseating, personally, but was still impressed by the love Charles and Emma obviously had for one another. The book shines best when describing their sorrow at losing children, and is weakest when discussing the religious beliefs of their day in very simplistic and black/white ways. Heiligman tries very hard to walk a fine line between endorsing either view in her book, and does a fair job of it for the most part. What impressed me most about Darwin was how loved he was by his children, who all - according to the book - evidently adored and revered him. That, to me, is testimony enough of his character regardless of the controversy surrounding his Theory of Evolution and other accomplishments.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The American Patriot's Almanac

(THE AMERICAN PATRIOT'S ALMANAC) Daily Readings on America by Bennett, William J.(Author)Hardcover{The American Patriot's Almanac: Daily Readings on America} on28-Sep-2010Dr. William J. Bennett and John T. E. Cribb have put together a very nice collection of patriotic stories and information in The American Patriot's Almanac: Daily Readings on America, that remind us of the things that make America great. And the format is very handsome with decorative borders, lettering, and scrollwork that remind me of books from an earlier era when craftsmanship extended to publishing and families gathered in the evening for something other than watching television.

The focus is on patriotism, and each day of the year has a few paragraphs that describe an important historical event along with a short list of other notable events that occurred on that day. But it's not just a daily dose of inspiration, there are also numerous essays throughout describing such things as the history of the flag and other flags used during the Revolutionary War; guidelines and etiquette for handling the flag; how documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights came about, plus it includes those documents in their entirety. Also included are other great American documents such as the Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation, and essays on such topics as the Pledge of Allegiance and the faith of the founders, as well as various patriotic quotes, poems, and songs.

And for the most part, each daily reading is patriotic and inspirational, although a few (such as the story of the Bernie Madhoff scandal) seemed neither inspirational nor patriotic. But those appear to be in the minority here. And I was a little mystified at "Fifty All-American Movies" which included such "greats" as Will Smith's Independence Day and the recent The Princess and the Frog (fun, but “All-American?”) But overall, this is a wonderful book that is meant to be enjoyed by all ages, right down to children. (I received this book from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their Booksneeze program.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"The most remarkable literary phenomenon of our time"

Like the rest of the world I've been eagerly waiting for the movie of the 7th Harry Potter book to come out. I'm especially glad that they're breaking it into two movies instead of trying to whittle the story into just one - I only wish they weren't being released so far apart. But thinking about it reminded me of how we first came to know Harry Potter, so forgive my rambling reminicences (and feel free to add your own in the comments).

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Book 1)It must have been 1999 when I saw an article in the newspaper talking about a book (of all things!) which was causing something of a sensation. The second book had just been printed in the United States and the third would be out soon. It was about an orphan boy who finds out he's a wizard and goes off to a boarding school. It's not like that basic storyline hasn't been used a million times before, but the article made the book sound very good. I read the article to Jamie and a few days later she saw the first two in a store and pre-ordered the third thinking it might make a nice gift for Braiden for Christmas. After all, we've always been eager to encourage reading in our kids. We hid them away and then almost forgot we had them when Christmas came.

In the meantime, though, I remember seeing stories of parents insisting schools ban the books. Semi-hysterical people were claiming the books were dark, loathsome, and EVIL. How silly such hyperventilating sounds now! The only time I remember being concerned was in the 4th book when I wondered if the story would become too scary for little kids. Nah, Braiden and I both loved them. Later I read them to Katie until she couldn't wait for me to read each night and began reading them herself (which was probably in 2nd grade!). We ended up with three copies of book 7 because everyone wanted to read it at once. The whole family has listened to some of them on audio book as well, and everyone looks forward to each movie.

I remember a co-worker who'd believed the nonsense about the books being EVIL. She borrowed the first book from me and before long was caught up in the series. Other friends have assumed that since they're "kids books" an adult would have no interest in them - they soon found themselves reading all the books and catching up on the movies, too. I remember downloading the movie trailer before the first one came out, and thinking it all looked perfect and how enchanting the music sounded. I remember some of the times we waited in lines on opening nights - the kids sometimes even dressed in robes with wands and little scars drawn on their foreheads. I remember how stunned I felt at the end of the 6th book.

But most of all I think of how much we enjoyed reading them. There are plenty of good books out there, but not many that are as much fun as Harry Potter was (and it's a bit sad to realize that you can't read them again for the *first* time).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Maybe *my* 80s wasn't the same...

I had an interesting - and somewhat enlightening - experience last weekend. I attended Neil's 40th birthday party - happy birthday, my friend! But as everyone who knows Neil knows, he's really big into music, particularly 80s music. That's one thing he and I have in common - we both love a lot of music from the 80s.

But getting back to the party - Neil invited a lot of fun people (and a couple of boring ones like me) and encouraged everyone to dress like the 80's. Sadly, my wife wasn't able to go but she helped me think of something that sorta resembled the 80s and I went with the preppie look. After all, that's what I remember from the 80s: Polo shirts with the collar up, skinny ties, a sweater tied loosely around your neck, Levis 501s or khaki pants or plaid shorts, loafers with no socks... yeah, it sounds weird thirty years later. So anyway, I pulled together something and I probably looked like a dork, but I had to do something (after all, I knew Ben and Melissa would be going all out!).

But I was a little surprised when I got there and not so many dressed preppie. Instead several went for the hard rock and hair band look (oh yeah, I forgot there were those people in the 80s, too). I didn't even recognize most of them at first (and was very surprised to realize who the guy dressed like Slash was!). And the women were all dressed like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper (oh yeah, I forgot about that style, too). And the music was very mainstream 80s pop. So, where am I going with all this? (Good question!)

I've thought about it in the back of my mind since then and I'm reminded of times when I've said to people how much I still like 80s music. They'd usually say something like, "Oh yeah, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Journey, Duran Duran..." What?!? No! Well, 'yes' to Duran Duran, but not those other guys! Geez, I'm talking good music... and then I'd name some bands and get a blank look in return, or maybe a delayed recognition: "Oh yeah, I think I know them, didn't they sing..." So I'm finally realizing that the music I listened to wasn't as common as I always thought.

New Wave must have been bigger in Salt Lake City than most places - not for everyone, of course, but enough that we always had at least one radio station that played only new wave, even well into the late 90s. So, when I think of the 80s I'm probably thinking of songs that were more "underground" than "hits." I'm not thinking just of Duran Duran and Thompson Twins and Howard Jones and Tears for Fears, I'm thinking of... (if you click on each one you can hear samples of some awesome music)...

... Simple Minds, Depeche Mode, Adam Ant, the B-52's, Bow Wow Wow, The Fixx, Modern English, Aztec Camera, Echo & the Bunnymen, A Flock of Seagulls, Big Country, Vitamin Z, Red Rockers, King, Haircut 100, General Public, Icicle Works, the Psychedelic Furs, the Mighty Lemon Drops, the Smiths, Stephen Tin Tin Duffy, Roxy Music, Ultravox, Yaz...

... and I'm thinking that maybe my 80s wasn't as mainstream as everyone else's 80s. Maybe mine was a lot better.  (Then again - after mentioning this to my wife - maybe you'll agree with her when she said that I was just weird.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"I didn't realize war would be like this."

Veterans Day didn't seem like much of a holiday when I was a kid. I don't remember if we got the day off school or not, but there wasn't much going on anyway. I guess there were parades, but I think they were small and seemed mostly for the veterans themselves. I don't even think my extended family got together for the holiday, and they got together for almost any excuse.

But as an adult I've learned about and gained a greater appreciation for what those old men went through. I better understand what they accomplished and what it meant to them, as well as what it means to me. Most of them don't talk much about their service, and when they do they emphasize that they don't consider themselves heroes - the guys who didn't come home were the real heroes to them.

November 11th has been known as Veterans Day since 1954. Before that it was Armistice Day in honor of the anniversary of the signing of the treaty that ended World War I on November 11, 1918. We now honor all Veterans on this day, but I'd like to especially honor the veterans of WWI by mentioning The War to End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman.

The War to End All Wars: World War IFew today take much thought about World War One, yet its outcome created the conditions that led to WWII and we're still dealing with it's repercussions in the Middle East. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set in motion events that quickly spiraled out of control, engulfing all the major European powers (the heads of which were all related, ironically) and even spreading to their colonies and the Middle East. Millions eagerly flocked to their nation's armies with romantic and heroic notions only to find themselves knee-deep in the mud of the trenches that became so emblematic of the western front. In the end an estimated 20 million people lost their lives, venerable empires were overthrown, and the map looked very different from how it began.

This is an excellent little book (just under 200 pages) on a mostly-forgotten yet highly-influential part of history. Freedman covers the causes of the war in text that is easy to understand and is loaded with photographs. True, it is written for young people (grades 6 to 10) but since I knew so little of this war I found it very eye-opening. Freedman not only discusses the war and its major fronts and battles, but highlights the emerging technologies that made this one so horrific, as well as the results of the Versailles Treaty which set up the conditions that enabled Hitler to come to power 20 years later. It's inspired me to seek out more books on this fascinating period of history and I recommend it for young people who may be studying this in school or adults like me who didn't learn it back then. (Note: I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Maddie and I agree: Jupiter Jones is our hero!

Some things in life are either black or white - no shades of gray in between. People feel so strongly about a particular choice that a middle ground ceases to exist and the issue becomes polarizing. They can't imagine anyone choosing the other side and fights have been known to break out. I've heard this in several different forms:

The Beatles or The Beach Boys?
Captain Kirk or Captain Picard?
Windows or Macintosh?
J. R. R. Tolkien or C. S. Lewis?
Edward or Jacob?
The Hardy Boys or The Three Investigators?

Okay, that last one was voiced by my good friend Jeff R. and he and I both agreed there was no question: The Three Investigators, hands down! In spite of the sad fact that the Hardy Boys are generally better known, I've heard from numerous people who agree with me that Joe and Frank were really boring - and how much better the Three Investigator's mysteries were. But for those who were deprived in their childhood, a little enlightenment may be in order.

Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators in the Secret of Terror CastleThe series began in 1964 by Robert Arthur and is about three boys around 13 or 14 years old who live in Rocky Beach, California (a fictional town near Los Angeles and Hollywood - maybe Malibu before it was overrun by wealthy celebrities?). When Jupiter, who lives with his aunt and uncle at the Jones Salvage Yard (Jupiter convinced them not to call it a "junk yard"), wins the use of a Rolls Royce with chauffeur for 30 days the boys start their own detective agency. Jupiter, heavyset and highly intelligent, is the leader, and his friends Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews are more or less reluctantly dragged into it.

Their first case is to find an authentic haunted house, and this is how they become connected with the famous movie director, Alfred Hitchcock. Although he doesn't solicit their help, he grudgingly agrees to let them try as he wants a real haunted house for his next movie. An old forgotten castle deep in the Hollywood hills built by a silent film star, Stephen Terrell, is reputed to be haunted and no one has been able to spend a night there since his untimely death many years earlier. "Terrell Castle" became known as "Terror Castle" and Jupiter thinks it is a good possibility.

Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators in the Mystery of the Stuttering ParrotI first read this book over 30 years ago when I was a kid and the series became a favorite of mine. I've since read them (or most of them) to the boys, and Maddie and I recently read The Secret of Terror Castle - and she LOVED it! The adventure and excitement are kept up throughout the story, and she frequently begged me to keep reading (even past bedtime) and would scoot in closer when it got scary. Now we just finished the second book, The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot, which is just as exciting but with a truly puzzling mystery to solve added in.  It starts rather quietly with a request to find a missing parrot - a parrot that stutters!  But the case quickly goes from mundane to exciting, as they find that it involves 7 birds all taught to repeat a part of a riddle that leads to a treasure. And it soon becomes dangerous when they realize that others are interested in the whereabouts of the parrots and will stop at nothing to get them, including kidnapping.

Just a note, when Mr. Hitchcock died in 1980, the original books were republished with a fictional detective story writer named Hector Sebastian taking his place. I prefer the older versions, but it's hard enough to find copies of either books now and one can't be too picky. But it's a great series for kids who enjoy an intelligent mystery (in contrast to those Hardly boys).

(And for the record, the correct answers above are: the Beach Boys, Picard, Windows, Tolkien, and Jacob.)

Friday, November 5, 2010

The tale of Glyndwr Michael

The previous book I recommended is probably not a good choice for beginning history readers, so I thought I'd offer another recent read that might have wider appeal. If you're interested in World War II, or like spy stories, or are just looking for a good read, give this one a try: Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre.

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied VictoryThe story of Glyndwr Michael (pronounced "Glin-dower") makes awfully good reading considering the sad life he led. He was born January 4, 1909 in the Welsh coal-mining village of Aberbargoed. His life was one of poverty and possible mental illness, and on January 28, 1943 he was pronounced dead from ingesting rat poison. It's not clear if it was a suicide or hunger (rat poison was "usually spread on stale bread and other scraps"), but in death Glyn Michael became Major William Martin and likely saved the lives of many thousands of soldiers in the July 1943 invasion of Italy.

British secret intelligence officers Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced "Chumley") conceived a plan to fool the Germans into believing that the planned Allied invasion was actually going to take place in Greece. They arranged for a recently dead body with fictitious documents to wash ashore in Spain where authorities were sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Michael became the corpse dressed in a British military uniform and retrieved by Spanish fishermen with a briefcase full of information. Ben Macintyre tells how MI5 put this plan into action, detailing their preparations in creating an identity and trail of information that would foil efforts to discount the existence of Major Bill Martin. He covers the operation itself and the submarine commander who was tasked with putting the body in the ocean where it was bound to be discovered by those most likely to turn the information over to the Germans as well as the snags the plan ran into. And he follows up with the influence upon the German army and the allocation of so many troops to the Balkan Peninsula where they expected an invasion which arrived elsewhere to less opposition than otherwise would have been expected.

The story of "the man who never was" is surprisingly interesting. Macintyre doesn't overstate the effect of the ruse, but points out the unusual success it achieved in both drawing German troops away from Italy as well as the Eastern front against the Russians. The personal touch Cholmondeley and Montagu put into the operation to make it convincing was fascinating, and Macintyre has a way of telling a good story. There's a decent amount of detail, as any good history should have, but it's not overwhelming. And I hope Glyndwr Michael, who was rejected for military service in life for unspecified 'unfitness' and now lies under a monument in Spain bearing both his names, was pleased with his role and accomplishment in Operation Mincemeat.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Relationships of power

Politics is such a distasteful subject that I really don't like to discuss it often. While I'm generally rather conservative in my social views, I don't necessarily subscribe to the thought that the country is going to be in ruins because of the current president. True, I disagree with many of his programs, but personally I think the country has been in a slide for a good long while. Social liberals have set the policy at least since the early 60s and religion and anything moral has been under attack long before then. But it's important for all of us to know and understand our nation's history and what the threats to our liberty really are. Too often we hear vaunted and idealistic portraits of the "Founding Fathers" that are based more upon myth than reality, and distortions of the truth don't really honor what they actually accomplished. And while this book, Madison and Jefferson by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, probably isn't for beginning history readers, it's an excellent look at two central figures and the important roles they played.

Madison and JeffersonIf you've read David McCullough's excellent John Adams, you're aware of the friendship Adams had with Thomas Jefferson, both men dying within hours of each other on July 4, exactly fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But even that relationship pales in comparison to the one between Jefferson and James Madison, the 4th president. And in this excellent dual political biography, Burstein and Isenberg have turned the order of the presidents around in their title in an effort to reassert the forgotten contributions of Madison. (Well, that and maybe the fact that Jefferson and Madison as a title had already been used.) Madison wasn't simply Jefferson's "junior," but more like the driving force behind Jefferson's reentry into politics in 1796.

As I've read and studied about the founding of our nation, in my mind George Washington perhaps stands closest to the ideal of a truly noble hero. John Adams is likewise admirable, although hampered by his vanity and having the misfortune to follow in Washington's very long shadow. By the time I get to Thomas Jefferson, though, things get ugly. The nastiness of party politics becomes intractable - and Jefferson was a natural at hardball politics.

Both Jefferson and Madison were Virginians first and Americans second, and this heavily influenced their politics. Jefferson, the idealist and philosopher, is quite frequently seen in a contradictory light. His lofty ideals and eloquent way with words had a way of swaying opinion. His fear of monarchial tendencies in government drove his policies, and he sought to maintain states rights and limit the power of the federal government (even while, as president, he greatly enlarged federal power). Madison, credited as the "Father of the Constitution" for his monumental efforts in 1787, is seen wrongly as a continuation of the Jefferson presidency, and many assumed Jefferson was still pulling the strings. In spite of their close friendship, they frequently differed in opinions and the courses of action they took. And while Jefferson appears as cordial and pleasant, Madison is portrayed unfairly as cold and unemotional. And the book does a good job of highlighting the important role played by Madison in the history.

This is a lengthy book with the narrative being almost 650 pages long, with dense writing that requires careful attention (I spent nearly 2 months reading it). As such, it's probably directed at serious readers of history rather than casual ones. The focus is mostly on politics, although there's enough information on their personal lives to give it a decent balance. With two authors it sometimes feels a little uneven, although the book doesn't suffer for it. The ending, however, seemed a bit disconnected and I vaguely suspected the authors of inserting some of their own personal present-day politics. But even this doesn't take away from the terrific work they've compiled, and in spite of the length and depth it kept my interest throughout.  (Note: I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween - 2010

It's kind of a bummer when Halloween falls on a Sunday.  Luckily the church party was Saturday night with a trunk-or-treat, so the kids still got plenty of candy (enough to share with mom and dad, anyway!).  Kate wore her poodle skirt and dressed like a teenie-bopper from the 50s.  Maddie wore a flapper dress and looked like she was straight out of the 20s.  We won't even talk about how the boys dressed.  As for Halloween itself, we didn't get any trick-or-treaters (again - more candy for me!) but I took the girls next door to see Walter and Elvira, who're always so nice.  And of course, there's pumpkin carving.  Remind me next year that those carving kits with the little saws are a lot of work!  Next year I should just stick to basic jack-o-lanterns.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Boys of Summer

With the playoffs and the World Series going on I've been listening to baseball games on the drive home lately (it beats listening to the election coverage!). I don't normally spend much time watching or following sports, but baseball is one of those games that's sort of fun to listen to on the radio - kind of a nostalgic thing to do, I guess. And watching one of the games last night with the boys made me think of my all-time favorite baseball player.

Since my hometown didn't have a big league team I chose the Houston Astros as my favorite. Why? Because of the uniforms, of course. Yeah, I know - they were hideous - but back in the late 70s I thought they were cool. And the team was really good back then, too, with the best pitchers around, including legendary fastball pitcher Nolan Ryan. But my favorite was J. R. Richard.

Richard was a fastball pitcher - very fast! And he was very tall at 6' 8" and it was said his left foot was off the mound and in the grass when he finished his delivery.  The complaint from batters was that he was throwing "too fast from too close and too high."  I remember watching the 1980 All-Star game. He was the starting pitcher for the National League, and Steve Stone from the Baltimore Orioles was the American League starter (funny how I remember such details 30 years later). Starters in the All-Star game can only pitch 3 innings, and through the first two Stone's fastest pitch was 91 mph. J. R. Richard's slowest was 93! His fastest was 101. (He could throw as fast as 103 mph!) It's no wonder the guy was leading the league in strikeouts and lots of other impressive stats; it's kind of hard to hit something you can't even see!

But his story is also one of the more tragic in baseball. Three weeks later he was warming up and had a stroke on the field. He'd been complaining about a "dead arm," numbness, and impaired vision, but team officials didn't take him seriously and didn't give him proper medical attention. And while the stroke didn't end his life, it pretty much finished his career. He tried making a comeback, and I remember he was pitching for a minor league team that came to play against the Salt Lake Gulls (at old Derk's Field). I went hoping to see my hero pitch, but he'd already pitched the night before. All I got to see was him standing in the dugout. Apparently his luck went even further downhill and he was homeless and living under an overpass in 1994 before some fan found him and someone gave him a job. I think he's a minister now, and I've heard a lot of fans have complained that the team hasn't ever shown him the respect of retiring his jersey.  Hopefully they'll correct that mistake soon.

But he's still my favorite, and always will be.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

We can't *all* have good taste in music

My friends know that I've long been a fan of new wave music - Howard Jones, A Flock Of Seagulls, Tears for Fears, Simple Minds, etc. After all, growing up in the early 80s new wave seemed like a breath of fresh air after the musically-barren 70s (not all of which was bad, of course). And as I've gotten older and "more mature" (wink!) I still like new wave but my tastes have also broadened. I found plenty to like throughout the 90s and I gained an appreciation for classical symphonies while still in my early 20s, although I never really found much to like in country music. But over the last few years I've added jazz to my musical interests.

It wasn't that simple, however. I really don't care for loud and noisy saxophones or trumpets - and to many people that's the essence of jazz music. But if you've seen the Tom Hanks movie "That Thing You Do" you might remember the fictional Del Paxton. There's a song called "Time To Blow" on the soundtrack which surprisingly contains no instruments in which the musician might blow. But that's the kind of jazz I liked! Not knowing anything about jazz, though (growing up in Utah, Jazz was a basketball team, to me), I didn't really know how to find more of it. Then I happened to discover Bill Evans.

Everybody Digs Bill Evans: Keepnews CollectionI heard about the reissue of "Everybody Digs Bill Evans" (originally recorded in 1958) on NPR and realized that what I liked was the sound of a "piano trio" - just a piano, a bass, and some drums. It's an easy-going yet up-beat sound that reminds me of the music that always seemed to be playing in the background in the cool restaurants in old 50s and 60s movies. To me, the very first song here, "Minority," exemplifies this perfectly. It's up-beat and bouncy, yet relaxing at the same time. Several songs are just Bill Evans solo on the piano, like "Young and Foolish," and while some are more subdued and even a bit melancholy, this is great stuff.

Thelonious Monk Trio: Rudy Van Gelder Remasters
Another trio favorite is the Thelonius Monk Trio (recorded in 1952 and 1954 and released in 1957). "Blue Monk" and "Bye-Ya" are a couple of my favorites, and most of these songs have been covered by other artists. The tone of the piano sometimes sounds a bit shrill to me, but I'm certainly no expert on how it should sound. Sometimes you can even hear Monk in the background on a few tracks, evidently having fun while they play.

Groove YardI also found a quartet I really like. Groove Yard by The Montgomery Brothers (released in 1961) adds the smooth guitar of Wes Montgomery to the piano, bass, and drums. Because he used his thumb instead of a pick the sound is more mellow than sharp. It's also a familiar sound because he went on to greater fame in more "popular" music later in the 60s. But this album is a classic from his earlier times, and features his equally talented brothers, Monk and Buddy.

I've also found some good stuff from Chick Corea (I especially love "Windows") although some of his stuff gets a bit "avante-garde" which just sounds disorganized and chaotic to me, but at least now I have a better idea of where to look for "good jazz" music. But I’ve already got some great music to play while just hanging out around the house - upbeat yet relaxing. Not everyone in the family agrees with me... but I guess we can't all have impeccable taste in music, right?