Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Portland and Powell's

Q: How can you tell if you're a "book nerd?"
A: When a bookstore becomes a destination when you're traveling.

I had to go to Portland for work and while checking Mapquest to see how far the hotel was from the office, I noticed a bookstore listed on the map. I thought that was unusual - that a bookstore would appear like that. But it turns out that Powell's isn't just any bookstore - it's "the world's largest bookstore" (according to their website, anyway). And it was only a few blocks from the hotel! Cool!

But I searched their website and found a book I've wanted for 20 years: Insect-eating Plants and How to Grow Them by Adrian Slack. I tried growing carnivorous plants as a kid several times but it wasn't until I found this book at the library that I was able to keep them alive (and that library copy probably spent more time at my house than it did on the library shelves!). It was kind of the first book that focused on growing such plants instead of just describing them, and even though a few others have come out since, it's still popular among CPers (people who like carnivorous plants). Popular enough that the few used copies will sell for over $50 or $100 on Amazon. Even better - they had it for only $12. It turned out to be an "ex-library" copy (which I thought was strangely appropriate) from Clakamas, OR and was in surprisingly good shape (probably wasn't checked out very often).  So, now I'm not just a book nerd, I'm a plant nerd, right?

Oh yeah, Portland? Yeah, it was nice. I wasn't there long - flew in Monday morning and out Tuesday afternoon (I hate to be away from the family) - but it was very pretty.  We were in the "old town" area and Tuesday morning I had a chance to walk around - lots of cool old churches and buildings.  Another thing I thought was really great was how everything seems designed around public transportation and bikes.  Everywhere I looked it seemed there were bike paths and bike racks (which were usually full of bikes as opposed to the empty ones I see here).  Now, if it were only as sunny as it is in SoCal...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

How (not) to set up a functioning society

Two of my most favorite books are Robinson Crusoe and Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island - both stories of island castaways. They're some of the few books I enjoy re-reading on occasion and I love the way the characters overcome the challenges they face. In both stories the castaways recreate a society of sorts (even though it's only one person in Crusoe's case) that prospers and flourishes. But what if the group of castaways didn't get along? What if there was more than one person who wanted to take charge, and they had differing objectives? What if the group degenerated into tribes with disastrous results? Then we might have Lord of the Fliesby William Golding.

William Goldings Lord of the FliesA planeload of British schoolboys crashes on an island in the Pacific during the early part of World War II. No adults survive the crash and the boys settle in to "have some fun" and await rescue once their parents realize what's happened. Ralph, one of the older boys at around 13, is voted the leader of the group (which includes young children as well - "littluns" and "biguns"). Ralph is aided by a nearsighted and overweight boy callously nicknamed Piggy by the others, who suggests he blow a conch shell to gather everyone together. Initially they all agree on some rules, and most help out, but eventually another boy, Jack Merridew, challenges Ralph's rules and creates a division among them.

I was never assigned to read this in school and didn't really have much interest in it. All I'd heard was that it was a dark and disturbing tale and something about the boys eating each other (they don't, though). But when Braiden was assigned to read it in 10th grade I thought I might give it a try, too. And I'm glad I did - it was a fascinating story.

While I might theoretically agree with Ralph and think a short stay on a tropical island could be fun (probably not in real life, though) I find the idea of the group degenerating into tribes and the opposite of the other books just as interesting - theoretically, of course. But that's what I like about such books - they can explore an issue in a way that makes you think and sometimes look at it from a different angle. It's kind of a look at our deeper thoughts and desires, and how we get along in society.

The characters also add plenty of depth to the story. Ralph, the natural leader, is so happy at the beginning that he stands on his head and sees it as a chance for fun. Still, he recognizes the importance of building shelters and maintaining a signal fire. Piggy is the most intelligent boy, but is picked on by the others for his weight, glasses, and asthma. He's also the voice of reason (not a trait often valued by children, however) and supports Ralph's leadership. His glasses become essential for starting fires and similarly symbolic as the conch shell for representing order. Jack, while also a natural leader, quickly grows to resent Ralph's authority and seeks a more blood-thirsty role for his group (of choirboys, ironically) as hunters. It's Jack's desire for power and ready acceptance of violence that undermines the democratic order.

But it's this idea of law and order that forms the basis for the book - without laws and rules society falls apart. When members fail to fulfill their role (such as keeping the fire going, or helping to build the shelters, etc.) it affects everyone - especially the most vulnerable (littluns, in this case). And without that order maintained by the rules, chaos results.

I listened to the audio book read by the author, William Golding, and he offers a few interesting observations at the beginning and the end. I found it to be a very well-written book and full of meaning on multiple levels. It might be a bit dark and disturbing, but it was also compelling and I couldn't stop till I was done. I highly recommend it for those who appreciate a book with some depth.

Monday, September 20, 2010

It all started with a buzzing sound...

Falling InMaddie and I recently read Falling In by Frances O'Roark Dowell, another book I received from Amazon Vine. And it turned out to be a very cute little book. I notice, however, that online descriptions are referring to it as a "fantasy" book, but don't be misled by that. When I think of "fantasy" novels I think of elves and fairies and magical creatures, but other than an initial similarity to "Alice-in-Wonderland," there wasn't much "fantasy" to it.

Isabelle Bean is one of those girls who seems to be in her own little world. She's in sixth grade and has no real friends since the other girls find her a bit odd. So, she's not entirely surprised when she opens a closet and falls through into another world, kind of like Alice, but without all the annoying characters. In the other world she finds all the children on the run from a witch. But instead of joining them on their trek to the safe camps, she sets out to find the witch. After all, what could be more interesting than meeting a witch, even if she does eat children?

The writing style is perhaps the best part of this charming little book - very confidential and "story-telling"-like, with frequent interruptions and asides to explain and develop the story line - making it a lot of fun to read aloud. But the characters are likeable and endearing as well: the quirky misfit Isabelle; the solid and down-to-earth Hen; and the kindly old herb woman Grete. The language feels a bit advanced (more on a level for 11 year old Kate, who also enjoyed it) and I occasionally had to stop and explain what was happening (I'd say grades 4-6 appropriate, but I almost think I appreciated the "story-telling" style more than the girls did). The story gets a bit tense with realistic dangers that kept us from wanting to put it down, but it's become one of Maddie's favorite books!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"The way I came to miss the end of the world..."

The Day of the Triffids (20th Century Rediscoveries)Alright, so maybe this isn't a "classic" that your english teacher would have assigned, but what do english teachers know? They're all too caught up in nonsense like Wuthering Heights and Madame Bovary to actually read something interesting. Man-eating plants, on the other hand, are very interesting!

In The Day of the Triffids a meteor shower thrills the world with a beautiful bright green show. But the next morning dawns with the realization that everyone who watched (all but a very few) is now blind. Bill Masen, a biologist, was in the hospital with his eyes bandaged due to an accident. Bill works with a new species of plant known as triffids, which are cultivated for their oils but also highly dangerous for their carnivorous nature and surprising ability to wander about. They have a deadly whip-like poisonous stinger allowing them to quickly kill their prey and seem to possess some degree of intelligence. As London, and presumably the entire world, sinks into chaos people begin forming into groups. But the triffids are always on the periphery, patiently waiting for opportunities, and they seem to be the only creatures truly able to flourish in this new world.

I've been interested in carnivorous plants since I was a kid and heard of The Day of the Triffids many times. I thought it was just a cheesy sci-fi B movie - I didn't realize it was a book first. I'm not usually a fan of science fiction or horror, but was surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. The description of how the triffids came to be so widespread was fascinating and frightening, and I could imagine myself as a boy doing the same innocent and naive things as the main character. The story remains vague on their origin, speculating they were bred in the Soviet Union, and reflects the secrecy and mistrust developing in 1951 when this book was written and the Cold War was shifting into high gear. (The way the seeds blew around put a creepy twist on Weslandia, a favorite children's book at our house.)

But as an end-of-the-world story the social questions raised are particularly interesting. What is right and wrong when the social order breaks down? Is looting justified? Who should be in charge? What obligation do the sighted have to the sightless? And as groups and tribes begin to establish, what moral responsibilities do they have to others? The issue of polygamy is even raised to some objections, but not as many as you might expect. The characters also speculate on the nature of the meteor shower - was it an act of God, or maybe an accident involving the radioactive weapons then being developed? And as it becomes apparent just how serious of a threat the triffids are, they seem to be yet another obstacle to re-establishing a new civilization... or are they?

Another interesting facet, given that the book was written soon after World War II, was the frequent expectation that "someone" would come to save them, probably America and probably as a result of the large role the Marshall Plan had played in rebuilding Europe in the post-war years. But other characters advocate self-reliance as it was likely the US had experienced the same catastrophe. Some readers have complained of the antiquated view of womanhood in the book, but this is most likely a reflection of a time when women weren't so common in the workplace, although one character takes a stand for their untapped capabilities. I found it odd that there wasn't much discussion on why certain people missed the meteor showers - people always talk about "where" they were when disasters happen - but I guess that probably would have just added a lot of unecessary dialog.

I didn't expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. Enough questions are left unanswered and explanations somewhat vague to make it a frightening consideration. It's a clever and insightful look at social conditions and evidently still very influential (I was reminded strongly of the new Gone series by Michael Grant as well as the older Lord of the Flies). I listened to the audio book read by Samuel West who does a very good job with the different accents, although his volume goes up and down excessively sometimes. But still, I recommend it as a more interesting alternative to that James Joyce and Jane Austen nonsense teachers made us read.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Starving to survive

Back in first and second grade (mid 70s) I had a good friend named Karl. Other than being shorter than most of us, he wasn't all that different except in one unusual way: he avoided eating sweets. Candy, cookies, cake... all the stuff kids love he generally avoided. We didn't understand and felt pretty bad for him, and would ask "Are you sure you can't have any?" I even remember his mom coming in and talking to the class in 2nd grade and explaining that Karl had something called "diabetes," which basically meant his body couldn't process sugar normally. We watched a film about it, and - other than not being able to eat as many goodies as the rest of us - it didn't seem like that big of a deal. Had he been born about 50 years earlier, though, it could very well have been a death sentence.

Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical MiracleElizabeth Hughes was the eleven year-old daughter of a prominent and popular American politician when she was diagnosed as a diabetic in 1919. There was no cure and few survived more than a year. The only treatment was a carefully monitored starvation developed by Dr. Frederick Allen. By decreasing the caloric intake to control blood-glucose levels, he managed to keep his patients alive longer in the belief that a cure was imminent, although some actually died from starvation.  Elizabeth's weight eventually dropped below 50 lbs, and many wondered if the treatment wasn’t worse than the disease.

In Toronto, the volatile Dr. Frederick Banting, an army surgeon during WWI, had had an inspiration while researching the disease on behalf of a friend who had recently been diagnosed. Although not a researcher, and having questionable medical skills beyond amputation, he convinced Dr. J. J. R. Macleod of the University of Toroto to fund the research which led to the refinement of insulin from animal pancreases.

Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg is an exciting and compelling read - I couldn't put it down at times. It doesn't just read like a novel, though; it sounds like a movie. The authors have written with plenty of cinematic flourishes that bring the story to life in a way that I could see it in my mind (and the way it's told, this is a story that could easily be made into a movie). Unfortunately, for me that was also the greatest negative. The book (which I received from Amazon Vine) is filled with invented dialog and situations where emotions and thoughts are described. I found myself frequently turning to the notes in the back to see if there was any justification for such vivid descriptions - entries in someone's journal, etc. - but found nothing. Those who don't read history as often or who enjoy historical fiction will probably not be annoyed at this, however, and with the scarcity of information (most of the principal figures in this drama won’t even be found on Wikipedia) perhaps necessitates such liberties. In spite of that, it's a pretty fascinating story.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Labor Day weekend

We spent most of the weekend at the beach - kind of an end-of-summer thing, I guess. So Saturday was spent at the usual beach (shhh, it's a secret), and it's probably a good thing, too, as we heard temperatures in the Valley were really hot. It felt like half the ward was there, too, which was nice. Plus, Scott (who feels like part of the family, sometimes) was heading off to school on Monday, so we wanted to have a little farewell party. We brought a small grill and had carne asada - which always tastes even better on the beach!

We decided to make Monday a little more of a family day at the beach, and hadn't been to Carpinteria for a while. Unfortunately, we forgot the camera, but it was fun getting some breakfast on Linden and eating a late lunch at The Spot. (We actually left home early enough both days that we didn't run into much traffic, which is practically a miracle for us.) Of course we hit Robitaille's, too! My favorite is the brown licorice but Jamie always likes the chocolate-covered honeycomb. I don't remember what the kids ended up with, but it probably didn't last long anyway.

But to top things off, me and the kids watched Jaws on Sunday night. Yep, nothing like watching a movie about sharks eating beachgoers and then going to the beach ourselves.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pipe bombs in Salt Lake (1985)

Since I've been in LA for over seven years now I don't often read my hometown newspaper anymore, but I took a moment today and read that another document has been linked to the forger Mark Hofmann. I was only a couple of blocks away when his bomb went off and he was nearly killed.

As I understand it, he made a name for himself as a collector of historical documents related to Mormon history. Some of the documents he "found" were controversial and I guess he wanted to embarrass church leaders so he created expert forgeries that purported to tell a different story than what was commonly known, the most famous being the "Salamander Letter." But a few people began to question the authenticity of some and he responded by planting a couple of pipe bombs which killed two people. I was a teenager and remember there was a seeming randomness to the victims and it made everyone nervous. You'd hear comments like "be careful what you pick up."

I was shopping with some friends the next day in the downtown malls. A lot of downtown has changed since 1985, but there was a crosswalk between the ZCMI and Crossroads malls on Main Street, mid-way between South Temple and 100 South. As we were waiting to cross we heard an explosion up Main Street. I recall seeing someone racing across Main Street above North Temple towards where the Deseret Gym used to be and where the sound had come from. Since it was what everyone was talking about we figured it must be another bomb.

We ran through Crossroads Mall to the parking lot and drove up West Temple to where it ends at the bottom of the hill below the Deseret Gym. The police and fire department were already there and we could see a burned out car about half way up the block. It looked like someone was being treated on the grass. We couldn't get any closer but the victim, of course, was Mark Hofmann blown up by his own bomb. I think he got what he deserved.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

In battle, all that matters is the moment

The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great WarI'd never had much of an interest in the First World War, but after reading The War to End All Wars by Russell Freedman, this book which I received from Amazon Vine caught my attention. But it isn't just a war story; The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War by David Laskin is almost two stories in one.

Focusing mostly on 12 individuals, the first tells in sepia-toned language the immigrant story of their lives in Italy, Poland, Russia, Ireland, and Norway; the poverty, hardship, and persecution many endured (I was reminded of Harry Bernstein's excellent memoir The Invisible Wall). But opportunity lay in America, so they braved the crowded ships, often resettling in immigrant neighborhoods surrounded by their own kind and created a new life as best they could. But the war changed everything, and the second half takes a dramatic shift to tell of their service in the mud and trenches of Verdun and the Argonne. Where individual details and stories are missing Laskin fills in from the experiences of contemporaries and paints a grim picture of the life of the WWI soldier. They returned no longer Italian-Americans or Polish-Americans or hyphenated-Americans of any sort, but simply Americans with another heritage.

"They had gone into the army expecting Jews to be cowards, Italians to be thieves, Germans to be spies, Poles to be lazy, Irish to be disloyal - but even in the thick of combat they stopped to acknowledge how wrong they had been." (pg 245)

David Laskin writes powerfully at times, although occasionally the whole feels a little uneven. But it's well-researched and a compelling read and reminds us that America is a better nation for the service and sacrifice of those who answered when called. And while the issue of immigration is in the forefront here, Mr. Laskin refrains from editorializing here on today's debate and keeps the focus on the history, letting it speak for itself. Still, it offers some very salient food for thought. And it will probably make you want to thank a veteran for their service.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What would your "dreamhouse" be like?

How would you like to find a charming old Victorian house in a beautiful little town? What if the price was great and it had plenty of space - it just needed a few repairs and some cleaning?

House of Dark Shadows (Dreamhouse Kings Series, Book 1)That's how a series called The Dreamhouse Kings by Robert Liparulo starts. The King family has moved from Pasadena to Pinedale, California and the kids aren't very happy about the move. But their father is the new principal for the local high school and they resolve to make the most of it. They even find their "dreamhouse" - a beautiful old Victorian just outside of town in the woods.

But the oldest boy, Alexander (Xander), notices some unusual things about the house. Sounds travel in strange ways, and although voices seem to come from the kitchen the person soon appears elsewhere. Then, his younger brother David, hides in a linen closet and winds up exiting from a locker at the school. And then there's that secret upstairs hallway full of rooms that go even farther... scary places like France during WWII, or a Civil War battlefield, or the Roman Coliseum during the days of the gladiators.  But by the time they realize how dangerous the house really is, leaving is no longer an option.

Watcher in the Woods (Dreamhouse Kings)If you're still going through withdrawl because Harry Potter ended, this is an exciting series that'll leave you hyperventilating with the situations the King family is thrown into and scrambling for the next book in the series. It starts with House of Dark Shadows, and even though each of the six books are about 300 pages long, they're quick reads because they're so hard to put down. (Note: I received books 3 and 4 from Amazon Vine)

Sometimes (frequently!) the story can be a bit intense and scary (nothing gory or inappropriate, though), so it may not be entirely suitable for some kids... or adults with heart conditions. Just kidding... sort of.

Gatekeepers (Dreamhouse Kings Series, Book 3)by Robert Liparulo Timescape, Dreamhouse Kings, Book #4 1 edition

Whirlwind (Dreamhouse Kings, Book 5)Frenzy (Dreamhouse Kings)