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?

Friday, October 22, 2010


Is anyone else as sick and tired as I am of nasty political ads and news coverage for the upcoming election?  Most frustrating is that I never see a candidate I really like or feel confident in - usually it just seems to be a choice between crooked and dishonest bums who'll say anything to get elected whether they believe it or not.  Maybe now's a good time to review this book, huh?

Animal Farm (Signet Classics)Back in high school I rarely had much of an appreciation for the books we were assigned to read. More often than not I found them dreadfully boring and sometimes didn't even bother to read more than the Cliff's Notes. So I've been going back and making amends for some of them - I'm still not planning to read Wuthering Heights or Madame Bovary, though - but I recently read Animal Farm.

First published in August 1945, just as World War II was coming to an end, Animal Farm tells the story of farm animals who take over Manor Farm owned by Farmer Jones. Old Major, an elderly boar, tells the animals of a dream he's had of a future time when the animals will revolt and no longer work for humans. Within a few days he dies and soon thereafter the revolution occurs. Two young pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, take charge and organize the animals and their laws and make the farm more prosperous than when humans were in charge. But when conflicts arise, Napoleon drives Snowball out and before long their laws (7 commandments) are changing and the animals realize the oppressive farmer has been replaced by even more oppressive pigs.

This book was assigned reading in my 9th grade Civics class back in the early 1980s when Soviet communism was a fearsome enemy. But in spite of the obvious parallels to Stalin and 1940s communism, I doubt I fully appreciated it – actually, I'm not even sure I read it back then - but I was very impressed with the story this time.

The pig Napoleon is compared with Stalin and the way he abused his power to gain control over the people, setting himself up in comfort while encouraging the other animals to labor harder. When he is faced with opposition he reacts violently by using the vicious puppies he's been quietly training, a close corollary to the KGB and secret police employed to silence dissent, particularly during the bloody purges. The pigs excuse the privileges they allocate to themselves by explaining that their "brain work" is the hardest of all, and therefore they require the cream and apples (luxuries) to be mixed into the mash they eat, even while the others are asked to sacrifice. Squealer becomes the minister of propaganda, and he trains the stupid sheep to bleat "four legs good, two legs bad" to drown out any complaining that arises, and frequently announces fabricated production numbers to deceive the animals into believing their lives are better than before. But there's also a strong parallel with labor movements in general from the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the way promises were made to manipulate the working classes into supporting violence and revolt.

Although Orwell was a socialist himself, the book exposes the ease with which propaganda (and threats and actual violence) can control the opinion of otherwise enlightened people in a totalitarian state. I don't want to give anything away but pay attention to the way Squealer spins the account of the "Battle of the Windmill" to sound like a great victory for the animals - an allusion to driving the Germans out of Russia despite an enormous cost in lives. Also the way Napoleon awards himself a ribbon for his bravery during the battle (his tail was nicked, possibly by buckshot) although no such recognition is given to other animals, and the way their history and laws are re-written. In the end, even the promises of a comfortable retirement aren't honored - note what happens to the horse Boxer and the pasture that was set aside for animals in their old age. I also thought the ending was entirely appropriate given the time it was written.

I listened to the audio book narrated by Ralph Cosham, and I'm glad that I finally made the time for this interesting and important story. I'm not sure that it can be appreciated by high-schoolers, but hopefully teachers will make the effort to explain the background behind the book and the parallels with Soviet communism. But even more important, I think readers should note the way similar strategies are used in our own government and economy today. Maybe there was a reason teachers assigned books like this in the first place?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cabin fever with Lewis & Clark

Southern California normally has the most boring weather in the world: sunny and blue skies, day after day after day. I'm not complaining about that, mind you! But lately we've been having some overcast and wet-ish weather. It seldom rains outright (and not for long) but there's often a fine mist that wets everything and makes the roads slick. It kind of reminds me of the winter weather when I lived in southern Brazil, although not as drizzly and not as persistent. And at first it's kind of nice for a change - cool mornings with a bit of fog from the coast, or maybe a dreary and wet day to break up the monotony - as long as it clears up by noon! Or after a day; two at the most! After that I start feeling kind of blue and blah and yearn to feel the sun again. So, since I'm stuck with my own little case of SoCal cabin fever (although today's looking a little better), I thought I'd talk about one of my favorite books about some guys who really got out into the great outdoors: Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.

Undaunted Courage : Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American WestStephen Ambrose chose to focus on Lewis and why he was ideally suited for the task or exploring the newly purchased Louisiana Territory. In addition to having grown up on the frontier he was also friends with President Jefferson. And together with William Clark, they and the Corps of Discovery (a little over 30 men) travelled across unknown territory to the mouth of the Columbia River and returned, losing only one man very early in the journey.

Ambrose discusses the amazing accomplishments as well as the mistakes that were made, but places everything into proper context, giving us an excellent insight into the personality of Lewis. I found it fascinating to read how the Plains looked with their endless herds of buffalo and frequent encounters with grizzly bears, or the struggles in crossing the Rocky Mountains which turned out to be much more difficult and hazardous than they had imagined. The plants and animals and Indians they encountered along the way are all here, including the 15 year-old guide Sacajawea who is rightly honored, with her infant son. They may not have found the all-water route that Jefferson wanted, but they accomplished something amazing for the time and shared some truly uncommon experiences.

Ambrose retained the original spelling by the men which provides an interesting, and sometimes amusing, look at the time. It's an exciting and readable book that made me want to plan a trip to see parts of the trail myself and wish I could have seen it as they did.  And it might help a little when you're feeling kind of cooped up.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Nancy Drew + Indiana Jones = Theodosia Throckmorton

In the wake of the Twilight craze, we've all seen far too many vampire and werewolf stories flooding the market. Not that I have anything against Dracula or the Wolf Man, but I always had a soft spot for the Mummy. Maybe there's not enough room for edgy romantic triangles in archaeology and Egyptology but it seems to me to offer plenty of fertile ground for fun stories. That's where Theodosia Throckmorton is a bit of fresh air - even if it does come from long buried crypts and the basements of British museums!

Theodosia (Theo) is not your average eleven year-old girl. Her parents are prominent archaeologists at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in Edwardian London, and she spends most of her time helping on expeditions and working in the museum. Grandmother Throckmorton disapproves of this upbringing and is determined to find a suitable governess. Oh, did I mention that Theo is constantly having to protect those around her from ancient Egyptian curses as well as preserving England and the rest of the world from the Serpents of Chaos, a shadowy group intent upon... well, chaos?

I received books 2 and 3 in this series from Amazon Vine, so I haven't read the first, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos. In Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris, Theo is assigned to catalog the museum's collection in the basement when she stumbles upon an ancient staff and a golden orb which fits nicely at the top. But the next morning all of London's mummies are found in the lobby of their museum, and after a few days of this happening the police believe her father is stealing them. But Theo and the Serpents of Chaos know the real powers of the staff - and the Serpents will stop at nothing to get it.

In Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus, she attends a show for an Egyptian magician named Awi Bubu, and it appears that he is more authentic than she expected. Soon after, she and her brother discover an emerald tablet hidden inside another artifact at the museum, and before long the Serpents of Chaos, the Arcane Order of the Black Sun, and even Awi Bubu himself are after it. The only group who isn't interested is the Brotherhood of Chosen Keepers - the very one who ought to be taking a most careful notice.

These are fun books that read much faster than their length would indicate. Theo is, like the advertising blurbs say, kind of a cross between Nancy Drew and Indiana Jones. She tells the story in first person with a droll sense of humor and frequently finds herself in impossibly dangerous and difficult circumstances, yet seems to take it all with characteristically low-key English stride. Fans of the Percy Jackson series ought to enjoy this one.

Theodosia and the Eyes of HorusTheodosia and the Serpents of ChaosTheodosia and the Staff of Osiris

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Venice canals

The same evening we went "ghost hunting" in the Rose Garden we also went down to the canals in Venice.  I've been to Venice Beach before, but I guess I didn't realize it had canals sort of like the real Venice does.  Here's a few pictures:

Monday, October 11, 2010

Looking for ghosts in the Rose Garden

My family has become fans of a ghost hunting show on television recently.  I doubt any of them really believe it but they like to watch and pretend they're spooked by it (sometimes I think they're not pretending).  My role, however, is that of the skeptic.  I openly (and sometimes loudly) scoff at the supposed "disembodied voices" being captured on digital recorders (voices which are completely unintelligible until they print what the "ghost" is supposedly saying on the screen) and I smirk in a superior manner whenever they claim to have "proof" of a ghostly image.

But the boys have taken it a step further and have started visiting supposedly haunted sites around Los Angeles with Sam, Henry, and Tahoe.  So far they've been to the Hollywood sign, Shadow Ranch Park, and this weekend we went with them to the Rose Garden in Exposition Park at the University of Southern California (USC).  According to the Ghost Hunter's Guide to Los Angeles, "partial apparitions of men and women dressed in clothing of the 1920s and 30s" have been seen around the central fountain shortly before sunset.  We arrived just before sunset but didn't see any ghosts, "partial" or otherwise.

We did see one honest-to-goodness and verifiable ghost, however.  In front of the California Science Center they have an A-12 Blackbird, which was the forerunner of the more famous Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest and highest-flying spyplane ever made.  Me and the boys saw an SR-71 last year at the Edwards Air Force air show, which was really cool.  The A-12 is the only two-seat trainer ever made, so it truly is a ghost from an earlier era.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The weirdest Christmas stories I've ever read

When Jamie and I got married and started a family we began a number of traditions. Some turned out to be more effort than we wanted, and some we decided weren't as important as we initially thought. But one tradition we kept better than most was to buy a Christmas book each year that could be read with the kids at the holidays. And as the years have gone by we've aquired some really good ones, but it's been tougher each year to find something good and a few have been real stinkers. Our favorites have been The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, Christmas Oranges, The Tale of Three Trees, and The Polar Express. Those stories always get read each year.

The Nativity CollectionSo I was kind of excited to see The Nativity Collection - six short Christmas stories in one little book (I know it's kind of early for Christmas books but I received it from Thomas Nelson Publishers through their Booksneeze program in exchange for an honest review on my blog). The first story, "Ollie," is about a family who discovers after they've done all their shopping on Christmas Eve that their car (and all the food and gifts inside) has been stolen. The tone is kind of Norman Rockwell and the ending was nice - not quite what I expected. But it was downhill after that. The story called "Poet Boy" was strange but okay, but the ones called "Over My Dead Body" and "Nativity Seen Smiling" weren't even entertaining. And it finishes with a story called "Sugarplum and the Christmas Cradle" that my friend Todd B. would call a "groaner" - such a lame punch-line ending you groan out loud. It doesn't help that while the stories are entirely fictional some are written as if they were real events. The photos that appear on most pages aren't even particularly inspiring.

I guess coming up with a great Christmas story must be difficult. We loved Richard Paul Evans' The Christmas Box, but weren't as impressed with his second effort so maybe a writer is lucky to get one really good one. I don't expect the kids to get excited over this book so I've also decided to find Dickens’s original "A Christmas Carol" (to go with the always popular Mickey's Christmas Carol). I would recommend the other books I mentioned above, but not this one unfortunately.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What does it take to be a champion?

If there's one "truth" I've noticed it's that not everyone is a "reader" (by which I mean a person who loves to read books and regularly does). I have four children and 2 of them are definitely readers. Taylor isn't. And that's okay - there's nothing wrong with that - not everyone enjoys books like I do. Taylor would rather be riding his skateboard or bike or playing baseball or golf or swimming or doing any number of other activities. The problem is that teachers assign kids to read (darn those teachers!) and grade them on it. And since Taylor won't just sit down on his own and pick up a book, I have him read to me and we’ve read a lot of books together that way. The key is to find a good one that will interest him, and Heart of a Champion by Carl Deuker was perfect.

Heart of a ChampionSeth's dad died when he was just seven years old, and he's struggled ever since. Several years later he becomes friends with Jimmy Winters, a very talented and baseball-obsessed kid with a perfectionist father who drills him constantly on the fundamentals of playing the game. But baseball gives Seth a direction he didn't have before, and while he's never as good as Jimmy he makes the high school team and his school performance improves and he becomes an honor student.

While baseball is the driving subject of the book another prominent theme is the lack of a father in Seth's life. Unfortunately for Jimmy, his alcoholic father isn't a role model either, and it isn't long before his parents get divorced, giving the two boys one more thing in common. But Deuker is careful to emphasize the differences between the two - Seth's father died while Jimmy's left - and it affects each boy differently. But another prominent theme is the lure of alcohol for teenagers, and the devastating effects it can have. I thought the different attitudes the boys had toward drinking were interesting as well, and how some people can be more susceptible to its grasp.

We picked this book from Taylor's 8th grade summer-reading list because it sounded better than the others. And if you look at some of the online reviews you'll see a lot of kids who say they don't ordinarily like reading but they loved this book. We really liked it, too. The play-by-play is full of action and the fundamentals of "how" a player should think are shown repeatedly, in marked contrast to another baseball book we read, The Big Field by Mike Lupica (this book is much better). The narration by Seth comes across a bit flat for most of the book, but it makes sense when you get to the end. Initially I also thought the ending was almost too abrupt, but realized upon further reflection that it gives the message a forcefulness that might otherwise have been lacking. While the story revolves around baseball it has much larger implications to life, and will resonate with lots of kids.

Monday, October 4, 2010

"The enemy is ignorance"

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a TimeI'm really not a fan of current histories, but Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson was recommended to me about a year ago and since then I'd heard about it from several other sources, too. I was reading (of course) while waiting for my car inspection and another customer (who didn't have a book) started talking to me (and I didn't get much reading done after that). And sometimes I guess you have to be careful about books that everyone is reading because often they're just not all that good (think Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code). And that's kind of the case here - I think it's mostly a good message, but... well, read on.

After failing in his attempt to climb K2, Greg Mortenson took a wrong trail on the way down the mountain and ended up in the small Pakistani village of Korphe. In return for their hospitality, Mortenson (who lived very modestly himself) promised to return and build a school for the children of the village. And from that humble beginning grew the Central Asia Institute which has since built over 100 schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan which educate both boys and girls. This book recounts the struggles Mortenson faced as he lived as frugally as possible in order to devote all his resources and energies to his projects. It relates the dangers he faced from hostile mujahedeen, Taliban officials, and conniving locals. It also tells of his own education as he learned that building relationships was as important as the projects themselves.

This is a very inspiring story. Mortenson has sacrificed much for a noble cause and it's nice to be reminded that a compassionate approach can be effective when the war efforts we hear in the news seem to be going nowhere. If we truly hope to help the people - and bring ALL our troops home - we need to combat the ignorance that terrorism feeds upon and show the area's people that we can rebuild as well as destroy. The impression we usually get is that we're up against the most intolerant religion imaginable, and it's good to hear that they don't all believe and think that way.

Unfortunately, it's also a rather poorly-written story. Although Mortenson is listed as the author, it's told by journalist David Relin who seems fond of flowery and overly descriptive drama that borders on fiction and strains the book's credibility at times. The ending sounds like a campaign for a Nobel Peace Prize but I think Mortenson will win no awards for Husband and Father of the Year as he comes off neglectful of his own wife and children back home. At one point the book discusses the stress and strain on his wife, but then quickly drops the subject in favor of more talk of her admiration for his work. The photo of their family Christmas card was a bit shocking (dressed in robes in Pakistan with their new baby girl and holding Kalashnikov rifles), and I couldn't help but suspect a vague undercurrent of anti-Americanism throughout.

But then again, maybe I'm just imagining things and if you can get past the overwrought prose it's not a bad message. And when it seems there's no end in sight for the wars we're fighting, maybe we need a different approach - one more like Mortenson's.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Re: Dead Parents (in YA fiction)

I read a post in a friend's blog recently that was pretty interesting. She was commenting on an article in Publisher's Weekly that kind of criticized YA (young adult) literature for it's heavy reliance on the plot-line of orphans. After giving it some thought, this is my opinion.

(First, here's the article, and here's Ashley's commentary on it.)

At first I was kind of bothered, too. Even though I'm quite a few years beyond the YA demographic, I still enjoy reading it. In fact, I generally prefer YA over most grownup fiction, although I have a hard time defining exactly why. It's usually cleaner and more decent, and sometimes it reminds me of the books I read and enjoyed as a kid (it's almost more fun re-reading those books with my kids now). Or maybe I'm just not as mature as my age would suggest? (The voice inside my head is the same one that was there when I was 11 or 12 years old... if that makes sense.)

But as for the article and the over-representation of orphans in YA books I'll agree that not only is it an oft-used plot-line (it's not like the publishers who rejected Harry Potter hadn't seen it before...) but if I think about it long enough Ms. Sales' reasons might even be reasonably accurate. Yeah, there's a lot of junk out there where writers might be lazy and go with it for lack of imagination. Yeah, it could make a character more sympathetic, make you care about them more readily. And sure, parents can be boring. Heck, I'm a parent - and most of the time I'm pretty boring! Besides, parents are all about rules and discipline and order, and where's the fun in that? But my reaction to the article was more like: So what? If it works - and sometimes it works very well - what does it matter?

But I think just saying writers are lazy or parents are boring is a bit simplistic. More often than not, I think YA is escapist and fantasy (not to be confused with "Fantasy" as a genre) - it's different on purpose from the normal lives of kids. It's not that kids want to be orphans or want to go live with eccentric relatives or in boarding schools (well, maybe some of them do). It's that it's interesting to be able to safely put yourself in the shoes of another kid (not a real kid) in a different situation (especially one that's more interesting than your own). Think back to the books you loved as a kid - I wished I could be Jupiter Jones, or live in Adenville, or any number of places more interesting than my neighborhood. A kid's world is small enough already and the ones who read probably enjoy the expansion that books give their world - especially when it's a kid in a situation they find sympathetic and can share in the triumph when they overcome the challenge.

So, yeah, the story line of orphans and dead parents has been used a LOT, but in the hands of a skilled writer it can still make a really good story.