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.)