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