Friday, December 30, 2011

My Top Ten for 2011

I don't blog about all the books I read, and I don't review everything on Amazon either. (And just so you know, many of the books I've blogged about this year were actually read in prior years - not even I can read that much.) But as I looked over the books I actually read this year I saw a lot of very good ones. Sometimes my feelings about a book change: I may have wrote glowingly right after finishing but soon forgot about it, or I may have been rather critical but it stayed on my mind. So, of the books I read this calendar year, I thought I'd list those that - in retrospect - feel like the best (in no particular order and linked to my reviews). And YES it was very hard paring it down to only 10!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Merry Christmas 2011

I had hoped to edit the videos of the Christmas piano recital from the week before but can't find the right cord, so I'll just post a few pictures from our Christmas this year. 


Uncle Ben reading the Nativity for the girls.

Who is that under the cow?

The loot (and yes, we really do make them wait until 7:00 before coming out).

Waiting in the hallway to go see what they got.

One happy little owl.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Kiss my arsenic"

Although I love reading histories, I'll be the first to admit they're not often easy or quick reads. Sometimes my brain begins to feel a little overwhelmed with all the information and detail - no matter how interesting it might be - and I need something a little lighter, something of an escape to refresh myself. In short, something that's pure pleasure to read. If you've taken my previous advice you'll know all about eleven year-old Flavia de Luce, and her passion for poison and mystery solving.

In I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, the latest in the series by Alan Bradley, Christmas is approaching and Flavia has plans to capture Father Christmas using her knowledge of chemistry to see if he's real or not. But her father, Colonel de Luce, is finally facing up to the looming family financial crisis and has arranged for Buckshaw (the aging family mansion) to be used by the renowned British director Val Lampman as the setting for a film starring the famous actress Phyllis Wyvern along with the handsome Desmond Duncan. However, such famous film stars bring a lot of baggage, and not just camera equipment and sets. Although Miss Wyvern appears friendly and personable enough, Flavia notices that not everyone is as charmed by her. And on an evening when a blizzard traps the entire village of Bishop's Lacey in Buckshaw, Phyllis and Desmond reprise their famous Romeo and Juliet scene, and Flavia uncovers a murder.

The writing is just as clever and Flavia's wit just as sharp as the previous books. The story is perhaps a bit similar to the others, but in this one we begin to see a little more of the human side of Flavia and her family. Of course, chemistry plays a prominent role again, and Flavia's plans to catch Santa are hilarious and even bizarre. And as much as I tried to read it slowly and savor each word, I found myself reading more than I had planned at each sitting and picking it up instead of the history book I'm also reading and... before I knew it, I was finished. Ah, but it was worth it!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Baby, it's cold outside!

In the nearly 9 years I've been living in Southern California I've become a wimp when it comes to cold weather. I grew up in Salt Lake City and saw plenty of cold winters and enjoyed sledding and playing in the snow as a kid, and skiing when I got older. But it got to the point where I began dreading the cold earlier and earlier each fall. At the slightest hint of the end of summer I began to shiver. After we moved here I found it amusing that some people wore jackets (or even heavy winter coats) during the "cooler" months of the year, but now I've become one of them. And if I'm not mistaken, this year has been unusually cool. Of course, things could always be worse.

In 1914 the British ship Endurance set out for the Antarctic. Sir Ernest Shackleton's expedition planned to be the first to cross the continent of Antarctica. Instead, he and his men found themselves trapped in the frozen sea and eventually had to abandon the ship as it was crushed by the ice. They spent well over a year drifting on ice flows and braving the rigors of the Weddell Sea and Drake Passage, surviving some of the most inhospitable and savage places in the world. Amazingly, not a single member of Shackleton's crew was lost.

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing is a absorbing look at the conditions and hardships faced by the crew: sub-zero temperatures, starvation, frightful storms, unstable ice and hostile seas. And in the end they had to rescue themselves as there was no way to alert the outside world of their plight and they'd been assumed lost. But it's not all doom and gloom as the best part of the story is the amazing fortitude of the men and their will to survive. Excerpts from the diaries the men kept tell of times of intense suffing and intense boredom. They may not have made their destination or accomplished their goal but their survival was an incredible achievement by itself and makes for a fascinating story.

As for me, I think I'll put on a jacket.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Weapon of Choice

When I was growing up we didn't have cable TV in our home - my Dad thought it was silly to pay for television (and frankly... I have to agree with him).  As a result I was deprived and the only time I saw music videos was if they happened to be on regular TV.  So I sometimes find it fun to go on YouTube and look up the videos for some of my favorite 80s songs.  And I'd probably have to say that "Take on Me" by A-ha is probably one of the best videos (and I'm surprised at how many really good songs had lousy videos).  But I'm not sure how I found this cool video.  In fact, without the video, I'm not sure the song is even worth listening to... but I really like the video.  (And who knew Christopher Walken could fly?)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Sunday, December 7 was different."

The surprise attack by Japanese airplanes at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 profoundly changed America. At the beginning of December America was isolationist and moribund, just beginning to come out of the Great Depression due to increased industrial activity for the Lend-Lease Program which sent war materiel to the Allies fighting Germany and Italy. Negotiations with Japan were going nowhere but no one expected war with them anytime soon, if at all.

But a rain of bombs on a quiet Sunday morning in far-off Hawaii changed all that. American was now at war and by the end of the month factories were converting to wartime production with round-the-clock shifts. Unions and politicians were pledging to set aside differences for the good of the nation and isolationism was already just a memory. Recruiting offices were besieged by enlistees despite the fact that American military forces were losing and retreating in places like the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and Singapore.

Ever wonder what it was like to live through pivotal moments in history like December 1941? In December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World Craig Shirley has written an interesting account of what Pearl Harbor meant for ordinary Americans and the newspaper stories they read each day. It's not another detailing of the actual fighting that took place but rather a viewpoint from those at home. It was a time when people still dressed up with a hat and tie to go out and went to the movies twice a week (this was before television). From the rumors and snippets of news that gradually trickled out of Hawaii, to the reports of sabotage around the nation (most of which were false), to the roundup of Japanese, German, and Italians living in the United States, Shirley paints a picture of what it was like to live through those extraordinary and frightening days. He even covers things like rubber rationing and how tires were different back then.

But while it's an interesting read, it's not a perfect book. Because of the day-by-day format it feels repetitious sometimes, especially since it's a fairly long book at nearly 550 pages, and there were a surprising number of typos and errors (it needs better editing). There are several pages of pictures included, but three pages are devoted to war posters, two pages have a bunch of very small Pearl Harbor photos, and what's left seems only marginally related to the month of December (many are from much later in the war). Nonetheless, it's a very interesting portrait of what America was like for ordinary folks and what they heard and read in the news. Mr. Shirley writes in a very readable style; it's not stuffy or "scholarly," but will appeal to amateur historians as well as those newer to history. I found his conclusions as to how it changed the nation and its people, as well as the world, to be very insightful. (I received this book from Thomas Nelson Publishers through their Booksneeze blogger program.)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Beat by chewing gum

I had hoped to be finished by now with another book that's related to Pearl Harbor Day (Dec 7), but I've still got a couple hundred pages to go, so instead I'll post a review about a book that looks at the end of the war with Japan.

In Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, British historian Max Hastings relates a story during his account of the battle in the Philippines that illustrates the frustration Japanese soldiers felt at seeing how much better equipped and supported American soldiers were than they. One Japanese soldier found American gum wrappers by a road and a wad of gum stuck to a weed. The soldier related: "Here we were, holding on for dear life, and these characters were chewing gum while they fought! I felt more sad than angry. The chewing gum tinfoil told me just how miserably we had been beaten" (pg 241).

Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 (Vintage)That is a common theme throughout this detailed and thorough look at the war with Japan during those last couple of years - that Japan's chances to beat an industrial giant like the US were slim from the beginning. In spite of some early successes, Japanese leadership relied too heavily upon "fighting spirit" and fanaticism to achieve victories rather than adequately supporting their armies and providing them with improving technologies. The warped Bushido code of honor achieved much but at a huge moral, psychological, and human cost. Japanese soldiers fought like tigers to maintain ground and honor but they also died in much greater numbers than did their enemies in nearly every battle. And in those last years of the war it was a lost cause and their leaders showed a callous disregard for the lives of their people.

Hastings discusses the moral aspects of many incidents, and details the Japanese inhumanities toward enemy soldiers, prisoners, and civilians. War crimes were committed by all sides in the conflict, but Japanese murders, rapes, and other atrocities were institutionalized and systematic rather than occurring as more isolated and individual events, as was the case with other belligerents (except perhaps the Soviets). Hastings is somewhat critical when discussing LeMay's firebombing tactics, and includes horrific accounts by some Tokyo survivors. He covers in detail the morality of using atomic weapons, including numerous arguments against it. But he makes a very strong argument that because of the duplicitous manner in which Japan started the conflict and the inhumane way they conducted it, Japan essentially forfeited any claims for humane treatment after defeat. Basically, his argument is that they got a just "retribution."

This is an amazing and compelling history, covering not only the Americans but also the British, Australians, Chinese, Soviets, etc. Hastings discusses how the European nations were seen unsympathetically by America as fighting primarily to maintain Asian empires, and why the Australians were viewed as less committed and usually given the task of "mopping up." I'd always wondered what role other nations played in the Pacific conflict, but to me those parts weren't quite as interesting. I also felt that the account of the invasion of Okinawa was somewhat inadequate given the impact it had on public perception and tolerance for the war. Nonetheless, a highly recommended book for those interested in the subject.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

More "infamous" than we thought?

The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was hardly over before the public began to wonder how the US could have been caught so unawares. The Roberts Commission investigation (Dec 18, 1941 to Jan 23, 1942) concluded that General Short (Army) and Admiral Kimmel (Navy) were derelict in their duty and blamed them. But almost immediately questions arose about facts that didn't add up. By the end of May, 1946 a total of 9 investigations had taken place with differing and alternating conclusions each time, and yet questions still abound today.

John Toland looks at each of the investigations and discusses the evidence and testimonies presented. He focuses on a large amount of evidence that many in Washington knew beforehand that an attack was "imminent" and also that it would occur at Pearl Harbor. Some evidence pinpointed the exact date and other evidence the location of the "missing" Japanese fleet. He even presents communications that foreign dignitaries passed on information, and that those in top levels of American government had more than enough knowledge beforehand that could have prevented (or at least minimized) the attack. The only ones who knew almost nothing were Short and Kimmel.

Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath was originally published in 1982 so it's possible there may be newer information, and apparently it is a bit controversial in its conclusions. Toland claims that Admiral Stark (Chief of Naval Operations) and General Marshall (War Dept. Chief of Staff) in Washington had enough corroborated information that - at a minimum - a clear warning should have been sent to the commanders in Hawaii. He speculates that part of the reason they might not have intervened was because they didn't want the Japanese to know the US had broken their code and were reading all their messages (but he also presents evidence that the Japanese suspected as much). And while he doesn't directly condemn President Roosevelt, he certainly casts a shadow by claiming that FDR also had access to the information. He cites speculation that FDR allowed the attack to happen as a way to win support from the American public, over half of which opposed intervention into the war in Europe, but his criticism seems somewhat muted.

Although this book is nearly 350 pages it's a much quicker and easier read than that number might suggest. It was also more interesting than a dry and detailed accounting of the investigations might sound. Toland obviously places an emphasis on exonerating Kimmel and Short but does a good job piecing together the chronology of the intelligence that was gathered and known in the weeks and days leading up to the attack (he doesn't cover the attack itself). He discusses those who changed their testimonies as well as the documents which appear to have disappeared (such as the infamous "winds" message). For the most part Toland keeps the information from becoming overly tedious, but the main difficulty I had was with the VERY extensive "Cast of Principal Characters." They are listed at the beginning of the book but my interest was more casual and I didn't make the effort to keep everyone as straight as I might have. Still, I found it to be an interesting read and disappointing to know that maybe there was more "infamy" behind the scenes than we were led to believe.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

"The best friend poor children ever had"

Last year at Christmastime we were invited to read A Christmas Carol with a bunch of friends. I'd never heard of doing this before and wondered how long it would take, and if the kids would enjoy it, and... if I would enjoy it. It turned out I enjoyed it a LOT and the kids had a lot of fun. But other than A Christmas Carol (which I've read several times) I think the only Dickens book I've read has been Oliver Twist. They're truly Great Books and I've got more on my reading list but they're not exactly cheerful reading (the ending is happy, of course). In fact, I wondered if Dickens hadn't exaggerated the conditions of the poor a bit. Surely people in such wretched poverty were an exception rather than the rule during the Victorian Age.

Charles Dickens is the most well-known English writer of the 19th century. His books are still assigned reading in schools, and A Christmas Carol is performed in countless theaters each year, not to mention the numerous movie versions that exist. He has become such a part of our culture that you know what is meant if someone is called a "Scrooge" and Dickens' name sometimes replaces that of the Queen when referring to Victorian times. And he was such an effective agent of social change that his ("Dickensian") depictions of the poor seem too extreme anymore to be real. But Dickens had a secret he kept even from his wife and children until after his death: he was once one of those poor and hungry working children and saw their struggles first hand.

Charles Dickens and the Street Children of LondonSocial class in 19th century Britain was the accepted custom and the poor were seen as justly deserving their lot in life and frequently even unworthy of charity. But through his own experience, Dickens came to know them as real and sympathetic human beings with hopes and dreams, and deserving of pity and help. He was especially concerned for the children, who toiled long hours in unhealthy and dangerous jobs to avoid starvation and suffered neglect and abuse while spending their nights huddled together on the cold streets. And Dickens used his growing popularity as a writer to draw attention to their plight, to make others see them as human and even likable. His writing is sometimes criticized as "commercial," but he knew how to reach his audiences and soften their hearts.

Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London by Andrea Warren is a children's book. It is not written as a serious biography for an adult audience and the writing is probably aimed at a 9 to 13 year old reading level. It can be a little repetitious and a bit blunt in its depiction of the conditions many of the poor endured. But as an adult reader of history and literature I found it an enlightening and engaging read, finishing it in just a couple of evenings. It's loaded with photos and illustrations and explains the motivating issues behind many of Dickens’ most well-known stories. And while Dickens is the focus of the book, it also profiles many others whose contributions were so influential in changing the way the poor were treated. I hope we'll be invited again this year to read A Christmas Carol and I'll definitely bring this book along. (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

We decided to do something different this year, since the family who's still around had other plans. Camping for Thanksgiving is "different," right? But is it possible to still have turkey and stuffing and the usual Thanksgiving foods while camping? For my wife, nothing is impossible, and we invited the Jorgenson's to camp with us since we like them so much.

We had planned to go camping at Big Basin State Park in the Redwoods, but the forecast called for rain... and camping in the rain doesn't sound like much fun (neither did the 6 or 7 hour drive). But luckily a couple of spots opened up at Carpinteria. Camping on the beach. For Thanksgiving. With good friends. Can it get any better?

We had hobo (foil) dinners of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, ambrosia, rolls, and cranberry sauce. Jamie also made her delicious pumpkin cake which even the raccoons loved. (Just after I'd gone to bed I heard a lot of noise and looked out with a flashlight. The raccoon had somehow opened the cooler and gotten the plastic top off the cake. He was standing several feet away and just stared at me for a moment before picking up his piece of cake and leaving. The rangers told me the raccoons can even unzip tents!)

Of course Jamie sets the table even when we're camping

Thanksgiving dinner at sunset

Bringing the bikes was definitely a GOOD idea!

AP Calculus homework never takes a vacation!

Very low tide at the tidepools

The waves were crashing pretty big against the rocks

Monday, November 28, 2011

"... they were still his brethren"

"And now it came to pass that as Alma was journeying from the land of Gideon southward, away to the land of Manti, behold, to his astonishment, he met with the sons of Mosiah journeying towards the land of Zarahemla.  Now these sons of Mosiah were with Alma at the time the angel first appeared unto him; therefore Alma did rejoice exceedingly to see his brethren; and what added more to his joy, they were still his brethren in the Lord; yea, and they had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God."  Alma 17:1-2

It's been a little over 20 years since I served a 2 year LDS mission in Porto Alegre, Brazil. It wasn't always easy but it was one of the greatest experiences in my life, and I look forward to my sons serving missions. It strengthened my own conviction and testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I continue to serve faithfully in the church wherever I'm asked.

I made a lot of friends but a couple American missionaries are the only ones I still have occasional contact with (maybe I need to sign up on Facebook and track some people down?). So I was especially surprised yesterday to run into another missionary from my mission. I'm currently serving on the Stake High Council and was assigned to speak in the Chatsworth Ward. I had greeted a few people I knew before the meeting and then turned around to a guy who looked vaguely familiar. When he said his name I knew exactly how Alma felt, both the "astonishment" and the "joy!" Elder Quist and I weren't companions, and I didn't even know him especially well, but it was so wonderful to see him. He and his beautiful wife were there picking up their son who had just finished his mission, and this ward was one of the areas where he'd served.

The surprise of running into someone I served with during such a great time in my life and in an unexpected place really made my day, but the circumstances made it even nicer. Especially because we were still "brethren in the Lord."

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What do you know about your ancestors?

Several years ago I gathered all the information I could find about my genealogy. Luckily, between the family history research done by my mom and others, there was a TON of information on both sides of my family. I found, for instance, that my first ancestor to come to America was a Pilgrim, George Soule, who came on the Mayflower. The last was my Grandma Green, who came from Denmark with her mother in 1903 when she was just a baby. I also found that I am basically an American mutt:
  • 31% Danish
  • 14% German
  • 10% English
  • 6% Swedish
  • 6% French
  • about 3.5% Irish
  • less than 1% Scottish and Welsh
  • and about 29% unknown
The 29% unknown are lines that haven't been traced beyond America. They dead end in places like Kentucky, Virginia, and Pennsylvania and I expect most (if not all) came from England and some may have even been early settlers at Jamestown (and that would make me more "English" than "Danish").

(As an aside, it reminds me of an episode of "The Wonder Years."  Kevin comes home from having dinner with Paul's family and listening to Grandpa Pfiefer tell stories and he says to his mom, "I know Paul's Jewish, but what are we?"  And she says "Well, I think Jack's grandmother was Italian and his grandfather came from Romania and..."  And then the narrator voice says "And that's when it hit me: I was a mutt.")

But gathering names and dates is fine, but what makes it most interesting is when you find actual stories about them and if you're lucky  photos. That helps them feel more like real people instead of just names. And it makes reading history so much more interesting to better understand the events that might have affected their lives and wonder if they participated in them, and to realize why they moved from Virginia to Kentucky or New Jersey to Pennsylvania and things like that.

I thought of this again because there was a couple visiting at church who were Christensens from central Utah (my Grandma Green was a Christensen) so we're probably related a few generations back. My great grandfather Niels Christian Christensen was born in 1879 in Raunkilde, Denmark. We don't know who his father was except that he was German and his family owned a fleet of fishing boats. He was raised by his grandparents and that's how he got the name Christensen. They did names differently in Denmark, and his grandfather was Kristen Sorensen (because his father was named Soren) and so his children were Christensen. Niels grew up with his uncles and aunts being more like brothers and sisters.

But when it came time for Niels to go into military service he decided instead to go to America where many of his brothers and sisters (both the Christensens and the Jensens from his mother's second husband) had already emigrated. They must have joined the LDS (Mormon) Church because they all settled in the town of Moroni in central Utah. He got a job working for the railroad and because he could read and write, he got work keeping the books for his employer. He earned enough money to go back to Denmark where he met Dagmar Marie Mikkelsen, and they were married in 1902. He had to return to America or enter the military so he left his wife behind, but sent money as soon as he could for her and their baby daughter (my grandmother) to join him.

My grandmother said he loved America and seeing Mount Nebo made him feel "at home." Niels and Dagmar joined the LDS Church a few years later and raised 11 children. Family was always very important to them - both their own children and their extended family. Niels was a hard worker and he encouraged his children to get an education. Later in life he had a heart attack and his health wasn't as good for the last few years of his life but he still worked as much as he was able before he died in 1935 at 56 years old.

But those are the kinds of stories and information I like to find, and it's what makes them come alive as real people and helps you to feel a connection with them. And when I'm reading my history books I always hope to see a name that looks familiar I haven't, but it would be nice.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cool... very cool!

I've already mentioned how much I love U2's concert video of Under a Blood Red Sky and how I enjoy watching it occasionally. Before I had that one, though, I had to content myself with watching Rattle and Hum over and over again (with a similar reaction from my wife, of course).

U2 - Rattle and HumRattle and Hum is not exactly a concert video, but it's not really a documentary either. I've only seen a few concert videos and they're usually of a single edited concert, and largely limited to a handful of cameras and angles. In contrast, this one shows a series of different concerts around the US during their Joshua Tree tour with incredible camera angles that put you right on the stage. But it goes beyond that and shows rehersals and recording sessions for some of the new songs, backstage shots, and a few brief interviews, but not to the point where you would really call it a "documentary." The Edge puts it best when he says (about the film), "it's about music."

Most of the film is in black & white, which comes across very cool. The exception is the color footage from Sun Devil Stadium in Arizona, and the sudden contrast more than half-way through adds to the coolness factor. There are quite a few notable songs in B&W on the DVD such as "Exit," "Bad," and an emotional "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"; and "With or Without You," "Running to Stand Still," and "Bullet the Blue Sky" in color (just to name a few!). Also excellent are the parts with BB King on "When Love Comes to Town" and with a Harlen gospel choir on "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." And in my opinion, most of the versions on the DVD are better than the recorded versions or what was included on the CD (especially "Silver and Gold"). Ahhh, who am I kidding... I think the whole thing's cool!

Friday, November 18, 2011

God's image

I'm not really a fan of science-fiction but I found an old paperback that I read when I was a teenager (the book was originally written in 1935). It's called The Secret People by John Beynon Harris and the cover shows a group of pale underground pygmies advancing out from under giant mushrooms towards an ordinary couple. The man is holding a gun in one hand and has the other protectively around the waist of a very pretty (and curvy) woman. Yes, I know – it's not an image that begs to be taken as serious literature. But as I recall, the story was mildly interesting – enough that I finished it – and for some reason I've hung onto it for 25 or 30 years.

But about a year ago I read The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, which is sci-fi from the 1950s and I actually rather enjoyed it. Well, it turns out that John Wyndham and John Beynon Harris were the same person. His full name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris and he apparently wrote quite a few books under a variety of names. And it seems many are post-apocalyptic, or – as I like to call them – "end of the world books." But not knowing that connection, and having enjoyed the Triffids, I recently listened to the audio version of The Chrysalids.

Thousands of years after worldwide devastation by atomic weapons, civilization has tried to reestablish itself in various places around the world. In Labrador (northeastern Canada) small communities resembling Amish communities or American farming towns in the 1800s have legends of the "Tribulation" sent by God that caused the destruction. Their religious beliefs specify that anything that doesn't conform to a strict description of normal must be destroyed. This applies to crops and animals as well as humans – who were created in God's image – and there's an "Inspector" to make judgments. Young David Strorm finds out how dangerous this can be when he befriends a girl and finds out that she has 6 toes. When she is later discovered she and her family are cast out and she is sterilized so she cannot perpetuate her deformity. David realizes the danger to himself, however, because he and several other young people in the community have their own abnormality – the ability to communicate telepathically – which could be a very serious threat to the established order.

Wyndham creates an interesting world that still reeks of frequent radiation-caused deformities. Outside the small and insular community lies the "Fringes," an area teeming with plant and animal mutations as well as those who've been cast out. Beyond the Fringes very little is known except what David learns from his Uncle Axel who was once a sailor and saw firsthand the weirdness in the world. But Axel also provides a quiet voice of borderline heresy in David's fundamentalist upbringing, questioning what really is normal and if the real "image of God" is what's being preserved.

I find the religious aspect of the story particularly interesting. I wouldn't go so far as to say the book is anti-religion, but it raises the question of whether anyone could claim to know ultimate truth or God's intentions. And while it's easy enough to read this book and see the ridiculousness of judging a person living in a radioactive world with an extra toe as an abomination, what about deviations from the norm in our own society? We certainly have those whose choices and lifestyles are less accepted than others, some benign and some uncertain. I'm not questioning religious prerogatives for calling any disagreeable behavior "sinful," but does that justify mistreatment of such people? In an interesting twist, the book's end kind of explains such pruning of deviant characteristics as natural for self-preservation, but equates it to a type of evolution and natural selection. At any rate, the ending wasn't as strong as the beginning (for several reasons), but it raises some interesting philosophical thoughts.

And I DO like a book that makes me think.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Man's vision

When I was a teenager we took a family trip to visit my Grandpa Duffield who lived out in the Arizona desert near Lake Mead. The only neighbors I remember seeing were rattlesnakes. He kept a little pool of water behind his house where the desert animals would come at night. My brother and I stood near it in the gathering dusk as swarms of bats came, drinking as they flew slowly over the water. It was hard to stand there without running because you could feel them flying so close by, sometimes barely brushing your skin or clothes, but never crashing into you.

Another thing I remember from that trip was boating and water-skiing on Lake Mead. I even got up once on the skis, before promptly going right over on my face, that is. I don't remember if we saw Hoover Dam or not, but it's a place I'd like to visit after reading Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century by Michael Hiltzik.

The American Southwest is a very dry place. What little rain that falls collects into the Colorado River, a river some said was "too thick to drink and too thin to plow" because of all the silt. It can be a wild and dangerous river and yet its flow wasn't regular enough to reliably allow crops and irrigation. Some tried, however, and in 1906 an enterprising effort to bring irrigation water to California's Imperial Valley failed spectacularly and created the Salton Sea near present-day Palm Springs. Higher than usual flood waters breached a canal bank and created a new river rushing downhill into the below sea-level area at a tremendous rate. "In simple terms, the river was carving itself a new gorge... the current hurtled over a precipice at the point where the New River entered the Salton Sea. This miniature Niagara proceeded to claw its way upstream at a pace of a mile a day, leaving in its wake a canyon eighty feet deep." (pg 45) It was floods like this that prompted some to propose taming the river with a dam.

Herbert Hoover, then US Secretary of Commerce, met with representatives from the 7 states affected by the Colorado River (CA, NV, AZ, UT, CO, NM, WY) and eventually hammered out an agreement on water sharing and rights. The political wrangling made this the least interesting part of the book. After that it mostly discusses the actual construction of the dam: the massive scope of the project and the labor involved. This was the Depression years, and Six Companies (the firm who won the bid to build the dam) wasn't above cutting the wages of desperate men willing to work for a pittance just to keep their families from starving - to which the government mostly turned a blind eye. Safety was a low concern as well, and frequent fatal accidents opened the door for labor unions, although heavy-handed tactics by Six Companies kept them from organizing much of a presence.

Most of this fascinating book focuses on the social, political, and labor history of the dam. I wish more of the environmental aspect had been discussed, especially as it relates to the changes caused by damming the river (although it does mention that decades of earthquakes followed as the massive weight of the water that became Lake Mead began pressing down upon the land). The book explains rather well how access to water and electricity (generated by the dam) allowed the southwest to grow and thrive, creating such thirsty and brightly-lit cities as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. Squabbles over water continue even today, however, and an enormous population still lies at the mercy of the river and its unreliable flow of water. The book would benefit from more pictures and maps, but regardless, it was very interesting and insightful. Now I just need to plan a trip to actually see it.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Best movie trailers - part 3

The trailer for Aliens was the first time I ever actually heard the entire theater say "whoa!" out loud.  Or maybe it was just me.  But it was a hushed "whoa!" while everyone sat kind of stunned.  Then someone yelled something (probably "WHOA!") and everyone cheered.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Best movie trailers - part 2

Another 'best' movie trailer was the first Harry Potter movie.  Maybe not so much because it made the whole theater say "whoa!" but because everyone reading the books was SO looking forward to it.  And the trailer looked perfect!  Harry looked perfect!  Even the music was perfect!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Best movie trailers - part 1

I've been posting a lot of book reviews lately (and sometimes that feels a little boring) so I thought I'd post the best movie trailers ever. It's only my opinion, of course, but this is my blog. Sometimes a movie trailer makes the entire theater say "whoa!" or cheer out loud, and these are some I remember getting the most enthusiastic reactions. Three come to mind which I'll post in no particular order, but if I've missed a great one, let me know.

I guess I might as well start off with Pearl Harbor. The movie tried a little too hard to be Titanic and the 'love story' was a bit much, but - HOLY COW! - that whole attack scene was one of the coolest ever! And how could you not be inspired by this trailer?


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Human

I have to admit I don't really know much about Prince William and Kate Middleton (not sure if she's called a "Princess" or not). They seem like nice people, and she's very pretty and classy and I hope she's really as down to earth as she appears. It can't be easy living with that much attention – it seemed especially difficult for Princess Diana. Of course, Diana didn't seem to have much support from a husband who appeared stiff and anything but warm. But again, these are just the impressions I have from what I've seen in the media – I haven't gone out of my way to actually learn anything about them. But I couldn't help but think that the lives such people live isn't as charmed as it sometimes appears while I read Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie.

Sophia Augusta Fredericka (later renamed Catherine) was born in 1729, the daughter of a minor noble in a minor German kingdom. She was chosen at age fourteen by Elizabeth, Empress of Russia, to be the bride of her son Peter and travelled to Russia with her determined and scheming mother. But in a Russian court full of ambition and jealousies, Sophia managed to maneuver herself onto the throne in 1762 through her charm and intelligence (and a generally bloodless coup). Once there, and inspired by the enlightenment philosophies of Voltaire, Diderot, and others, she sought to institute many changes in a society considered backward and primitive by other European countries and rulers. And while her sweeping and lofty reforms were rejected, she managed to leave her imprint on Russia in so many other ways throughout her 34 years as ruler – so much so that her people called her “Great.”

Mr. Massie writes an engaging and fascinating biography of Catherine II, and makes her intensely (and sometimes uncomfortably) human in the process. He brings her to life as a young woman in a foreign court faced with earning acceptance from the Empress, her future husband, power-hungry courtiers, and the Russian people. In her first few years on the throne she tried to gradually eliminate serfdom (slavery) but was opposed by the nobility (to which she owed in large degree her ascension to power). Interestingly, she also found that the serfs themselves were not progressive thinking enough to imagine such freedom – a rather rude awakening for her enlightenment beliefs – instead being more concerned about broken fences and small grievances like that. Later her views on emancipating the serfs turned completely around when she saw the violence and chaos of the French Revolution and the parallels to the Pugachev Rebellion she herself had faced. Another aspect of her life that was explained in a way that made her a sympathetic character was the different "favorites" (lovers) she had and her deep-seated desire just to be loved.

With excerpts from Catherine's own writings this bio offers a very insightful look into the politics and intrigue and the lives of European rulers and nobles during the latter half of the 1700s, and for being such a long book (nearly 600 pages before the index and bibliography) it's incredibly interesting. I thought pedigree charts explaining the relationships of the characters would have been helpful (mine was an advance copy from Amazon Vine, so perhaps the final book has them) and it would have been nice if a little more background had been given on nations outside Russia (only Poland and the French Revolution are explained in much detail, but little on Prussia, Germany, and Austria). Still, this was a remarkable book and didn't often show life as a princess or queen in a very charming manner. I'll definitely be looking to add Mr. Massie’s other books on the Romanovs and Russian history to my reading list.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

If you build it... it could be really cool!

I think a big part of growing up in the late 70s and early 80s was video games - at least for boys. I remember going to the movies at Trolley Square and playing Star Castle in the lobby. I remember hanging out at the Gold Mine arcade in Crossroads Mall and playing games like Battle Zone and Joust and Rampage. I remember the first time I saw Dragon's Lair, which was such a sensation because it used traditional animation. I never got really good at any of them, because my income was mostly limited to mowing lawns, but we also had an Atari at home. I'd save up and buy game cartridges and my brother and I would play them for hours sometimes. I even "beat" one of them - Demon Attack, a Space Invaders kind of game - and was disappointed that the screen just went blank and I couldn't even see what my score was.

But I don't feel the same way about the video games kids (and lots of grownups, too) play now. They don't have a limited number of lives and you can save your place and start where you left off. Worst of all, many of them just don't seem to have a clear objective - it seems to be a lot of wandering around. Besides, I don't have that much patience anymore. So I was kind of excited when I stumbled upon a software online called MAME and a number of video game files from my youth. Seeing those old games again was a lot of fun, and the kids actually enjoyed playing them. And I've sometimes thought it might be fun to install those games on a computer that could be hooked up to the television with some joysticks or paddles instead of using the keyboard, but finding a simple joystick that doesn't resemble something from an F-22 fighter jet (and cost almost as much) hasn't been so easy.

I realize this isn't the normal kind of book I review here, but Project Arcade: Build Your Own Arcade Machine by John St. Clair looked like it might have some good ideas and tips. Unfortunately, the focus is geared toward making your own Arcade cabinet - just like the old days. And that's an idea that sounds really cool - it could be loaded with and configured for all the old favorites - and no quarters! Of course, that's assuming your wife doesn't mind, right? There are also ideas and plans for "desktop" Arcades, which are smaller but still not the simple setup I envisioned. It's a great book if you're looking to spend some time and money to build your dream Home Arcade. But if you just want to plug an old computer into the TV you probably don't need it.  (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Two-faced?

What do you think is the most well-known story written by Robert Louis Stevenson? Treasure Island or Kidnapped are certainly much loved and widely-read, but I think The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is better known. In fact, there's a good chance you've never even read it but you know the story. Wikipedia says there have been over 100 film versions alone of the story although the one I remember most was Bugs Bunny (actually that probably doesn't count as a "film version"). And it's because of this that everyone already knows the basic storyline that made it one of the most disappointing books I've ever read when I read it over 25 years ago. (And let's not forget the classic 80s song by Men at Work.)

You see, none of these versions is true to the way Stevenson wrote the story. He made the identity of Mr. Hyde a mystery in a surprise ending. But of course, we all know who Mr. Hyde is, so when you read the book there's no surprise and it's very anti-climatic. But I've begun to notice that this idea of a double identity is very common in literature, especially from the Victorian era. A recent book I reviewed talks about Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim and how we may think of ourselves in one way but behave differently under pressure. (The author compared Jim's actions to J. Bruce Ismay, the owner of the Titanic who jumped from the sinking ship just as Jim had done, and discussed "the self we believe ourselves to be and the self-unknown.") It takes on a much darker shade in The Portrait of Dorian Gray, about the handsome young man whose portrait ages and shows the ravages of a debauched lifestyle, leaving his own face youthful and untouched.

One aspect of Jekyll & Hyde that I found interesting, however, was Jekyll's reason for doing what he did. He felt guilty over his sins and shortcomings, and wished he could separate his sinful side from himself (or that self he believed himself to be), thereby freeing himself from the anguish and guilt of his weakness. Unfortunately, it didn't work out like that. Instead, Hyde was unleashed and part of Jekyll enjoyed the indulgence of Hyde's immoral activities. And the more Jekyll allowed Hyde to run free the harder it became to control him, until Hyde was becoming the controlling force within him. Of course, this was a common caution preached from pulpits everywhere upon the release of the book, but it's not a part of the story we ever see or have even come to associate with it. (Not in the Tweety Bird version, either.)

At any rate, it's a short and easy read and the concept of inner conflict is an interesting aspect of the story (and it's the only book I could come up with that is somewhat Halloween-ish). I recently listened to the audio version and it's more enjoyable when you understand how the story is written and aren't expecting a surprise when there isn't one.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Beauty is only skin deep

They were talking about immortality on the radio the other day - if you could, would you want to live forever? Although there's about a million books I'd like to read, I'm not sure that's worth sticking around for. As a kid all you want is to grow up but once you get there you find it's not everything you thought it would be. Even though the voice inside my head is the same as when I was a teenager, everything on the outside has changed. As a kid I could eat as much as I wanted and still be skinny, but now it's a different story and taking that weight off seems almost impossible. And let's not even talk about the responsibilities - youth really is wasted on the young! When you're young you worry far too much about appearances - yours and everyone else’s - never realizing you're better looking than you ever think. I guess if I could be young forever, it might be tempting.

It's with these thoughts in mind that I found The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde so interesting. Dorian is an exceptionally handsome young man, but when he sees his portrait and realizes just how handsome he is, he wishes for the painting to grow old while he remains young - and that's what happens. At first he is mortified when he finds changes in his painted image, but under the influence of his friend Lord Henry, Dorian begins to seek the worldly pleasures in life. No matter what depths he sinks to, his handsome face remains unchanged while the portrait grows uglier and more hideous, burdened not only by age but by his debauched lifestyle as well.

I don't know if this book is as widely read as it maybe once was but I was quite taken in by the story. It's interesting that Dorian, instead of using the portrait as a conscience to correct his actions, takes a strange delight in observing the change to his painted picture. He revels in his freedom from outward consequences and sinks deeper, delving into every debasing pleasure. In some ways the separate manifestations of the individual reminded me of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where Dr. Jekyll sought to separate his sinful side from himself. Likewise, his recognition of how his outward appearance and appeal would fade with age seemed to have similar shades of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. And the character of Lord Henry is interesting, always in the background congratulating Dorian and playing the devil's role by encouraging his sensual hedonism. But it's also a critique of Victorian society, although it's still applicable today: we spend our time and money trying to reverse the effects of age (the gym, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery, etc.); companies spend billions idealizing (or idolizing) "youth"; and some even seek to excuse away weakness and place blame elsewhere. At any rate, I recommend it as an interesting and thought-provoking story.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Surfrider

Taylor wanted to go surfing a week ago and we ended up at Surfrider beach.  Since Jamie's camera was in the car and it was such a beautiful (but overcast) morning I took a few pictures. 



Malibu Pier with morning fishermen

The sign says "no fishing"

Pierside waves

Those pretty waves make it hard to get any reading done

It's even more crowded out there than it looks

It's funny what washes up at different times of year - the beach was covered with dead urchins

Calling it a day

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Samson and the spark

Although I love American history, the Civil War seemed a sad chapter in our nation's history and never held much interest for me. So, I'm not sure why I thought Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz looked interesting. I didn't even know who John Brown was!

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil WarIn spite of the lofty language in the Declaration of Independence, all men were not equal in America. Slavery was a stain on the country's conscience and some felt it was becoming too deeply entrenched in the nation. John Brown, a poor subsistence farmer from Ohio, saw himself as a sort of noble Gideon from the Bible (Judges 7) who led Israel victoriously against its enemies, and he believed his life's mission was to begin the war that would end slavery. He turned out to be more of a Samson-figure (Judges 16): deeply flawed but with the power to provide a spark. His early efforts to make Kansas a free-state and a successful raid in Missouri to free a few slaves earned himself a somewhat fearsome reputation as "Osawatomie Brown," but the murderous violence also deeply disaffected his sons. Nonetheless, they followed him again with a small rag-tag group in a more ambitious plan.

Brown's ill-conceived raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (a slave state) in October of 1859 failed to free any slaves but his example in standing up for his convictions – even if it meant going to the gallows – inspired many in the North. It also heightened fears in the South that Northern abolitionists would forcibly take their “property” from them and provoked calls for secession. And less than two years later, the country descended into the chaos of the Civil War where over 600,000 men lost their lives.

Perhaps in an effort to present the story as neutrally as possible, Brown is portrayed as neither heroic nor even particularly likeable. And while it's a fairly easy read I found it only mildly interesting until the end of the book. Mr. Horwitz brings the story together nicely with a summary of the impact John Brown and the raid on Harper's Ferry had on attitudes in both the North and the South, leading to disunion and war. Brown’s willingness to sacrifice himself inspired others to confront the issue of slavery, and his words at the end of his life became far more powerful than his actions had been – his heart was in the right place even if his plans and tactics weren't – and Horwitz's conclusions regarding Brown’s motives seem reasonable. And this greater understanding of the events that led to the War was what made the book worthwhile reading for me.  (I received this book from Amazon Vine).

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Killing Lincoln?" You can do better

One of my pet peeves about Los Angeles is the lack of good radio stations. There are none that consistently play music I want to listen to. At best you get one good song before having to change the station. Occasionally it's nice to listen to a baseball game, but games aren't on all the time. And Talk Radio? Geez, nothing gets my blood pressure up faster than listening to those idiots! So, most of the time I end up listening to NPR. In spite of their "no rant and no slant" claim, they lean a lot further to the Left than they realize, but usually it's tolerable (and they don't yell!). So, maybe I can be forgiven for not knowing if Bill O'Reilly was on the Left or the Right. I knew only that he was a political commentator. And when Amazon Vine offered me his new book, Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever, I thought I might give it a try.

After the Confederate forces surrendered, Abraham Lincoln wanted to reintegrate the Southern states back into the Union. Although many believed the prodigals should be treated with a heavy hand and made to pay war reparations, Lincoln favored a forgiving approach that he hoped would rebuild the nation and its devastated economy. His plans were interrupted, however, when John Wilkes Booth, a celebrity of the stage and a virulent racist, thought he could reignite the war by killing the President. When Booth shot Lincoln in Ford's Theater he made himself the object of the nation's greatest manhunt and ensured Lincoln's place as the nation's greatest martyr.

O'Reilly has written a very novel-like story of the final days of the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln shortly thereafter. It is written to enhance the drama of the story and engages in a lot of speculative comments about what the characters see or think, such as stating that Booth absent-mindedly kissed a ring from his former fiancé while pausing at the door to Lincoln's box, or what Lincoln felt upon being shot. As someone who reads quite a lot of history I found these speculations distracting, but someone not used to reading as much history might appreciate the drama it adds. Supposedly O'Reilly used to be a high-school history teacher and such an approach could have been excellent with reluctant teenagers. However, one part I did find especially interesting and even exciting was Grant's pursuit of Lee's Confederate army.

I listened to the audiobook read by Mr. O'Reilly himself, and while he does a decent job it might have benefitted more from a professional reader. O'Reilly's pronunciation of "sentries" sounds more like "centuries," and is occasionally halting. Other reviewers complained that his pronunciation of "cavalry" (men on horses) sounds more like "Calvary" (the place where Jesus died). He also explains twice the phrase Booth shouted from the theater stage, "Sic semper tyrannis," meaning "thus always to tyrants," and makes frequent connections to the death of Caesar (and Jesus, too). And he tries to play up the unproven conspiracy theory connecting Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to Booth, probably another effort to enhance the drama.

But O'Reilly is a controversial figure and there's been a lot of hubbub on the Amazon forums over this book. As someone with an allergy to political commentators of either stripe (and when I say "stripe" I think of skunks - an especially apt comparison, don't you think?), I suggest a better choice would be Chasing Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson. Although it was written for teenagers, it provides a good introductory account of the assassination. And without all the political controversy O'Reilly brings to the story!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The thin line between hunger and anger

Some politicians and economists tell us the 'recession' is over, but it sure doesn't look like it to most Americans. In fact, when you see friends and others out of work or losing their homes it looks a LOT more like a 'Depression'. A recent article in the LA Times pointed out that what we don't yet see coming out of the hard times this time around is great art - it seems the movie makers and musicians are too far removed from the plight of normal Americans to see what's going on. I guess we can always revisit some of the art to come out of that other Depression back in the 1930s, like Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

The book centers around the Joad family from Oklahoma. Having lost their farm to the bank they decide to move to California after seeing fliers advertising high pay for farm workers, and hit the road in an old truck converted to haul all their worldly belongings. On the road, however, they notice a lot of others in similar circumstances are also heading to California with similarly high hopes. And when they arrive they find a vast oversupply of labor has driven down wages to levels making it impossible to support a family. Even worse, however, they arrive to find that nearly all the land is owned by huge corporate farmers who are colluding to exploit workers and keep wages low, and using law enforcement officials to prevent unions from forming.

In spite of the optimism the Joad family has for making a better life in California, this is not a happy story and was not meant to be such. Steinbeck famously wrote "I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this," and there's a lot of that same sentiment today. While the migrant worker aspect of the story might remind readers more of the Mexican workers of today along with its attendant racism ("Okies" were as reviled as "illegal immigrants" are now), the fear of losing one's home and not being able to provide for a family will resonate with most everyone. And the book illustrates well the effects of the economic disaster on families. The Joads find themselves disintegrating even while on the road, and they learn that they must rely on their larger community more and more. Assistance by the federal government is an oasis from the persecution by the harassment of the California deputies, but isn't enough for them to become self-reliant again.

The style of the writing is fairly raw in its portrayal of the poor. The Joads are people of the land and their language is coarse and talk of sex is frequent. Their speech is rendered the way they would talk, but it's easy enough to understand. Nonetheless, they come across as honest and deserving of respect and sympathy. Interspersed throughout the narrative are chapters that leave the Joads to show the larger view of the situation. And while I found some of these diversions annoying, the overall story is so powerful it makes the reader angry at the situation. Also, it took me about 150 pages before I really got into the story. It's not what you'd call a "pleasurable" read, but it's compelling for the gravity of the story and you can't help but feel hopeful for the family to get a break. And it's probably a story that should be read again in these difficult economic times.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The forgotten general

If you were asked to name important American generals of the 20th century who would you come up with? MacArthur? Eisenhower? Maybe Patton, or even Marshall for helping to rebuild Europe after WWII? I don't think Pershing would have come to my mind, which is a shame because he's arguably greater than any of them.

John J. Pershing led the American forces in WWI (and MacArthur, Patton, and Marshall all served under him). He resisted all pressures to integrate American soldiers as replacements for casualties in French and British units, insisting they fight instead as American units. He then refused to rush his new and untested soldiers into battle until they were prepared to fight, and once they joined the offensive his units defeated the Germans in only six months of action. But his military career began long before the first World War. Pershing also served in the Spanish American War in Cuba and in the Philippines where he managed to subdue the Moro tribes using minimal military force. Instead, he treated them with respect and turned enemies into friends.

In fact, one characteristic of Pershing I found particularly admirable was that he didn't allow racism to affect his judgment. He led units of black soldiers in Cuba and in the American West which was how he got his nickname – "Black Jack" Pershing – which was originally meant derogatorily. But he was much more than just a soldier and general. He originally planned to go into law and his early jobs were as a teacher – he only joined the military to pay his way through school. And even as a soldier he was a teacher to those around him, insisting on discipline and order and getting all the little things right before heading into battle. But his obsessive attention to detail earned him plenty of animosity from many of his charges who saw him as a nit-picker. Few but his closest friends ever saw his warm and tender side as a faithful and devoted husband and father.

John Perry has chronicled the life of one of the greatest generals America has ever produced in Pershing: Commander of the Great War, part of "The Generals" series by Thomas Nelson Publishers (I received this book through their Booksneeze blogger program). He presents both sides of the man - the inflexible and sometimes insufferable military leader as well as the kind and caring friend who loved his family (and was a surprisingly able dancer). He accomplished great things for his country and the world but was also devoted to those he loved. It's not an exhaustive biography but may be a good starting point for readers who want to see the person behind the legend.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The jump

What would you do if you had the chance to leave the Titanic in a lifeboat as it was sinking? What if you were the ship's owner? And what if you knew you might face severe questions and even ridicule because of your choice? In her new book, How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, Frances Wilson examines the unhappy decision of J. Bruce Ismay, President of the White Star Line, who took the opportunity to jump when it was presented to him. And it's coming out just in time for the 100th anniversary of the accident next year.

While it's cleverly titled, it's neither a survival book nor a full account of the Titanic. It's partly a history of the ship's owner and covers the tragedy of the Titanic as it centers around its most tragic survivor. Wilson presents the many accounts of those who claim to have seen Ismay, and depicts very well the chaos of the moment as well as the unreliability of witness accounts. But she goes beyond the Titanic itself and brings in the fictional account of Jim from Joseph Conrad's novel Lord Jim (which was written before the Titanic disaster), because, as she explains, fiction often presents us with more appealing characters than real life as well as a window into a situation of heroism and lost honor where we can separate "the self we believe ourselves to be and the self-unknown" (pg 270).

The account of the sinking is rather exciting and the insightful comparisons are very thought-provoking but unfortunately, Ismay is a remarkably UNinteresting person and drags down the book to some degree. After the initial American hearings into the disaster the narrative runs out of steam and becomes quite boring for a time. The discussions on Lord Jim becomes a bit mind numbing in its literary-ness and Ismay's letters to fellow-survivor Marian Thayer (whom he was secretly in love with) are overly detailed and increasingly tedious. I don't wish to dismiss this book so flatly, however, because there was much to enjoy (and the ending gets better), but I think it will appeal most to readers with a special interest in the Titanic and especially those who will appreciate the literary parallel.

While it might be easy from the comfort of our present time, especially where the romance of the Titanic looms large in movies and books, to say 'I would honorably go down with the ship,' Wilson makes a compelling argument that until one is actually faced with the choice, none of us can really say for sure what we would do. (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Man, oh man! I wish I could have been there!

Although I rarely watch television there are a few videos I like to watch occasionally - even though I've probably seen them dozens of times - movies like The Parent Trap (the original), Follow Me Boys, and Joe vs. the Volcano. And while my wife finds it strange that I can watch them again and again, she really thinks it strange that I can watch a U2 concert video again and again. I'll never understand women.

Under a Blood Red Sky - Deluxe Edition CD/DVDWhat do you do when you plan to film a concert in the beautiful outdoor setting at Red Rocks, Colorado on a splendid summer evening and instead it rains? If you're an up-and-coming U2 you go on with the show and film anyway and it turns out even better than planned. As the notes in this DVD/CD deluxe reissue edition of Under a Blood Red Sky explain, the band reserved another venue for the following night and invited all the ticket holders to attend either concert or both. Only about half showed up but they made up for those unwilling to stand in the rain. And those who didn't come really missed out!

U2 always had a lot of energy but by this point in their career (1983) they also had a lot of passion to go with it. This was the tour for the War album, their 3rd release (after Boy and October), and they were just becoming known in the US with songs like "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" (about "the troubles" in Ireland) and "New Year's Day." (I must have been living under a new wave rock because I didn't discover them until The Joshua Tree came out while I was in Brazil - in fact, I remember Benji Burton from Oregon was dumfounded that I'd never heard those songs.) But if nothing else, U2 has a talent for promoting themselves, and this show made for MTV was all about self-promotion.

And as much as I love The Joshua Tree, I just might like this one better (although that might depend on the day you ask!). The relatively short CD alone is fantastic and worth buying (only 2 songs, "Gloria" and "Party Girl," actually came from that rainy concert), but the DVD is the best possible bonus for this remastered reissue. Be aware that since it was originally shot on video there are some red streaks from the lights - at first glance Jamie thought the kids had taken a crayon to the TV screen - but you get used to it. Also, if you're a die-hard U2 fan you'll notice that a couple minutes of the performance of "The Electric Co." has been cut out to omit the "send in the clowns" line from the original VHS version because of copyright issues or something (I never liked that "Send in the Clowns" song anyway!). But I love this DVD/CD set. In fact, maybe I'll go home and watch it again tonight (and Jamie will roll her eyes and call me a nerd - again!).