Saturday, February 26, 2011

Broken bones, birthdays, and beach parties

We don't really break bones in my family.  Neither I nor Jamie nor our siblings ever had any broken bones growing up and our kids seem to be similarly blessed with strong bones.  (Well, that's not quite true - but I'd rather not go into the story of how I cracked a rib while playing golf.)  But it's a good thing because Maddie tried jumping off the trampoline without touching the metal frame (it's been really dry lately and the static electricity was bad) and fell on her arm.  Luckily she only fractured it - not badly - but the doctor still considered putting her in a cast for three weeks.  Maddie was hoping for a cast but was happy with a splint... for a little while anyway.  Within a few hours it was itchy and uncomfortable and driving her crazy.

It's all smiles leaving the doctor, but later...

We also celebrated Taylor's birthday - at the beach of course.  He wanted to try out the surf board he bought and the wetsuit he got for Christmas.  Even though the weather here has been pretty rainy and unpredictable, it turned out to be a beautiful day (and we went back for another beautiful beach day on President's day, too, although the waves weren't very good).

Kate and Jolie, a couple of little surfer girls

The beach isn't so much fun when you can't play in the water!

Of course, Taylor isn't the only one who has a birthday in February.  We also celebrated Kate's birthday - with Jamie's shrimp pasta with asparagus and a bundt cake from everyone's favorite new cake store.

My kids are all getting so much older and bigger - it makes me kind of sad sometimes.  Like Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, "I don't remember growing older, when did they?"

Thursday, February 24, 2011

An unexpected treasure

Whenever we're in Utah there are certain stores we nearly always go to, almost like habit. And when we were up there for Thanksgiving we stopped by the downtown Deseret Book store. Of course, the kids feel entitled to pick something since we've always encouraged reading and Maddie made a bit of a fuss over a book called The Clockwork Three in the new releases section. I talked her into choosing something else, however, because I knew I'd seen it on the Amazon Vine newsletter, so I was able to get an advance reader copy (ARC) instead. And the book turned out to be quite an unexpected little treasure.

The Clockwork ThreeGuiseppe spends his days as a busker playing violin on the street corners and hoping to earn enough money for the meager food and shelter provided by his evil padrone, Stephano. But when he finds a beautiful green violin in the washed up debris from a shipwreck he begins to dream that there might be a way to earn enough to return to his brother and sister in Italy. Hannah works as a maid in a beautiful downtown hotel, waiting on and cleaning up after the wealthy guests whose lives are far removed from her plight as the only means of support for her family after her father suffered a stroke. She learns of a treasure hidden by a former guest, and hopes to find it and save her family from the streets. And Frederick works as an apprentice clockmaker for Master Branch, who saved him from a workhouse/orphanage. He is perhaps most comfortable but he burns with a desire to prove himself and works secretly on a clockwork automaton in the form of a man in the hope it will help him make journeyman, allowing him to open his own shop. But all three of their paths eventually cross and they join to help each other in this story with a basis in real historical events of 1870s New York.

After Maddie and I started reading it together I realized that it's a bit over her head - more on a reading level for Kate (I think it's recommended for grades 5-8, which seems appropriate). But once I began reading it on my own I couldn't put it down. The story starts a bit slow as it rotates among the three children who are seemingly unconnected to one another, but soon enough you're easily drawn into their lives and the troubles they face.

But while the story is good and will certainly appeal strongly to kids, it's Matthew Kirby's writing that I found especially captivating. His words have a magical color and sound to them that breathes life into the story, leaving even adults in the grip of a tale they can't put down. (It's books and writers like this that make me think that YA fiction is too often underrated and underappreciated.) Mr. Kirby is a very talented writer and I look forward to more from him (there were maybe a few loose ends too, making me hope there might be room for more from this story). Highly recommended.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The president who set the precedent

"Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute. Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior." (pg xiv)

I've mentioned before how much I enjoy books by Joseph Ellis, and in honor of President's Day I thought I'd review one of my favorite books by him: His Excellency: George Washington. It's a "modest-sized book about a massive historical subject" that examines why Washington was so highly regarded, both by his contemporaries and by history.

His Excellency: George WashingtonEllis points out that many others (such as Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin, Mao, and Castro) were pivotal in orchestrating successful revolutions but only Washington declined to assume power in a military dictatorship (pg 139). And perhaps Washington's greatest trait was understanding that stepping aside would enhance the way he was viewed by posterity far greater than simply assuming power. He was always ambitious, looking for ways to integrate himself into Virginia society as a younger man, but he also knew when to exercise restraint and keep above the fray.

As the key figure of the American Revolution he kept up the struggle even when all odds were against him - flagging support among the people, poor condition of the Continental Army, lack of provisions from Congress, the supremacy of British strategy and control of the seas, French reluctance to provide assistance. And yet such experience taught him the importance of a strong federal government and guided his role as President of the new nation. There were no prior examples to draw from or precedent to follow, and although his own lack of a formal education was a constant embarrassment to him, he intuitively knew how to utilize the strengths of others and manage the competing ambitions of those around him in setting the nation on a path to stability.

Ellis hasn't exactly written a biography in the classic sense, although he does chronicle Washington's life, but it's enhanced by a deep character study of this important man. And few are as adept at bringing history's characters to life in such an insightful way and putting the reader into their shoes. It was in strong contrast to John Ferling's The Ascent of George Washington. Where Ferling looks at a events with a critical eye enhanced with 200 years of historical hindsight, Ellis sees beyond the failings to the motivations and greater social customs of the day and makes the history personal in a way no one else does. Although the book was a little slow starting it was so packed with valuable insight that it merits a close reading. It's a great place to start if you'd like to learn more about one of our greatest presidents.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sometimes the best stories are those written for children

I've heard that one of my favorite stories, The Hobbitt, was originally written by J. R. R. Tolkien for his children - it wasn't even meant for publication. If not for the prodding of his friend, C. S. Lewis, it might never have been published. And in the introduction to Watership Down, Richard Adams explains that it was borne out of a request by his daughters for a story on a long car ride - not just any story, but a story made up just for them. And luckily for us, they encouraged their father to finish the story and have it published.

Watership Down [Audiobook, Unabridged] [Audio CD]Watership Down (which is a very dramatic-sounding title) starts when Fiver has a foreboding of danger for the warren. His prophecies, however, are rejected by the chief rabbit, and he and his friend Hazel convince a few others to leave the warren in search of a place to start a new one. But there are a great many dangers out in the world: foxes and wolves, weasels and stoats, and not least of all man and his machines. That's right, this is a story about rabbits. No, they're not rabbits who wear little mittens and coats with buttons - they're real rabbits who forage in the grass and occasionally raid gardens. But they also have their own language and legends and mythology, and we're treated to plenty of that in this captivating story as we follow Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Silver, Dandelion, Pipkin and the others on their odyssey.

This book is often called an allegory, although Mr. Adams has insisted it was never meant as such and was simply "a story I told to my little girls." But there certainly seem to be elements of symbolism. The legends of El-ahrairah, a type of Brer Rabbit, are told by the rabbits with almost religious reverence. The Black Rabbit of Inlé, another figure from their legends, might be compared to the Devil (although not especially evil), and General Woundwort made me think of Joseph Stalin, ruling with an iron fist - errr, paw, I mean. And Fiver certainly seems to have a gift of prophecy, but the comparisons are only conjecture on my part and the legends add color and texture to a wonderful story.

I'll admit I was hesitant to read this - a "classic" about bunnies? And it's not even very old, having been published originally in 1972. But I think it's certainly deserving of the attention it's received ever since and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There's some violence and it can be occasionally frightening or sad, but I loved it and found myself genuinely concerned for Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig and their group. I listened to the audio book (and my kids would cast questioning looks my way: "A story about rabbits, Dad? Really?!?") read by Ralph Cosham who does an excellent job. In fact, I plan to follow Mr. Adams example and listen to the audio book with the kids the next time we have a long drive. They're going to love it!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Interview with Kevin Milne, author of Sweet Misfortune

A couple weeks ago I posted a review of Sweet Misfortune by Kevin Milne, and Kevin was kind enough to comment.  When I mentioned I'm interested in writing a novel, he was also kind enough to answer some questions.

How do you come up with ideas?

I typically find that idea generation starts with a random kernel of a thought, be it a title, a character name, a location, or even a question. Not a full blown idea, per se, but more of a mental lead. These initial, rudimentary thoughts can pop up just about anywhere. For example, with my most recent book, Sweet Misfortune, I was having lunch with a buddy at Panda Express, and while I was reading my fortune cookie I thought of how fun it would to twist fortune cookie sayings into something less optimistic. I didn't know what story would evolve, I just knew that I wanted it to include 'misfortune cookies'. From there I sat down and started typing, which I consider the key to coming up with ideas. If I just sit around trying to think of ideas, I usually end up with a whole lot of nothing.  But if I start putting sentences together on the page, ideas start to magically take shape. Honestly, I believe my brain is in my fingertips…without them moving on the keyboard, nothing happens.

Do you write an outline or character profiles to work from?

I try to wait to put any sort of summary together until I have a chapter or two written, because by then I’ve begun to get a sense for where things are headed. By virtue of working under contract for a large publisher, I am required to have a general outline for them to approve. I try to keep this to a single page—just a high level overview of what I think the story is about and a [very] rough sense of what will happen. This leaves the door open for creativity to drive the details of the plot. The one time I tried working from a more comprehensive outline, I hated the final product and ended up scrapping half the manuscript just a few weeks before my deadline.

As for character profiles, I’ve never tried them. Maybe I should, but I find that the characters tend to develop all on their own, so I let the story dictate their various personas.

What do you do when you get stuck?

Actually, I have a well-established and oft-used routine when it comes to overcoming writer’s block: First, I lie on my bed and mope about being stuck, which doesn’t help at all, but sometimes leads to a nice power nap. Then I complain to my wife about how the story is going nowhere, how the well of ideas in my head has gone completely dry, and how I’ll never be able to write another book for as long as I live. Next, I go back to my computer, stare at it for a while, and then decide that eating cookies and ice-cream will help the situation. Finally, five pounds later, I remind myself that the only way to get unstuck is to start typing again. And so I type. And I type. And I type some more. And even if I write several pages of complete junk that I end up deleting, that junk will eventually foster a new direction or an idea that I hadn’t considered before, and the mental block magically disappears…at least for a while.

How did you get published? (i.e. find an agent or work directly with a publisher, or...?)

The mechanics of getting published was fairly straightforward: I bought a book at B&N that listed every publisher in the U.S., sorted by genre. All of them have their own submission criteria, but once I got a handle on that it was just a matter of sending copies of the manuscript in the mail. Still, I never expected to get published.

From the time I was a young kid I loved putting words together—poetry, lyrics, short stories, essays, whatever—yet it never occurred to me that I could write something that others would want to read for entertainment. However, in the back of my mind I always wanted to try my hand at writing a book, just to see if I could do it. So during my lunch break at work about six years ago I made up my mind to take a crack at it. I quickly discovered that writing fiction was way more fun than responding to work emails, so I kept typing for the rest of the day, then went home and kept writing all through the night (literally). Three weeks later I was done with my first book, The Paper Bag Christmas. I still doubted that anyone would want to publish it, but I printed a bunch of copies anyway and sent them to various small publishers around the country. The first one to bite was Granite Publishing, in Orem, Utah. After the book’s initial release, I was able to take the finished product to several different literary agents, and eventually signed with one in Pennsylvania who had connections with the ‘big’ NYC publishers. From there, things sort of snowballed. Hachette Book Group (formerly Time Warner Books) loved PBC and wanted to buy the rights, and the rest is history.

Are you a full-time writer? and do you have a degree in writing/literature/english/etc., or something else?

Hmmm…am I a full-time writer? I guess that depends on how one defines full-time! Do I write at least forty hours per week? Yep. Is writing the only thing I do? Nope. If I had two kids instead of five, I would have probably given up my day job a year or two ago, but I like the comfort of full benefits and a regular salary, so for now I’m pulling double-duty. My wife keeps urging me to take the plunge into full-time writing, but I’m not ready for that leap of faith. So for the time being, I have a ‘steady’ job during the day, then I write in the evenings and on weekends.

I don’t have degrees in anything even closely associated with writing. I earned a BS in psychology from BYU, followed by an MBA at Penn State. In retrospect, I wish I’d taken a creative writing class or two somewhere along the way, because now I'm just sort of 'winging it' based on whatever language skills I acquired through high-school. And who knows, with a little more encouragement and guidance, I might have tried writing a book much sooner.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Do you know where all your cells are?

Whether you know it or not it's very likely that samples of your tissues or blood are on file somewhere. They may be sitting in lab freezers at military facilities, in biotech corporations, or public and private hospitals. They may be used for research into something you find objectionable, or a researcher may have already taken out a patent on your genes, selling licenses to other labs for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And you will likely never find out and you have no legal recourse. (And no, it's not the plot for a George Orwell novel.)

Henrietta Lacks was 31 years old when she died of cervical cancer in 1951 and left behind a husband and five children. But that wasn't all she left behind. A sample of cancerous cells were taken from her cervix for research purposes (not an uncommon occurrence) and she wasn't told (also not an uncommon occurrence - neither in 1951 nor today). The amazing thing about those cells, however, is that they continued to multiply and divide and are still alive and multiplying and dividing all over the world today. They're known as HeLa (for Henrietta Lacks) and are among the very very few cells that have ever continued to grow and reproduce endlessly, making them extremely valuable for research. In fact, HeLa is directly responsible for some of the most amazing advances in science and medicine - the development of the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cancer research, cloning, gene mapping, etc. They've been to space and inside nuclear bombs, they've contaminated cell cultures worldwide, and they are bought and sold every day. Neither Henrietta nor her family knew anything about it, and they can't even afford health insurance.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksI read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot over a year ago but I keep seeing it pop up on lists - Amazon's Best Books of 2010, Powell's 2011 Puddly Award for Nonfiction, the NY Times bestseller list - and although it's what I generally think of as "popular history," I agree with the lists. It's an interesting and important book and, in my opinion, has the potential to cause a revolution in the medical research and pharmaceutical industry. Rebecca Skloot has written not a dry scientific text but a human story about Henrietta and her family and the stress and strain HeLa has caused them. It's important to note - and the book makes this very clear - that the use of her tissues wasn't done with any malicious intent. But in addition to the advances, and as Henrietta's story has become more widely known, have come a host of ethical and legal questions which are just beginning to be discussed. The book isn't always pleasant - the Lacks family has had a rough time - and sometimes the book is more of a travelogue of Ms. Skloot's journey to learn the story behind HeLa. But it will certainly give you something to think about. It definitely left me feeling a bit uneasy. (Note: I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Struggling to decipher God's codebook

Even though I followed a career in business I've sometimes wondered what might have happened if I'd pursued other interests instead - interests which (at the time) didn't promise much in the way of financial rewards but which I imagine might have been more rewarding in other ways. Don't get me wrong - I'm good at what I do and generally enjoy it - but I always enjoyed most the science and biology classes in school and my hobbies still run along those lines. But I'm also a religious person, and while I don't see a problem with reconciling science and religion, they often seem at odds in today's highly polarized and contentious world, each sneeringly scornful and antagonistic toward the other. At least, that's how they're usually portrayed.

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern WorldYet that relationship was very different when some of the greatest leaps of scientific understanding occurred. In The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, Edward Dolnick gives us excellent and readable biographical profiles of the greats like Galileo and Kepler, Leibniz and Newton as well others who were instrumental in the birth of modern science. He says "Newton's intent in all his work was to make men more pious and devout, more reverent in the face of God's creation. His aim was not that men rise to their feet in freedom but that they fall to their knees in awe." (pg 308)

But this book is about much more than just the religious thoughts of some of history's greatest thinkers. It also profiles the world they lived in, from the superstitions and diseases the people faced to the unsanitary conditions that produced such maladies (and pity those who had access to the doctors!). And it quotes frequently from these geniuses and humanizes them (most were pretty ill-tempered) even though they had talents the rest of us can only dream of. It also seeks to convey - in layman's terms, thankfully - a basic understanding of the principles and truths discovered by these geniuses, and why they were so earth-changing.

In all honesty, physics was never a branch of science that I had much of an aptitude for and just reading Dolnick's discussions of time and distance and infinity made my head spin! But it's a very interesting read, particularly for those of us who aren't as familiar with the history of these men or their discoveries. Actually, (as Dolnick points out) we're more familiar with them than we might realize (from math classes) and this book excels not only in pointing out how momentous the discoveries were but also in presenting them in a way that those of us who struggled with physics and math in high school can follow (or almost follow!). The chapters are short and easy to read and understand, and surprisingly hard to put down. And neither side in the science vs. religion debate should find anything to be offended by here.  (Note: I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Faith and leadership

February 6, 2011 is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth date of Ronald Reagan. It reminded me that several years ago I read on the website a very short bio about President Reagan. If I remember correctly it was about 250 words (in comparison, the page for President Clinton was about 6 or 7 times as long - although I checked again and Reagan's is much longer now) but what galled me most was that it ended by saying something like 'his accomplishments are questionable and it remains to be seen what his legacy will be' (I'm going by memory here).

Now lots of Republicans label themselves "Reagan Republicans" and candidates on both sides claim to espouse his ideals. I even heard recently that President Obama made comments trying to draw favorable comparisons to their respective political philosophies. The "mantle of Reagan" has become a valuable political commodity in these difficult economic times. And I’ve seen bumper stickers that say something like "I miss Reagan."

The Faith of Ronald ReaganBut what was it about Reagan that made him great? According to Mary Beth Brown it was his faith in God. In her book The Faith of Ronald Reagan she says that it was a foundation of religious values instilled by his mother that gave him his direction in life, and those values guided his decisions and shaped the kind of president he later became. Everything from his abhorrence of communism to his optimism after the assassination attempt was an effort to do what he thought was right and make the most of the opportunity he felt had been given him by God.

This isn't a straightforward or scholarly biography of Reagan but rather a look at the views he expressed publicly and privately about religion. It's very uplifting and inspirational but it's also filled with scriptures and quotes by various religious writers which often don't have a specific connection to things Reagan actually said. And frequently it felt like the author's views were being offered as Reagan's views even though no clear link was made in the text. As such it sometimes seemed like the author was trying to claim the "mantle of Reagan" just like the numerous politicians. Those points aside, however, it's still an inspirational book and it seems obvious that Reagan was a sincerely religious man. And Reagan's own words illustrate the sincerity of his beliefs and his familiarity with scriptures make the author's conclusions fairly convincing.  (I received this book from Thomas Nelson Publishers through their Booksneeze blogger program.)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

D Day and the history of a great speech

I think it's not too unfair to say that the late 60s and 70s can be summed up politically and nationalistically in one word: malaise. The Vietnam War was hardly the stuff of patriotic pride, and the presidents in the decade that followed weren't what many would characterize as inspirational. But even though I was just a kid back then, I recall President Ronald Reagan as restoring a sense of pride in America, and Douglas Brinkley argues that Reagan was the perfect man to do that in his book The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion. He did it by hearkening back to an earlier era, an era when pride in America's accomplishments was not only warranted but hard-earned: World War II, and in particular D Day.

The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger BattalionThe reason Reagan was so perfect Brinkley says is that he was part of the "greatest generation" and identified with those soldiers even though he hadn't served in a combat position himself (due to poor eyesight). His admiration of Franklin Roosevelt's optimism extended to modeling his own speaking style on FDR's rhetoric, but with the addition of Eisenhower's pragmatism and his own conservative thinking. And one of the defining moments of his presidency was when he delivered his "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" and Omaha Beach speeches on the shores of Normandy at the 40th commemoration of D Day. His recounting of their ordeal of climbing the cliffs in the face of withering enemy fire not only earned the respect of many of his critics, it awakened a resurgent interest in WWII and its heroes that continues today.

Brinkley explains the history of Pointe du Hoc and the rangers who took out the enemy guns atop the 100 foot cliffs, but it's not really a WWII book. He combines that history with the story behind Reagan's historic speech extolling the heroism of D Day - a speech considered one of the greatest in recent history, along with his later speech at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate where he famously challenged: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Brinkley discusses speechwriter Peggy Noonan's crafting of the address, and how it tapped into Reagan's personality and objectives so perfectly. And while it's a very inspiring story, it's the political aspect that was the biggest detraction in my opinion. Brinkley is blunt in his assessment that the speech was a political one, given in an election year and calculated for specific effect - even while it was honest and personal for Reagan. And his discussion of the speechwriting process, while maybe status quo in the jaded political circles of Washington, is kind of like pulling back the curtain to reveal the wizard and his tricks. I'm not saying such background shouldn't be acknowledged - just that it takes the shine off an otherwise inspiring event. Still, it's a good book that helps explain why WWII is such a popular topic and how President Reagan reminded us of our proud legacy (and thanks to Ken K. at church for lending it to me).