Monday, May 30, 2011

Where truth is stranger than fiction (Summer reading #3)

For some people, "summer" is a verb instead of a noun. Such people like to flaunt their wealth by trying not to appear that they're flaunting it. And in New York the well-to-do like to "summer" in the Hamptons, a wealthy waterfront area of Long Island, where everybody is somebody and each more important than the rest.

Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the HamptonsPhilistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons by Steven Gaines is an interesting and easy read with some early history on the Hamptons and profiles a number of notable residents and properties through the years. Initially settled because of it's natural beauty and fertile soil, the area soon became a haven for the wealthy and over the years attracted various groups such as artists, gays, Jews, and the newly-rich of the 80's stock markets - much to the chagrin of earlier residents who viewed such late-comers as outsiders lacking their good taste and refinement (Philistines). Several people are profiled such as artists Jackson Pollock and Alfonso Ossorio (and his partner Ted Dragon); successful businessmen Evan Frankel and Jerry Della Femina, and old-money Robert D. L. Gardiner. Of course, Martha Stewart and Steven Spielberg are here, too. But the history is much more than just the people who lived there; it's also the properties, and many homes and places and the changes that happened are covered.

Those who like their People magazine will enjoy the gossipy feel of this book, but with the nature of the Hamptons and the people it attracts it's probably natural. Some of it becomes downright comic, especially with the legal codes that are really only used by those with a bit of authority to enhance their own social standing or pay back some perceived slight. To call some of the people 'eccentric' is putting it very mildly, though, when 'weird' might be more accurate. But it's all very interesting and hard to put down sometimes, and you can't help but shake your head at some of the ridiculous stories and people. There are a number of historical photos included, although no maps which would have been nice for those of us who have never "summered" there. But you can still read about it this summer - wherever you might be "summering."

Friday, May 27, 2011

You can't always believe what you hear (Summer reading #2)

One of my favorite songs is "Pride (In the Name of Love)" by U2. Part of it is about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and it says "Early morning, April 4 / A shot rings out in the Memphis sky." Except a book I recently read says that King was shot just after 6 pm in the early evening. But songwriters are more concerned with how it sounds than dry facts. When I was a kid I think the only music my dad really liked was "Western" music and especially Marty Robbins, and I still remember crouching next to the big old stereo cabinet we had and listening while those records played, singing of the sad and dangerous life of outlaws and gunmen of the Old West. "Billy the Kid" was an especially sad one, saying "at the age of 12 years he did kill his first man" and that the sheriff who killed him had once been his friend. Figures like Billy the Kid and Jesse James loomed large in my childhood mind, and I often wondered about the dusty and violent world they lived in.

To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old WestBut of course, you can't believe everything you hear in songs. To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West by Mark L. Gardner tells the real story of Billy the Kid (a.k.a. Henry McCarty, Henry Antrim, and William Bonney). He provides background on where he came from and how he became a notorious outlaw, at least as far as is reliably known, which is sketchy at best. He also tells of Pat Garrett, the all-but-forgotten Sheriff, who tracked Billy down and arrested him, and later killed him after a brazen and bloody escape. In the process he corrects a couple of mistakes in the song - Billy was actually 17 when he first killed someone, and he and Pat Garrett were never friends.  But Gardiner brings the Old West of New Mexico alive in a very readable way - the chapter where Pat Garrett kills Billy was particularly exciting. And reading the book you might get the feeling that Billy is romanticized too much, but instead I thought Gardiner was trying to convey how he was viewed by the people, some of whom saw him as a hero instead of an outlaw. The text and editing is sometimes a little uneven and in parts (not quotations) the language is a bit colloquial and salty, which actually kind of adds to the cowboy feel of the book. But it drags a little after Billy's death, and the 100 pages that continue discussing Pat Garrett's latter history could have been shorter. But such complaints are minor, and it's a fun history to read and a great book to add to your summer reading list. (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bess rode shotgun (Summer reading #1)

Whether you've got big plans for a summer vacation or just plan to sit poolside and soak up some sun, you've got to have something to read, right? To me the quintessential American vacation is the road trip, but that might not be so attractive an idea with current gas prices. So if you've decided to just stay home why not read about a great American road trip?

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road TripWhen Harry Truman left the White House in 1953 he went home to what he anticipated would be normal life in Independence, Missouri. That summer, however, he and his wife, Bess, returned to Washington for a speech and decided to make it a road trip and drive themselves in his new Chrysler - no secret service, no reporters, no fanfare. Even though Truman left office with an abysmal 22% approval rating he was recognized and enthusiastically greeted at almost every stop (more recent presidents with such problems could take note). Police chiefs and sheriffs sometimes assigned protection while the Trumans were in their county and Harry was pulled over a number of times (sometimes because of his lead foot and sometimes just because he was the former president). They stayed in motels and were hounded for autographs and photos by diners in restaurants, gas station attendants, and the press. Harry graciously obliged them all.

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo is a fun little book (only 230 pages and loaded with photos) that retraces Truman's route with numerous detours to explain the politics, geography, and social conditions of the time. Algeo also recounts his own adventure following the route - what restaurants and hotels are still there and what they're like now or what's replaced them, and his experiences visiting some of the same people who greeted Harry along the way (some even invited him to eat and spend the night in their homes). This isn't serious or heavy history - it's a light-hearted and short diversion - so it ought to be perfect summer or vacation reading. It's amusing and insightful and offers a window into a more quaint and friendly era.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

"What would you do if I sang outta tune..."

There is nothing I really care to watch on television. Well... almost nothing. Recently the kids found out we are getting a new channel on cable called The Hub, and that it shows old episodes of "The Wonder Years." Okay, that I care to watch.

It was reported in the Denver Post that "The Wonder Years" will not likely be released on dvd due to the music that was included in the episodes. It turns out that all those songs from the 60s that were such a central part of the storylines would each require royalty agreements before the episodes could be sold on dvd. Yes, all of them. The alternative would be to remove the songs or replace them. Yeah, not likely to happen.

So, the kids set the cable box to record "The Wonder Years" whenever it's on and we watch when it's convenient. And surprisingly enough, the whole family will actually sit down to watch. Not many shows can make you laugh and cry like that one can. There were a few episodes that were especially memorable for me, but we've seen some others I'd forgotten (or perhaps never saw in the first place) and I just thought I'd make a short list of some of my favorites:
  • The first "Pilot" episode, of course, where Kevin, Paul, and Winnie start junior high school. That moment when they learn that Winnie's brother, Brian, was killed in Viet Nam is almost like a punch in the stomach. 
  • "My Father's Office" when Kevin's dad takes him to work with him. His dad is always such a stern and grumpy guy that it was nice to see him in a sympathetic way. And in "The Family Car" his dad has a hard time letting go of the old car after they buy a new one because of all the work he had put into it over the years. 
  • "The Phone Call" where Kevin tries to get up the nerve to call Lisa Berlini. I love how it shows the phone very large in the foreground while Kevin looks so small behind it in the background - that's exactly how it feels when you're trying to summon the courage to call a girl! 
  • Kevin quits piano lessons in "Coda" because he's intimidated by Ronald Hirschmuller - and later regrets it. I also liked "On the Spot" where Winnie gets the lead in "Our Town" when her parents are having marital troubles. 
  • Episodes with his best friend, Paul, like "Loosiers" when basketball becomes fun again with the "brief ping of rubber against metal," and "Birthday Boy" when Kevin shares Paul's bar mitzvah. Also "Cocoa and Sympathy" where Paul develops a sort of crush on Kevin's mom, and Kevin sees her in a different light. 
  • In "Square Dance" Kevin has to dance with the school wierdo Margaret Farquhar, "friend to bats." It's so uncomfortable seeing how mean he treats her. 
  • "Math Class," "Math Class Squared," and "Good-bye" about Kevin's math teach, Mr. Collins. "I'm not your friend, Mr. Arnold. I'm your teacher."
Okay, so I guess it wasn't such a short list after all. I preferred the earlier episodes when he was younger to those when he got older, but it's one of the best shows on television and one of the few I'd care to sit and watch.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"An interesting turn of events, wouldn't you say, Miss Throckmorton?"

The kids and I were watching the latest Harry Potter dvd the other night and lamenting that it will really be all over when the final movie comes out this summer. Of course, the books finished up a couple of years ago, and it left a big hole in 'good books for kids.' There's been a tidal wave of copy-cats with similar themes but most of them haven't been very good.  One new series I've enjoyed, though, is the Theodosia books by R. L. LaFevers (which isn't a copy of the Harry Potter theme). I recently got an advance copy of the latest book from Amazon Vine, Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh, and I have to admit I enjoyed this one even more than the others. And it's a little embarrasing to become so engrossed in a kid's book.

Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh (The Theodosia Series)This time eleven year old Theodosia Throckmorton has returned to Egypt with her mother. She hopes to fulfill the promise she made to Awi Bubu (book 3) to return the Emerald Tablet to the wedjadeen, a secret group charged with protecting ancient artifacts and the magic they hold. After that she hopes to "get back to normal" on an archaeological dig with her mother and maybe even learn a little about the unusual stories about her birth. But nothing is normal for Theo, and the Serpents of Chaos are causing even bigger problems in Egypt (kind of reminded me of the recent uprisings there), and it looks like keeping her promise is going to be a lot harder - and much more dangerous - than she thought.

I'm certainly not in the target age group for this series, but once I picked it up I couldn't put it down. We meet some new characters, like Gadji the donkey boy and Major Harriman Grindle, since most others were left behind in London (except, of course, she's managed to smuggle her cat Isis along for the trip, much to her mother's consternation). And this is a surprisingly entertaining series. I started with the second book and found it a bit slow-going at first, but the Egyptian themes lend an interesting twist. And Theodosia herself is quite a charming character - in some ways she reminds me a little of Flavia de Luce, although her voice is more "droll" than "witty" and the writing is definitely geared to a younger audience. It's not Harry Potter, but kids - and some of their parents - will enjoy following along in her adventures, wherever they lead.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A crystal ball filled with darkness

When you look back on your childhood years, what things do you remember that aren't so common anymore? I think about the cap guns my brother Paul and I got every summer, or the little plastic army men I had so much fun with (especially when I got a bit older and discovered how much more fun they could be with firecrackers!). I think about old b&w cowboy shows or horror movies that weren't the stomach-churning gore fests like today’s slasher flicks but still scared the pants off me. Alan Bradley is also thinking back to his childhood (although his was a while before mine!) and he's writing about those things in his Flavia de Luce series (which I wrote about in an earlier post). In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie stamp collecting becomes more entertaining that you thought possible, and in The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag he remembers the travelling puppet shows that were popular before television displaced them. So, what does he come up with for his third book? Gypsies and fortune-telling.

A Red Herring Without Mustard: A Flavia de Luce NovelIn A Red Herring Without Mustard the body count is starting to pile up a little around Buckshaw, the de Luce family’s decaying mansion. When Flavia attends a church fair she accidentally burns down a fortune-telling gypsy's tent. To make amends, she invites the gypsy to park her horse and wagon on a remote spot on the grounds, but later discovers someone has viciously attacked the old woman. When the body of a local 'tough' is found hanging from a statue in the garden the next morning, Flavia starts her own investigation into the crimes - much to the consternation of Inspector Hewitt. But what's with the fishy smell at the crime scenes?

This is the kind of book I'd like to read slowly and savor the deliciously clever writing, but the story is so compelling that I can't help but read it quickly to find out what happens next. No matter how many times I tell myself to slow down and enjoy it, I just can't help myself (I took this one on a short vacation and found myself finished before the return flight was half over). Flavia's sisters are as mean as ever and I was glad to see a renewed attention on chemistry in this story, something I'd enjoyed in the first book (even though I don't understand much of it) but which felt less emphasized in the second. And Flavia is one of the most charming characters to come along in a good long while - she might not sound exactly like an 11 year old, but she sure is funny - and it's a fun look down someone else's 'memory lane.'

Friday, May 13, 2011

The little things

Back in January I posted a review of Kevin Milne's Sweet Misfortune as "recommended Valentine's Day reading." Shortly thereafter, the author himself thanked me for my review and turned out to be a really nice guy. Over a few emails he also agreed to answer my questions regarding his experience of being a writer - and it was very helpful advice (just don't ask me how well I'm following that advice on most days). A month or so ago he offered to send me an advance copy of his latest book - which just hit bookstore shelves this week - and I'm under no obligation to give a positive review, just an honest one. And while I had intended to wait to post my review until Jamie has had a chance to read it, too, she's been really busy lately and Kate snagged the book first, so maybe I'll let her post her own review here later.

The Final Note: A NovelIn The Final Note: A Novel, Ethan Bright is a music student studying abroad in Austria when he meets a beautiful young tourist named Annaliese. Before long they fall in love and get married, and Ethan realizes he’s made a number of promises to himself and others. He writes them all down but the most important are his promises to Anna to always play the guitar to her and to write her a song by their first anniversary. But life has a way of getting in the way of even the best intentions, and before long the years are piling up and Ethan finds himself in a business career (instead of being a songwriter) trying his best to provide for his family. Long hours and increasing commitments in a demanding job don't leave much time for family, but everything changes when there's a serious accident.

First of all I want to emphasize what a manly guy I am and that I usually don't read romantic fiction, so I might not be the typical audience envisioned by the publisher for this novel. So… while reading it I may have felt some parts were a bit 'sappy' or that some of the storylines were somewhat 'clichéd.' But… (all joking aside) perhaps it is more telling that once I started reading I couldn't put it down and that my objections didn't seem very important once I finished. And due credit goes to Mr. Milne for pulling in the atypical readers like myself. There are a number of good messages here – love, family, forgiveness, and priorities – but it all comes together in a compelling way. It's an emotional story that deals with some serious issues and there's plenty of sadness in the story. Still, I found myself enjoying it and can honestly recommend it to my friends.

Monday, May 9, 2011

How "Great" can he be if I've never heard of him?

Since I've recently reviewed books on the ancient Romans and the ancient Greeks, I might as well throw in a book about the ancient... um, English? Maybe Anglo Saxons is a better name and they're only half as ancient as the others - late 800s AD. The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great by Benjamin R. Merkle is fairly short and easy to read, and a very interesting history as well.

The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the GreatAlfred was the fifth son of Æthelwulf, King of Wessex (and the only son whose name didn't begin with "Æ"). And since he was the fifth son it was unlikely he would ever become king, but as the youngest he was highly favored by his father and mother (aren't the youngest always?!?), and raised to appreciate things such as literature. He went on two pilgrimages to Rome before he was 10 years old (yeah, the youngest get to do everything, don't they), and saw his father's unusual generosity to the poor on the second trip (perhaps the result of an old man who realizes he is soon to meet his Maker). Such experiences made him more appreciative of learning and caring for the people, but this was a time when the Vikings were raiding and pillaging the countryside, so he also grew up with an understanding of warfare. This combination made him into a truly "Great" king (after all his older brothers had been killed or died) who set in motion the eventual expulsion of the foreign invaders and uniting of the Anglo Saxon territories, as well as a cultural renaissance and spread of learning among his people.

Since I can imagine that some of my ancestors were probably on both sides of the conflicts described in the book (English and Danish) I found the story somewhat personal, but I was also impressed by the societal reforms Alfred instituted, making it a great insight into that part of history. Mr. Merkle is a professor of Theology and writes for a religious magazine (and Thomas Nelson Publishers is known mostly for their religious books) so there is a frequent attention given to religion in the book, but it helps to put some of Alfred's actions and beliefs into a context that made sense. It doesn't have quite the scholarly feel and there were a few things I wish had been better explained, but it does make it easier to read and follow and made me want to learn more on this period in history. (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Dusting off more ancient history

I've already mentioned how little I knew about ancient Rome; now I'll admit to how little I knew about ancient Greece. I knew about the stereotypes of Sparta (warlike) and Athens (democratic), but other than some names and places, that was about it. But that's what books are for, right?

The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western CivilizationIn The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western Civilization, Jim Lacey describes the world of the Persian Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries BC - how it became the power it was and more importantly how it met its match in a small army of determined Greeks. Ancient Greece, and particularly Athens, contributed much to our current civilization, what we call “Western Civilization.” But the Athenians weren't all the wimpy philosophers we've been told, and had they not triumphed at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) it's hard to imagine we would have the kind of society we have today.

Darius, ruler of the mighty Persian Empire, sent a large force to deal with some of the upstart Greek territories who refused to bow down and submit. Many others had already acquiesced or been brutally forced into submission, but not Athens and Sparta. In spite of overwhelming odds and being vastly outnumbered, the miraculous occurred - a small Athenian army singlehandedly defeated the Persians even before help from Sparta could arrive. At the end of the brief battle over 6,000 dead Persian soldiers lay on the field while only 192 Athenians had fallen. How, you might ask? Well, Mr. Lacey is very logical and convincing as he explains how (and why) he thinks they triumphed, and the influence it had on the style of Western warfare ever since.

This is a rewarding book to have finished but it wasn't easy to read. Even though it's just under 200 pages there's a lot of names and places that make it a bit confusing for someone new to the history and it's not the kind of book I could breeze through. I had to make an effort to go slower to absorb it, frequently rereading paragraphs and sometimes pages. Scholars and those interested in this particular era will certainly find this book an essential read, but I think others like myself with a strong interest in history will find it appealing as well. Mr. Lacey does an excellent job of interpreting the history from the fragmented and incomplete accounts that have survived the intervening 2,500 years (frequently pointing out where Herodotus was probably lying, and why), and his experience as both a historian and a soldier makes it exceptionally insightful (and his account of the battle is pretty fascinating). I can't attest to the validity of his conclusions but they sure made sense to me! (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hannibal was pretty cool!

So how much do you really remember from your high school history classes? Maybe it depends on how long it's been since graduation, but I think my 25th reunion happened last year (if so, they don't know where I live anymore...) so maybe I've got an excuse for remembering very little. One thing I do remember, though, was Hannibal. No, not the creepy guy from the movies, but the Carthaginian general who gave the Romans a hard time. I remember Mr. Skedros talking about Hannibal's unusual tactics, like sailing up close to Roman ships and tossing snakes on board - which must have created quite a scene! He also told us of Hannibal marching his troops over the Alps on elephants! Of course, a teenage boy imagining stories like that conjures more questions than answers.

The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman RepublicSo even though ancient Roman history isn't something I usually read, The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic by Robert L. O'Connell looked interesting enough to request it from Amazon Vine. And given that this happened over 2,000 years ago, Mr. O'Connell acknowledges that a lack of contemporary sources from the time period limit what we know, but he makes exceptionally good use of what fragmented information is available. He explains that the Battle of Cannae during the Second Punic War was a turning point for Republican Rome (216 BC). Rome was beaten badly by Hannibal and the Carthaginian troops that marched over the Alps in a daring and highly successful raid. And he answers some of those questions that popped into my mind back in high school, like how the elephants would have fared going over the snowy Alps, and how the Romans would have reacted to them in battle. But for all Hannibal's military genius and victories, he lost the war and Rome went on to become a great power. The "Ghosts" in the title refer to Roman soldiers who lost at Cannae and were exiled in shame, but later played a pivotal role when Scipio Africanus (gotta love the names!) recruited them and finally defeated Carthage.

But while I remembered Hannibal from those long ago history classes I didn't recall the Battle of Cannae - even had to look up the pronunciation which surprisingly turns out to be kan-EE (the emphasis can actually be on either syllable). And Hannibal really was the star of this book for me, and it was kind of slow until it reached his trek into the Alps. Then the book takes off and was almost impossible to put down as O'Connell explains Hannibal's military strategies, and how he adapted and took advantage of situations, like positioning his troops upwind so the dust blew in the Romans faces. While O'Connell does his best to make the book accessible for those without much knowledge of early Roman and ancient military history, some prior exposure might be useful to follow the narrative. Several maps, a 'list of characters,' and a glossary of important terms are helpful. I also appreciated that O'Connell explains the limitations on the record from that early time, and throughout the book he debates on the merits of the various records and why they might or might not be reliable. His writing style is... well, I guess I could say 'interesting' - I thought it sounded like it was written by a twenty-something instead of a seasoned historian - but it works and makes it easier to follow. And it makes me wonder about a lot of other history I've long since forgotten.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Quote of the Day

I was going to post a book review today, but I think it can wait. I've edited the President's speech to include only the beginning and the end, but I thought it was worth repeating:

"Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history. The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory -- hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon; the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the actions of heroic citizens saved even more heartbreak and destruction.

And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.

On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family...

The American people did not choose this fight. It came to our shores, and started with the senseless slaughter of our citizens. After nearly 10 years of service, struggle, and sacrifice, we know well the costs of war. These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief, have to sign a letter to a family that has lost a loved one, or look into the eyes of a service member who’s been gravely wounded.

So Americans understand the costs of war. Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.

Tonight, we give thanks to the countless intelligence and counterterrorism professionals who’ve worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome. The American people do not see their work, nor know their names. But tonight, they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice.

We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. And they are part of a generation that has borne the heaviest share of the burden since that September day.

Finally, let me say to the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 that we have never forgotten your loss, nor wavered in our commitment to see that we do whatever it takes to prevent another attack on our shores.

And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.

The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.

Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Thank you. May God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America."