Thursday, June 30, 2011

It's a FAYZ they're going through

A concept in fiction that seems popular - maybe more so lately - is that of "dystopian" situations. A "utopia" was first envisioned back in the early 1500s as an ideal society where order prevails and there are no conflicts or inequalities, so a dystopia is the anti-utopia - and it seems to work well in literature as a way to point out flaws in ourselves and society. Books like George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World are good examples. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is one of my favorites, and recently The Hunger Games was a very popular dystopian series.

GoneAnother new dystopian series is the Gone Series by Michael Grant, with similarities to Lord of the Flies. Book 1, titled Gone, starts with Sam Temple sitting in his history class in little Perdido Beach, California, but daydreaming about surfing the waves he can see from the classroom window. One moment his teacher is lecturing about the Civil War, and the next he's gone. Poof! Vanished. Except it's not just his teacher; ALL the adults are gone. All that's left are those under 15, including the little kids and babies. Somebody needs to take charge. Most look to Sam, who once saved a bus full of kids when the driver had a heart attack, but when he's reluctant to step up, the bullies take over. But questions loom: where has everyone gone and what's the strange barrier that surrounds the town. The kids begin calling their new world the FAYZ (Fallout Alley Youth Zone) because the barrier extends in a radius of 10 miles from the local nuclear power plant. Thirteen years earlier a meteorite struck the power plant causing a serious accident, and the mysterious barrier seems to enclose the same area as the fallout zone. Maybe that radiation has something to do with why Sam and some of the kids seem to be developing strange powers.

This is the kind of series that sucks you right in. I found myself reading every available moment, staying up late at night, taking long lunch breaks, and unable to put it down until the end. Right from the beginning the story was tense and gripping with likeable characters you find yourself cheering for. But the FAYZ is a pretty scary place, and in my opinion these books are definitely for the teenagers (and older teenagers like me). In book 2, Hunger, the kids are paying the price for the free-for-all they enjoyed three months earlier. Food is running out and kids are becoming desperate. More kids are starting to develop strange powers - and the animals, too - but there's tension between the "normals" and the "freaks." There’s also the problem of the "Darkness" underground, who wants to be fed, too.

Unfortunately it seems to be about a year between each new book coming out (book 4, Plague, just came out this Spring) which feels like an eternity with an exciting series like this. I just got caught up with Lies and Plague, and I think there will be at least 2 more in the series. It's also a little frustrating as these likeable kids (well, some are likeable - some are downright despicable) seem to continually go from the frying pan into the fire. In book 2 there was some bad language, and in book 4 sexual tensions cause some issues (although that's a realistic issue for teenagers, especially in a situation where the grownups are all gone). But overall, Mr. Grant seems to handle the situations in an appropriate way - all the while keeping the excitement level at a fever pitch. I got book 1 from Amazon Vine, but I've bought all the rest - and I might just wait until the rest of the books are out before I finish the series. It's a little too much fever pitch for me, sometimes.

Plague: A Gone NovelHunger: A Gone NovelLies: A Gone Novel

Monday, June 27, 2011

Taylor's 8th grade culmination

Whew, busy weekend! I wanted to post some pictures from Taylor's 8th grade culmination last week.

With over 700 kids graduating there's a lot of parents coming and you have to show up early to get a good seat. Unfortunately, we couldn't tell what area would get shaded first and ended up sitting in the sun for a long time.

If he won't smile nice for the camera I'm just going to pick the picture where Jamie and I look best.

We celebrated a couple nights later at Joe's Crab Shack down in Ventura.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Father's Day 2011

Although it was tempting to want to bar-b-que we decided instead to take a picnic lunch and go for a little hike in Solstice Canyon in Malibu.  Well, you can't really call it a 'hike' - it was more like a walk - but a really nice walk.  And with the "June Gloom" and cooler weather we've been having this year the temps were pleasant and the wildflowers are still very beautiful.  We shared our picnic site with a bunch of acorn woodpeckers in the oak trees overhead, and further up the canyon there was a small flock of noisy black-hooded parakeets (also known as Nanday Parakeets) which escaped from homes long ago and have become permanent area residents.  The trail, which used to be a road, is mostly flat and goes 1.2 miles to what's known as the Roberts Ranch House.  From what I've read, Fred Roberts ran a successful grocery chain back in the 20s and 30s in Santa Monica.  He hired a prominent African American architect named Paul Revere Williams to design and build a ranch house at the small waterfall in Solstice Canyon in 1952.  Unfortunately, the house was destroyed by a fire in 1982 and all that's left are some of the stone and brick walls.  It must have been beautiful and a cool place to be a kid - it looked like there were "rooms" with fireplaces all over, some not even connected to each other.  But you can still see the pathways and fountains and some of the trees that were part of the original landscaping.  It was a great way to spend the afternoon.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll

First of all, let me state plainly that I am NOT a fan of the Beatles' music. Sorry to those of you who might be shocked by that, but I can think of only one song off the top of my head that I actually like: "Can't Buy Me Love." In contrast, the creepy and weird "Come Together" ranks among my LEAST favorite of all. So how could I resist when Amazon Vine offered me a copy of How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music by Elijah Wald?

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular MusicActually, in spite of a provocative title this book isn't really a criticism of the Beatles. In fact, other than the introduction and the last chapter, they're barely mentioned and even then it's not likely to offend any fans. But it's hard to imagine buyers selecting a book with a less interesting title like "An Alternative History of American Popular Music." I think Mr. Wald's editor or publisher decided they needed to come up with a title that would attract attention (unfortunately, I think it also attracted a number of negative reviews by some who clearly didn't read it). I read it a couple of years ago and it has remained one of my favorites.

This book is really a history of music in America and attempts to examine what was popular and why. Race factors in frequently, and "black" and "white" music and the influences and interactions between the two are put into perspective - especially as it relates to the musicians - as well as the differences between male and female listeners. Ragtime, jazz, big band, rhythm and blues, country/western, rock & roll - all are looked at as they influenced popular music, in addition to the changes in technology (radio, records), society (prohibition, the Depression, WWII), and the industry (genre labels, Billboard rankings, etc.). It helped me to better understand music history and answered questions I wondered about - I wish it had continued into the 80s or later.

Mr. Wald makes an important point that is central to his theme: "The people who choose to write about popular music, even while it is happening, tend to be far from average consumers and partygoers and often despise the tastes and behavior of their more cheerful and numerous peers" (pg 97). In other words, music critics and historians aren't often representative of what was and is really popular, and he cites many examples of musicians who were extraordinarily popular in their time yet are usually ignored or even denigrated today (Pat Boone and Paul Whiteman, among many others). He also emphasizes that we tend to see history through the lens of our own experiences since that time, and miss the context of the time when it was actually happening.

But the book is perhaps a little more detailed than many people will want (and the font seemed unusually small). Mr. Wald frequently says something like "not to belabor the point, but...", and then goes on to belabor the point some more, but even then l found it interesting and entertaining. I had to remove the dust jacket while carrying it around because of the provocative title (one lady in the Taco Bell was positively miffed that anything so blasphemous could be said about the Beatles), but I enjoyed it. (And yes, the Beatles did destroy Rock n Roll.)

Thursday, June 16, 2011


I just thought I'd post this because "Waterfront" is one of my ALL-TIME favorite songs.  Yeah, I know the lyrics aren't all that deep, but I don't care - I love the sound of it: the repetitive bass-line and that dreamy echo-ey sound that was so characteristic of a lot of New Wave/New Romantic music back in the early 80s.  This was before they made it big with "Don't You (Forget About Me)," and later turned to a more "commercial" style of music. So put on a skinny tie and just enjoy.

Monday, June 13, 2011

One of the best stories you've never heard

Socrates said "The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know." And that's one of the great things about reading history - there's always more to learn. I was trying to count up the number of books I've read in the past few years about the early history of the United States and quickly came up with about twenty-five, and yet there are thousands of great stories that never make it into those books. An ambitious historian can find a relatively obscure person or event and write a whole book about it - kind of like Morning of Fire: John Kendrick's Daring American Odyssey in the Pacific by Scott Ridley (which I received from Amazon Vine and have been putting off since last fall).

In the wake of the American Revolution, the major European powers expected the new nation and its non-monarchial government would soon fail. England thought its former colonies would beg to come back into the fold, and Spain and even France (which had been America's ally during the Revolution) were looking to scoop up New World territory easily once the shaky union of states began to fall apart. To make matters worse, most Atlantic ports were closed to American goods, and American ships on the seas were opportunistically preyed upon by the powerful European privateers.

To break this stranglehold, a few Boston merchants proposed sending ships into the Pacific to open trade with China in an attempt to boost the weak American economy. And as the Constitution was being adopted in America, two small ships sailed south around the treacherous waters of Cape Horn and into the Spanish waters of the Pacific. The captain, John Kendrick, had been a privateer during the Revolution and hoped to establish trading routes and outposts between the fur-rich Northwest coast, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and China. In an age when most traders deeply distrusted the native tribes and unscrupulously opened fire on the "savages," Kendrick learned their customs and languages and built relationships of trust with them. He was also skillful at playing the British and Spanish off each other - so skillful, in fact, that he was at the center of a flashpoint that nearly brought all of Europe to war.

Even seasoned readers of history can be forgiven for not knowing about John Kendrick or his obscure 7 year odyssey that includes the first circumnavigation of the globe by an American and the first American contact with the closed nation of Japan. I even dug out other books I'd read on related subjects, but couldn't find any mention of him. He wasn't part of a government expedition, and because many of his papers were lost (and his accomplishments downplayed by rivals), there's not a lot of direct information. So Scott Ridley tells not only the story of Kendrick but also the larger picture of exploration and trading in the Pacific, and notables like James Cook and George Vancouver play a part in this tale. Ridley brings in the larger events of the European world as well as the tribal wars that allowed Kamehameha to gain control of all the Sandwich (Hawaiian) islands, and he weaves a fascinating tale that reads like a good novel and is almost as difficult to put down. To be honest, it's a little slow-starting, and since he had to rely on a lot of indirect information he occasionally makes assumptions about Kendrick's involvement, but that's only slightly distracting (and mostly understandable). Maps and numerous paintings from the era help to illustrate and complete this amazing and largely unknown story - giving a belated credit to an American hero. And not only that, but it's one of the best stories you've never heard.

Friday, June 10, 2011

"You know what that feels like?"

You know how it feels to be the new kid? To live in a crummy little "dump" on the wrong side of town? To be judged a "thug" because of your brother who quickly finds the wrong crowd and makes himself their leader? Doug Swieteck knows. He's moved from Long Island to "stupid Marysville" and everyone looks at him like he's a juvenile delinquent and won't even give him a chance.

Except for old Mr. Powell at the library, who starts teaching him how to draw using Audubon's art as a guide. You know what that feels like?

And Mr. Ferris, the science teacher, who tells him he's not his brother. You know how that feels?

Okay for NowConsider yourself lucky if you've already found Gary Schmidt's books and become familiar with his incredible way of writing. Doug Swieteck and his thug brother were minor characters in The Wednesday Wars (a book you should read if you haven't already - even though it's not necessary to follow this one - just because it's amazing). Here Doug takes center stage and we learn about the tough road he's got ahead of him. His father is a drunk and abusive to his family, especially his longsuffering wife, and has a hard time keeping a job because of his lousy attitude. His older brother, Lucas, (another thug) is off in Vietnam, but he returns a changed person - very changed. And while Doug struggles in school it's not because he lacks intelligence - it's just kind of hard when no one believes in you, you know?

There are a lot of similarities to The Wednesday Wars in Schmidt's newest book, Okay for Now (which I was lucky to get from Amazon Vine); Audubon's art takes the place of Shakespeare and Vietnam still looms large in the background. But the best thing is that it's just as heartfelt and touching as his other books. Yes, this one is a bit darker with the theme of abuse (and there were times I wished someone would get what they deserved!) but it's a great story and Schmidt weaves the elements of birds and art in expertly. For a while I even wondered if the story was appropriate for younger teens, but I've decided it's perfect for them (and "much older than teens" like me).

You know how that feels when you find a book that tugs at all your emotions at the same time and makes you care - really care! - about its characters? It feels really good.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Shakespeare and cream puffs

Ever get asked 'what's your favorite book?' My answer is usually 'I have lots of favorites.' When I was a kid I loved The Great Brain series and The Three Investigators books. As a teenager I loved both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but for different reasons. As an adult I loved the Harry Potter series, especially the first and the last. And classics like Robinson Crusoe and The Mysterious Island would be mentioned, and there are many histories and biographies I count among my favorites. One newer favorite I would probably mention consistently is The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt.

Wednesday Wars - Library EditionHolling Hoodhood has a problem (besides his name, of course): he's a Presbyterian. And on Wednesday afternoons all the Jewish kids go to Hebrew classes and the Catholic kids go to catechism. That leaves just Holling in Mrs. Baker's 7th grade class at 2pm - and neither of them are happy about it. When she can't send him back to 6th grade math she puts him to work pounding the chalk dust out of the erasers (something they did back in 1967) but that ends up in a minor disaster. So she decides they will spend their time more productively by reading Shakespeare, which convinces Holling that Mrs. Baker hates him. But he's got other problems as well: his parents are drifting apart because his dad is consumed with his architectural business, his older sister (who also hates him) is causing tensions at home because she wants to be a "flower child," and his friends are mad because he got a cream puff. And wait till you read what he has to wear! But Shakespeare has a few lessons to teach, and some of them are important.

Told from Holling's perspective, this is the kind of book I loved to read as a kid but which doesn't come along often enough. Whether you grew up in the 60s or are growing up now, it resonates with some of the ridiculous situations we sometimes find ourselves in - and the occasionally painful process of finding our way in the world. It's not all laughs and frequently I found myself drying my eyes, but Mr. Schmidt has an amazing way with words that makes the story personal. I liked it so much I got the audiobook for the family to listen to in the car - and it quickly became a favorite of the whole family. (The reader sounds similar to the narrator on "The Wonder Years" and reads the story perfectly, right down to the sarcasm often present in the text.)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The trenches and the protests

With books about war you usually either get an overview of the big picture of what happened and the role generals played in it, or you get a ground's-eye view from the soldiers who did the actual fighting. The first frequently treats war in an impassive way where men and lives are represented by cold numbers, whereas the second often sacrifices that higher-level and the significance of the events taken as a whole. Occasionally a book will come along that gives both perspectives successfully, but more often than not you'll want to read books that represent both viewpoints to get a better understanding and feeling for what happened. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild takes a slightly different approach.

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918Although overshadowed by the Second World War, WWI was a senseless tragedy that saw old world ideas clash with modern technologies. British commanders still believed in the gallantry of a mounted cavalry charge even though machine guns and a field full of trenches and bomb craters made it impossibly suicidal. The first World War saw the first widespread use of chemical weapons such as chlorine, mustard, and tear gas - and gas masks for the soldiers and those ineffectual horses. Tanks were new but slow and broke down easily and flame throwers had a short range, but the very sight of either was terrifying. And barbed wire turned out to be just as good at stopping soldiers as it had cattle. In the end, the whole Western Front bogged down in trench warfare that was basically a stalemate - except the killing and dying didn't stop.

Hochschild takes a new look at the war with a view largely framed from the British trenches of the Western Front (although he occasionally reports the strategies of the generals in the rear), but he skillfully mixes in the story of the very few pacifists in England who stood against the war in a time when nationalism and eagerness to serve was running at an all time high. They were small in number but their story helps to emphasize the absurdity of the war. People like Charlotte Despard, who ironically was the sister of John French, the British Commander in Chief, and the Pankhurst family, protesters for women's rights who split bitterly over the war. Many others such as Bertrand Russell, Keir Hardy, and several conscientious objectors (COs) are profiled and it gives a meaningful aspect to the book - matching the home front to the battlefront in some ways. And it's this focus that makes it such an interesting read.

It's important to note that even though this book follows a largely chronological timeline of the war, it is not a methodical recounting of every battle and front. It is confined primarily to British involvement and emphasizes the tragic waste of life by the information it presents. The immense public support for the war seems dismissed as camaraderie engendered by patriotism and the influence of government propaganda, which feels inadequate to explain such a wholesale willingness to serve. Also, very high "losses" and "casualty" figures are cited throughout the book giving the impression of a much higher than actual "death toll" (which is given at the end), and I felt that the book was not as objective or free of bias as it may have seemed – but that’s the author’s right and it’s certainly a valid and important viewpoint. (Plus, I like to read different perspectives.) Overall, this is a highly readable and fascinating look at WWI and I particularly appreciated the 'after the war follow-up' on so many of the people mentioned, as well as the discussion of how it lead to future wars. Highly recommended. (Note: I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Memorial Day weekend 2011

If you can't guess how we spent our long weekend you probably don't know us very well. Of course we went to the beach on Saturday and Monday and the weather was nice - not too hot. Saturday was a bit windy which made the surfing rough but it wasn't too bad on the beach. Lots of people from the ward came and we all made our usual little "tent city." We even got pushed off the beach by the waves at the end of the day. Our usual spot got swamped a little earlier than we thought it would so we moved everything to drier ground but even there we had a rogue wave come right up and get blankets and towels and kids all wet. I thought it was just the tide but I think the wind was pushing the water up higher than normal, because on Monday there wasn't any wind and the waves didn't come up as high. Nonetheless, we put our "tent city" in a higher spot and stayed dry all day - it was great!

Sunday after church we drove down to Anaheim to put flowers on Jamie's grandparent's grave. Jack served in the Navy during WWII and several years ago he quietly told me and the boys about driving landing boats full of sailors toward beaches in the Pacific. I asked if it was dangerous and he said yes, but not as dangerous as for the poor fellows jumping out into the water. He would try to get in as close to shore as possible so they didn't have to run in deeper water (which made them sitting ducks for snipers) and could get to the sand quicker even though it meant putting himself in much greater danger. He said it was pretty scary hearing bullets pinging off the metal of the boat and watching guys go down, but he did the best he could for them and then raced back for another load of men. We said we considered him a hero but he thought the real heroes were the ones who didn't come back. It's a good reminder that the holiday weekend wasn't just about going to our favorite beach but that we should be grateful for the sacrifices of so many on beaches far away.