Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shipwrecks and castaways

I've blogged about a lot of books I've read recently but haven't written about two of my most favorite books ever: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne. Although Robinson Crusoe is usually considered a children's book, I don't think many children will find it an easy read. It was one of the first novels ever written and published almost 300 years ago so the language is from another time and a little more challenging. But if you're willing to spend some time getting used to it you'll realize there's a good reason it's a classic. And even if you're familiar with the story (I expect almost everyone is) you've missed out if you haven't read it before.

As a young man, Robinson Crusoe goes to sea against his father's wishes and lives to regret it. In spite of promptly being shipwrecked he goes again, and finds himself enslaved by the Moors for a year before escaping. He ends up in Brazil and becomes a well-to-do plantation owner before his greed gets the better of him and he once again ends up shipwrecked, this time on a small Caribbean island. Being the only survivor, he manages to save what he can from the shipwreck and builds a safe shelter. He plants crops, domesticates wild goats, and learns to be comfortable over the nearly 30 years he spends there, most of it alone. And parts of the story are highly religious in nature as he eventually develops a personal relationship with God.

The Mysterious Island isn't quite as well-known but also deals with castaways on a deserted island. Five Americans being held as prisoners of war in Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War hijack a hot air balloon during a terrible storm and end up in the South Pacific several terrifying days later. And you couldn't pick better men to be marooned with as their ingenuity and resourcefulness help them to survive on the island and establish a bit of civilization. The mystery of the island is several unexplainable events that happen, often at the most crucial and fortunate times. It's actually a sequel to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but for the most part there aren't many connections and they're actually very different books.

Neither story is an action-packed-thrill-a-minute-adventure we've come to expect as entertainment, but I think the ways the men find to survive is more than enough compensation for a slower pace. And it almost makes being stranded on an uninhabited island seem like an adventure, or at least a great escape. It's also interesting how they not only survive but grow from their experiences and become better people for their trials. Just because they find themselves cut off from society doesn't mean they abandon their morals and ethics, and Lord of the Flies was a very interesting contrast where castaways devolve into fear and murder. I can't always sit down and reread some of the great histories I've read, but these books bear up nicely under multiple readings. I've read each of them at least twice, and it might just be time to read one of them again.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

An Ode to George Robinson

I am the best driver on the road.

It's not an opinion, nor am I tooting my own horn (so to speak). It's just a plain statement of fact, and I see the evidence of it every day. I see it even clearer now that I am helping teach my son to drive. Any day now I expect to hear him say, "You know something Dad, you're the best driver on the road."

I owe much of the credit to George Robinson, my driver's ed teacher in high school. Most kids took Drivers Ed in school as opposed to having private lessons like they do here, and since my birthday was in the summer I took it in the summer rather than wait until my junior year. And Mr. Robinson had been there for a LONG time; so long I found his picture in my Dad's yearbooks. But he taught us all the important stuff needed to be a good driver like always wearing your seatbelt (it wasn't yet a law back then), being aware of cars all around you including who might be in your blind spot (and not staying in someone else's blind spot), and using your turn signal.

(As an aside, I remember a popular bumper sticker that said "Visualize World Peace." But an even better one said "Visualize using your turn signal!" Amen to that.)

At any rate, Mr. Robinson taught us lots of important things on those hot days when we'd rather be near a pool than in a stuffy classroom. We watched movies with titles like "Red Asphalt" and "Blood on the Blacktop" (or something like that) as well as a short Disney film of Goofy driving (I still love that one!). We practiced in the simulators (which were even hotter and stuffier) and on the driving range. Actually driving on the road with students must have been as stressful for him as it was for us, though (as I'm finding out now).

He'd take 4 kids at a time and my friend Jeremy and I were together in a group. There was one very short girl who had a hard time seeing over the steering wheel. He had her turn where a bunch of kids were playing on the corner and she hit the brakes really hard when a kid strayed a little too close. Mr. Robinson told her to honk the horn (which, inexplicably, was located on the end of the turn signal). Unfortunately, he had her drive around to the same corner and while she was looking for the horn he yelled "Watch it, you're gonna send a kid flying!" Poor guy - I think he forgot he had a brake pedal, too. (Yeah, Jeremy and I still laugh about that!)

Of course, Mr. Robinson didn't teach me everything that now makes me the best driver on the road - after all, he only had a couple of months - but he gave me the vision of what a good driver should be. And for that I thank him... every day as I drive the freeways of Los Angeles!

(Incidentally, I just found out he died a few months ago. I always knew he was a good guy but didn't know what a great man he was until I read his obituary.)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Very clever idea, not so clever writing

I've mentioned before how much I loved reading the newspaper comics as a kid but I was also a big fan of comic books, although I usually preferred the ones that were actually "comic" over what are now called "graphic novels." I remember riding my bike to Stimson's market and Earl's Pharmacy to buy them for 35 or 40 cents - my favorites being Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and stuff like that. I still have most of them, too - but unfortunately, the funny ones aren't nearly as valuable or sought after as the serious ones. And the few serious ones I have don't seem to be all that valuable either (especially since I actually read all my comic books - over and over, in fact - as opposed to later kids who stored theirs in plastic).

Peter & Max: A Fables Novel (Fables Series)So maybe I'm not the typical audience for Peter & Max: A Fables Novel by Bill Willingham, but still I was intrigued by the idea. Fables is a comic book - err, excuse me - graphic novel series with characters from fairy tales, and this particular story has been written as a novel (I received the audio book on CD, read by Will Wheaton from "Star Trek Next Generation," from Amazon Vine). It turns out that the stories we call fairy tales and nursery rhymes are real events from another world, a world where some animals can talk, wicked witches live in forests and trolls under bridges, Bo Peep is a bratty little girl, and Peter Piper and his family are... well, pipers. It also turns out that their world has, at times, spilled its occupants over into our world (I didn't understand "why" that happened). And those fairy tale people have formed a community near Manhattan which they call Fabletown, as well as a farm in upstate New York for those who can't blend in as easily in our world (like the Big Bad Wolf, now calling himself "Bigby" and working as a private investigator). And Peter & Max, alternating between present and past, tells the story of how Peter Piper and his brother Max Piper went very different ways - Peter marrying Bo Peep and Max becoming the Pied Piper.

I enjoy stories that employ interesting twists on familiar ideas such as the fairy tale folk in this one. And it's very clever and sometimes amusing the way such familiar stories work here (like "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" or "Peter Peter pumpkin eater..."). But I read fairy tales to my kids when they were younger and I'm well aware that some of them are surprisingly dark (Hansel & Gretel, Rumplestiltskin, etc.) and Mr. Willingham puts the "graphic" in his graphic novels - and this text novel is no exception. The violence, in my opinion, makes the book unsuitable for family listening and inappropriate for children (this wasn't clear on the online description). And a few scattered profanities seem unusually harsh with the backdrop of children's stories

But while I found the idea very clever the writing isn't as good. Story flow which might work in art form doesn't flow as well in text, even though I could see in my mind how it would have looked in a comic book. Also, the back and forth between past and present is sometimes maintained with short useless chapters that interrupt more than provide continuity to both halves of the story - again, works fine in a comic book but not here. But the transformation of Max from jealous older son into a cold-blooded murderer was entirely unconvincing in the telling - one moment he's simply a petulant kid and the next a ruthless and brutal killer. So, while part of me kind of enjoyed the story, the other part was disappointed to find out after I'd received it that it's for "mature" readers (you should know by know I'm not all that "mature").  But I thought it deserved a mention even if the writing wasn't as clever as the idea.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The fading ruins among us

A couple years ago the kids and I were watching an old b&w sci-fi movie. At one point a character starts dialing on an old rotary phone on a desk and the kids all asked "Dad, what's he doing?" It kind of surprised me, because we had a rotary dial phone when I was a kid, but I didn't realize they'd never seen one. And just the other day I was talking with my cousin and he said his son told him there was something wrong with the phone when it was making an unfamiliar noise. Turns out it was a busy signal – another of those things I didn't realize had already become part of the past.

When the kids and I watched "War Games" there was a LOT to explain for them to understand the story. That could probably be said of many movies, as well as much of the music I listened to in the 80s (remember "Russians" by Sting, or "Two Tribes" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood?). Growing up in the 70s and 80s I experienced the increase in Cold War tensions that came during the Reagan years. But the idea that the U.S.S.R. (do younger people even know who that was or what it meant?) would crumble by the end of the decade would have been laughable. And yet it seems the reality we lived in was defined by a contradiction – peace was maintained by the ability of two nations to assure "mutual destruction" of each other within minutes – and it left a mark on society. Some friends near Topanga Canyon actually had a 60s era bomb shelter in their back yard. Kinda cool, but I can't help imagining the puzzlement the younger generation must feel at seeing some of these things.

Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic AmericaIn Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America, Tom Vanderbilt takes us around the country examining the ruins left by the Cold War, a war which did and yet didn't happen. From missile silos being destroyed to ones being turned into homes, from "proving grounds" to backyard bomb shelters, Mr. Vanderbilt uncovers sites which often sit right in front of us and simply blend into our landscape in spite of their obviously militaristic features. But he goes beyond the aging and disappearing signs indicating "fallout shelters" and discusses how the threat of nuclear annihilation shaped our cities and our thinking. Cities became the targets, and today's suburbs – often denigrated under the label of "urban sprawl" – were a reaction to and a defense against the calamities which befell the densely packed cities of Germany and Japan in the firebombing raids of WWII. Attempts to fortify buildings, strategies for minimizing casualties, underground cities, interstate highways, early warning systems, NORAD, massive retaliation... it all walks a fine line between critical and absurd.

While it's not always the most exciting read, I thought the book captured that sense of ridiculousness very well. It ends with some sobering observations on how September 11th relates to this struggle to protect ourselves without falling into a "bunker mentality" (and I can't help but think of airport security). Overall, it's an interesting and reflective look at a fading time, a look at the darker side of the optimism and technological advances of the 50s and 60s, with lots of great pictures (all in stark b&w). And it's a reminder of both the differences and similarities between my children's world and the one I grew up in.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The crabby guy behind those familiar red books

All the classrooms in my elementary school had windows along one side of the room, and beneath the windows was a deep counter over deep bookshelves. As I recall, about 35-40 dictionaries lined the shelves in each room – more than one for each student. They were the Webster's kind with the red cover, although I always thought they were pink (probably because they were a bit faded). But no one ever thought about the work that must go into making a dictionary.

Noah Webster was born in 1758 in Connecticut of a prestigious Puritan Yankee lineage. Although he tried variously to be a lawyer, a school teacher, and a newspaperman with various degrees of success, his talents always led him to write. Not stories or anything creative; instead Webster was drawn to compile information. He gained early fame with The American Spelling Book in 1783 (actually not named such until 1787) which helped many young people with its innovative approach to spelling. But his more lasting fame didn't come until 1828 when he published the first American dictionary (which was also the last time a dictionary was compiled primarily by a single person).

The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American CultureIn The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall we learn of the brilliant but frequently self-centered and cantankerous man who's life's passions were consumed by books and words. The name Webster might be remembered but the dictionary is more often mistakenly credited to his better-remembered cousin Daniel Webster. But part of Webster's inspiration to create a dictionary came from his conviction that America needed to be separate and individual from Great Britain. Americans didn't always use the same words as their English-speaking relatives across the water, nor did they speak the same way. He felt it was important to establish and foster a culture that was uniquely American – and then to define that culture through its language.

Kendall has written an insightful and interesting biography about this "forgotten founding father." Webster isn't the kind of personality that invites warmth and reverence, but Kendall brings him to life in a way that is anything but ‘dry as a dictionary.’ Each chapter begins with a word and definition that sets the tone. He explains that Webster probably suffered from a mental illness or "personality disorder," although he never explains what it was (maybe some form of autism?) except that it drove him to compile statistics and facts and definitions. It also made him a frequently prickly person to be around – especially for those with different political views. But it also makes him an interesting biographical subject behind those heavy red books that have been so familiar to many generations.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pepperdine flags

In honor of each of the innocent victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Pepperdine University lined the lawn overlooking the ocean with flags.  We went down last night just before sunset (and ran into Ben and Melissa and their girls) and it's quite an inspiring sight.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I had a book review all ready to go when I realized it would post on September 11th. And I hadn't intended to write anything about the ten year anniversary – there are plenty of others to do that and my thoughts won't add much. But it seemed appropriate to say something.

I never watch TV in the morning, so when I pulled out of the driveway to head for work it was the first I'd heard of it. The DJs were saying "something" had happened in New York, and it sounded serious. I hadn't gotten more than a few blocks before they found out that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. I pulled over and called Jamie and told her to turn on the news. I was in my office a short time later when the towers fell, and everyone at work either followed the news online or on a TV in the break room. It wasn't long before they stopped all plane traffic, and where I worked was directly under the flight path for the airport in Salt Lake. It was an eerie quiet punctuated only by the occasional F-16s that would fly over the city, and that lasted for days until flights resumed. I remember trying to buy a newspaper that evening but they were sold out everywhere I went.

Even though I didn't know anyone in New York we all felt a connection to them - everyone felt united in sympathy. Unfortunately, the mutual feelings of concern didn't last long. The Winter Olympics were held in Salt Lake about 5 months later and I remember an excessively rude and jeering "letter to the editor" from someone in NYC making fun of Salt Lake, which struck me as particularly ugly considering the concern we had for them in their tragedy. Just an isolated individual, I hoped, but I no longer felt such a kinship with New Yorkers.

The boys and I visited Ground Zero last spring. It was a pretty spooky place, or at least that's the feeling I got on that gloomy and overcast day. I looked up and down the narrow streets around there, wondering where the pictures I'd seen of dust-covered survivors straggling out of the devastation had been taken. I saw 250 year old headstones in a cemetery across the street that had been damaged when the towers fell, and wondered how any of it was left. But other than the spookiness, there wasn't anything special about it, either - just a construction zone swarming with tourists. I guess life goes on.

And I wonder about our current crisis. I'm tired of hearing of people left and right losing their jobs or homes, and elected officials who are more concerned about the next election than fixing the current problems. I think about something our Stake President said the other day, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives us a long-term perspective on adversity. Living righteously doesn't guarantee we won't face hardship - that's not what life's about. We learn and grow spiritually more from the difficulties we face than from a life of comfort and ease. Personally, I just hope I don't whine too much when faced with adversity.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The (Tomato) Jungle

About a century ago Upton Sinclair wrote a novel called The Jungle which exposed the labor abuses in the meatpacking industry. Unfortunately for Sinclair, the labor issues were largely ignored while more attention was given to the unsanitary conditions of meat (as were also exposed in the book) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was created. But it inspired some to begin confronting the situation where immigrants were literally worked to death in filthy and slave-like conditions. And Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook (this one is NOT a novel) might have the potential to do the same thing in the Florida tomato industry.

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring FruitIn the first chapter Estabrook describes the lousy produce which ends up on grocery store shelves looking like tomatoes. Bred to endure rough shipping conditions and picked while still green, they are gassed with ethylene to make them turn red but generally lack any flavor. But after this short introduction to the tomato itself, Estabrook spends most of the book describing the labor to harvest these green tomatoes. From the harsh chemicals needed to grow them in Florida (which has poor soil and is too humid for tomatoes) and which cause untold health problems to workers (and sometimes horrific birth defects), to the slave-like conditions those workers endure (and in some cases it is outright slavery!), it becomes more of an exposé on the labor abuses of big agriculture.

While I wholeheartedly endorse the labor reforms this book should initiate, it wasn't as interesting to read as I had hoped based on the publicity and it left too many questions hanging. It seems that this book is only about tomatoes from Florida, while California (where I live), Mexico, and Canada (greenhouses and hydroponics) are only briefly mentioned. (It sounds like California mainly provides for the canned tomato market but why no information?) So apparently, he is only talking about tomatoes sold on the East Coast in winter? Perhaps tomatoes sold in other seasons are grown locally, and maybe those taste better? He eventually gets back to discussing tomato genetics and breeding near the end, but it's too disconnected and confusing by that point.

(Now wait a minute! I don't even like tomatoes, so why would I read a book about them? Well, it sounded interesting, and I do like to grow them. I wish I liked them! But Jamie likes them and I guess that's a good enough excuse for me to plant them.)

Better editing might have helped but it reads more like a very lengthy NY Times article. He recounts so many happy stories by the end that it gives the impression that conditions have already changed, or are at least on the right track, thus undermining his call for action. I found one of his stories particularly strange, where he tells how government subsidized housing is being provided at such a low cost to migrant workers that it could be foreclosed any day, and then he mentions all the "rules" the tenants are required to abide and calls them "paternalistic" and "authoritarian," even though he reports that the situation works for everyone!?! Overall, the book was not "great" or even "good," but merely "okay." But it's still an important message, so I'll blog about it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

That's so random! (hodad edition)

I have to mention this because, as I said: it was "so random!" The other day while I was compiling a video of the girls surfing I included a Beach Boys song called "California Calling." I don't understand all the words in the song but I heard the word "hodad." I've probably heard it before but didn't really know what it meant, so I pulled out the Webster's dictionary and... it wasn't there! How could they not have it? Jamie didn't know what it was either. Maybe I would have to ask Mark V. he'd know for sure.

But, as luck would have it, I was just about to finish a book about Noah Webster who wrote the first American dictionary (I'll review it soon). The next day as I reached the final page, where it's talking about the changes Webster's dictionary has seen since it was first published in 1828, it says:

"... true to the spirit of Noah Webster, the company continues to track every new word in the language so that it can release an updated version of its flagship dictionary every year. Recent changes include the additions of 'chick flick,' 'blogosphere' and 'LOL' as well as the elimination of 'hodad' (a nonsurfer, who pretends to be a surfer), a term that the Gidget movies of the early 1960s popularized." (page 334)

That's so random!

Friday, September 2, 2011

"Tho' an old man…”

“ …I am but a young gardener."  – Thomas Jefferson

If you've read much about the founding fathers you hear a lot of little 'mentions' about their gardens. George Washington took time even while fighting the British to send instructions to his plantation manager regarding Mount Vernon. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson spent weeks touring gardens while in England, and Jefferson and James Madison later did the same in America. And the gardens at Jefferson's Monticello and Madison's Montpelier are still famous and visited by many today. But all you get in most histories are the little 'mentions,' and it's always left the subject tantalizingly vague for me.

Washington was perhaps the most efficient gardener or farmer, abandoning tobacco early in favor of crops that weren't so destructive to the soil. He also experimented extensively with manures in an effort to replenish the soil. Adams returned home after the presidency and was happiest working on his humble Massachusetts farm. Jefferson was always on the lookout for seeds and plants that might be beneficial in America and traded continually with a large network of friends (as did Benjamin Franklin). Jefferson was especially interested in the new species brought back by Lewis & Clark when they explored the Louisiana Territory and spent much of his time experimenting and trying to grow new and better plants.

Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American NationAndrea Wulf explores this aspect of the founders that we seldom see except in glimpses in her new book Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. All were extremely interested in the land almost to the point of obsession, and saw nature as a symbol of America's strength and potential. Wulf is clear from the beginning that she makes no distinction between "gardening" and "agriculture," and this occasionally makes it sound like she's forcing connections in presenting her thesis. But 200 years ago there wasn't as much of a difference between the two as in our day when we are much more divorced from the soil. She also acknowledges the large role slave labor played in the extravagant gardens built by Washington, Jefferson, and Madison (although Washington wasn't afraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty), and looks at their different attitudes towards slavery. But overall, this is a fascinating look at their thoughts toward gardening and farming, and shows very convincingly just how fascinated they were in working with the soil. And it gives an interesting and more full perspective on who they were as people – beyond all their other accomplishments.