Sunday, October 30, 2011


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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Beauty is only skin deep

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

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

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

Monday, October 24, 2011


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

Malibu Pier with morning fishermen

The sign says "no fishing"

Pierside waves

Those pretty waves make it hard to get any reading done

It's even more crowded out there than it looks

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

Calling it a day

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Samson and the spark

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Killing Lincoln?" You can do better

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The thin line between hunger and anger

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The forgotten general

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 10, 2011

The jump

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 7, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Quoting Steinbeck

     "Ma, you scared a goin'?  You scared a goin' to a new place?"
     Her eyes grew thoughtful and soft.  "A little," she said.  "Only it ain't like scared so much.  I'm jus' a settin' here waitin'.  When somepin happens that I got to do somepin - I'll do it."
     "Ain't you thinkin' what's it gonna be like when we get there?  Ain't you scared it won't be nice like we thought?"
     "No," she said quickly.  "No, I ain't.  You can't do that.  I can't do that.  It's too much - livin' too many lives.  Up ahead they's a thousan' lives we might live, but when it comes, it'll on'y be one.  If I go ahead on all of 'em, it's too much.  You got to live ahead 'cause you're so young, but - it's jus' the road goin' by for me..."
The Grapes of Wrath

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Being more than what the world would make us

I used to think of them as "end of the world books," but the generally accepted term is "dystopian." I'm not sure why but it seems to be an especially popular genre lately in YA fiction. I looked for some of the reasons others have given - it helps us confront our fears of an unstable world or it's a cautionary voice about destructive trends in society - but the reason I like best is that it's an interesting "what if?" What if the world we know ended and everything fell into chaos? What would you do? How would you survive? How would you keep your family together or protect those you love? Best of all, when you read it in a book you're still safe. You can close the book on that world of chaos and disorder and maybe your own challenges don't seem so bad after all. At any rate, I've found a few dystopian books I really liked, like Gone or The Hunger Games, but I took a chance on a new one from Amazon Vine: The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch.

Following a devastating war with China where germ warfare was used, the United States was left in shambles. The few who survived lead nomadic lives of salvaging what they can find while trying to avoid bands of armed thugs looking for slaves. Fifteen year old Stephen Quinn, who was born after the "Collapse," hasn't known any other life. When his overbearing but resourceful grandfather passes away, it's down to him and his father. But an accident leaves his father seriously injured and by chance they find a hidden community looking strangely like the world before the war. Children go to school and play baseball in the afternoon, and Thanksgiving celebrations are held in the park by the whole community. But it's not an easy adjustment for Stephen, and his actions expose just how fragile the world is.

While I never really cared much for movies like "Mad Max" or "Waterworld," this was a surprisingly compelling read for me. Maybe it's the YA aspect I prefer, where the main characters are young and the dangers not so overwhelming. Stephen must face questions like "Are you going to be a boy or a man? Human or savage." And while there's plenty of tension and danger here it's not overdone to the point where you feel wrung out by the end of the book. The characters are likeable and sympathetic, and the contrasting relationships Stephen has with his father and dead grandfather are interesting. And the book draws you in surprisingly well - I frequently found myself reading late into the night or itching to pick it up (even though it's not a long book it took me a few days). Kate enjoyed it, too, but I definitely think it's for teens and more mature kids because of the dangerous circumstances portrayed, but otherwise it's a generally "clean" book. I highly recommend it to those who like a little "end of the world" escapism once in a while.