Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I like Ulysses... err, Ike!

I've complained a little about my reading lately since I've had more than a fair share of duds – and there are others that I probably won't mention here – so I'm trying to focus more on my TBR list and be choosier about free books I accept to review. One Amazon Vine book I just finished was actually pretty good, though: Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith.

Eisenhower not only commanded the Allied forces that won WWII in Europe, he was "the only president in the twentieth century to preside over eight years of peace and prosperity." (pg 550 of the advance copy) He got America out of the Korean conflict and mostly managed to steer a course that kept Cold War tensions with the USSR from exploding at a time when his advisors regularly advocated using atomic weapons against enemies (yikes!!). At home he balanced the budget and desegregated the nation's schools, and retained a very high public approval. He also seemed possessed of a great deal of luck; so much so that one of his friends said his initials stood for "Divine Destiny."

Ike came across as a very down-to-earth "just folks" kind of person, but as Jean Edward Smith shows it was more than just luck that made him such a trusted leader. He had the kind of personality that made people believe in him as well as an uncanny knack for politics. This is a very detailed biography that shows Ike's level-headed approach that defused events that could easily have gone out of control. It explains Ike's successes (such as walking a fine line with China; standing up to Britain, France, and Israel to win the respect of Egypt; and giving Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy just enough rope to hang himself) as well as his failings (Iran; Guatemala; and the Gary Powers U2 debacle with Russia). And the chapter on the desegregation showdown in Little Rock held me absolutely spellbound. The book is filled with photos that highlight the events and footnotes that provide additional detail.

But it's not without some issues. Smith ends the book with an anecdote of Eisenhower's wife being asked by a grandson "whether she felt she had really known" Ike. She answered "I'm not sure anyone did," and in spite of the tremendous volume of detail included here, Ike remains something of an enigma and I felt a certain lack of depth. Ike's temper is mentioned many times, but we only get cursory examples. Even the war-time affair with Kay Summersby feels like it's kept at arm’s-length. Smith complains in the Preface that "Ike's generalship has often been disparaged" but Smith does the same thing, describing much of Ike's WWII management as a series of errors of inexperience that were rescued by Montgomery and the British. In fact, Smith seems to give undue authority and attention to sniping potshots from generals with axes to grind. (I’m not saying it couldn’t be true and accurate, but it doesn’t have much feel of balance to it.) And readers can be forgiven for thinking that Eisenhower was Ulysses S. Grant reincarnated, since the endless comparisons to Grant grew tiring. (And when a book is 760 pages long it feels like you've lived with that person longer than you really wanted.)

Nevertheless, this is a very good read. Smith highlights many instances where other biographers (especially Ambrose) have ignored or misrepresented stories and facts, and he convincingly corrects them with credible details, and I suspect it might be the best bio on Ike available. It may not have the life and color of David McCullough or the insightfulness of Joseph Ellis, but it's an admirable history of an elusive subject.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The view from lunch

One of the best things about my job is that it's only 10-15 minutes from Malibu.  I don't normally take my shoes and socks off at lunch but that's the dress code here.  Besides, it won't be long before the weather turns really nice and I won't be able to find a parking spot, so I might as well enjoy it while I can.  The only downside is going back to work afterward!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book duds

Ever get in a rut with your book reading? As you might know, I'm a lucky member of the Amazon Vine program where I get free advance copies to review. That's great, but it also means that as long as Vine's offering books that sound interesting I don't get around to all the books on my TBR (to-be-read) list. Unfortunately, just because a book sounds interesting doesn't guarantee it will be interesting. And, as (bad) luck would have it, I've picked a few duds lately. I normally don't blog about a book except to recommend it, but I'm buried in a couple of lengthy Vine books that so far aren't rating very high (although I'm hoping that will change). But in the meantime – and to avoid relying on books I read long ago or my favorite music for a post – I thought I'd share a few recent duds from Amazon Vine.

I've enjoyed several histories of medicine and disease and thought Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure by Jim Murphy looked good. It's a children's book similar to books on Dickens and WWI I've previously recommended. This one wasn't as good as those, however. In short, tuberculosis is a virus that has long bedeviled mankind. You'll hear it called "consumption" in many books, and it's the reason people went to sanatoriums, which were kind of like health retreats in the mountains. The book tells little of the actual disease, and the history of treatments is pretty thin (and panders somewhat to the racial disparities in treatment). It also fails to take advantage of profiling some of the many who died from the disease (like Thoreau) and just falls short on too many fronts.

When asked I always say my favorite sport is beach volleyball, but actually I've been a football fan since I was around 7. I don't watch much of it on television but the playoffs are always fun (better than the overhyped Stupor Bowl anyway). But A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game That Rallied a Nation by Randy Roberts sounded like good football season reading. But Roberts doesn't even get around to that famous game until 200 pages into a 240 page book. Even then the game is covered in a half-dozen pages. Instead, he focuses on the making of the Army team: the recruiting, the players, the troubles of each season, the accomplishments, and the setbacks. He mixes in a little of the larger world history going on, but it's dragged down by a too-heavy emphasis on the humdrum business of the team than actual games and action.

And lastly, I've heard of (but not seen) the movie "Lawrence of Arabia," but it was a surprise to learn that Lawrence was a real person. Thomas Edward Lawrence was an archaeologist and British intelligence officer who helped organize a rag-tag Arab revolt into the successful overthrow of the Ottoman Turks in 1918. But Guerrilla Leader: T. E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt by James Schneider isn't a biography; instead it's kind of a lesson on Lawrence's principles of leadership, using numerous numbered-lists and relying heavily upon Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Mr. Schnieder is overly charmed with his subject and engages in too much 'hero-worship,' but even worse is the frequently overwrought text. If you're interested in the qualities of military leadership I'd suggest skipping this one and going straight to Lawrence’s book.

So, I'm trying to be pickier about the books I pick, but sometimes duds happen.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A good babysitter is hard to find

The other day I stopped by the library to check out one of my favorite Hitchcock movies. While browsing I saw a DVD of another old movie called "Earth vs. The Flying Saucers." Yeah, I know that sounds really stupid but for some reason I got it, too. And while there's quite a few glowing reviews for it on Amazon, it was pretty dumb. In fact, if it demonstrated one thing it's that Alfred Hitchcock was a genius who made movies that still stand the test of time.

(Here's my reviews of other Hitchcock films: "Rear Window" and "Shadow of a Doubt".)

Hitchcock actually made 2 movies called "The Man Who Knew Too Much" but I've only seen the second one. (Incidentally, Hitchcock had long wanted to remake this movie but what got the project going was the desire to help out an alcoholic friend who was down on his luck.)  Jimmy Stewart plays Dr. Ben McKenna who is vacationing with his wife (Doris Day playing a retired singer) and son in Morocco. While traveling on a bus their young son accidentally pulls the veil off a Muslim woman when the bus lurches. A Frenchman named Louis Bernard defuses the situation and they agree to dinner with him that night. But Mr. Bernard acts very strangely and cancels at the last moment, and the next day while the McKennas are shopping in the market he staggers up to them disguised as an Arab and with a knife in his back. Before he dies he whispers a message to Dr. McKenna.

I don't want to give away too much of the story but I love the way Hitchcock pulls the viewer in to a suspenseful story. The concert scene in Royal Albert Hall in London is a perfect example: as the music plays you know the story is leading up to a gunshot to be fired when the cymbals crash during the "Storm Cloud Cantata" (which was lengthened by about a minute and a half for the movie). In fact, music is a central part of the film and it produced Doris Day's biggest hit with "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)." According to Patrick McGilligan, she didn't even like the song because she thought it was a children's song, and for years she refused to perform it. But it's not all suspense, and Hitchcock's humor shows through several times - most notably at the very end. But at any rate, I highly recommend tracking it down and watching it if you haven't already. Or even if you have!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Woman's folly

In keeping with my prior commitment to read more classics, I recently finished Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. I still haven't worked myself up to taking another stab at Wuthering Heights or Madame Bovary (and I absolutely refuse to consider A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man!) but this one sounded interesting. (Actually, Braiden was assigned to read it for his AP English class, and he finds it useful to have me to discuss books with.)

It wasn't until after I finished that I realized it's "Madding," not "Maddening." It comes from a line in an old poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, but it means 'frenzied' either way. And it's a book that in some ways celebrates the virtues of English country life in the mid 1800s, and I found myself more than once caught up in the beautiful descriptions and wishing for a pastoral life (or at least something slower than the frequently frenzied life of Los Angeles). The story begins with Gabriel Oak, a humble and wise farmer (in spite of his relative youth) who is smitten by the beautiful but vain Bathsheba Everdene. Bathsheba has nothing and has come to live temporarily with her aunt. Although Gabriel bluntly proposes to Bathsheba, she turns him down because she does not love him and soon moves away. And when one of Gabriel's dogs drives his sheep over a cliff (thus ruining him as a farmer) he ends up working for Bathsheba in Weatherbury, where she has inherited her uncle's farm.

But Bathsheba is aptly named, and while Gabriel is able to master his emotions for her, she inadvertently draws the attentions of William Boldwood, a very prosperous and dignified neighboring farmer. While Boldwood is highly respected and emotionally closed, the accidental attention of such a beautiful young woman brings a complete change in him, and he becomes nearly mad in his love for her. But a third suitor appears, the dashing Sergeant Frank Troy, who excites a far more passionate response from Bathsheba than the more stable and respectable Oak and Boldwood.

Love is such a central theme of this book that many readers flat out consider it a romance (something I'm very hesitant - and embarrassed! - to do). Bathsheba's feelings for Oak and Boldwood border more on friendship and respect, whereas Troy elicits an exciting and passionate feeling. But in falling for him she overlooks his many and deep faults, much to her own later regret and possible financial ruin. But the feelings of love on the part of the men in the story are worth considering, too. Gabriel's love for Bathsheba is steady and measured, whereas Boldwood's is almost wild and excessive in keeping with his complete change of character. Troy's feelings, on the other hand, are fickle and self-serving, and emphasize Bathsheba's foolishness and recklessness in impulsively following her emotions.

But in spite of her faults, Bathsheba is a strong and independent female character in contrast to the frequent social references in the story to women having lesser judgment and abilities than men. She manages to run a farm successfully in spite of several beginner's mistakes. In such a male-dominated world of business she handles herself rather well. (And yes, Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games is named after her.) Hardy also inserts another character, Fanny Robin, who illustrates the sad state of women in such a society who don't have the support of a husband or at least money to protect them as Bathsheba does, and she becomes a tragic note in the story.

Even if it is called a 'romance,' I enjoyed the story quite a bit (besides, I had to have something appropriate to post on Valentine's Day). The overriding theme of love and romance and how it fits into relationships was interesting, and the colorful way it's depicted in the story illustrated well the intenseness of feelings, especially in youth. But with all such 'classics,' I honestly wonder how well high-school students will understand and appreciate such aspects of the story with their lack of experience and maturity. Maybe I give them too little credit, but perhaps that's also why it's usually older readers who consider such books 'classics,' while the younger readers groan at having to read them.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Textbook Toxicology

We live in a world full of chemicals and any chemical can be poisonous in the right dose. Drink two gallons of water (which is, of course, a chemical) all at once and you could very well die. Too much vitamin D is harmful, while smaller amounts are essential. The Dose Makes the Poison: A Plain-Language Guide to Toxicology by Patricia Frank and M. Alice Ottoboni (which I received from Amazon Vine) sounded fascinating, and one review on Amazon mistakenly referred to it as a "reference," which made me imagine a sort of encyclopedia of all the chemicals (especially the hard-to-pronounce kinds) we encounter in our daily lives.

There is a lot of very interesting information in this book, such as the fact that rats can't vomit - which is why manufacturers of rat poison add a chemical that induces vomiting in case dogs, cats, or children (who can and frequently do vomit) consume the product. It was also interesting to know why you're not supposed to induce vomiting if you swallow gasoline. And I really found the information about mercury poisoning to be interesting, although I do wish they'd told us exactly how to clean it up.

But for all the fascinating information, there was a lot more that just sounded like a chemistry or toxicology textbook (although maybe not as dense). The subtitle says "A Plain-Language Guide to Toxicology," and for the most part it is very plain... but not always. Sometimes words and terms were not explained, and other times they were just repeated a bit too oft. And it didn't help that the tone of the book is sometimes a bit lecturing.

The authors make the valid point that chemicals are usually maligned by the public and sensationalized by the media. We blame (or at least suspect) them for unexplained illnesses and especially vilify "synthetic" or man-made chemicals. (In truth, Mother Nature's cupboard is more dangerous than man's.) The fact is that modern chemistry has improved our lives dramatically and a little understanding on our part is very eye-opening. The book also explains the difficulties in determining risks and side-effects of consumer goods, how they are tested (including animal subjects), and the measures used by toxicologists. And while the book makes a lot of good points (and is probably a lot more readable than a real textbook), it's not always the kind of book you'd describe as "couldn't put it down." Nor is it a "reference."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Act your age

Quite often reading a novel requires a certain suspension of belief. Fantasy and science-fiction are usually not realistic, but many ordinary stories also contain elements of fantasy. As much as we might wish to receive an admission letter to Hogwarts we know it's not a real place, and that Uncle Vernon was unfortunately right when he said "there's no such thing as magic." But we accept this alternate reality within limits because it's entertaining. You don't have to believe in vampires to enjoy Dracula or the Twilight series. As long as the story doesn't contradict the real world in an unbelievable way and the characters act appropriately for their age, time, and setting, there's no problem. Tom Sawyer and Tom Fitzgerald (The Great Brain) are not grown-up and they get into the kind of mischief you'd expect from kids their age. It's part of what makes reading so much fun for many of us, and we get to spend a few hours in another world or remembering what it was like to be young. But when a kid in a book starts talking and acting like an adult and doing the kinds of things an adult does, it breaks that spell.

Several years ago we listened to a thoroughly charming book when we went on a family vacation to Moab, Utah. I'd gotten tired of having to switch out movies for the kids every couple of hours during the drive and thought an audiobook might be a nice change. I read a review for Nick of Time by Ted Bell and it sounded like the perfect story for a road trip.

Twelve-year old Nicholas McIver lives with his parents and 6 year-old sister, Kate, in the lighthouse on Greybeard Island in the English Channel. He spends as much time as possible in his little boat, Stormy Petrel, sailing around the island. But his adventures take a turn when Nick and Kate discover a small wooden chest washed up on the beach, and then run into a fearsome character named Billy Blood who is looking for it. If Nick didn't know better, he'd think Billy and his companion Snake Eye looked just like real pirates from the books he reads. But it's 1939, the eve of World War II, and pirates are a thing of the past, aren't they? At any rate, Nick has enough to worry about when he discovers that his father's "bird watching" hobby is actually spying on the activities of German U-boats in the Channel. When his dog, Jip, disappears right out from under his bed, and a nasty threatening note is left behind by Billy Blood, Nick seeks out the help of the mysterious Lord Hawke who shut himself away after his own children disappeared mysteriously 5 years earlier.

With Nazis and pirates and time travel and danger and heroism it has all the elements of the great adventure stories I read as a kid and it kept the whole family interested through a long drive. None of us knew anything about sailing or nautical terminology but it was a fun adventure story with some real history mixed in (be warned, however, that the brutality and reality of sea battles may not be for the faint of heart). So, when I saw The Time Pirate: A Nick McIver Time Adventure (#2) I thought it might be another fun story.

By now Nazi soldiers have begun to occupy the nearby island of Guernsey. When Nick discovers a dusty old Sopwith Camel (WWI airplane) in an old barn he enlists his friend Gunner to restore it to working condition. The bi-plane had been flown by his father in the First World War and his father teaches him how to fly it. So far the story remains fun and "believable," but when Nick conducts a solo midnight raid on the Nazi base with spectacular success it begins to strain the limits of credibility. Before long his sister Katie is kidnapped by the pirate Billy Blood and Nick discovers a plot which imperils George Washington's defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown (which would affect the Americans latter ability to assist the British in WWII). The idea of a 12 year-old boy handily outsmarting pirates and assisting the Marquis de Lafayette to save America goes too far overboard. Nick talks and thinks like someone at least twice his age and maturity and any magic the story started with evaporates. Yes, I'm an adult but I doubt even kids would swallow it.

So, I'll recommend Nick of Time as a fun adventure story but I'll recommend skipping the rest of the series.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Backyard birds

(I found this old post I had written last June but never posted.  I probably intended to take some pictures to go along with it but never had any I thought were good enough.  So, I've uploaded the best ones I could find and I figured I might as well post it now.  Better late than never maybe?)

I've always liked putting out bird feeders to attract birds into the yard. It can be a bit messy but it's worth it to hear them singing and chattering. The regular seed mix mostly attracts english sparrows and house finches which are pretty common. I've learned not to put out more than a small scoop once every 2 or 3 days because they toss it all over picking out the sunflower seeds, so I wait until everything has been eaten on the ground before putting out more. I've seen a couple of white-crowned sparrows feeding on the ground, but mostly it's the morning doves who clean everything up. Of course, it's attracted a couple of neighborhood cats who crouch under the bushes and try to pounce on unsuspecting birds. Sometimes when I notice there are no birds around (or even squirrels) I'll toss a bucket of water in the bushes, and sometimes a soaking cat or two will come streaking out - and within minutes the birds are back.

It's also attracted at least one hawk. I've seen it on a few occasions but it's always been so quick and unexpected that I never get a good look at it (my best guess is either a Sharp-shinned or Cooper's hawk). One afternoon I looked up just in time to see a hawk and dove hit into the glass doors. They landed together on the grass and feathers were flying but the dove flew off with the hawk in hot pursuit. I don't know if the dove got away, but that hawk was awfully fast so I kind of doubt it. (I don't mind a hawk hanging around sometimes - that's pretty cool! - but I do mind the cats.)

I've also kept the hummingbird feeder filled this year. It's an easy recipe - 1 part sugar to 4 parts boiling water - and even though you're not supposed to add food coloring that's the only way I can easily see when it's empty. It's far enough from the house that I can't quite tell what kind of hummingbirds it attracts (probably Anna's), but mostly one will be a bully and chase all others away. Ants were a problem, but a drop of cooking oil on the wire that the feeder hangs from got rid of them.

This year I also added a "sock" feeder. Nyjer (thistle) seed is more expensive but it attracts the little green-backed lesser goldfinches which the girls call "yellowbellies." They have a much cuter call than the other birds and they're less skittish. I put an old wooden birdbath beneath the feeder to catch falling seeds and other birds clean that up, too.

I need to figure out how to attract some different birds like scrub jays, and not just end up feeding the squirrels.  But there are lots of birds that don't come to the feeders. We always see black phoebes swooping around the lawn eating bugs and the mockingbirds found our boysenberries and raspberries this year - I think they ate more than we did. We even had crows build a nest in one of the trees this spring - although that's a bird sound I'm not sure I actually like to hear.  Still, having birds around sounds so nice.