Friday, December 27, 2013

My Top Ten for 2013

I forgot to do a Top Ten list last year, but there were so many good books this year I couldn't make the same mistake again.  As before I've limited it to books I read this year (a little known secret: some of my blog posts are for books I read years ago!), and nearly all were new releases this year.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, most are histories but there are a couple of YA novels (listed at the end).  They are not in any order (just narrowing it down is hard enough!) although The Boys in the Boat would probably be #1 if I ranked them.  But feel free to share your thoughts and favorites, especially if you've read any on my list.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hope, where there was none

Sometimes I ask myself why I read so much non–fiction.  How much am I really learning?  I'd certainly learn a lot more if I took notes, but I'm too lazy for that.  Instead, I try to write reviews so I can remember some of what I read.  Maybe the real reason is that I actually find histories to be interesting and – dare I say it – entertaining?  But sometimes I come across a book that challenges even that idea.  Was it interesting?  Yes.  Was it entertaining?  Hmm, yeah, I guess so.  Did I learn anything?  Umm (scratching my head)...

Medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies used to focus on diseases where lots of people were affected. It's expensive to bring a new drug to market and not only did they want to recoup the costs and make a profit, but also help as many people as possible. So, those afflicted with an uncommon disease like Chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML, were out of luck. And unfortunately, a CML diagnosis usually meant a person only had 4 to 6 years to live – at most. There were treatments, but the side-effects were often debilitating and dangerous, and they only extended life by a few months. But a tiny discovery in 1959 set in motion events that would change all that when a scientist named David Hungerford noticed a piece of missing DNA in those with the disease, a mutation that became known as the Philadelphia Chromosome.  Other discoveries followed – lots of them – sometimes marginally related and other times seemingly unrelated.  In the end, it all culminated with Dr. Brian Drucker putting the pieces together and determinedly pushing for the development of a drug and clinical trials.  The result was Gleevec, and not only were lives saved but laws were changed to encourage pharmaceutical companies to pursue treatments that don't just help those with widespread maladies, but those with rare diseases, too.

I'll be honest: I've struggled with how to write a review for The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Mutant Gene and the Quest to Cure Cancer at the Genetic Level by Jessica Wapner (which I received from Amazon Vine) for nseveral months now.  I wasn't exactly pleased with my written review on Amazon, but I try to make my blog posts better than that.  On the one hand, it's one of the "good news" stories about curing a form of cancer, and was very interesting.  On the other hand, it's clearly not going to appeal to everyone and was often hard to understand.  The first 100 pages is rather technical, with discussions about how the genetic mutation happens and the seemingly disparate individual scientific contributions that were so essential.  A lot of people, events, findings, and discoveries are detailed and given due credit.  I tried to understand and follow the science behind it all – and there are some color diagrams that help to explain the genetics – but much of it went over my head.  After the technical stuff, however, the book becomes a fascinating story of Dr. Drucker's fight against the bureaucracy of a large profit-making drug company and getting Gleevec developed and tested.

It's not as readable as the development of insulin or as dramatic as the eradication of smallpox, but it was still a very inspiring story and a good book.  I just wish I'd understood more of it better.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Reason Behind Christmas

"Christmas is a glorious season of the year. It is also a busy time for most of us. It is my hope and prayer that we may not become so caught up in the pressures of the season that we place our emphasis on the wrong things and miss the simple joys of commemorating the birth of the Holy One of Bethlehem. Finding the real joy of Christmas comes not in the hurrying and the scurrying to get more done. We find the real joy of Christmas when we make the Savior the focus of the season." -- Thomas S. Monson

Friday, December 6, 2013

How do you weigh a person's pain?

I've read a number of books about the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan to end the Second World War and it still fascinates me.  The Lost Peace argues that – in retrospect – it was a mistake, while Retribution makes the case that because of the way Japan started and fought the war, they basically got what they deserved.  Hiroshima tells it from the perspective of the Japanese while Enola Gay gives the plane crew's experience.  Pandora's Keepers is interesting in that it gives the conflicting perspectives of those who envisioned and built the bomb.  Perhaps Shockwave tries the hardest to give both sides of the story, although none of them can be said to be truly impartial.  But I was a little surprised at the emotional punch packed in a little YA historical fiction novel.

Everything in twelve-year old Hazel's life is shaken up in Where the Ground Meets the Sky by Jacqueline Davies.  Not only is there a war going on in 1944 but she and her mom have moved from New Jersey to New Mexico where her dad is working on a secret project for the government.  He's one of the "fizzlers" (physicists) but there are lots of "stinkers" (chemists) as well, and secrecy seems to be the overriding rule everywhere – especially with all the army people.  They don't even have a real address; they just live behind barbed wire and chain-link fence in a remote place called "the Hill".  Nevertheless, Hazel doesn't know what "the gadget" is that her dad and the others are working on but she's very smart and has been taught by her parents to approach a problem rationally and weigh all the alternatives.  But she's also smart enough to know it could end the war and can recognize important people like Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr.

I had a rare Saturday afternoon while the whole family was away and planned to get so much done... until I started this book and couldn't put it down!  Ms. Davies has written a fascinating novel of a kid's life at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, and as far as I know it is historically accurate.  Hazel is much smarter than her peers, but she's also perfectly likable to the reader and otherwise acts like a normal twelve-year old.  Unfortunately, she's also dealing with a very abnormal situation as her hard-working father is consumed with his work and her pacifist mother sinks into depression.  But the book is also very beguiling because – although I know perfectly well how the war ended – it's so well-written that I felt like I didn't see it coming.  What was both a very charming and compelling read turned suddenly quite sobering at the end.  This really is an excellent book with likable characters and does a good job describing this period of history, but as a parent I might want to be there when my child finishes reading it just in case they have questions.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Who are you, really?

Being a teenager had its ups and downs, but now I look back in envy at how thin I was, how much energy I had, and how little responsibility I actually had for anything.  Still, I'm not sure I'd go back even if it were possible.  I remember worrying too much about what others thought of me and how I dressed, or what they'd think if I changed the way I combed my hair – not that I ever had enough guts to do anything that would have made me stand out.  Of course, you eventually realize nobody was thinking much about you at all – they were thinking about themselves and probably worrying about the same things.  But as a teenager you're affected greatly by others, and if you're lucky you've got a supportive family and good friends, because at that age that's about the extent of your world.  And it's why family and friends are so often an important part in "coming of age" novels (which aren't always as bad as that label sounds).

In Out of Reach by V. M. Jones, thirteen year-old "Pip" McLeod hates going to his soccer games.  He's not a bad player, but he's not as good as his older brother.  But what makes it unbearable is his dad, who's one of those obnoxious parents who yells and complains about every call.  But when Pip accidentally sneaks into the brand new sports center down the street before it opens, he finds a room with climbing walls and – before he realizes what he's doing – climbs to the top without any ropes and finds a sport where he's a natural.  He even starts going by "Phil" at the gym, but his friends and family don't know about this other person he's becoming.

This is a book that really speaks to the teenager inside and some of the teenage challenges.  Pip/Phil is especially likeable and you really feel for him, whether it's the discomfort with soccer and his dad or the awkward one-sided romance with the girl next door.  In some ways the story is a bit cliché with only slight variations on the hero, the girl, and the bully.  I couldn't help but think of "The Karate Kid," but it's still a well-written and easy read with a satisfying ending.  The New Zealand setting added interest, too.

In Twerp by Mark Goldblatt, Julian Twerski did something that got him suspended from school for a week. His teacher, Mr. Selkirk, allows him to keep a weekly journal (of sorts) in place of writing a report on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar with the caveat that he eventually has to address the incident. And so we read of his friends, including the clever and oft-manipulative Lonnie, and his worries of remaining the fastest kid in school. He writes a love letter for a friend, but it doesn't quite work as planned and causes problems neither of them saw coming. He makes some new friends and learns to appreciate the advice of an older sister. And even though it's set in 1969 Queens, New York, it isn't heavy on nostalgia or so out of place that contemporary readers won't be able to relate.

This absorbing read seems to be about the stupid mistakes we make growing up, but there's an undercurrent of bullying as well.  Not the heavy-handed kind that usually comes to mind, but the subtle and more typical influence of a peer.  In this case, peer pressure combined with passive personalities results in an ugly incident we eventually learn about.  The ending, however, fell flat for me – leaving me feeling a bit... I guess "troubled," might be the most appropriate word. It's not an unhappy ending, but it's not very satisfying, either.  I didn't find Julian as likeable as Phil/Pip, but it's still a well-written book and I found myself compelled to finish it in just a couple of days.

Both books have a small amount of profanity and some juvenile crassness but are otherwise pretty clean, and are an interesting look at what sometimes makes us who we are.  (I received advance copies from Amazon Vine.)

Friday, November 22, 2013

'Inspiration for a grubby world'

I have vague memories of seeing the Air Force Thunderbirds perform once when I was a kid – I think it might have been for the Utah State Fair.  And while it was thrilling to watch, I didn't think much about it again until several years ago when I was offered tickets to sit in the Oracle booth at the Miramar Air Show near San Diego.  It was awesome!  Not only did the Thunderbirds (F-16s) perform but lots of other cool jets as well.  If you've never seen (and heard!) a Harrier jet take off and land vertically, you've missed something truly amazing.  I've gone to Miramar again and the air show at Edwards AFB and seen the Navy's Blue Angels, F-18s and F-22s, the B-2 Stealth Bomber, old WWI era bi-planes, P-51 Mustangs, and lots of others, but my favorites are still the Thunderbirds.  I just think the F-16 is the coolest (although the P-51 Mustang comes a very close second).

We probably take it for granted that we can fly across the country in a few hours or halfway around the world in the better part of a day.  Travel by air is commonplace now, but it wasn't always so.  In the early days of aviation, airplanes were for daredevils to entertain in barnstorming shows.  Even after the First World War, few in America thought the airplane had much use, even in the military.  But one who saw its great potential was Eddie Rickenbacker, America's most successful "flying ace" from WWI with 26 enemies shot down.  He later went on to influential roles in developing America's air industry, and even used his fame to inspire pilots in WWII during which he crashed in the Pacific Ocean with a group of others and spent 24 days drifting in lifeboats until they were rescued.

The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight by Winston Groom profiles three of the most influential aviators in history.  Doolittle saw that airplanes could never become truly effective as long as pilots had to fly by their own observations, especially when limited by fog and clouds.  He was the first to take off and land blind in a canvas-covered cockpit, using only rudimentary instruments.  He later led America's response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor with the "Doolittle Raid," where American planes bombed Japan in April 1942 – a raid that had very far-reaching implications and was the beginning of turning the tide in the war.  And Charles Lindbergh is famous for being the first person to fly from New York to Paris in his plane "The Spirit of St. Louis," but his contributions during WWII are seldom known or remembered.

Winston Groom has written a fascinating and superbly readable triple biography of these inspirational men.  His accounts of Rickenbacker's exploits in WWI dogfights and the crashes he endured and especially Doolittle's Raid put you on the edge of your seat and are hard to put down.  Lindbergh's historic flight is every bit as exciting, and the kidnapping of Lindbergh's child is emotionally wrenching to say nothing of the trials he faced with the paparazzi of his day.  My only complaint is that by alternating among the three men they easily blended together (being so similar to begin with) and I found it hard to mentally keep track of and remember their individual accomplishments.  Also, the book is so highly praising and inspiring that I couldn't help feel that part of the story was being glossed over.  Groom addresses this in the final pages by saying "I don't know why it is these days that this dirty linen has to be aired... about otherwise decent and interesting people, but the public seems to demand it."  I agree with him but it doesn't make for a very balanced read (also some might simply reject it as hagiography); nonetheless, he briefly mentions some of the shortcomings of these otherwise inspiring heroes (and his explanation of some of Lindbergh's less inspiring behavior and comments prior to WWII was entirely reasonable).  But I still found it a fun and exciting read.

Unfortunately for me, I'm the only one here who still likes to go to an airshow.  The boys went to a few with me but have kind of moved past that, and the girls have no interest whatsoever.  And it would be kind of lame to go by myself.  Oh well...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

My wife's in love with another man

In marriage there are different standards for the husband than there are for the wife.  For instance, if I were ever so foolish as to say I thought an actress or other woman was beautiful, I would soon hear a lengthy list of all that woman's defects and faults (followed by my own, of course).

In contrast, I have long had to endure my wife's infatuation with Ben Affleck. But the latest crush is Brandon Flowers, the singer for The Killers. Even worse, he's actually a really nice guy, not just some shallow Hollywood meathead dating a bunch of shallow Hollywood bimbos. For the past couple of weeks we've had to listen to repeated playings and kitchen performances of the song "Runaways and when you watch that music video pay attention to the way he grabs his jacket because he's especially cute then, or so I've been told a few dozen times.

Unfortunately, it's not as cute to grab your jacket like that when you're not wearing leather and singing in a music video. But at least my daughters have come to my defense a few times.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

"I have to defend him. There's no one else."

Franz Ferdinand is one of those footnotes of history; the guy whose assassination sparked World War One.  If you scratch a little deeper you find that his wife was also killed by the gunman and you might read that he wasn't especially popular.  And yet the deeper truth behind those bland facts is infinitely more interesting than you might imagine.

His uncle, Franz Josef, was emperor of Austria Hungary and the latest in a long line of Habsburgs to rule, stretching back hundreds of years.  His own sons died after short lives of riotous living, and Franz Ferdinand became next in line when his father (brother to Franz Josef) died.  Franz Ferdinand was different, however; deeply religious in word and deed and suspected of harboring liberal ideas.  Suspicions against him only increased when he chose Sophie Chotek, a beautiful Bohemian princess, as his wife.  It was decided by those in authority that she was not from a sufficiently elevated background as he (“don’t let her think she’s one of us”) and when he insisted upon marrying her, his enemies (including Franz Josef) forced concessions upon him.  It was a "morganatic" marriage and neither Sophie nor her children would have any claim to succession of the crown.  

The pettiness of the royal court knew no bounds, however, and many took it upon themselves to continually heap humiliations upon the couple, such as forbidding her to sit with him at official gatherings and making her enter a room last and without an escort.  By all accounts, Sophie bore it quietly even while gossips painted her as a scheming and vengeful woman.  Franz Ferdinand took the insults harder but found refuge in home life and the couple doted lovingly on their three children, finding solace from the imperial court in family and each other.

Greg King and Sue Woolmans paint a very sympathetic portrait of Franz and Sophie, detailing the shameful and petty snobbery of the Habsburgs in The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World.  And they explain in exciting detail the events leading up to that fateful day in Sarajevo.  They discuss the official ineptitude that enabled the assassination to occur, but do not give undue attention to the conspiracy theories that it was more than a terrorist plot – there's just not enough evidence to draw any solid conclusions.  In spite of the knowledge of what happened in 1914, I found myself wishing for a different outcome and almost shouting "don't go!"  The account of the assassination is almost painful to read!  King and Woolmans follow up with the children's lives, including the continuing insults and both sons spending many brutal years in Nazi concentration camps.

I'm certainly no expert in the history of the time, but I felt King and Woolmans did an excellent (and heavily documented) job of making their case that Franz and Sophie have been unfairly treated by history.  If nothing else, the peaceful home life they established and the dignified way they raised their children stands in sharp contrast to the commonly accepted opinion.  It must count for something that the man who might have been king married for love in the face of severe persecution.  Who knows what might have happened if he'd lived, but I enthusiastically recommend this book. (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

We're still listening to the monster's story

I've probably already mentioned this but when I was around 8 or 9 years old I got interested in movie monsters. This was back in the mid to late 70s before VCRs and "On Demand" when we were limited to a few channels on TV.  If you wanted to see those old movies you had to stay up late on Friday nights to watch "Nightmare Theater" (because it took all the fun out of it to show them during the day).  The problem was that I was too afraid to stay up alone and my parents were too tired to stay up late.  But now I think those old movies are kind of fun to watch with the kids because they're not overly scary.  Unfortunately, my kids have turned into teenagers (which is even scarier!), and now my family thinks those movies are outdated and boring and lame – and I get persecuted if I want to watch them.

When I was a teenager I read some of the books that inspired those old movies and I recall being disappointed with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein because it wasn't much like the movie's story as I understood it.  So with my nostalgic fondness for those old movies I thought Frankenstein: A Cultural History by Susan Tyler Hitchcock (doesn't she have a great name for a book like this?) was interesting because she presents all the different iterations of the story and how it changed over the years.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin came from a very liberal background and was only 18 years old and pregnant with her second child by writer Percy Shelley when she got the idea for the story late one night when a bunch of literati challenged each other to come up with a horror story.  (Bram Stoker's Dracula came from that same challenge.)  Percy Shelley (which is a pretty wimpy name for a guy) was a regular cad, who had abandoned his wife and 2 children for the teenage vixen Mary (he finally married her after his first wife killed herself).  Mrs. Hitchcock explains the background of the story and the influences that shaped it: Milton's Paradise Lost, a growing knowledge of anatomy, the popular experiments using electricity to animate dead bodies, etc.  She goes on to describe the various stage productions that soon followed and how they modified the story by adding the creepy assistant and the idea of lightning bringing the creature to life. Before long politicians started using the name, and it didn't take long before "Frankenstein" had become blurred in the public consciousness: was Frankenstein the doctor or the monster?  But it was actor Boris Karloff who gave us the most enduring image in Universal's tremendously successful 1931 film (and Hollywood discovered that sequels could be very profitable).  Incidentally, Mrs. Hitchcock says that Bela Lugosi – who became a huge star after his performance in Dracula – turned down the role of the monster because it was largely a non-speaking part.  (Lugosi learned his lesson and said yes when offered the role in the 5th sequel in 1943, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.)

When I read this a few years ago I was looking for something "different," and this was perfect.  It's a very interesting book filled with photos and illustrations that discuss the many ways Frankenstein became a part of our culture.  Even today, the name is used in scientific issues such as cloning and genetically-modified  "Frankenfoods."  So, whether you're interested in literature (the book finally gained literary respect in the 1970s and 80s), modern culture, or just the monster himself, it's pretty entertaining. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

If you need anything, just scream

When the school day was done – back when I was a kid, of course – I was outta there as fast as possible.  It wasn't so much that I didn't like school but more that I didn't like being at school after hours.  Once the hallways and playgrounds emptied and the noisy chatter died away, I found the whole place to be downright creepy – in a 'not good' sort of way.  But I do have some 'good creepy' memories of my elementary school.  I remember we always had a pre-Halloween carnival with games and costumes and food (it was probably a PTA fundraiser and the only time you'd have found me there after hours).  I also remember my cool 6th grade teacher, Mr. Spjute, absolutely loved Disney's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and we must have watched it a dozen times that year.  I also remember, as a much younger kid, reading the Georgie books about the shy little ghost who creaked the stairs and squeaked the front door so Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker knew it was time to go to bed.  But if your kids are too old for Georgie maybe I can offer some other recommendations (all of which I received from Amazon Vine).

The R. L. Stine books came after my time but I've seen some of the "Goosebumps" shows and decided to give The Creatures from Beyond Beyond a try.  It's about twins Randi and Tyler who find their summer vacation home to be boring – except for an off-limits closet and a life-like doll that grows and running for their lives from aliens!  The writing was worse than I expected and the plot was thin and the dialog cheesy, so maybe I didn't miss much.  But the author seems to have lots of fans and it was rather creepy.

A much better choice turned out to be Home Sweet Horror (Scary Tales) by James Preller.  The first in this new series features a retelling of the "Bloody Mary" story.  Liam Finn moves to a new town with his sister and dad after his mother's death. The old house they buy needs of a lot of repairs but no repairman in town is willing to come out. In fact, the only advice they get is that the house is evil. And before long, the house itself seems to be telling them to 'get out.'  It's written in a way to keep ratcheting up the scariness with each short chapter, and can be read aloud to great effect. The stark black and white illustrations help to enhance the atmosphere.  I'm a little concerned that the online recommendations include 2nd graders – I think kids that young might easily end up with nightmares – but the older end of the range would certainly enjoy it.  (I did.)

And I've already mentioned the first book in the Tales from Lovecraft Middle School series by Charles Gilman, but I've since received the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th books, and I think they're getting better as the series progresses.  In #2: The Slither Sisters, Robert Arthur runs for student body president to block Sarah Price, one of the popular girls, from winning because he knows what she really is.  And in #3: Teacher's Pest, the school has an insect problem.  But it's not just Howard Mergler who's "bugging" Robert – his best friend Glenn is, too.  And in #4: Substitute Creature, Robert and his friends get stuck in the school overnight (yeah, that would have been my nightmare) with the substitute librarian when a "nor'easter" covers Dunwich in several feet of snow.  Yes, kids will be attracted by the changing 3–D covers, but the story is actually pretty good.

So, have a Happy Halloween and find something fun to read with the kids (or by yourself). 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Something under the bed is drooling

Quite simply, a bogle is a monster.  There are many different kinds, but they generally live in dark places like drain pipes, fireplaces, caves, and cellars.  I had one under my bed when I was a kid, and although I was never harmed they generally eat children.  But Birdie McAdam is an apprentice to a bogler, which is someone who gets rid of bogles.  She's only 10 years old and has the most beautiful singing voice.  All she has to do is stand in a circle of salt and sing to lure the bogle out.  She keeps watch in a small mirror for Mr. Bunce to give her the signal to move - quickly! - then he kills the bogle.  Yes, it's dangerous work, but at least it's honest, and a whole lot better than mudlarking.

I hope the author of How to Catch a Bogle (which I received from Amazon Vine) will forgive me but I thought this book was simply trying to ride Harry Potter's coattails and jump ahead of Ms. Rowling's anticipated 'Care of Magical Creatures' book.  "Bogle" sounds a little like "boggart" and it even mentioned "grindylows" early on, and Birdie is - of course - an orphan.  But despite those similarities, it's actually a very well-written and exciting story with shades of Charles Dickens' London, where children are exploited and the poor have few options.  Birdie and Mr. Bunce are engaging characters, and with each job the reader is drawn in and the suspense increases.  There are villains, too, and they're pretty mean and nasty, but there's just enough heroes to offset them.  Catherine Jinks writes with the appropriate accents and uses a lot of old slang from the Victorian (or is it 'Dickensian?') era which I found fairly confusing until I realized there's a glossary at the end of the book.  And the songs Birdie sings - while rather morbid - had such an air of authenticity I had to wonder if the author made them up or not as I rushed and neglected other things to finish this book.

So maybe there's a bit of Harry Potter with an Oliver Twist in the story, but it's a story well worth reading (especially if you've got kids to read it to).  I'm looking forward to the next one.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

I'll go where you want me to go

We just got a second set of missionaries in our ward – sister missionaries.  We had them over for dinner last week and they shared this with us.  It's from the special broadcast fireside earlier this year.  It's too good not to share again.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Watch me pull a rabbit...

I'm not sure why but there were certain names that loomed large when I was a kid. Unfortunately, many of them were "bad guys" like the Red Baron, Billy the Kid, or Jesse James. It wasn't that I admired any of them (remember the episode of "The Brady Bunch" where Bobby has an unhealthy obsession with Jesse James?), but there was a strange fascination associated with such notorious characters. But I'm somewhat mystified as to why one particular name loomed equally large: Harry Houdini. I was never very interested in magic or magicians and yet my mind always associated him as "legendary" in a similar way. (On further reflection, I think my friend Aaron talked about him a lot.)

The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman details his humble beginnings as Ehrich Weiss, the son of a rabbi, to his life as an international celebrity. He is best remembered as a famous escape artist (and his name is still associated with getting out of a tight situation), but even as a child he displayed an unusual talent for magic and picking locks. Early on he struggled to make a living with magic, however, and found a more receptive audience for tricks like mind-reading and ‘speaking with the dead’ in a traveling show. The authors tell how he'd visit local bars and cemeteries when he first entered a new town and gather information about people who might have recently died – information which he could use in his show that evening. Later in life he earnestly regretted that, and he worked to expose such charlatans.

Spiritualism was very popular at the time and enjoyed prominent supporters like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Doyle and Houdini were actually quite good friends, and Doyle (among MANY others) actually believed Houdini had extraordinary or special powers. Houdini insisted that it was only sleight-of-hand, but Doyle thought Houdini was simply unaware of the true source of his power. Houdini's initial interest in Spiritualism was sincere because he desperately wanted to contact his deceased mother, but when he concluded it was all fake he made it a personal crusade to expose the Spiritualists, and some of his exploits were very funny. Apparently people visiting a spirit medium would usually sit in the dark holding hands while the spirits would communicate through a small trumpet (kind of like what a cheerleader might use, I think). Houdini would sneakily smear "lampblack" (which sounds like black shoe polish) on the mouthpiece of the trumpet, so that when they turned the lights back on the medium would have a black circle around his mouth. You can see why that might make the Spiritualists angry, and not only did it ruin his friendship with Sir Arthur but the authors speculate the Spiritualists had a hand in his death.

But Houdini was more than just a magician. He was an early devotee of flying, becoming the first person to achieve sustained flight in Australia, and he acted in motion pictures. The authors also offer evidence that Houdini may have been a spy for the American government while traveling in Europe. I first heard of this book in a radio interview with the author several years ago, although the possible spying activities weren't as prominent in the book as the interview might suggest. This claim has turned out to be rather controversial for some people, but to me it sounded plausible enough since I knew so little about him to begin with. But this has become one of those "favorite books” that I still think about now and then – especially when I see signs around my neighborhood for psychics and fortune tellers. (And just for the record: I do not think the Red Baron was a "bad guy" – he was actually a very decent guy who was just on the side of the enemy. Someday I’ll review the biography I read about him.)

Friday, September 27, 2013

The moon is as big as a basketball

The "space race" was actually a byproduct of the "arms race" between the USA and USSR and had its beginnings in Nazi Germany. In September 1944, Hitler's army began launching V-2 rockets, the world's first ballistic missiles, against Britain. And when the war ended the Americans and Soviets quickly spirited away any bit of this new technology they could find, including the scientists and engineers who had developed it.

But while America subsequently pursued a strategy of long-range bombers to deliver nuclear weapons, the USSR began a missile program which couldn't be defended against like a squadron of flying planes could be. The genius behind their program was a Soviet engineer named Sergey Korolev (or Korolyov) but known outside a very small circle only as the "Chief Designer." After getting the rockets to work he convinced Nikita Khruschev to pursue the launch of the world's first artificial satellite, and on October 4, 1957 Sputnik was launched. But while most leaders in both countries dismissed it as a ridiculous waste of resources, the public was fascinated and terrified by this newly demonstrated capability of the Russians. It quickly turned into a public relations coup.

But Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age isn't just a history of the beginnings of the space program. Matthew Brzezinski delves into the internal politics of both the Soviet Union and the United States, and that is perhaps the strongest part of the book. From Khruschev and the Kremlin to Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon, the politics of the space race are discussed in detail which never became boring. He also mixes in relevant side stories, such as the U-2 spy planes which so infuriated Khruschev, as well as Korolev's rivalry with Valentin Glushko, another brilliant Soviet rocket scientist. Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi developer of the V-2 who later helped Walt Disney pitch Disneyland's Tomorrowland on ABC television, became the head of America's missile program, and is a central part of the American story.

Brzezinski's story-telling skills are superb, and although news from NASA has became fairly mundane, he takes the political intrigue and technological setbacks behind the scenes and turns it into a gripping narrative. You could feel the exhilaration at the successful launch of Sputnik, and the disappointment when the American Vanguard rocket exploded on the launch pad. Alternating back and forth between the Soviets and the Americans, he keeps the information and action flowing fast. If you liked Annie Jacobsen's Area 51 or just enjoy Cold War history this book will become one of your "all-time most favorite books ever," too.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Six Frigates

We tend to forget that 1776 wasn't the end of America's struggle for independence. Fighting didn't even end until 1783 and the country wasn't exactly unified – it was just a loose confederation of thirteen states. And it wasn't until the Constitution was adopted in 1787 that we had a real government with George Washington as President. Even then Great Britain kept pushing us around while France and Spain waited patiently for the fragile republic to fall apart so they could pick off the pieces. It wasn't really until the War of 1812 (which finished in 1814 and could reasonably be considered the end of the Revolutionary War) that America had proven itself.

But keeping America free during those intervening years turned out to be a real struggle. After the troubles with Britain, many of the Founding Fathers had a strong aversion to having a standing army – it was seen as dangerous – so after the Revolutionary War the small Continental Navy was disbanded. However, with the predations of pirates and privateers upon American merchant vessels and shipping interests, it soon became clear that a navy was essential, especially at a time when the British Royal Navy was the undisputed ruler of the seas. At the urging of Vice President John Adams, President Washington authorized the building of six frigates, which was a type of warship at the time. Washington was given a list of names for the ships and he simply chose the first six that were on the list – United States, President, Congress, Constitution, Constellation, and Chesapeake – and Ian W. Toll writes a real page-turner in his book Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy that is one of my "all-time most favorite books ever."

Shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys was chosen to design the frigates and came up with a plan that accommodated many of the advantages of ships that were both larger and smaller than frigates typical of the time. And although the ships were all built in different shipyards, what resulted were strong ships which performed surprisingly well in the Quasi-War with France, the conflicts with the Barbary pirates of Africa, and against Britain in the War of 1812. The captains and admirals involved are discussed, such as Truxton, Bainbridge, Decatur, Hull and Rodgers, and they and their exploits and accomplishments come alive in wonderful detail, and many nations – especially Britain – were forced to come to terms with the idea of another nation with a strong presence on the seas.

I was thoroughly surprised by how engaging and readable this book is – I honestly had not expected much from "a history of the founding of the U. S. Navy." But Mr. Toll (a financial analyst and political aide, of all things!) has written an outstanding and well-researched book that makes an otherwise little-known part of history come alive. The only book that comes close, in my opinion, is Perilous Fight by Stephen Budiansky which covers a much shorter period of time and focuses on the War of 1812. From the brutality and violence of sea battles to the political rivalries and economic challenges, the history is placed into proper context to allow the reader to understand the forces behind the decisions and the historical impact. I was almost sad to see this book end and look forward to reading his next book... if I ever find time to get around to it!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Big Sur 2013

Do you know how hard it is to get camping reservations in California?  It takes persistence and skill, but mostly a whole lot of luck.

A few months ago Jamie was just checking to see if anything was available and came across a few openings at Big Sur.  We haven't been up there in years so that's where we spent our Labor Day weekend along with our good friends the Jorgenson's.  It was kind of weird going camping without Braiden (who's on his mission in England) so Scott came with us and the Jorgenson's brought Harrison.

We stopped to see zebras near Hearst Castle, because - after all - how often do you see a herd of zebras in California?

What is this, an animal theme?  Next we stopped to see Elephant seals...

... and here we are on the side of the road looking at whale spouts on the ocean.
Even the girls and Rob jumped off the rock.  This is Harrison, Logan, Tahoe, and Taylor.

It's kind of hard to see but in the shadows there's McWay Falls - a waterfall right on the beach.

Is there a more beautiful coast in the world?  I don't think so.

Of course, Taylor takes the unconventional way across the bridge.

I'm sure Pfieffer Falls is a lot prettier when there's more water.

Big Sur isn't just beautiful coastline - it's beautiful redwoods, too.

Last time we were at Pfieffer Beach (in 2005) Maddie was really small.  Here she is (on the right) with her cousins Grace and Jesse.

This time Maddie was the only one there.

And you think the boys could resist climbing those big rocks on the beach?
There were about a dozen more beautiful pictures that I'd like to have included, but gotta stop at some point.  It was fun.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Tin cans

"Our schoolchildren should know about [this] incident, and our enemies should ponder it."
 – Herman Wouk (in his novel War and Remembrance)

I decided to pull out some old Amazon reviews of a few of my "all-time most favorite books ever" that I haven't posted here before, and I'll start with James D. Hornfischer's The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour.

In late October 1944 the US Navy guarded the seas off the Philippines protecting the return of General MacArthur. With Admiral Kinkaid's 7th Fleet guarding from the south and Admiral Halsey's 3rd Fleet guarding the north, the ships in the middle didn't expect to see much action. But Japan knew their days were numbered and invented a daring plan to protect their position and resources in the Philippines by attacking from both sides. Kinkaid's troops soundly defeated Nishimura and Shima in the Surigao Strait, but Halsey had very foolishly abandoned the San Bernardino Strait in the north. He wasn't happy with his mostly passive role in the battle, and after a minor skirmish with the Japanese he chased after Ozawa and was baited away into a chase to the north instead of guarding his assigned position. This let Kurita through and left the small destroyers and carrier escorts of Taffy 3 to bear the full brunt of the largest ships to ever sail the seas.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the men put up a brave front against the monstrous Japanese ships, trying to protect the small carriers which were essential to the landing invasion. Between daring torpedo runs by the destroyer escorts (known to the sailors as "tin cans") and relentless attacks by the few planes which were able to get airborne (almost all without proper armaments and some without any at all) the Americans put up such a fierce fight that Kurita was unsure of the true strength he faced. He even thought he must be facing the absent Halsey. In the end the Japanese suffered such serious losses that they retreated, but not before sinking 3 destroyers and the only American carrier sunk by enemy surface fire. (The battle also saw the first sinking of an American ship by a feared new Japanese weapon – the kamikaze suicide pilot – when the St. Lo of Taffy 2 was sunk.)

This is an excellent and highly inspirational account of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, or more specifically the Battle off Samar, fought by the men of Taffy 3 Task Unit. The sad part is that Admiral Halsey managed to very skillfully and unjustly take credit for the victory even though his ego had prompted him on a wild goose chase, while the bravery of the men who actually fought went mostly unsung. They endured relentless pounding by far bigger ships with bigger bombs and many spent 48 hours floating in the wide ocean waiting for a rescue that came shamefully late. But this is a story of the kind of bravery that won the war in the Pacific – even retreating Japanese soldiers saluted the men in the water as they steamed by. It's the kind of story that makes you appreciate the incredible valor and sacrifices men made during the war.

Just a note about reading James Hornfischer: I've read two of his books and have had another on the shelf for years now (another problem with getting so many books from Vine – I don't always get around to reading those on my list) but he's a bit challenging to read, especially when you're unfamiliar with ships and planes. Once I stopped worrying about trying to understand and remember all the technical details it became a lot more enjoyable. But please do not let that stop you from reading his outstanding histories – especially this one!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Summer of pests!

I planned this summer’s vegetable garden carefully last spring.  I've mostly grown vegetables in pots before but made a raised bed this year on the side of the house where it gets a lot of summer sun, and even ordered some different seed varieties from a Burpee catalog.  And after reading some books about organic gardening I tried to go easy on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but the results were disappointing.  Apparently I'm not the only one who wants to eat what I'm growing!  Here's the run-down of what I grew and the problems I had.

Burpee calls the "Oasis hybrid turnip" a "salad turnip," and they taste like radishes only milder.  Jamie liked them better than I did (I thought they had a bit of an aftertaste) but maybe I'll try them again this fall.

Some carrots and parsnips from spring were very slow growing and still ended up small, but they were delicious oven-roasted with rosemary fresh from the garden and store-bought potatoes and red onions.  This fall I'll try a shorter parsnip (and plant earlier) and see if that works any better.

I was really looking forward to the "Purple Dragon" carrots.  The picture in the catalog shows the purple color almost into the center, but mine only had purple skin and were either orange or yellow inside.  They tasted kind of bitter when eaten raw, but were better steamed.

I forgot to take a picture of the "Sweet Zuke” zucchini.  They tasted good (roasted, above) but weren't as slender as what I've grown before.  I might include one "Sweet Zuke" plant next year, but I'll probably go back to planting a couple of the regular zucchini.

I was also looking forward to the "Fortex" green beans.  They grow about 8" long, are fatter and meatier, and have a really good flavor.  I don't think they bear as heavily as some newer varieties but unfortunately the pests beat me to them most of the time.

The Fortex beans are the bigger ones on the left.  I also planted some tricolor bush beans from a Renee's Garden packet.

Although they didn't eat the actual beans, caterpillars were out of control.  I'm definitely picking up a Bt spray before my fall garden gets growing.

Lot's of these little worms...

... and a few of these monsters.
Maddie and I fed the caterpillars we found to the 'blue-belly' lizards.

This 'alligator' lizard was missing part of his tail.  Some had really pretty red markings.
The worst pest turned out to be rats!  Not only did they eat a LOT of beans but ALL the tomatoes!  They're not the big Norway rats but a smaller (and cuter) variety I've heard called "tree rats."  I killed 7 or 8 but the snap traps only worked for a little while, and the Rat Zapper was a total failure – except as a rat feeder!  I don't want to use poison because of the neighbor's dog (and the owls we sometimes see), so I'm open to suggestions.

I love you Remy, but Emile and the others are NOT welcome!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Why read history?

"I am skeptical about the idea that we can learn much from history, at least in the sense that knowledge of past follies will prevent us from making similar blunders in the future...  And yet it is important to know what happened before, and to try and make sense of it.  For if we don't, we cannot understand our own times."

I was surprised to see such a statement at the beginning of a book about history.  We often think 'those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,' and yet it seems pretty obvious we're not learning the lessons history teaches.  To see it put so profoundly in writing was a pleasant affirmation, for me at least.  And making some sense of what happened seems to be a recurrent theme in Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma (which I received from Amazon Vine).

The world was a very different place after the Second World War.  Not only had the conflict touched so many places around the globe, but news of the atrocities committed deeply shocked and embarrassed people.  Some had cause to celebrate and others to fear and mourn.  Cities lay in ruins and people were starving.  Governments were changed – not just in Germany and Japan – but all of Continental Europe and most of Asia, colonies teetered on the brink of collapse, and the United Nations was created.  Buruma looks around the world and catalogs what happened by topic: hunger, revenge, displaced persons, what became of collaborators, reeducation, and sex (not just rape but also prostitution, which was sometimes engaged in for profit and sometimes to feed starving children at home).  It's not always a celebratory view with the victors, but often a detailing of the suffering and uncertainty of those whose lives had been upended by such a world-wide calamity.

And yet, in spite of the often dismal history it recounts, Buruma does a fascinating job of telling the story and showing all sides such that you gain a better understanding of the time and place.  His judgments are always tempered by an explanation of the conditions and why things happened the way they did – right or wrong – and is a more balanced and global view than The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe (which I should review soon).  And while this is ostensibly “a history of 1945,” Buruma expands his scope where appropriate and necessary.  The narrative is replete with individual stories of those who lived it, as well as that of his Dutch father who was forced into labor by the Germans, and serves to personalize the tragedy in small ways.  I found it to be a sobering yet worthwhile account, and yet it not only helps to make sense of the world that was built on the ruins, but sometimes I think I see even more modern parallels.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Your worst nightmare?

Do you like scary movies?  I do, but I don't care for the 'slasher' movies that are so common and rely mostly on gore.  I much prefer a clever movie that creeps you out with something that's vague and unknown, kind of like "The Village" or "The Grudge;" or a good ghost story like "Poltergeist."  "Jaws" is another great scary movie, because – although highly unlikely – it is possible, and you don't always see the shark coming.  But watching a movie is safe.  You watch from the couch or a seat in the theater, and the fright will all be over in a couple of hours.  It's the real world that is a scary place.  And I'm not talking about sharks or ghosts or even crazy people.

One of the smallest things in the world is a virus.  Some scientists don't even consider viruses to be truly alive, because they need the right host to do anything.  But when a virus gets inside it can cause big problems.  We're most familiar with viruses like influenza, which can kill but seldom does, and usually just makes you feel lousy for a week.  But others, like filoviruses (thread viruses), are truly scary and there's no vaccine or cure, and many researchers are afraid to even work with them.  They go by names like Marburg and Ebola, and they'll do to your body in a week or two what it takes the AIDS virus 10 years – and you never saw it coming.

Richard Preston explains what it's like to get Marburg in his book The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story, through the story of "Charles Monet" (a pseudonym) who likely got the virus while visiting the amazing Kitum Cave on Mount Elgon in Kenya.  It starts with a severe headache and backache, and progresses to vomiting, diarrhea, and red eye.  It ends particularly horribly in what is called "crash and bleed out" about ten days later, and I'll spare you the details of that.  In addition to Marburg, Preston describes the closely-related viruses Ebola Zaire and Ebola Sudan, and death rates for these tiny monsters range from 50% to 90% and have wiped out entire villages in central Africa even though it doesn't appear they can spread through the air.  But Africa is a long ways away.  Could a filovirus end up here?  In October 1989 one was found only 15 miles outside Washington DC.  The Reston virus, as it is known, appeared to be 100% fatal in monkeys that were imported from the Philippines and were destined for laboratories around the country.  Most frightening, it appears that the virus easily became airborne and even spread to people.

Preston has a novelist's flair in his writing, and some critics accuse him of sensationalizing and exaggerating the history, but it's considered non-fiction.  And just like his book The Demon in the Freezer (about the smallpox virus), I could hardly put it down and finished in just a couple of days.  And it's scary enough that even horror-writer Stephen King said "The first chapter... is one of the most horrifying things I've ever read in my whole life... and then it gets worse.  That's what I keep marveling over: it keeps getting worse."  So, if you like a good scare once in a while this book will provide it for you.  And hopefully you'll recover after a few weeks.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Hero worship, sports, and Mormons

Sports is often a big part of youth and sometimes adulthood – at least for boys and men.  Growing up in Salt Lake we didn't have any professional teams, so for various reasons I became a fan of the Cowboys (football) and the Astros (baseball) and I practically worshipped guys like Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Harvey Martin, Nolan Ryan, and of course – my hero – J. R. Richard.  It wasn't until the Jazz moved to Utah that we had a pro basketball team, and it wasn't until the mid 90s that they became a great team with guys like Karl Malone, John Stockton, Jeff Hornacek, and Mark Eaton.  And it was a lot of fun following them – very stressful, at times, too! – but I remember one place I worked, every morning after a game, we'd all stand up and discuss the game over the cubicle walls.  We felt like the team put Utah on the map and it gave us a lot of pride.

So I can relate completely to John Moody when he writes about the team of his youth in Kiss It Good-Bye: The Mystery, The Mormon, and the Moral of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates.  The Pirates hadn't been a winning team until they won the World Series in 1960, beating the Yankees, and a big part of their success that season was due to a pitcher named Vernon Law.  Law was a Mormon from Idaho whose fastball and clean living set a great example – especially for a boy like Moody – and the hard-working "iron man" once pitched 18 innings in a single game.  But in the revelry following winning the National League pennant, some drunken and rough-housing teammates injured Law's ankle.  In spite of the painful injury he won Games 1 and 4 of the Series, but by Game 7 it became apparent that it was affecting his pitching.  Because he had to adjust his delivery, it also caused him a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, and his career never really recovered.

First let me clarify that Moody is not a Mormon; he is simply a great admirer of Vernon Law.  He explains a lot about the Mormon Church, and not only does he get it right, he is also very admiring of Law's religious beliefs.  But in spite of his hero-worship, the book is about more than just Law; it's about a team that pulled together and did something unexpected, as well as a story about the smoky town of Pittsburgh which didn't get a lot of respect back then.  It's also his own story of growing up in "Steel-town," and it all comes together in a book that anyone who's ever had a sports hero can relate to.  At first, his condescending comparisons of players and kids then and now was annoying, but he had some valid points.  And the chapter where he chronicles the Series was told with such excitement that I could barely put the book down.  I'm not sure how important or well-known of a "mystery" it was over who caused the injury to Law, but I found the book to be a fun, easy, and nostalgic read.  Even though 1960 was way before my time, I could easily relate to the worship of a sports hero, and the way a favorite team gave a small city something to cheer for.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Three words you never want to hear

As a teenager I never would have guessed history could be so interesting. I've enjoyed a lot of books about events like the American Revolution and World War II, but was surprised at how interesting the history of a disease could be. Wars might affect a large group of people, but sickness and disease can affect almost anyone at any time. I've previously reviewed some histories about smallpox, tuberculosis, and the discovery of insulin as well as a couple that dealt with cancer, but the most recent was The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery (which I received from Amazon Vine).

Science-writer George Johnson and his wife heard three words that changed their lives – "you have cancer" – when she was diagnosed with a metastatic uterine form of the disease. As a result, Johnson embarked on a quest to learn everything he could about cancer and has written an interesting overview of what is known, which turns out to be less than you might hope. Cancer has been around a very long time, and evidence of it has even been found in dinosaur fossils. In fact, it has been with mankind as long as we've been here, but if it seems to be increasing more recently it's only because we're living longer. With some cruel exceptions, cancer is mostly a disease of older people but, beyond age, the only other reliable factors that can be said to cause cancer are smoking and obesity.

If you're looking for a positive, upbeat, "let's beat cancer!" kind of book, this probably isn't it. Johnson says that while we've made significant strides, our understanding of why it happens and how to treat it still has a long way to go. The never-ending parade of stories we see in the news reporting the latest "cancer-busting superfood" are usually taking results from research out of context. Often studies are flawed and inconclusive, and even conclusions that eating more fruits and vegetables will prevent cancer do not hold up under more rigorous testing. There is some positive correlation that exercise and maintaining a healthy body and diet helps, but the benefits are often small. And as he discusses the effects of drinking water tainted with chemical pollutants he illustrates very well why it is so difficult to prove causation. Even if a specific chemical or activity can be linked to a 30% increase in cancer (which sounds very dramatic), if your odds were only 1.2% in the beginning it only translates to new odds of 1.56%, which is still within normal and random variations. (See the Toms River book for an excellent account of why it is so difficult to conclusively link environmental concerns with cancer.) Even exposure to radiation isn't as cut and dried as you might think and he says that predictions of mass cancer following Chernobyl didn't happen.

This is an informative book but often the information is thrown at the reader in a rapid-fire listing of facts and figures that make it hard to absorb much, and I frequently felt like I was in a whirlwind of data trying to make sense of too much random information. Still, it's a sobering overview of the current status of cancer research and isn't a bad introduction, and the story of his wife's cancer added a human element to the narrative. I still have Siddhartha Mukherjee's book on my reading list, and I'll let you know how that one is once I get around to it, but for now this one was pretty good.