Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Can't breathe #2

(Oops!  I posted the 'sister' post to this one back in June 2012 and this one kind of got lost.)  Okay, last book about explorers and exploration – until I read another, anyway*. But this time instead of going up where the air is thin, I thought I'd go down deep to where the air pressure is crushing and one tiny bubble can be fatal.

230 feet doesn't sound very far. It's less than a football field in length. But when you go scuba diving to such depths there's a lot of weight and water pushing down on you and your body needs time to adjust. You have to descend slowly but more importantly you have come back up slowly. Your blood is carrying oxygen to all parts of your body but as you come up and the pressure decreases those gasses inside of you start to expand – a condition called "the bends." If you don't take adequate time for your body to adjust you can easily – and very painfully – be killed. So you need to keep a close eye on your air supply, which is easier said than done since the light from the surface doesn't penetrate that far down. So, why would anyone dive so deep? That's what Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II by Robert Kurson tries to explain.

Wherever there's a sunken shipwreck you'll find a good fishing spot as well as the potential to recover something valuable. Hence, fishermen and divers alike tend to keep such locations secret when possible. Bill Nagle, having gained fame by recovering the bell from the Andria Doria, gets the coordinates to another deep-sea wreck, which he suspects could be a huge find. Too sick from the effects of alcoholism, he assembles a group of expert divers to check it out, including John Chatterton. Chatterton dives first to determine if it's worthwhile, and discovers a German U boat (submarine) from WWII – right off the coast of New Jersey! The true mystery becomes which submarine is it? As he and fellow diver, Richie Kohler, become increasingly obsessed with discovering its name, several other divers lose their lives trying to help solve the mystery.

Kurson does an excellent job telling this true story of the diver's obsession with the mystery U boat. His attention to detail doesn’t get tedious and he explains especially well the difficulties with such deep diving – you almost feel as though you've been to the bottom of the sea with Chatterton and Kohler. Their mystery quickly and easily becomes real, and I found it difficult to put the book down, reading compulsively until the mystery was solved, at which point appropriate background is given on the men who died aboard the "U-Who."

This story is kind of the flip-side of Krakauer's account of climbing Mt. Everest but with just as much adventure and told with a little more flair. I've also seen comparisons to "The Perfect Storm," but I found that story with its made-up dialog (everyone died, after all) to be perfectly boring. Grab this one if you're looking for an exciting summer read.

*Actually, I just finished another advance book about an explorer, so I guess this really isn't the last one.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Puritans, pirates, and witches... and my family tree?

Sometimes while reading histories I wonder if I might come across a name from my own family history. It's not impossible since one of my lines runs right back to the Mayflower and I believe another goes back to the early Jamestown colonies. Hopefully - if I found one - they would be a good or heroic person instead of a scoundrel... but I guess I'd take a scoundrel, too. But I might have found one while reading Judge Sewall's Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of an American Conscience by Richard Francis.

Samuel Sewall was born in England in 1652, but his parents were from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the family moved back to Massachusetts when Sam was 9 years old. He married Hannah Hull, daughter of the influential John Hull, and became one of the most respected men in Boston. But he is most remembered today for his role in the Salem Witch Trials where 24 people (I think) were executed for witchcraft between February 1692 and 1693. Sewall was part of the infamous "Court of Oyer and Terminer" where most of the convictions came from. While this is a biography of Sewall, Francis does recount the events of the trials but he doesn't go into a lot of depth. He attributes the hysteria to a combination of causes: the stress of living on the frontier with frequent Indian attacks, Puritan beliefs of America as a "Promised Land," and a local feud in Salem. The main reason Francis gives as to why Sewall went along with it was a perception that he had earlier been soft on commuting the sentence of a pirate, and his regret at that issue led him to take a hard line in the witch trials.

But the interesting thing about Sewall is that he issued a public apology a few years later. He wasn't the first to suggest that it had been a mistake and that innocent people were hanged (and squashed!), but he was the only one of those involved who took the blame for his role in the tragedy and didn't try to excuse himself by blaming others or circumstances. In fact, Francis portrays a sincere and honest man who - although he certainly had a fair-sized ego - tried to do what he thought was honest and just, both before man and God. And it's an interesting piece of history.

As for the possibility of finding one of my ancestors, it was about 1719 after Sewall's beloved Hannah had died. The Puritans didn't like loose ends and they expected widowers and widows to remarry. So, Sewall found himself courting the widow Winthrop when:

"... something odd happened.  Into the room walked Obadiah Ayers, chaplain of Castle William... Ayers hung his hat upon the hook for all the world as if he lived there, while Swewall watched, 'a little startled.'" (pg 334)

I have an Obediah Ayers in my family history from the same area in Massachusetts but he had died about 20 years earlier. However, he had a son named Obediah (born 1670 in Haverhill, Massachusetts) who would have been about the right age, although I have him listed as dying in New Jersey, and it sounds like my Ayers line might have moved to NJ earlier than this. So, while this Ayers might not be an ancestor it's possible he was related to my ancestors.  And thankfully he wasn't exactly a scoundrel!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Repentance; or Literature with a capital A

I guess you could say I'm trying to repent. Part of repentance is making restitution, so I'm going back and actually reading some of the books I was supposed to read in high school but didn't (Cliff's Notes and I were pretty good friends). Mind you, there are some I never intend to read, but others – like Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter – actually seem interesting to me now.

First of all, the book starts off with what I believe is commonly called "The Custom House Essay," which I take is mostly autobiographical on Hawthorne's part. The candid comments about writing and his ancestors (his great grandfather was involved in the Salem witch trials) are interesting and he makes a point of explaining the ties which bind him to Boston and Salem, even though he makes it sound like a tired connection he would break if he had more ambition. And while there were many interesting quotes and I made a lot of highlights, it was overly long and tedious. He loosely explains finding the scarlet letter, although I wonder if this was just a method common to the times of introducing a story to lend it an air of authenticity? (Gaston Leroux does the same thing in The Phantom of the Opera.) At any rate, in the end it was boring and if someone could tell me its purpose I'd be grateful.

The actual story starts with Hester Prynne being led from the town jail with her infant to the scaffold where she endures the public shame of her sin. Rather than being hanged she is to wear the scarlet A as a symbol of her adultery. Her husband had sent her ahead of him to Boston but when he failed to join her it was assumed he was dead. On this day of her shame, however, he appears in the crowd but keeps his identity secret, and when he later has a chance to speak to her (he poses as a physician) he apologizes that he and she were a poor match (he's an old man and she's very young) and asks her not to expose him. He moves into town under the name Roger Chillingsworth.

The father of the child, however, isn't immediately revealed. I think it's well-known that the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, is the father but the book only hints at it and doesn't get very specific until much later. I was afraid it was going to attempt a big surprise at the end, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but fortunately it takes a different route. Dimmesdale hides his sin but is continually tormented by it. While it gives him an insight into the struggles of his parishioners, his guilt becomes increasingly burdensome. The townspeople mistake his guilty sorrow for humble 'Godly' sorrow, however, and his fame among the people rises, which adds to his torment. His 'celebrity' is in stark contrast to Hester's exile. She and her daughter, Pearl, take up residence in a sad little cottage outside of town and she not only endures the rejection and disapproval of the town but the taunts of the children. Her talent as a seamstress is her only means of support.

Although Hawthorne is critical of the soberness and intolerance of the Puritans, I thought his psychological portrayal of the effect of sin was most interesting. He creates a very sympathetic character in Hester and it's easy to empathize with the pain she feels. She knows she has sinned and deeply regrets her impulsiveness, but resigns herself to silently endure the ostracism in hopes of cleansing her soul. Dimmesdale, in contrast, suffers for his lie in not confessing his part in the affair and feels trapped by the adoration heaped on him by his flock. His health suffers and Chillingsworth – Hester's real husband – moves in with him as a physician to help. But when Chillingsworth discovers the secret, he exacts a silent revenge and becomes a minister of evil, even become warped and misshapen as if the foulness of his heart becomes manifest in the outward appearance.

To me the best part of the story is always Pearl. She is the scarlet letter in the flesh for Hester, but in spite of her mutual exile with her mother and lack of playmates her own age – or perhaps because of it – she grows into a lively and outspoken little girl. While Hester dresses herself in plain clothes (the exception being the ornate letter A), Pearl wears beautiful dresses fashioned by her mother's talent as a seamstress. Her liveliness is described in the book as devilish or impish and usually attributed to her sinful origin, but just as often likened to elves, fairies, and sprites. But to me she just seems a beautiful and charming – if exceptionally energetic – little girl, and the brightest spot in Hester's otherwise dreary life.

In truth I have to confess that I rather liked The Scarlet Letter. And while I wonder if I would have liked it as much when I was assigned to read it at 16 if I'd have given it a chance, in all honesty I doubt that I would have appreciated the powerful writing or the deep moral questions it displays. I don't think I could have felt the same compassion for Hester or Mr. Dimmesdale, as I think teenagers see the world more in terms of black and white (hmm, maybe more on that another time - I'll have to think about it). I might have found the Puritanical perspective unduly harsh, but I just don't think I could really appreciate the book with the limited perspective I had at that age. I'm not sure that's a bad thing, though.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

I have a dream

If you've never listened to Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech I highly recommend it. Below is a shortened version, but this link has the full speech.

King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is a good read, too.  And if you're looking for a good book, I really enjoyed Hellhound on his Trail by Hampton Sides.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Blood drops and blood ties

Ever have a really good secret you can't tell? And you wish you could talk to someone about it and see what they think? That's the situation I found myself in last month. I had just finished the last page of Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley, which is the 5th in the Flavia de Luce books. It was quiet and everyone else had gone to bed and yet I had uttered a rather loud "wha...?!?" and sat there with my mouth hanging open and my mind spinning. Eventually I heard Jamie asking from the bedroom: "Is everything okay?" But I couldn't talk to her about it; she's only heard the first book, which we listened to on our Thanksgiving trip. And I couldn't talk to anyone else because mine was an advance copy from Amazon Vine and the book won't even be out until January 29, 2013. I couldn't go online because it might spoil it for someone else. I just had to sit there...

... and wait...

... until Braiden came home for Christmas break and read it (he's the only one I know who's read all the other books). Then - finally! - I had someone to share the secret.

In the 5th book it's almost Easter and for the 500th anniversary of Saint Tancred's death the village of Bishop's Lacey is preparing to open his tomb. Of course Flavia manages to insert herself in the right place at exactly the right moment, being the first person to peak inside. But what she sees is the dead body of Mr. Collicutt, the church organist, already inside and lying atop the stone lid. (No one even realized he was missing!) Of course, Flavia can't help but investigate, but this time she has some competition. And things get tangled and even dangerous and before long the wooden statue of St. Tancred inside the church is dripping blood and her travels with Gladys bring her even more buried knowledge about her mother, Harriet, who died when Flavia was just a baby.

And I'm sorry but I can't tell you any more than that! But hopefully I've piqued your interest in the most wonderfully clever series to come along in... oh, I don't know how long. The writing is just so... (okay, I'm going to gush!)... "delicious" and funny and no matter how hard I try to read it slowly to savor every word, I just can't help myself and I end up staying up late to read just a few more pages. Unfortunately, when the next book comes out Braiden will be on his LDS mission, so I'll have no one to talk with. So for Pete's sake (or mine!), if you haven't already started this series please do so right away. And I'll be there for you when you finish this one.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A little more cheese, please

A few months ago I wrote about Henry Ridger Haggard, author of People of the Mist and other adventure stories back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. If I remember correctly, I was rather condescending toward the book, even calling it "cheesy." Yeah, well apparently I like a little cheese now and then because I read another. (I gotta have something on my phone to read when I don't have a book in my hand!)

Allan Quatermain is probably Haggard's best known character from two of his books, King Solomon's Mines and Allan Quatermain, although apparently there are over a dozen books featuring him. Quatermain is said to be the inspiration for Indiana Jones and is featured in the works of other authors, such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In Allan Quatermain it begins when his comfortable life in England is shattered by the death of his son Harry. Seeking one last adventure (he's an old man in this story), he convinces two friends, Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good, to accompany him back to Africa. He's heard rumors of a mysterious white civilization and they head into the interior to find it, fortuitously joined by his old Zulu friend Umslopogas. Along the way they face hostile Maasai warriors and get sucked into an underground river before stumbling upon the Zu-Vendi kingdom high in the mountains.

The Zu-Vendis are highly advanced in art and architecture and ruled by two beautiful sister queens with a paganistic bunch of sun-worshiping priests complicating matters. The book follows a similar pattern to the other and is full of flowery prose such as this interesting but very typical passage:

"Such sights are like visions of the spirit; they throw wide the windows of the chamber of our small selfishness and let in a breath of that air that rushes round the rolling spheres, and for a while illumine our darkness with a far-off gleam of the white light which beats upon the Throne."

And yet, just as cheese makes a pizza taste pretty darn good, Haggard's books are kind of fun to read – in moderation, of course! Too much and you might end up with a cholesterol problem.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Flights of fantasy - more YA

I'm trying to get caught up on everything I've read recently, so here's a couple more YA books in the 8-12 year-old range:

The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate by Scott Nash (which I received from Amazon Vine) features an interesting twist on a pirate tale where the pirates are birds. Captain Blue Jay enjoys a fearsome reputation and a greed for treasure - in particular, eggs. But when he rescues an especially large egg from a raccoon, he and his crew end up with more than they bargained for when it hatches. It turns out to be a baby goose, which not only eats more than any of the rest of them but will eventually be larger than their ship, the Grosbeak. But Jay defends Gabriel the goose, saying someday he'll repay their friendship.

The idea is interesting and seems to have potential. Nash has created a complex world (I was almost reminded of Watership Down) and there appears to be a substantial amount of back-story that went into it. Unfortunately, the story seems flat and never takes flight, probably because there's really no single character here to draw in the reader with a hero (and I was never certain if Jay was a good guy or not). The illustrations, however, are great (that's the real strength of this book) and there are a lot of them. But I'm not sure that's enough to hook many readers who'll have to wade through half the book before it gets moving. And parents will want to know that there's a fair amount of violence - just like pirates in real life.

A book I enjoyed much more was Jinx by Sage Blackwood (I received an advance copy from the publisher). Although I'm a big fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I was never a fan of the fantasy genre or other such books. Nonetheless, this one was quite charming. Jinx lives with his stepparents in the Urwald forest where small communities live in the clearings and people learn quickly to stay on the path (as it says on the cover, you grow up quickly or you don't grow up at all). But when his stepfather takes him off the pathway in an attempt to abandon him, he ends up being taken in by Simon the wizard, who is cranky but seems to be a safe guardian. He even tries teaching Jinx a little magic, but it turns out Jinx has his own magic.

I actually found myself quite entertained by this book. Although Jinx is young, he's hardened to life and has learned to survive and you quickly learn to like him. Simon the wizard is interesting, though, and the issue of whether or not he (or any other grownup, for that matter) is trustworthy becomes an interesting wrinkle in the book. Eventually other kids his age are added to the story but they have their own challenges as well, making them more than just stick-figures in the story. It's not Tolkien, of course, but I enjoyed it and I think a lot of kids will, too.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Preserving (and doing) time

We are entertained by an endless stream of images based on the invention of stop-motion photography. Video cameras record a series of pictures – many per second – which are replayed back to us on movie screens, televisions, and computer monitors, thus preserving moments in time even long after the subjects are dead. I once read that the inventor of the motion picture camera was the famous Thomas Edison, but it turns out he was basically a thief and appropriated the invention of another.

Edward Muggeridge was an Englishman with an artistic eye and a penchant for inventions who emigrated to the United States, eventually settling in San Francisco and becoming a landscape photographer. This was in the frontier decades of California where a person could reinvent himself, and Muggeridge went through a series of names including "Helios" before finally calling himself Eadweard Muybridge. Along the way he made friends with the most powerful and influential people in the city and even killed a man.

Leland Stanford, one-time governor of California and wealthy railroad tycoon (and future founder of Stanford University), was one of those friends. Stanford had an obsession with horses, and the question of the day was whether or not all hooves left the ground during a gallop. With Stanford backing him financially, Muybridge invented a process to photograph a horse (and later other animals and lots of naked people) and replay the photos to settle the question once and for all. (Stanford also provided a lawyer when Muybridge killed his wife's adulterous lover in the little Sonoma town of Calistoga.)

Edward Ball tells the story of the two men in his book The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures, and it's a fascinating tale. Ball reaches back to their early lives and traces their paths as they cross and separate, and it appears that he's done a considerable amount of research (including why Muybridge might have changed his name at different times). In spite of that he also engages in a fair amount of speculation, and the words "if" and "might" pop up frequently. He is oftentimes harsh in his assessments, particularly of Stanford, but that's not much of a complaint since I tend to agree with him. Numerous pictures (some depicting nudity) illustrate the history well, and it's a very readable story. I think anyone interested in the history of motion pictures or California will find this an interesting read. (I received an advance copy from the publisher. The book will be available for sale on January 22, 2013.)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year 2013

  "Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man."
— Benjamin Franklin

"Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you."
— Carl Sandburg

"To not have entirely wasted one's life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself."

"It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."
— Henry David Thoreau


"It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live."
— Albus Dumbledore