Saturday, February 23, 2013

Literary propheteering and Weeniwinks

February 25th marks the 56th anniversary of the passing of Milo Milton Hastings (1884 - 1957), nutritionist and inventor of the forced-draft chicken incubator and Weeniwinks. Okay, so Weeniwinks never caught on but his poultry ideas were more far-reaching. (FYI: Weeniwinks was a health-food snack for kids made from grains and no sugar – which is probably why Weeniwinks never caught on.) But Weeniwinks isn't why I want to honor Mr. Hastings, of course. I wish to remember his 1919 science fiction and anti-Utopian novel City of Endless Night.

Set in the year 2151 the world enjoys freedom except for one "black spot on the map" which is the "walled-city of Berlin." Except it's not just a massive concrete wall that protects Berlin but a roof, too! 300 million Germans live underground in an enormous fortified city of 60 levels. And in spite of continuous bombing campaigns, the German invention of a death ray has protected them from invasion ever since the end of the First World War. Meanwhile, an American chemist named Lyman de Forrest (who speaks German and has had an interest in Germany since his youth) develops a technology to reclaim the abandoned potash mines of Stassfurt, perilously close to Berlin. But while exploring he discovers a way into a nearby German mine, and accidentally becomes trapped. By coincidence, however, he finds a dead German who looks surprisingly like him. Even more fortunately, the man was a chemical engineer and Forrest is able to assume the identity of Karl Armstadt.

Yes, this book was a free Kindle download. Yes, I know it sounds pretty bad. And honestly, reading it felt about as enlightening (and embarrassing) as watching reality television. But eventually it turned into a rather intriguing novel where "Karl" is trying to figure out what's going on and fit in. His position gives him some privileges and he learns how the city functions on a practical as well as social basis, and this is where it got interesting (and I stopped feeling embarrassed about reading it).

Remember, this was written in 1919 – less than a year after the end of WWI – and yet it comes uncomfortably close to predicting many of the conditions that subsequently happened under the Nazis. It describes a government of "autocratic socialism" which closely controls not only the press but education and even the diets of its citizens, where calories are doled out based on labor position. More chilling, however, is the idea of racial superiority based on Teutonic blood, and science and eugenic breeding becomes the central feature of German society. History and religion are rewritten in ways frighteningly similar to what Hitler's propaganda machine created. Even anti-Semitism comes up! And those aspects that didn't match Germany came closer to events in the Soviet Union.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not saying Hastings was some sort of prophet. A number of the parallels seem merely coincidental or even forced: the intense WWII bombing of Berlin; the Berlin Wall; even a Second World War against Germany. But it surprises me how many aspects where he was actually pretty close, and I wonder how he guessed so well. Probably he was just lucky, or perhaps fears of what eventually came to pass were already shared by some or many at the time – I'm just not familiar enough with the world mindset at the end of WWI. Would I recommend this book? Yeah, if you like reading old sci-fi novels you might find it interesting like I did. At any rate, it turned out much better than I expected and lasted longer than Weeniwinks.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Needful reading?

The problem with teachers is that they're always telling you what to read. They mean well, of course, and I guess that's what we pay them for, but for those of us who love books it really gets in the way of what we really want to read. And since I earned three different degrees and attended part-time for much of my college education - which felt like an eternity - I spent a lot of time being told what to read. But in between degrees I devoured a lot of what some teachers might call rubbish, and for a while I was really into stuff like Dean Koontz and Stephen King. But only recently did I read anything that reminded me again of those books, and surprisingly it was a YA book.

Twelve year old Victoria is perfect and practical in every way until she gets a B in music. Not only is it an ugly smudge on her otherwise perfect record, it's a huge personal embarrassment. The only thing that comes close is her best friend, Lawrence. Well, he's more like a 'project' for Victoria to see if she can get him to tuck in his shirt and comb his skunk-like hair and stop obsessing so much about his stupid piano. But when Lawrence goes missing - and neither his parents nor anyone else seems too worried about it - she suspects it might have something to do with the strange orphanage at the end of the street. She also suspects she might care more about Lawrence than she thought.

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire LeGrand (which I received from Amazon Vine) is nothing if not creepy. Mrs. Cavendish and her Home reminded me a lot of Mr. Leland Gaunt from Stephen King's Needful Things. Both are manipulative and have a real mean streak, but while Gaunt is hell-bent on chaos, Mrs. Cavendish is striving for perfection and order. And if you like a creepy story this might just be right up your alley, but as I read it with my ten-year old daughter I found it a bit too dark. Kirkus Reviews called it a "heartwarming friendship tale," but the "friendship" part was buried under some torture, a little cannibalism, and a whole lot of general creepiness. Victoria isn't exactly an endearing character with her fussiness and superiority - which turns out to be a real parallel with Mrs. Cavendish - but she's likable enough. And the writing is very good, but for me it was just a little too dark and creepy - for a YA book, that is.  My little 10 year old Maddie seemed to really like it, though, and I'm not quite sure what to think of that!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

It's a dangerous world

The world is shrinking. It used to be so much bigger than it is now. Technology connects us with events and information all over the world in the blink of an eye. But once upon a time the world was much larger, with distant corners in mysterious places full of strange people and fearsome creatures. And those intrepid explorers who braved the unknown have long been celebrated and romanticized. But sometimes, the dirty work of exploration is only half the danger.

It's unlikely you've ever heard of Paul Du Chaillu, but in 1856 he began a modest expedition into the African jungle in search of a monster. When he emerged three years later he brought an enormous collection of preserved birds and animals as well as fantastic stories of how he had faced - and killed - the beast he sought. His timing wasn't very good, however, and Americans were preoccupied with a civil war and he ended up being mostly ignored by people and universities. He was even upstaged by an enterprising P. T. Barnum. It was in London where he found an audience and soon became a celebrity, honored not only by the public but by the greatest intellectuals of the day. Suddenly everyone was taking notice of the monsters he had killed and preserved.

But the scientific world isn't immune from personal jealousies – then or now. Du Chaillu brought his real-life King Kong tale to a Victorian England that was just coming to grips with Darwin's theory, and the praise being heaped upon him even got under the skin of other explorers. Monte Reel blends all these stories together in his book Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm. It is primarily a biography of Du Chaillu, but is told in the more readable style of a 'popular history.' As quickly as Paul's star had risen it was dashed, as rumors of his background began to be whispered about, which was a much bigger deal among the high society of Victorian England than it would be today.

This is an interesting and fun read about the forgotten explorer who introduced the world to the gorilla; an animal that was thought to be far more dangerous than it really was and added steam to the evolution debates. In fact, for Du Chaillu, the civilized world turned out to be nearly as dangerous as anything he had faced in the jungles of Gabon. And Reel tells his story in a way that makes you sympathize with a guy who would have liked to have left his past behind him. And it would make a great summer read. (I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Gone fishin'

I always liked an old saying that said "Time spent fishing can not be deducted from a man's life." (I probably read it on a bumper sticker.) And even though I didn't go fishing very often as a kid - usually just when we visited Grandpa Jay - I always enjoyed it. Not only was it sort of relaxing and a chance to get out in the country but there's a thrilling sort of adrenaline rush from that feeling of a fish on the other end of the line, the way it pulls and fights. Even just having a pole and a small tackle box filled with hooks and sinkers and lures and bait always brought a strange sense of satisfaction. And I loved reading the fishing column in the old Boy's Life magazine that was so full of tips and information (the new Boy's Life has no such columns - it's more interested in selling stuff).

So, as a city kid I always kind of envied the kids in books who lived in small towns and could just go camping and fishing when their chores were finished. And I thought of it when I read a new book called Fishtale by Hans Bauer and Catherine Masciola (which I received from Amazon Vine). Twelve-year old Sawyer Brown's father was killed in Vietnam and he has to step up and help his mother run the family catfish farm. But when she loses her wedding ring and subsequently becomes ill, Sawyer sets out to find it thinking it will make her well again. Together with his best friend "Nose," his hippie cousin Truman, and his little sister "Virus" (Elvira) who sneaks into their boat, they look for Ol’ One Eye, the “biggest, oldest, smartest, and meanest durn cat that ever swum the Yazoo.” Following a map they get from old Moses (Nose's grandfather), they have an adventure paddling around the Mississippi swamps and bayous looking for the giant catfish, which might just be a legend... or maybe just one of Moses' tall tales. And although the book was a little weak on how Sawyer decided Ol' One Eye had the ring, it's a fun read as they face poachers and find flooded mansions and old paddle boats forgotten and rotting in the swamp.

Cover of: It started with old man Bean by David KherdianBut it also reminded me of a book I read as a kid that is mostly forgotten called It Started With Old Man Bean by David Kherdian. (I found it at the library a few years ago and re-read it with my son.) It's the story of Ted and Joe, who plan not just a camping trip by themselves, but an "adventure" where they'll "live off the land." They save their money and order a tent and gear from the L. L. Bean catalog and tell their parents they'll be camping just outside of town near the Snake River, which is slow-moving and brown. But they actually hike several miles beyond to the McCable River which, from the stories they've heard, is full of huge black bass. And they're having the time of their lives, catching bigger fish than they'd ever dreamed of, until trouble strikes. This isn't one of those fast-paced thrill-a-minute books for kids who can't sit still, but it still appeals to the desire for adventure in boys and you can easily relate to Ted and Joe. (Reading it as a parent, however, I was surprised at the kids smoking at what they felt were "special" moments - not something I remembered from when I read it the first time!)

But maybe it's just as well I didn't grow up where fishing was close at hand because - honestly! - I don't even like to eat trout! (I only recently gained a taste for seafood.)  The only river near my house was slow and muddy and brown, and although some kids said it had catfish the only fish anyone caught was carp - which I imagine I'd like even less than trout. Plus, once you catch the fish you have to kill it, and that always made me a little squeamish. I was fine with gutting and cleaning it, but I never liked hitting the poor thing with a stick or whacking its head on a rock like Grandpa showed us. So maybe wimps like me should just stick to reading, and enjoy the life the city has to offer (although I'm seriously looking forward to going fishing with the boy scouts in March!).

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Braiden's mission call

Now behold, a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men.

Therefore, O ye that embark in the service of God, see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day.

Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work;

For behold the field is white already to harvest; and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul;

And faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work.

Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence.

Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Amen.

Doctrine & Covenants section 4

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Marshmallows and chess boards

I usually read a lot of 'old dead' books – histories that deal only with past events – and I tend to avoid those discussing "current events," especially the political ones. Maybe it's because the past is safer. It's more cut and dried, and opinions don't differ a great deal (most of the time, anyway). But every once in a while I find one that discusses current issues that grabs my attention and maybe even changes the way I think. (I think the last one might have been Four Fish by Paul Greenberg.) Recently I listened to a podcast from the LA Library ALOUD series about How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. I'd seen the book on the NYTimes bestseller list (and skipped getting a free advance copy from Amazon Vine, dangit!) but listening to the author hooked me.

Tough covers a lot of ground in this rather slim book (~200 pages). He starts with visits to failing schools in some of Chicago's toughest inner-city neighborhoods. Kids growing up in the Projects are not only seeing violence in their streets, they may also be dealing with it at home in addition to all the other stress and challenges that come with poverty. Studies show that such stress affects the way children's brains develop in disastrous ways. But there's also evidence that certain traits can overcome these effects over time, and that the proper assistance can help some of those kids. The focus of the book is the trait of "character" which, unfortunately, is a term that means different things to different people. But he also calls it "grit" or the determination to achieve in spite of adversity.

But it's not just poor children who struggle. Studies also show that children of affluent parents, who face high pressure to succeed materially but don't have strong emotional connections with parents, have higher rates of depression and drug use. Likewise, the "helicopter parenting" that protects kids from failure doesn't build the character which is so important. He makes an important distinction between cognitive skills (skills that are measured by tests like the SAT and ACT) and noncognitive skills (skills like delaying gratification, or even being grateful) that are more difficult to assess. He cites the famous Stanford marshmallow study that showed that children who were able to wait with the promise of 2 marshmallows instead of getting 1 right away were generally more successful in later years. And one of the most interesting chapters was about a Bronx school with a very high scoring chess team, where their coach helps them see what they did wrong after each chess match and how they could have played better – and she's pretty hard on them, too! But it turns out chess gives kids better skills to assess their lives and helps them develop character. (It also helps to overcome "confirmation bias," which I found very interesting.)

This is not a self-help book or parenting how-to. Rather, it is a social science and education policy book. Nonetheless, I thought it was so fascinating and full of good information that it's hard to review it here without leaving so much good info out. And I guess I read it with three different perspectives in mind. First of all, as a parent who wants to raise children who can be successful (and happy) in life. Second, as someone who wonders how I can improve my own life (and I'm no fan of self-help books, but I like the scientific approach). And third as a concerned citizen who worries about the current state and future of our nation and its schools.

If you only read one book I recommend on my blog I'd recommend this one. And personally, I plan to include more books like this into my reading.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The hole (and earworms)

I served a 2-year mission in Brazil for my church (LDS) from 1986 to 1988. During that time we set aside our young lives to serve – no movies, no music, no dating, etc. So, I'm often a little surprised when I hear an old song or see a movie that everyone else knows except me, and it usually turns out that it came out during those years I was in Brazil.  It's sort of a 'pop-culture hole' in my life. But you can't always avoid music and I'll admit that I became acquainted with U2 toward the end of my mission (still now sure how I missed hearing them before my mission). But U2's "The Joshua Tree" was HUGE whereas a lot of other music I might have loved didn't always make it to the streets of Brazil – like The Housemartins.

A few years ago I heard "Happy Hour" on the radio. It sounded like my kind of music from high school, but for the life of me I couldn't remember it. So I bought their CD of "greatest hits" and it turned out to be "quite good;" it was just one of those things from that little hole in my life. (Incidentally, one of The Housemartins went on to much greater fame.) I thought about including the video for "Happy Hour" below but then I'd have to warn you that it's one of the most powerful earworms ever recorded. Taylor said it was actually "quite good" the first time he heard it but a week later complained: "Man, I've had that song stuck in my head for days!", so listen to it at your own risk (but really, it's "quite good"). I looked for the a'capella "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" (which is so beautiful it sometimes brings a little tear to my eye) but apparently there isn't a video for it, so instead – and since I've had "Build" stuck in my head for days – I'll share this. Enjoy!