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.)