Friday, March 28, 2014

Eavesdropping on farts

The 80s was a great time to grow up.  Not only did we have great music, but world events made things interesting (and those events affected the music, of course).  The Cold War heated up and many people feared a nuclear war was imminent.  But I think it might have been worse back in the 60s when the Russians were lead by a guy who seemed unstable and had a propensity toward violent outbursts.  He was a guy who said what was on his mind and did crazy things.  Turns out he was crazy  crazy like a fox.

Nikita Khrushchev had been one of Stalin's deputies and a military leader during WWII.  In his own words he'd been up to his elbows in blood.  And while that's a fact, I wonder if it doesn't give us a distorted picture of who he really was.  After all, everyone did what Stalin said without question or they didn't live long.  And as soon as Stalin was dead Khrushchev loosened things up (a little) and did away with some of the harshest practices.  But perhaps the most interesting – and certainly the strangest – image we get of him was when he came to the United States.

It was an accident, really.  Ike had only intended to invite Khrushchev if he'd back down on some inflammatory statements he'd made about Berlin, but the US ambassador messed up the invitation.  And Khrushchev was so thrilled to be invited that he pretended to be offended by Sweden so he could cancel an already planned visit there.  K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist by Peter Carlson recounts some of the most bizarre historical events I've ever read.  Khrushchev – or "K" as he was often referred to in America – was still a leader with an outsize ego, and he insisted on having the biggest plane, the Tu-114.  Unfortunately, it was taller than the stairway ramps and initially they needed a ladder to get out.  And that's only the beginning!

From the "kitchen debates" at the World's Fair in Moscow with Vice President Richard Nixon (it was at a display of an "modern American kitchen") to an actual supermarket visit in the US, where members of the press stood on moving check stand conveyor belts, climbed on store shelves, and knocked women shoppers into displays of potato chips, the trip was the first media circus.  Khrushchev was initially wary of being invited to Camp David (the Soviets didn't know it was a presidential retreat), but he was a master politician and once he was allowed a little freedom to interact with the crowds he enjoyed himself immensely, hamming it up, swapping hats, and playing the vaudevillian.  He most loved the cafeteria at the IBM offices with its self-serve style, and laughed on a visit to a corn farmer in Iowa who threw trash in an angry fit at the reporters trampling his crops.  But the book isn't all funny as World War III seemed about to start when he exploded at being harangued by the mayor of Los Angeles and denied a visit to Disneyland.

Peter Carlson has written an easy and fast read that was both hilarious and frightening.  K comes across as the funniest dictator imaginable, with his playing the crowds one moment and throwing a tantrum the next (and it turns out most of the time it was all for show).  And yet, it demonstrates why Cold War tensions ran so high with such a volatile personality running the largest nation on earth.  (He engineered a return trip to the US where he famously banged his shoe on the desk at the United Nations.)  In fact, he was so unpredictable that he was subsequently deposed as leader and later lamented to Nixon that the KGB had even bugged his bathroom so they could eavesdrop on his farts.  But his story would make a great summer read, so if you're looking for a great beach book, I'd recommend this one.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Who needs magic?

One of the most likeable characters in the Harry Potter books - at least in my opinion - was Ron's dad, Mr. Weasley.  He's a guy who can do magic, and yet he's fascinated to the point of obsession with how muggles get by without it.  Since Harry grew up in a muggle home he's always asking him about things like electricity and escalators and rubber duckies.  I suspect most of us would LOVE to live in a magical world and be able to use magic for our own benefit, and yet he's curious about our world.  But what if we really lived in a world with magic?  How easy would it be to rely too much on it?  That's a question I wondered about while reading The Real Boy by Anne Ursu.

Oscar works for the magician Caleb.  But he isn't his apprentice; he's just the "hand."  He spends most of his time hidden in the cellar mixing herbs and potions for the customers who come from the shining city to buy Caleb's magic.  They rely on it for almost everything, from potions and spells that will make them lucky or beautiful, or help them gain money or make someone fall in love with them.  But there's something different about Oscar.  Many people call him "simple" - or worse! - but in some ways he's actually smarter than Caleb's apprentice, Wolf.  But when the usual order of things starts to unravel, and children in the city begin to fall ill, Oscar will have to venture out of his comfortable life in the basement to confront the problems.

This is an interesting story that kept me guessing throughout.  It's told from Oscar's point of view, and the mystery of what's going on and how Oscar and Caleb fit into it all, as well as the interesting characters, makes for a compelling read.  And I honestly liked the way it ended, and thought it had a nice message.  But the most interesting thing in the story was Oscar himself.  He seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, like Asperger’s maybe.  He is obsessed with order and I thought it was an interesting glimpse into his thought processes.  (I received this book from Amazon Vine, and it sounds like readers of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime might enjoy this one as well.)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

My Beloved Brontosaurus

"When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up." — C. S. Lewis

Like most kids - or boys, at least - I was in love with dinosaurs.  My favorite was Triceratops.  I remember visiting the quarry at Dinosaur National Monument and the Vernal museum when I was a kid.  When I had sons of my own I went back to Vernal so they could see it (which resulted in my oldest wanting to be a paleontologist until he was around 12).  I drew numerous pictures of them (some of which I still have, and yeah, they're pretty bad) and the stuffed animal I slept with (until I got sick one night and threw up on him) was a little blue Brontosaurus (my mom tried to wash him, but he was never the same).  I even remember avoiding commercials for "Jurassic Park" before it came out because I didn't want to ruin the movie - then Jamie and I went on opening night.

As an adult (or a close approximation of one) I no longer spend my time doodling dinosaurs or wondering where I can find a fossil, but I still find them interesting.  Keeping up with the science and discoveries, however, is a bit beyond my reach.  That's where My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs by Brian Switek was a nice read.  He's obsessive and writes about them in a way that is easily understood.  And he covers a lot of topics, such as did they really have feathers, what color were they, and what did they sound like, as well as what happened to Brontosaurus?  (The bones that were described as "Brontosaurus" had previously been described as "Apatasaurus.")  And he explains very clearly why it's so hard to assemble a skeleton, because dinosaur skeletons are rarely found intact; once the animal died, it was usually scavenged and eaten by others.  

The writing is clear and understandable, and while there's a little bit of travelogue in it, it's entertaining and not overdone.  This is, however, a book for grownups.  It's not written anywhere near a childs level (and pictures are minimal) and has occasional profanities, plus he covers... umm, theories of how dinosaurs mated.  So, this isn't the kind of book you'll want to purchase for a 7 year, but if you're still interested enough (like me) to read a relatively short and easily understood book, you might want to buy it for yourself.

When I was about 5 years old with the book I got from the Dinosaur quarry (I couldn't find the picture with Grandma in front of the Stegosaurus statue).
Braiden and Taylor *not climbing* on the quarry wall.

I'm not sure where this was, but it was a Triceratops, so...

Friday, March 7, 2014

"Authentic heroes," instead of the "screen variety"

In 1940, more than half the adult US population went to the movies each week. In addition to a double feature and some short cartoons, they also got ten to twenty minutes of newsreels, which was one of the primary sources for Americans to see and hear the news in the days before television.  And then (as today!) the way current events were portrayed by the media was a very powerful way to influence public opinion.  This was never more evident than the famous 1935 German propaganda film "Triumph of the Will" by Leni Riefenstahl, which galvanized support behind Adolf Hitler.

And the movies made by Hollywood reflected - unofficially, for the most part - the stand taken by the United States.  Films like "How Green was My Valley" and "Mrs. Miniver" were decidedly pro-British.  Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris (which I received from Amazon Vine) is an account of the relationship between movies and the war effort during WWII.  It focuses on five famous Hollywood directors who put their lives and careers on hold and enlisted during the Second World War. Although mostly a bit too old for regular service, all were able to contribute their unique filmmaking talents. I'd heard of Frank Capra, John Ford, and John Huston, but William Wyler and George Stevens were new to me (in name at least - I'd heard of some of their films).

All the men were touched by their service in different ways. I loved Huston's comment that after "working with authentic heroes, I was in no mood to put up with the screen variety." His most notable wartime film was the mostly forgotten "Report From the Aleutians," which tried to play up the mostly non-existent action.  Capra spent his time fighting government bureaucracy trying to make the "Why We Fight" and "Know Your Enemy" series of films for soldiers.  Perhaps the most successful was Ford's "Battle of Midway," which for the first time showed audiences actual combat footage.  It also set the tone for future war movies, with choppy footage and cameras shaking after explosions (and yes, even critics back then found the sappy narration a bit over the top). But there was also the private film he had made and quietly sent to the families of the members of Torpedo Squadron Eight, all but one of which died in the battle.

For me, Wyler and Stevens became my favorites.  I enjoyed the accounts of Wyler's filming on bombing runs with the crew of the Memphis Belle (not to be confused with the 1990 film).  He even lost his hearing after spending an entire bombing run in the belly of a bomber (it returned partially in the following years).   Stevens believed it was important to prepare the public for life after the war, and was forever scarred by his painful yet crucial filming of the liberation of concentration camps.

And although this felt like an unusually long read (about 450 pages), I really enjoyed it and found myself constantly turning down page corners and marking interesting quotes and information. Whether it was Capra's efforts to increase the visibility of negroes in film two decades before the Civil Rights Movement or the wartime activities of other notables such a Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) who worked on the "Private SNAFU" cartoons or John Wayne who avoided military service, it's an interesting look at how American culture was influenced. Harris also follows up with their work after the war, such as the awards competition that pitted Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" against Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives" (which won easily). Ironically, both films were efforts by the directors to put their own experiences into perspective and to deal with them in the only way they knew how.

But perhaps one of my favorite comments that illustrates the human side Harris captures in this excellent book is when Stevens filmed some Axis collaborators from the prison in Luxembourg. "When they march these prisoners through the streets," Stevens wrote, "a little boy about ten marches bravely in the front rank. Probably his father is the prisoner marching by his side."