Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Orbiting Jupiter

I’m a sucker for almost anything by Gary D. Schmidt. Other than First Boy, which I thought was kind of lame (and never bothered to review), I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by him. Lizzy Bright and the Buckminster Boy and Okay For Now were both amazing, but my favorite was The Wednesday Wars. When I finished I wanted to shout "Chrysanthemum!" (If you’ve read it, you’ll understand.)

Schmidt's latest book, Orbiting Jupiter, is a little closer to Lizzie Bright in tone, except with a modern setting and situation. Jack, a 12 year old boy, lives with his parents on a farm in New Hampshire, and they’ve just taken in a troubled 14 year old boy named Joseph. Joseph got into some trouble that landed him in a youth correctional facility where he tried to strangle a teacher. But Joseph’s troubles surround his daughter – yes, Joseph became a father at 13. Her name is Jupiter and he’s never seen her, but he desperately wants to!

My fear was that Schmidt was trying to write 'John Green' – you know, the troubled and damaged young person(s) yearning for understanding and validation? But Schmidt handle’s a potentially touchy topic with perfect tact; the book never becomes maudlin or mushy and avoids the crassness and foul language that peppers so much of YA these days. And his writing is perfectly beautiful, almost poetic.
“Sometimes miracles are all around you... Sometimes they come big and loud, I guess - but I've never seen one of those. I think probably most miracles are a lot smaller, and sort of still, and so quiet, you could miss them.”
But with Schmidt it’s all about the characters. You can’t help but LOVE Jack and Joseph, Jack’s parents, several of the more understanding teachers at school, and even the cows! This is a short book but the reader is drawn into it at light speed (I nearly read it in a single sitting). A warning, however: Schmidt is not one to write a pat ending where everything works out perfectly. Instead, he mixes the bitter and the sweet in a way that the rest of my family never finds entirely satisfying, and you might want a box of tissues handy. For me, the ending kind of wilted the ‘Chrysanthemums!’ I was about to offer. But it's still a very good book. (I received an advance copy from the Amazon Vine program.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"The dreams in which I'm dying..."

I've always loved music, but growing up in the early 80s I especially loved new wave.  I still remember liking the sound of "Cars" by Gary Numan when it was new in 1979.  In fact, it was the 'different' songs like "Pop Music" by M and "I Ran" by A Flock of Seagulls that really resonated with me, and I got used to the 'are-you-kidding-me?' reactions from others.  Even though new wave was very popular where I grew up, most of my friends listened to rock and pop music so I always felt like I was on the musical outskirts.  I guess I still feel that way.
"In the U.K.... new wave was initially code adopted by journalists and disc jockeys eager to be perceived as cool but too nervous to actually use the word 'punk' with all its threatening implications. In America, new wave was an umbrella the size of a circus tent. It covered synth pop, ska, goth, alternative rock, bubblegum, Eurodance, industrial, new romantic, blue-eyed U.K. soul, and electronic dance music. It was a Tower of Babel populated by American bands who wanted to be British, British bands who wanted to be German, and German bands who wanted to be robots. It was an insane asylum whose patients were predominantly ambiguous, untouchable males with sucked-in cheeks, 3-D makeup, and wedding-cake hair."
Seldom have I laughed as much as while reading Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein.  I didn't have MTV at home so I didn't know a lot about the bands I loved – and I was surprised at the HUGE EGOs many of the new wave "artists" had – Limahl of Kajagoogoo and especially Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen – particularly considering their relatively modest popular success.  Some really saw themselves as "artists," and sometimes eschewed the popularity that came, while others actively and determinedly pursued it (Duran Duran).  And there was no shortage of competition and jealousy among them:
Curt Smith, Tears for Fears: 'People say, ‘music’s not what it used to be,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, it is.’ Most of the stuff we listened to sucked. What you remember is the really good stuff. But there was a ton of crap in the 80s. For every one of us, there was a Flock of Seagulls.'
Mike Score, A Flock of Seagulls: 'The word that springs to mind is jealousy. Curt Smith may be living in a little fantasyland that Tears for Fears was something spectacular.'
The book is made of edited interviews with 3 dozen new wave bands.  It's got a little history of each band (as well as a 'where-are-they-now' follow up) and focuses on an important song.  But it's all the little bits of info that I found so interesting, like how Mike Score of A Flock of Seagulls got his iconic hairdo, or Adam Ant giving fashion tips to Michael Jackson (the famous red hussar jacket), and how OMD drove an old car with mushrooms growing in the floor even while their songs were at the top of the charts because of the evil record companies. The only band profiled that I didn't know was The Normal, and the only other band I don't have any music from in my collection was Joy Division (I'm more of a New Order fan).  Still, the book sent me scurrying to listen to songs I somehow missed – like "Kings of the Wild Frontier" by Adam Ant and "Being Boiled" by the Human League – and digging out CDs I haven't listened to in a while (New Order).  Not all the chapters were interesting – ABC, Spandau Ballet, Dexy's Midnight Runners, and even Howard Jones (whose music I LOVE) – but I had so much fun reading it and wish there was a follow-up with more bands.  Just a few of the highlights for me (mostly paraphrased rather than quoted in full):
  • Peter Hook of New Order: 'Musically, I love Adam and the Ants. They’re one of my favorite groups. But it was very difficult for me as a Northern male to relate to the dandy look. We would’ve been laughed out of Manchester had we even considered it. Bernard [Sumner] and I used to go out in London with all them lot… We looked like working-class yobs, and everyone else was dressed up as a pirate.'
  • Kim Wilde: 'When it was a hit in America, they were like, 'Why East California'? Why not all the way over to the west? I was trying to come up with any excuse why my dad might have written 'to East California,' and if you ask, he'll just say 'Cause it sounded better'... When I feel self-conscious about saying 'New York to East California,' I think of The Police singing 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,' and I don't feel so bad.'
  • Andy Rourke, The Smiths: 'Morrissey used to buy his – I was going to say 'shirts,' but they were actually blouses – from a clothing place for fat women in Manchester. These women's blouses that nobody wanted became Morrissey's trademark. He used to like tearing them up and throwing them into the crowd.'
  • Midge Ure: 'People consume music in a very different way. It doesn't seem to be as all-important as it used to be for us. Kids have got computer games and a million other things to keep themselves entertained. We had music and our imaginations, and that was it.'

Monday, December 7, 2015

Just thirty seconds

Last summer I was able to visit a place I've wanted to see for a long time: Pearl Harbor.  I think my wife and kids were a little bored by it, but I appreciated seeing a place that was so important to 20th century American history.  And while the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was a demoralizing shock for the American people, I'd like to talk about the response that came less than six months later.  Lead by Jimmy Doolittle, American bombers staged a daring raid on the Japanese mainland that came as a complete surprise – to both Japan and America. If you've seen the movie Pearl Harbor, you might remember the Doolittle Raid at the end, which is a bit dramatized but not so far off. But what it doesn't convey is the huge impact such a small raid had on the war. The Japanese went from "fearless to fearful," their sense of isolated security and racial superiority suddenly threatened, and Americans realized they were still in the fight.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is the account of one of the pilots of those bombers, Capt. Ted Lawson, that implausibly took off from aircraft carriers. They had to take off much further from Japan than planned due to their sighting by a small monitoring ship (which was sunk) and didn't have enough fuel to fly to safe bases within China. The planes nonetheless completed their bombing missions – a pin prick, really – then made their way the best they could to the coast of China. Most planes crash landed and Lawson and his crew were severely injured (Lawson's leg had to be amputated). Spread out along the coast, only a few were captured by the Japanese but most managed, with a great deal of hardship and the self-sacrificing help of the oppressed Chinese, to escape and return to America.

I found the book much better written than I had expected and it caused me to cringe numerous times as I read what the crew went through in their ordeal. First-hand accounts are valuable, but can be limited in scope and even self-serving, but Captain Lawson's account is very well done. It's a short and easy read that gives the reader an insight into what went into such a daring raid.  (Winston Groom's recent book gives an excellent explanation of just how important for morale this incident was – and he even gives it a great deal of credit for turning the tide of the war.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Listening to the holidays

I probably should have posted this a couple months ago, but here are a few short audiobooks I enjoyed last year – and am listening to again this year – with holiday-themed stories.

Halloween is already past, but one of my favorite spooky movies to watch with the kids is the 1949 Disney version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow narrated by Bing Crosby.  My 6th grade teacher, Mr. Spjute, probably showed it to us five or six times, and I still enjoy watching it each year.  Written by Washington Irving in 1820, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has Ichabod Crane, the superstitious new school teacher in the little hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, falling for the lovely Katrina Van Tassel, while making an enemy of the dashing local hero, Brom Bones.  As he returns home late one night from a harvest party, he runs into the ghostly Headless Horseman.  Even though the book is short, it's not the easiest to read simply because it's written in a narrative style (ie. someone telling a story) and contains no dialogue.  But read by Tom Mison – the Ichabod of the television series – it's a very enjoyable listen (especially for all the women who think he's sooo handsome).

Christmas Eve, 1914 by Charles Olivier is a very nice dramatization of the so-called "Christmas Truce" in the early part of WWI.  It's portrayed through a letter written after the war by an officer but with the live-action-memories happening at the same time.  The focus of the story is on the lead-up to the actual "cease-fire," the different personalities in the British trenches, and the awful waste of life in war.  I thought the audio version did a great job of heightening the tension that must have been felt when the enemy approached with the request for a cease-fire.  I don't know that it's meant to be historically accurate – with the planned British offensive for Christmas day and all – but it was very nicely acted out and worth listening to.

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is another favorite for the holidays, and I've enjoyed getting together with friends and family in years past to read it on a Sunday afternoon and evening.  It's the well-known story of Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly old man who has a change of heart when visited by several ghosts on Christmas Eve.  Tim Curry (who – interestingly enough! – played Pennywise in Stephen King's It) reads this version.  His voice is sometimes a little too rummy and muddled to be understood perfectly, but he does a very good job of reading this timeless story. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

If anyone asks, just lie

I've been listening to a lot of audio YA lately and I'd like to recommend a book.  Here's the problem: I can't really say much about it without spoiling it.  It's called We Were Liars by E. Lockhart.  I guess I can tell you that the main character's name is Cadence and she goes by Cady.  She comes from a very wealthy East Coast family, and spends summers on her grandfather's island off the Massachusetts coast.  Something happened a couple years earlier... but I don't want to say much about that.  The ending is kind of a surprise and it reminded me a lot of... no, I can't say that, either.  Ummm...

Well, I guess I'll just say it was a very popular YA book last year and most people either loved it or hated it.  I liked it, although the way the suspense is drawn out was kind of uncomfortable.  But I quickly became hooked and couldn't stop listening.  The Los Angeles Times said it was "a classic story of decaying aristocracy and the way that privilege can often hamstring more than help."  If all that vagueness sounds remotely interesting to you, I strongly suggest you not go looking for much information – the Times article is pretty good but too many reviews have spoilers, which you'll want to avoid if you hope to enjoy the book.  Profanity was much less than some books I've read lately.

Another interesting YA book, although I'm not so sure how much I'd recommend it, was Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King.  It's about Lucky Linderman, a smallish fifteen-year old who seems to be a favorite target of the town bully, Nader McMillan.  He tries to tell adults about the bullying, but no one really listens.  He gets in trouble when his school project tries to survey students on how they would commit suicide if they were considering it.  His parents are concerned but disconnected – his dad withdraws into work and cooking while his mom swims more and more laps at the community pool – and even school counselors give him a hard time.  Lucky's only escape is in his dreams when he visits his grandfather who never returned from the Vietnam War.

First of all, my lukewarm endorsement of the book is due to the profanity and crassness, which is pretty bad (and disappointing to hear coming from the reader, Kirby Heyborne, whom I really like).  Also, some characters and a few situations felt overly cliché, and most of the adults are buttheads, but that's typical of much YA fiction.  But, it's also a very compelling story and I couldn't stop listening.  Lucky draws the reader's sympathy without being self-pitying – King does a very good job in that regard.  It's an interesting story about the regular problems of adolescence for a mostly timid kid, but overlaid with the POW/MIA issue and just a touch of magical realism in his dreams.  And I actually kind of liked it. 

So, for what it's worth, those are my recommendations – with varying levels of enthusiasm.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Foul-mouthed kids

I've always loved to read, but while I was finishing up my degrees – mostly part-time at night – all I had time for is what teachers assigned me to read.  So, when I finished school and could read what I wanted, I read a lot of bestseller stuff I'd missed like Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, and Dean Koontz.  And, of course, Stephen King.

Stephen King is the guy responsible for many of the horror movies probably since before I was a teenager, either directly or indirectly.  And (even though most of the movies are pretty bad) he can be an amazing storyteller!  Books like The Dark Half and Needful Things still creep me out, and there's few things scarier than Pennywise the Clown.  The problem – for me, anyway – is the vulgarity and profanity; it's pretty far beyond 'over-the-top.'  In his On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft – which is one of my favorite books – he says that's what makes a story authentic.  And I know some people talk that way and aren't bothered by it.  But I am.  I don't talk that way.  Most people I associate with don't talk that way, at least not around me.  And it feels degrading and even burdensome to hear or read, and that's why I haven't read a SK novel in over fifteen years.  Well... until now.

Probably my favorite SK book-turned-movie is "Stand By Me."  It's not a horror movie, although the language and the theme were still enough to get it an R rating.  It's from a novella called The Body and tells the story of four 12 year old friends growing up in Maine who find out about a dead body – a kid their age named Ray Brower who went missing.  Apparently, he got hit by a train, and the four friends go on a camping trip to see his body.  They have some juvenile and half-formed ideas that they'll get their pictures in the paper and be heroes, but the story is mostly about their relationships, problems, and the journey. 

And it's an incredible story if you were once a boy and appreciate a somewhat nostalgic setting.  Something about it just resonates – the friendships, the thoughts and ideas, the quest – and makes for a very compelling story.  Of course, there's the language, which is beyond coarse (and a stupid "Chico" story that I didn't quite follow how it was necessary to the larger story – probably just tacked in to add length).  But I remember how boys are, and I might have deserved having my mouth washed out on a few occasions.  But I'd guess somewhere around 95% of the foul language could have been cut and still gotten the message across.  Stephen King would no doubt disagree, but he and I can disagree on that point.

Still, if you can overlook that, it's a darn good story.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The price of progress?

(I haven't posted much over the last several months because I've been so busy! If you're a personal friend, you know why. But I'm going to try posting regularly again, and this is one I've had written for a couple of years and rewritten numerous times. It's not perfect, but it's already been waiting too long, so...)

Evolution isn't something I've spent a lot of time studying.  I thoroughly enjoyed Guns, Germs, and Steel – which touches on it to some degree – but honestly, it's a topic that makes me a little uneasy.  As a religious person who enjoys science, I can't deny that the two often seem to be at odds.  But while there are things I can't fully reconcile, the condescending attitude most science writers use toward religion bothers me, and it does nothing to further constructive discussion.

That's where Daniel Lieberman's The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease is a little different.  Not only does he not bash religion, but he frequently quotes scriptures when explaining ideas.  This is not to say that he has written a religious book or that he ignores science in favor of a "creationism" viewpoint, however – it's still a science book, it just doesn't bash the religious viewpoint.  The first half is essentially an overview of the prevailing theories of evolution since our paths diverged from primates, but with a focus on the evolution of the human body.  Lieberman discusses how things like walking upright and head shape and speech likely evolved and why, and what advantages each conferred.  He explains what the earliest humans may have been like and why they may have made the leap to agriculture – and the agricultural revolution seems to be when many of the present day maladies that afflict us first began.  On the grander scale, famines and epidemic diseases all seem to have their roots in the changes that began once agriculture allowed for larger communities and a different lifestyle than our bodies were evolved for.  But the second half of the book looks at some of the more specific health challenges that have been caused by these "evolutionary mismatches," such as Type 2 diabetes, cavities, and flat feet, and how they affect us today.

Basically, the premise is that even though people today are living longer lives than in the past, we aren't necessarily healthier than hunter/gatherers were.  Lieberman believes it is important to look at our bodies from an evolutionary viewpoint in order to understand why we suffer from diseases that didn't plague our ancient ancestors – and the reason isn't always simply because of age.

Honestly, I found the book to be clear and well-explained.  Lieberman makes sense of an oftentimes murky and contentious topic and explains the background behind the current beliefs about evolution.  And it makes a lot of sense, both as he explains evolution and how it affects our bodies given the world we live in today.  It's not a perfect book: Lieberman has a tendency to be repetitive and pessimistic, and occasionally seems to make overstatements.  But on the whole I thought it was a worthwhile (if sometimes long) read. 

As for reconciling religion and science, I have faith that someday it will all make sense and that much hasn't yet been 'revealed.'  We may find that our understanding of the Creation story in The Bible is incomplete or not entirely accurate, and I am certain that our scientific knowledge will continue to evolve, bringing us closer to the truth.  In the meantime, I'll hold on to my faith in both religion and science.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Saturday, September 5, 2015

My eyes were bigger than my stomach

If there's one thing I LOVE, it's baked good that are sweet - things like cookies, brownies, cinnamon rolls, and my list could go on and on.  And to use a saying from my mom, when it comes to cookies and such, my eyes are usually bigger than my stomach (which means I sometimes eat too many).  It's the same with books; I want to read them all - well, just the 'sweet ones' (the kind I like to read), of course!  But what happens when I combine the two - cookbooks for sweets?

I recently received from bloggingforbooks a copy of George Greenstein's A Jewish Baker's Pastry Secrets: Recipes from a New York Baking Legend for Strudel, Stollen, Danishes, Puff Pastry, and More.  My time is limited but I enjoy baking when possible, and this seemed exactly like the kind of book for my sweet tooth.  The chapters cover such pastry staples as bundt, babka, strudel, puff pastries, and danishes (along with others I'd never heard of).  The book itself is rather basic - no pictures, just recipes - but it's loaded with delicious recipes and variations on each of the pastries.

But, this book is not for beginners.  Each chapter begins with a "master recipe" and then follows with several recipes which use that dough.  Some of the recipes - the ones I became most interested in - use more than one of them!  Many of the pages have a "baker's secret" box, giving additional tips and tricks to make your pastries look more professional and taste even better.  Plus, sometimes the short backstory on some of the recipes can be enough to make your mouth water.

Unfortunately for me, however, I'm not that good at baking just yet.  Not only are my skills lacking, but I lack the time right now to put into such recipes.  No matter how good they sound, until my current responsibilities change I'll have to content myself with visits to the bakery.  But the book will still be on my shelf when I do have more time.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Duty and a pile of coconuts

I've enjoyed a number of books about the great and not-so-great explorers who ventured into the unknown.  While there's certainly a romantic idea of being the first to see new lands and bring back great discoveries, more often than not the intrepid explorers faced dangers and incredible hardship in inhospitable places, and some were never heard from again.  For me, any thought of exploration kinda loses it's allure when the food runs out!  Even when expeditions were successful, the explorers didn't always return to fame and glory, but at least some got to sail in beautiful places like the south Pacific.  And I remember hearing in several of these books about "the mutiny on the Bounty."

While I was reading The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander, I was surprised that no one I mentioned it to had heard of it.  I remember seeing a book about it years ago and I know several movies have been made over the years, but apparently it's not one of those bits of trivia most bother to remember.  In 1789, Lieutenant William Bligh sailed the Bounty, with its crew of 46, to the beautiful island of Tahiti.  He'd been there before with Captain James Cook, but now his goal was commerce: he was to obtain breadfruit plants to start plantations in the West Indies.  Bligh was a conscientious captain who looked out for the health and welfare of his men, even while insisting upon order.  Unfortunately, a combination of combustible personalities, the beauty of Tahiti and its women, and a pile of stolen coconuts led to a mutiny that left Bligh and 18 of the sailors abandoned on the rough seas in a very small boat.  It was so heavily loaded that even small waves broke over the sides, and it seemed a certain death sentence.

But Bligh managed to sail this tiny boat and crew for 3,500 nautical miles (over 4,000 land miles) through violent storms and open ocean (with almost no food!) to a safe harbor.  Even more incredible was that only one man died, and that was in a clash with unfriendly natives.  News of this amazing feat and the eventual court martial of most of the mutineers who were apprehended a few years later in Tahiti, was talked about for decades.  Some were hanged for their crimes, but Fletcher Christian, the one who led the mutiny, was never seen again.

But the story doesn't end there.  With savvy legal help, two of the mutineers managed to get pardons from His Royal Majesty, and several of the families involved worked hard to change the narrative of the incident.  Bligh's temper and salty language – particularly over the stolen coconuts – was soon blamed for inciting the mutiny.  But Caroline Alexander sorts through the facts and weaves a surprisingly interesting tale of the challenges of living on a small ship in a big ocean – and even tells what happened to Christian.  And it's a very detailed story, with so much information that I found it slow reading in the beginning.  Before long, however, I was caught up in it and couldn't put it down.  She even tells where Christian and the others ended up, and what became of the community they established.  The maps and illustrations were great to help follow the story, but I wished it had included a list of the 46 men on the ship and their positions at the beginning, since it was hard to tell them all apart.  The extensive detail and backstory might put some readers off, but in spite of a slow start it turned out to be a great summer read.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The end of the world is fun

Fun to read about, that is.  (And no, I'm not talking about the Book of Revelations.)  People in the publishing industry have been saying dystopian books have run their course and we're moving on to realism  the contemporary kind of realism of John Green (not me, of course) who writes of nerds and cancer.  Perhaps, although every once in a while I run across a dystopia that falls in the "guilty pleasures" category, such as The Living by Matt De La Peña.  (If you were paying attention you downloaded a free audio version of it a few weeks ago.)

Shy, a Mexican-American kid from a small border-town near San Diego, is working on a cruise ship and earning good money. He's still dealing with his grandmother's recent death from Romero's Disease when a drunken guest approaches him near the railing.  They talk for a few moments, but before Shy knows what's going on, the man jumps overboard. Shy tried to hold on to his sleeve, but the man seemed intent on ending his life. But on the next cruise, a mysterious man in a suit wants to know exactly what the guy said to Shy before he jumped. But none of that matters when the ship is hit by a huge tsunami and he's fighting for his life... or does it?

Don't get me wrong: I had some problems with this book. First, the story is very predictable  it was hard NOT to see where it was headed almost from the beginning. Second, the profanity is pretty bad (and really stands out in the audio version). Plus, it drags when Shy and Addy  the snotty rich blonde girl (of course, you knew there had to be one)  are adrift on a raft, fending off sharks and trying to survive. And yet, in spite of all that, I couldn't stop listening. It's heavily plot-driven but the action kept me hooked.  Surprisingly, the characters are mostly well-developed and likeable. de la Pena is a pretty good storyteller.

In fact, when I saw an advance copy of book 2, The Hunted, on Amazon Vine, I jumped on it.  And in the interest of not giving away any spoilers, I'll only say that Shy and his friends finally reach Los Angeles and now face a city that has descended into chaos.  The government has walled off California and the people have set up zones to prevent the spread of thieves and disease. It wasn't as good as the first book even though it was less predictable (in some ways), but still a fun read. Some of the characters (Carmen, especially) seem less well-developed than in the first (she's almost a caricature), and aren't as likeable, but the 'dystopian' aspect of the series comes through more here than in the first one. It was still enough fun that I breezed through it in a few days.

So, if the end of the world is still fun for you, give Matt De La Peña a try.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Praying for rain

Southern California, where I live, has been suffering through a prolonged drought.  We've been asked to cut back on our water consumption, rates from the water company have been rising, people are converting lawns to ugly but "tolerant" landscapes, and even many religious leaders have called for fasting and prayer for an end to the drought.  Yet, in the years I've lived here I've also seen the rain coming down in buckets for days or even weeks on end.  I've had the pool filled to overflowing with rain and the backyard flooded, and seen torrents rushing in the gutters and filling intersections.  The skies can be very fickle.

Water is an essential element for humans.  Too much or too little can be devastating, but when it's just right we all get along happily.  But a book about rain?  What would you write about?  Cynthia Barnett found exactly what to write about in Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, a fascinating look at the effects of rain on the landscape, civilization and societies, and our culture.  She starts at the beginning of the planet, when the rains filled the oceans and compares Earth's history with that of Venus and Mars.  She talks about our efforts to live with it, including the invention of the rain coat  the mackintosh  in Scotland, and how Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings are notoriously leaky.  Thomas Jefferson tried to measure the rain at Monticello, but unfortunately built his home atop a hill and far from the sources of water down in the valleys.  Mankind has also tried to control the rain  everything from rain dances to cloud seeding and even burning witches who supposedly had meteorological influence.  Villages in India extract the scent of rain (which is different depending upon the soils where you live and other factors) and bottle it.  Rain has even seeped into our culture, becoming part of art, literature, and music.

Barnett has a wonderful voice in her writing - other reviewers have called it "lyrical"  that makes this a pleasant read.  I wondered how such a seemingly mundane topic could be made to fill a book, but it didn't take me long to be sucked into it and unable to put it down (the chapter on biblical floods and praying for rain was probably the 'driest' for me yes, pun intended).  I was even surprised to see a favorite song, "How Soon Is Now" by the Smiths, be discussed in it  Morrissey is from rainy Manchester and he's used a Bo Didley "rain riff" to evoke the drenched streets of his home (or something like that  I'm not musically intelligent enough to have understood it quite as well as I wish I had).  But I really enjoyed this book  even had to be on guard from my father-in-law who tried to borrow it after reading a few pages.  (I rec'd this book from the bloggingforbooks program.)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Where to sleep?

What did you worry about in 5th grade?  Homework and grades?  Friends?  What others thought about you?  Imagine being homeless at that age and worrying about where you would spend the night or what you would eat, or where you would take a shower or wash your clothes?  What if your friends started to complain that you smelled bad, or that your hair looked greasy?  How would you even do your homework when you have to spend the evening looking for a place to stay?

Before she died, eleven year-old Ari's mother wanted two things for her: that she get into the middle school for gifted students, and that she and her brother, Gage, stay together.  But when Gage's run-ins with their guardian, Janna, get worse, he moves out – and Ari chooses to stay with him.  The problem is that Gage doesn't actually have an apartment.  He's 19 but is having trouble getting a job because he doesn't have an address.  Instead, they end up 'couch surfing' at various friend's places, like Gage's girlfriend Chloe (and her roommates), or being snuck into a shelter where neither of them are the right age.  They even end up spending a night in a rented storage garage and in Chloe's car.  But it's hard to get homework done when you're moving back and forth every night, and Ari's grades are slipping and she's no longer at the top of her class.  Worst of all is that she's too afraid to say anything to her friends, and she worries that her clothes aren't clean and that she sometimes smells bad.  The dream of going to Carter seems to be slipping away from her.

Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson is a very well-written and heartfelt book, but I'll be honest: it made me very uncomfortable.  So uncomfortable through the first half, that I didn't enjoy reading it.  It's written for middle-grade kids and shows a side of life most will (thankfully!) never see but does it in a good way – I don't think parents need worry about anything inappropriate or the way it ends.  But it really highlights some of the challenges of normal things like school under such hardships.  It's not preachy but it shows other homeless people in a very sympathetic light (without touching on causes of homelessness like mental illness and addiction).  By the end I really liked the book a lot, but it was still an uncomfortable read.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The world's biggest stage

One of my favorite lines from the movie "Back to the Future" is when Doc Brown asks Marty McFly who the president is in the future.  When Marty answers "Ronald Reagan!," Doc laughs and asks incredulously, "The actor?!?"  And it's funny because we seldom associate actors with being deep thinkers – at least not the kind of thinkers we'd want to lead one of the most powerful nations on earth.

But Ronald Reagan was an actor in the beginning.  Actually, before that he was a radio sportscaster who then landed some roles in Hollywood, even becoming a rising star until World War II came along.  He tried to enlist but his eyesight was so poor that he wasn't allowed in a combat role, but his solid good looks were a natural fit for the government training and 'propaganda' films.  And when the plum movie roles dried up after the war, he found work in some less serious films such as "Bedtime for Bonzo" where he co-starred with a chimpanzee.  It's no wonder Doc Brown was dismissive.

In Reagan: The Life, H. W. Brands treats us to a fairly detailed (700+ pages) biography of the 40th President of the United States.  He covers his early years with an alcoholic father, his college foray into acting, and his desire for an ever-larger stage from which to perform.  When his Hollywood career stalled, he became the unlikely spokesman for corporate America on television's General Electric Theater where he honed his public speaking skills.  His political career began as union leader for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), following which he was elected California's governor.

But his presidency is the focus and bulk of this book, beginning around page 200 and consuming the next 500.  Brands covers it meticulously – almost to the level of minutiae – and frequently compares his impact with FDR's, Reagan's early hero.  I was a teenager during the early Reagan years, and saw him as restoring pride and confidence in America at a time when both were at historic lows.  Yet, I knew not everyone saw him as positively as I did: the editor of my high school newspaper went out of his way to criticize Reagan (I wonder how many high school newspapers were so overtly political?).  Later, I was out of the country (and out of touch with politics) during the final years when Iran-Contra and much of the negotiations with Gorbachev happened, so that was insightful to me.  And while Brands avoids 'falling in love with his subject,' as some biographers do, it's still a fairly friendly bio.  He frames Iran-Contra as Reagan's effort to bring hostages home and Nancy's reliance on astrologers as a possibly over-protective impulse after the assassination attempt, but in other places he is less than flattering and perhaps more objective.  That's probably how it should be, but if I had a complaint it's that the book sometimes feels passionless.

There will certainly be some on the far right who feel it's not praising enough, and some on the far left who feel it's not critical enough, but I found it to be an informative and entertaining read.  I've read a couple of books by his speechwriters – one was good but too patronizing and another too presumptuous.  I've read great books about Reagan's handling of the air traffic controller's strike and his near-assassination, and even one about a great speech he gave.  But Brand's bio does a good job of approaching scholarly while remaining readable.  I wish it had covered his pre-presidential life in more depth, but I guess that's worthy of a separate book or two.  For those primarily interested in his presidency, however, this one should please most readers.  (I received a free book from the publisher.)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Taylor's mission call

* I just have to explain his initial reaction: he was kind of hoping to go somewhere in the U.S.  He really is very excited.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


Did you ever try to run away from home as a kid?  For some reason I'm reminded of a Peanuts comic strip, and Linus tying his belongings up in his blanket and hanging it on the end of a stick.  Personally, I guess I never had a good enough reason.  My parents may not have been perfect but I always knew I was loved, which I guess is why I never made it past the corner the one time I can remember trying.  And if I remember correctly, Linus didn't make it very far either.  But maybe not everyone had it as good as he and I did.

Sixteen-year old Mary Iris Malone, otherwise known as Mim, is so unique that she's an anomaly.  After her parent's divorce she's in Mississippi with her dad when she discovers her mom is all alone back in Cleveland battling some disease, so she swipes her new step-mother's coffee can full of money and hops a Greyhound for Ohio.  Of course, she doesn't tell anyone – she just impulsively sets off for her objective.  But there are interesting people on the bus, like the old lady who smells like cookies and clutches a wooden box; Carl the bus driver whose "Carl-ness" is unquestionable; the extra-friendly "Poncho Man"; and the devastatingly handsome 17C.  And the trip turns out to have some interesting twists, as well as some unexpected friendships.

Okay, I know – that's about the blandest book summary in the history of the world, and doesn't begin to sum up the surprisingly interesting and compelling Mosquitoland by David Arnold.  Once I got started I had a hard time putting it down.  (The problem was that it's 350 pages and I don't have as much time to read as I used to, but I still stayed up late with it a couple of nights.)  As you might have guessed, this is one of those books where all the characters are damaged in some way, starting with Mim who is bitter over her parent's divorce, her father's remarriage (to the waitress at Denny's!), and having to move 1,000 miles away from her life.  The characters are all endearingly quirky with a bitingly sarcastic wit, which seems to be de rigueur these days for YA.  Then you throw them out on the open road with all its dangers, toss in some even quirkier characters (like a gay ninja, just for kicks), and we just can't help but hope for their success while we mourn as all the damages they've piled up in their short but dramatic lives are gradually revealed.  Sigh... yes, it's somewhat formulaic but it appeals to the teenager in us, whether or not we're still in those teen years.

Honestly, I wanted to hate this book (after I started it, that is – no one in their right mind picks up a book that looks interesting and wants to hate it).  I wanted to hate it because of the profanity, which is mostly the f-word (and is probably used somewhere north of a hundred times in those 350 pages).  I know, some kids talk that way and some readers won't object, but when the book is advertised for "12 and up" I'd like to think I could take that at face-value.  As a dad I can't recommend this to my 12 year old, and am wondering if I will recommend it to my 16 year old.  (Other than the language, there aren't any 'situations' I found objectionable.)  And yet I have to admit, I liked the characters – at least the one's you're supposed to like – and loved the ending (which was a bit predictable, but not completely).  It's well-written (the author is great at foreshadowing!) and pulls you in with a grip that doesn't let go, even clinging to you after finishing the last page, wishing you could spend a little more time with these people.  I just wish for a cleaner "children's" book.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Great Red God

"War is hell."
— William Tecumseh Sherman

As much as I enjoy reading military histories, I never had a desire to join the military.  And yet in some ways I envy the camaraderie soldiers must feel, particularly during wartime, and there's something interesting in knowing what war is like.  But as a quiet and rather bookish-person, my interest is purely intellectual – I don't really want to see any death and destruction!  But while military histories are all about death and destruction, most give you a mere taste of the unpleasantness of war but are still fairly sanitized.

Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima by Alexander Rose, however, is a bit different.  Rose takes three iconic American battles – Bunker Hill (American Revolution), Gettysburg (Civil War), and Iwo Jima (WWII) – and discusses them from a standpoint of the soldiers who fought in them.  He talks about the attitudes they would have brought to the battlefields, the terrain they faced, the weapons used, the enemy they fought, the wounds received and inflicted, and the results.  His focus for each battle is methodical but slightly different: "... for Bunker Hill, we [can] deduce a militiaman's experience of combat depending on his location (redoubt, beach, rail fence) and for Gettysburg we [can] do the same by deconstructing the era's formal templates (artillery bombardment, attack, defense), [and] for Iwo Jima [we] mostly examine combat method -- that is, how Marines first confronted obstacles and then surmounted them by watching, doing, adapting, and learning." (from pg 217 of the advance copy)

It's true, there's plenty of blood and guts in the writing, but it's told with a professional detachment that satisfies my weird curiosity but still leaves room for a healthy appreciation for the personal sacrifices. Yes, I squirmed while reading about the effects of cannonballs and bullets on the human body or the frightening descriptions of grenades and flame throwers in battle, but it's not all gore. Rose neither romanticizes warfare nor paints it simply as too horrific to even think about.  It's interesting to read how the battles happened from a soldier's perspective and how each differed, as well as why modern-day combat would be different still. It's also loaded with many of the individual observations from people involved in the fighting, the kind of quotes that don't always make it into the regular histories. One interesting note is how progressively "work-like" war had become by WWII, and how PTSD was almost unheard-of in earlier battles such as Bunker Hill. Another was the psychological effects of things like bombardments and bayonets – neither of which he says in the Bunker Hill section were as lethal as we might think in terms of physical damage inflicted.

It might not be the ideal book for someone with a weak stomach, but I found it so engrossing and well-written that it never really bothered me (and I read much of it while eating lunch). It's scholarly-like in its thoroughness and approach, but not difficult to read by any measure. I know a man who fought at Iwo Jima and he's criticized most books on the battle, but I suspect he might be more approving of this one. It certainly gave me a greater appreciation for his experience.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Friday, May 8, 2015

Ordinary magic that fits in your pocket

"I often think in music.  I live my daydreams in music.  I see my life in terms of music... I get most joy in life out of music."
— Albert Einstein

If there's one thing I regret it's that I never learned to play a musical instrument.  As a kid I wanted to learn how to play the piano, but there wasn't money for lessons let alone a piano at home.  Maybe that's why Jamie and I made sure our kids took lessons – and didn't let them quit even when we got tired of trying to get them to practice.  (And, of course, one of my favorite episodes of The Wonder Years dealt with this issue.)  And although I've frequently watched with envy as my kids sat down and played a beautiful piece of music, the problem now is time – I just don't have enough time to squeeze one more responsibility into my life, no matter how much I'd love to.

Three (actually four) stories meld into one in Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan, a charming tribute to the value of music.  When young Otto becomes lost in the woods he encounters three princess sisters and their story of being held captive by an evil witch.  They give him a magic harmonica which shows him the way out.  The harmonica then makes its way to three others with the power to change and save lives.  First is Friedrich, a young boy with a disfiguring birthmark that puts him in danger of the Nazis as they seek for a pure, unblemished race.  Second is Mike in Pennsylvania, who with his brother Frankie live in an orphanage but wish for a real family.  And third is Ivy, a young Mexican-American girl in California, whose brother has recently joined the army to serve during WWII. 

The stories and characters are compelling, and in spite of its length (nearly 600 pages) it reads quickly.  It was a little annoying, however, when Friedrich's story comes to an abrupt halt just as the danger is at its highest, and Mike's story takes over.  You have to read through all three to find out the final solution for each of them.  But they're nice stories and the central theme of how music can touch people's lives in different ways is nice if a bit heavy-handed.  It might encourage some kids to try learning an instrument – the harmonica, perhaps? – although the sheer bulk of the book may turn a few off.  Still, an enjoyable read that I think 4th to 7th graders will like whether or not they already play an instrument.  As for me, I know they say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but maybe someday I'll have some free time and see about those piano lessons.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Free audiobooks

In Brazil, they call someone who is really cheap "mao de vaca" which means literally "cow's hand."  If you look at a cow's hand (also known as a hoof) you'll see that it's closed; and in English we'd call that person "tight-fisted," which is the same meaning but much less colorful.  I am "mao de vaca," and if you're like me and would like some audiobooks for free you'll want to bookmark the audiobook sync site and visit it each week starting May 7 through August 14.

You'll need the OverDrive software on your computer to download the books, but I find the phone app a little wonky so I don't use it to listen.  I just transfer the mp3 files over and listen with the music app.  It's not as convenient, but at least it works.  (Maybe they've fixed the app by now – I guess I should give it another try at some point.  Or I could just burn it to a cd if I wasn't so lazy.)  The books – two each week – are only available for ONE WEEK, so don't forget to keep checking back.  And you don't have to listen to them right away – you just have to download them the week they're available.  (I've still got books from last year I haven't gotten around to.)  Here's the listing of books that will be offered this summer:
  • BEAUTIFUL CREATURES by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl (Hachette Audio)
  • A CORNER OF WHITE by Jaclyn Moriarty (Scholastic Audiobooks)
  • CROWS & CARDS by Joseph Helgerson (Brilliance Audio)
  • DODGER by Terry Pratchett (HarperAudio)
  • ECHOES OF AN ANGEL by Aquanetta Gordon (christianaudio)
  • THE EXPLORERS CLUB by Nell Benjamin (L.A. Theatre Works)
  • THE LIVING by Matt de la Pena (Brilliance Audio)
  • MARCH by Geraldine Brooks (Penguin Audio)
  • MONSTER by Walter Dean Myers (Listening Library)
  • THE RING AND THE CROWN by Melissa de la Cruz (Recorded Books, Inc.)
  • ROSE UNDER FIRE by Elizabeth Wein (Bolinda Publishing)
  • UNDER A WAR-TORN SKY by L.M. Elliott (Tantor Audio)
  • X: A NOVEL by Ilyasah Shabazz & Kekla Magoon (Brilliance Audio)
  • THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain (Mission Audio)
  • ANNE FRANK REMEMBERED by Miep Gies & Alison Leslie Gold (Oasis Audio)
  • AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS by Jules Verne (Tantor Audio)
  • BUDDHA BOY by Kathe Koja (Full Cast Audio)
  • DRACULA by Bram Stoker (Naxos AudioBooks)
  • GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens (Naxos AudioBooks)
  • HERE IN HARLEM by Walter Dean Myers (Live Oak Media)
  • JOHN BALL’S IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT Adapted by Matt Pelfrey (L.A. Theatre Works)
  • LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott (Listening Library)
  • LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding (Listening Library)
  • THE OLD BROWN SUITCASE by Lillian Boraks-Nemetz (Post Hypnotic Press)
  • THE PERFECT STORM: A TRUE STORY OF MEN AGAINST THE SEA by Sebastian Junger (Recorded Books, Inc.)
  • REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier (Hachette Audio)
  • SEA HEARTS by Margo Lanagan (Bolinda Publishing)

Monday, April 27, 2015

Making it "Great"

(After reading an old econ book from college and a book about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, I thought I'd post this book review from 2008.)

Following the 1929 stock market crash the nation entered an economic recession. President Hoover implemented many policies in an attempt to turn things around, but succeeded only in driving more banks into insolvency and increasing unemployment. He also sought to have government replace business as the spending engine in the economy, and initiated numerous projects, such as Hoover Dam in Arizona. But when conditions hadn't improved by the next election he was overwhelmingly swept out of office by FDR and his New Deal.

Beginning in 1932 FDR had high ambitions for his first 100 days in office, and indeed was a whirlwind of activity. Unfortunately, there wasn't much logic or reason behind the activity, and the uncertainty of FDR's policies and actions further weakened the market. But he went even further by seeking to regulate business excessively and replace many private-run industries, such as utilities. Taxes were increased as high as 90% for wealthy individuals, and many new taxes were created such as the death tax, inheritance tax, undistributed profits, etc. Tax rules where changed retroactively and government prosecutors were kept busy persecuting those who'd already paid or had run afoul of the complex government rules.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes is a fascinating look at the Depression from a very convincing economic policy perspective. She skewers Hoover for turning a recession into a depression and FDR for having made it "Great." She points out why government policies failed to keep banks from failing, why the market lost confidence in government and how harsh tariff laws not only further weakened domestic industries but also exported the financial crisis abroad. She chronicles the various advisers to FDR, including many who were socialists in the many government bureaucracies created to tax anyone with money and spend it on New Deal programs that amounted to little more than expensive propaganda. She also points out that many of FDR's early New Deal successes were actually programs that Hoover started. As the depression deepened and lingered until the beginning of WWII, as many as 1 in 4 workers were either unemployed or in government work programs and people began to accept the depression as a fact of life.

Having studied economics for several years in college, I found the arguments to be logical and persuasive. I'm especially surprised, however, with the view this book paints of FDR and the lasting reverence so many in this country had for him. Some very brief research showed that the merits of the New Deal are indeed controversial, so for me further research is necessary to either validate or refute the claims of this book. Nevertheless, Ms. Shlaes has made a very logical argument against the legacy of the New Deal.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Gateway to hell... or heaven?

Leprosy isn't something we think about anymore unless we're reading the Bible, and although the word in scripture is used rather broadly, a stigma has attached to those suffering from Hansen's Disease.  In The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai, John Tayman explains that the skin disease usually affects the colder parts of the body – particularly the hands, feet, ears, and nose – destroying the underlying tissue.  Those afflicted suffer a loss of feeling and sometimes a curling in of the fingers or collapse of the nose often resulting in horrific disfigurement.  Because the tissue of the eyes is cooler it can destroy eyesight, so it's understandable why people were so fearful of the disease.  But not knowing what caused it (bacteria) or how it was spread (it is contagious only for those who are genetically susceptible) led to policies of exile, and Kalaupapa on Molokai is one of the most famous colonies.

A rocky and windswept peninsula on the north coast of Molokai was chosen because escape was difficult.  The seas were rough and cliffs thousands of feet tall separated it from the rest of the island.  The land was purchased cheap and the earliest exiles were often dropped in the surf and told to swim for shore.  A lawlessness pervaded the settlement and given the appearance of some of the exiles, it seemed a hellish place to those sent there and any who saw it.  Tayman describes the history of the colony from the early days until the early 2000s.  He tells the stories of many who were sent there over the years as well as the efforts of some to alleviate the suffering such as Father Damien, the Catholic priest who eventually shared his flock's fate, and Joseph Dutton, a Civil War soldier who just wanted to do good.  A cure for leprosy was found in the late 1940s which can halt or prevent the disease, but cannot reverse the damage already caused, and Tayman sounds a much more hopeful note in his account toward the end.

"The more we suffer, the more strength we have.  The more suffering, the closer we are to one another.  Life is that way.  If you haven't suffered, then you don't know what joy is.  The others may know something about joy, but those who have gone through hell and high water, I think they feel the joy deeper." 

As much as I enjoy all kinds of histories, I find that those of disease and sickness are often the more human side of history.  Toward the end of the book Tayman focuses on four individuals who were exiled in their youth, and he shows them not as 'lepers' but as real people whose ordinary hopes and dreams were interrupted by their disease.  I particularly liked the story of Makia who was exiled as a boy and yet earned a college degree after he was cured, in spite of being blind from the disease and not being able to read braille because he didn't have feeling in his fingers.  It's a fascinating history told with a very human viewpoint.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Recalled to life

“Statesmen, men of science, philanthropists, the acknowledged benefactors of their race, might pass away, and yet not leave the void which will be caused by the death of Charles Dickens.” 
 — The Times of London

When my daughter, Kate, was assigned to read A Tale of Two Cities, I thought I might as well read it with her.  I did the same with Braiden when he had to read Far From the Madding Crowd, and I really enjoyed it.  But I'd just started Nicholas Nickleby, which seemed very funny, and I wasn't looking forward to the gloomy story of the French Revolution.  And as my reading lagged behind Kate's (she had a deadline and I was unusually busy) I was surprised at how much she liked the story.  In fact, when she finished she said it was one of her most favorite books.

A Tale of Two Cities weaves several stories together.  There's Mr. Jarvis Lorry, the banker, who is sent to "recall to life" a man in France who has been "dead" for 18 years.  There's Monsieur Defarge and his wife, who have a recently released prisoner of the Bastille in one of the rooms over their wine shop.  There's Dr. Alexandre Manette, who is so broken and ruined that I thought his plight was hopeless.  There's his daughter, Lucie Manette, who lovingly takes him home and cares for him, restoring him to life.  There's Charles Darnay, who is on trial for his life as a spy in England, and Sydney Carton, who saves him when he points out during the trial the physical similarity between himself and the condemned man, thus confounding the witness.  And all their lives (and a few others) get tangled up in the ruthlessness and tragedy that was the French Revolution, and yet Dickens is the master story-teller who weaves such an amazing tale of the tangled threads.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

Often, I don't worry about revealing the plot (spoilers) of classics – after all, everyone read them in high school and they're usually pretty well-known.  Except I didn't read this one (I wonder if I'd have liked it as much as Kate did, or as much as I do now?) and don't want to spoil it for anyone else (because I encourage you to read it if you haven't already!).  But I found this one much harder to understand than Oliver Twist or Great Expectations.  In fact, I had to pull up the SparkNotes and follow along each chapter, which was so much more enlightening.  The language Dickens uses to evoke certain emotions shows just how good of a writer he is.  In particular, he tells of Lucie hearing the footsteps echoing outside her home, which are usually of friends coming to visit, but they foreshadow the events in France that threaten to destroy her family.  When he writes of the blood-lust of the revolution, he does so with a shadow of horror that casts a soberness over the story.  (I'm reminded of Ray Bradbury's beautiful – almost poetic – writing in Dandelion Wine.)

Dickens is also very economical with his characters – there aren't many throw-away people here – and they often come back at important points in the story.  I read that this is one of the criticisms leveled at the book – a deus ex machina idea where the plot is manipulated through unlikely coincidences.  But it seemed to me that Dickens was showing an inter-connectedness between mankind; events abroad can impact us, and in some ways those events aren't always so different from our own lives.  And while there are many themes in this story, the one I enjoyed best was of resurrection and being "recalled to life."  Dr. Manette is "recalled" by Mr. Lorry and Lucie, and Darnay is saved from an especially cruel sentence, but it comes up in interesting ways: Jerry Cruncher's side-job as well as some other, even more dramatic examples. 

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

The temptation is to go on and on and include a lot of quotes I highlighted while reading, but I don't want to give away too much.  This is probably my favorite novel by Dickens, and it was such a weighty and moving story that I'm having a hard time going back to the levity of Nicholas Nickleby.  So I'll just end by recommending you read this one if you haven't already – and it might be a good idea to find a SparkNotes or Cliff's Notes to help appreciate it with a little more depth.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Small space gardens

In my dreams I have a good-sized yard with a small greenhouse in a back corner.  Nearer the house I'd have a decent patch of lawn surrounded by gardens with roses and perennials and a few pockets where I could plant my favorite annuals.  In between would be a sitting area with the fire pit and a large-enough vegetable garden to grow whatever I want and try new things.  Of course I have all kinds of ideas for the plants I'd like to grow and where I'd hide the composter and even how I might keep a couple of chickens.  But the current reality is that my yard is smaller than I'd like and gets too much shade.  Still, I've managed a raised-bed on the side of the house and a number of pots around the pool that are fairly productive.  It's not as much 'earth' as I'd like for a garden, but it's probably just as well since my current calling at church barely leaves me enough time after work for what I've got.

So I'm always looking for ways to make the best use of limited space, and when I saw The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden: Grow Tons of Organic Vegetables in Tiny Spaces and Containers by Karen Newcomb offered by bloggingforbooks, I jumped on it.  This is an updated and revised edition of a book that was first published 40 years ago and has a new focus on growing heirloom varieties of vegetables – which I've become very interested in over the last few years.  The techniques are mostly organic and encourage improving the soil and making the most of your space with "crop-stretching" techniques and using vertical space.  About half the book is an encyclopedia-like section that lists the different vegetables and their suitability for the small "postage stamp garden," as well as recommended varieties.

This is a nice simple and straight-forward book with minimal illustrations.  The plant advice seems to be similar to what I've seen elsewhere except that it specifically addresses how to grow them in small spaces and make multiple plantings each year.  The recommended heirlooms are usually the ones I've seen in catalogs and the book suggests which vendors might carry them.  There are a few illustrated plans that seem a little better than some I've seen that are meant to get you thinking.  But some of the advice seems a little dated, such as roto-tilling and double-digging, although much of what I've read elsewhere no longer recommends either practice.  I was also a little confused by the suggestion to add red worms to compost piles, although I think the author is talking about cold composting as opposed to hot composting, which I imagine would just toast any worms in the pile.

Still, I appreciate that it's more like the traditional approach to gardening I learned when I was young.  Some of the recent advice I've seen (like 'no-dig' and no chemicals) doesn't always make sense to me, and this seems more like a 'tried-and-true' method – or at least a rational mix of the two.  It leans more to the beginner, but if you're trying to make the most of limited space (and limited time), this might be a very useful book.