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.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Red Baron vs. an F-16

We don't live too far from the Van Nuys airport and occasionally I hear the throaty growl of old WWII-era fighter planes flying over our end of the valley.  Oftentimes I even run outside to look, even though I'm not knowledgeable enough to identify anything.  I really like the sound of an old P-51 Mustang, but you gotta admit that an F-16 is pretty cool!  But regardless, I like seeing them and have enjoyed going to a few air shows.  It would be really cool  to see them in real action, but that might be a bit messy and would probably include death and destruction, so... being a reader, I've managed to find a few books that I found interesting.

Prior to reading Richthofen: Beyond the Legend of the Red Baron by Peter Kilduff, the extent of my knowledge regarding the Red Baron was that he was Snoopy's arch-nemesis and that the name is used on a brand of frozen pizzas. Okay, I also knew he was a German pilot during WWI, but I didn't know he was a pioneer in military aviation tactics as well as a very decent and honorable soldier who was credited with having downed more enemy planes than any other flier during the war. When he was finally shot down and killed at the age of 25 (a young man in contrast to the grossly inaccurate depiction on the pizza box!) he had brought down 80 British and French airplanes, and was feared by his enemies everywhere and revered as a national hero in Germany.

This probably isn't the kind of book that will have broad appeal.  It does a good job of documenting those he shot down (names, places, dates and times, plane ID #s), but it's not what you'd call a 'compelling' read.  I mostly enjoyed the insights into the man behind the legend.  Apparently there is a bit of speculation about Richthofen's moodiness and change in attitude toward the end of his short life.  Many believe it was due to a head wound he had suffered, but I tend to think the author's position that he was suffering from "battle fatigue" or "combat stress" – basically what we now call PTSD – is most likely.  Maybe the way Richthofen's mother put it is the most accurate: "I believe he has seen death too often."

But times have changed since WWI when wars were fought primarily on the battlefield.  Now, we see conflicts conducted almost entirely in the air with supersonic jets and heat-seeking or radar-guided missiles.  Lords of the Sky: Fighter Pilots and Air Combat, from the Red Baron to the F-16 by Dan Hampton is well-researched history of war in the air, focusing mainly on the fighter pilots.  A hundred years ago, "aeroplanes" were a novelty and used mostly for intelligence purposes – things like scouting out where the enemy army was.  It wasn't until one flier took a gun up with him and started shooting at the enemies fliers that air combat was born, and Hampton covers a lot of notable pilots.  Not every famous pilot or airplane is mentioned but it was comprehensive enough for me.  And ever since I read the Kilduff book (back in 2006) I've been kind of partial to Richthofen, so I felt Hampton was too dismissive of his accomplishments and disagreed with his characterization of the Red Baron as simply a cold-blooded hunter/killer.  But I might be biased.

But Hampton was a fighter pilot himself and is very familiar with the technical aspects of air combat.  He gives a surprising amount of detail on not only the tactics but also on how they evolved over the years, and I found his knowledge of history to be surprisingly good.  He's able to speak authoritatively about things such as the cockpit design of Russian MIGs and he even provides short appendixes on "Anatomy of a Dogfight" and "Anatomy of a Surface Attack" (bombing) that briefly discuss some of the challenges.  It would have been nice if he'd explained some of the fighter-pilot jargon used near the end of the book but it didn't detract from a fun and exciting read, and the mix of history and technical detail made for a nice balance.  (I received a free copy of the book from the GoodReads "FirstReads" program.)