Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis





Why I Read It: Reading the series with my kindergartner as "chapter books."

Summary: Four children in World War II London are hustled out of the city and into the home of an elderly man, where they find a magical wardrobe.

My Thoughts: Perhaps it's just the struggling dad in me, trying to find the next great great story to tell, but it seems the concept comes naturally. A child peeks into something and finds another world. For us, it's been everything from a glass of milk to an imaginary tube in the vernal pool behind our house. Of course, since my little guy's world is populated with pop culture characters, the tube leads to Mario and Luigi, and the world on the other side of the glass of milk was Minecraft.

But those worlds just got him warmed up for Narnia. While there was a language barrier to hurdle (quickly changing "Father Christmas" to "Santa," for instance; yes, he makes an appearance in the book), the story is action-packed enough to be fun for his little mind. Even just the concept of swords, shields and potions of healing get him thinking. Powerful talking lions and evil witches just add to the fun.

A few things went over his head, like the concept of the non-passage of time, like when the children emerge from the wardrobe after what felt like years inside, only to find that they had not aged at all. But the basic concept of good and evil is there, of triumph over adversity. I hope he is having enough fun to consider reading them again in the future. I'll be sure the books are packed away so that he can.

For some reason, I had never read these books before, so it's an exploration for me, too. I was certainly a fantasy and Sci-Fi geek as a kid, but perhaps I just discovered Lewis a bit too late. I'm glad I'm getting the chance to relive a little of my childhood for the first time, sharing it with my son.

The Predator Paradox: Ending the War With Wolves, Bears, Cougars and Coyotes by John Shivik




Why I Read It: Full-time job is as a naturalist.

Summary: The author tries to find the bridge between the loss of livestock and the wholesale retaliatory slaughter of apex predators.

My Thoughts: This book boils down to one pertinent fact.

When we consider the depredations of the country's top natural predators on livestock, on people and on pets, etc., oftentimes our reaction is to make a big sweeping move. Wolves killing sheep? Kill all the local wolves. Grizzly bears attacking campers and hikers? Kill all the bears. But we know the domino system will be in effect.

If we kill the top predator, its main wild prey can run rampant. Kill all the hammerhead sharks and we'll be overwhelmed on our beaches by overabundant stingrays. With no natural predators in Massachusetts, where I live, white-tailed deer have become a nuisance species, spreading Lyme disease and devouring forest floor habitats, not to mention the front yard tulips.

But, Shivik argues, supported by the numerous ongoing experiments he covers in this book, even just destroying the local population of predators is the wrong way to go. We tend to think that each and every wolf is the same as the next one; if one wolf is a sheep killer, they all are. But we are finding that, just like us, there is individual variation in the way of personalities in the world of our biggest mammalian predators. Oftentimes innocent bystanders are being picked off in the war against them.

But how do we know who is a sheep killer and who is not? And are there ways that we can train wild predators to shy away from the desire to take livestock? Shivik walks us through the thought process. Can we give visual or olfactory reasons not to kill? Will a distasteful scent tip a bear off that attacking a hiker might be an unpleasant experience?

One way or another, the author argues, we have to stop the war, lest we interminably damage the balance in the ecosystem (more than we already have). Yes, we have questions of economies to consider; we can't let our livestock producers live with constant losses. But we also can't let the wild world down, either.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells





Why I Read It: Whim. Was scanning through my Kindle for something "new."

Summary: A doctor-turned-physicist discovers the secret of human invisibility (it has to do with light refraction) and goes on a naked, invisible rampage.

My Thoughts: For it's time, it must have been quite the sensation. Wells certainly had the touch.

I think for me, though, there was a lot of baseline comedy that made the book even more enjoyable. Let's face it - the story is more than 100 years old and has been done to death in movies, etc. (My favorite spoof was with Ed Begley, Jr., in Amazon Women on the Moon). The concept is not as shocking as it once was.

Then there's the setting, late small-town Victorian England, the land of pubs. Everybody has an overwritten accent, every person a classic caricature to today's reader. And there's even a Monty Python moment. When the Invisible Man, who we come to know as Griffin, meets the wanderer Mr. Thomas Marvel for the first time, he gets frustrated by Marvel's noncommittal stance on aiding him. The Invisible Man ultimately says that if Marvel doesn't help him, he will throw flints at him until he acquiesces. This sort of minor punishment just struck me as reminiscent of a famous line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Very well. If you do not appease us, we will say 'Ni' to you."

The pace of this book is excellent, making it a true thriller. Even during the lengthy conversation between Griffin and his college contemporary, Kemp, the story moves. The beauty of the concept is that being invisible, Griffin can (ironically) appear in the book at any time, leaving that constant air of mystery when any other characters are conversing without him. There are exceptions, of course. When he eats, food must assimilate into his system; Marvel asks him when he first meets him whether or not he's recently eaten bread and cheese. When it rains, mud outlines his bare feet, and two young boys watch his feet run down the street.

I think we are left with the ultimate question of "did the process of becoming invisible make him go crazy, was it the realization afterward that his life had forever been altered, or was he a loony before this all happened (perhaps explaining why he did this to himself in the first place)?" The guy is bordering on pure evil. He plans a reign of terror. He murders. He steals. He wantonly hurts others for what seems like fun.

The fact is, though, that if he was not nuts, the book would have gone nowhere. Had he been a proper late Victorian British gentleman, the tale would have been boring as hell. Wells chose his character well, giving him delusions of despotism.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach




Why I Read It: I think I was hooked on the concept of the author's series-like titles (Stiff, Gulp, Bonk, Spooked...), though they're just so named for marketing purposes, really. But I'm always up for a new science title.

Summary: A million ways to be used after you die.

My Thoughts: The underlying message the author is trying to get across is that if your body is "donated to science" it doesn't mean that it'll end up as a skeleton hanging in a classroom. It's not a cautionary tale, though, but a journey - through blood, guts, bones, brain matter, etc. - through the realities of today's various forms of cadaveric research.

It really is amazing how many ways human cadavers are used in this country alone, especially when one considers our general squeamishness, and our still somewhat Puritanical thoughts on the sanctity of the entire body as the vessel of the soul. The Swedes are experimenting with turning people into fertilizers (could have happened by now, the book was 12 years old when I read it). Several countries have spoken to an American doctor who successfully transplanted monkey heads onto other monkey bodies, and thinks he can do so for human heads (onto other human bodies, of course).

The author attacks the story with humor, which, of course, was the only way to do it. There's fatalism ingrained in us now, in ways we never had it before. We can at least mildly joke about the idea and the utterly unavoidable finality of death, if not about death of specific people around the time they die. It certainly helps balance out the goriness and gruesomeness of the details of human decapitated cadaver heads being used as stand-ins for...well, living human heads in plastic surgery training classes.

Toward that end, that's one of the earliest questions posed in this book. When someone checks off "donate my body to science," is it fair for them to end up as body-less cosmetic surgery mannequins? or crash test dummies? In the case of the former, I say, sure. Just give them free face lifts for life. Throw some perks at them.

Another question is, should we know? And by we, I mean friends and family. Should we have any inside information as to how the body of a deceased loved one is used? Should we be privy to the dissection at the medical school? Should we see the body decomposing at a cadaver farm? Should we know that the body of Uncle Frank was struck in the clavicle by a machine replicating a car/pedestrian accident?

The book is not for the faint of stomach, but I will say that it is, scientifically, one of the most fascinating tomes I've ever read. Good books make you think, and boy, do I have some thinking to do.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard



Why I Read It: Had to remember how they laid out the whole lunar eclipse thing, having read it in college.

Summary: An adventurer joins a party looking for a man lost in Africa, and ends up wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but only after much, much more adventure!

My Thoughts: So, we have to put ourselves in 1885 when we read this book. Cool. I dig mental time travel. I can do that.

We have to not only take with a grain of salt the simplicity of the tale compared with today's standards, we have to also live with the fact that this was a man's adventure. Although Allen Quatermain, our hero, from time to time surprises us with a slightly open view of the world (hinting that he would accept a mixed black/white relationship while the rest of the world might not be ready for it), there are no women involved in the story as far as the main effort goes. There are witches, there is Gagool, and there are young handmaidens of the fairest kind, but there is no heroine.

We also have to remember the excitement the "opening" of Africa meant in the 19th century. We have to remember that popular adventure fiction was generally young. In fact, this book kicked off the "Lost World" genre. Suspension of disbelief was in its infancy in the English-speaking nations (though I would say that anybody who had their hands on a copy of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from 1818 was probably already in practice).

So what sticks today? The names, for one. What a fantastic job by Haggard! "Allen Quatermain" sounds like a man wearing cargo shorts and a pith helmet. Sir Henry and Captain Good as companions round out the British trio. They may as well have been in the opening scene of a Commander McBragg cartoon ("Quite.") Umbopa becomes Ignosi, the names of the man who returns to become king of Kukuanaland (all great names!), and the evil witch doctoress Gagool, well, doesn't it just send shivers right up your spine? The only name of which I wasn't really enamored was Twala, the reigning king, who just didn't seem evil enough, but his son more than makes up for it. Would you trust someone named Scragga?

Then, there is the total manliness of the story: plunging headlong into the journey knowing it would end on the death of all three; survival against all odds; donning ancient chain mail to participate in an epic battle that reshapes the world of the Kukuanas; the overthrow and installation of kings; the search for the treasure; the blatant use of sexual imagery (pointing to two distant mountains and calling them Sheba's Breasts, then charging into a cave at the base of them); the dramatic manner in which two of the three native guides die; the ruse of pretending to be from the stars, and happening to be in the exact right place for viewing a total lunar eclipse when you're in need of a sign of your other-worldliness; being trapped by Gagool in the mines, getting down to a single ignitable match, then finding your way out in the darkness; I could go on. About halfway through the story you just learn that anything is possible.

Man, do I love this story. It's so deep that I don't think I'll bother to ever watch a movie rendition. Why ruin it?

Gilgamesh, A Verse Narrative by Herbert Mason



Why I Read It: Flashback to 5th grade; I'll explain.

Summary: The epic story of the hero Gilgamesh, as told in this one man's translation.

My Thoughts: Yes, 5th grade. Mr. McSweeney read the narrative (a narrative; for some reason I assume that it was this one) to us as a group, as part of our social studies exploration of the cradle of civilization, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. You know, the Fertile Crescent. It's amazing how much has stuck with me since that time.

Anyway, I have vivid memories of the reading, because one of my classmates, a true goofball if there ever was one, stood at the front of the class and acted out the narration. Every time Mr. McSweeney read the word "Humbaba," the name of the early enemy of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, my classmate would furrow his brow, suck in all the air he could, move his shoulders up and out in the "I'm HUGE!" pose and stomp clumsily around the room. And so, recently, while cataloging my book collection, I came across a paperback copy of the Mason narrative, which I probably purchased more than a decade ago with the intent of reading through the entire story, refreshing my 9-year-old experiences. It took until 2015 (I was in 5th grade in 1980-81) but here we are.

There is so much about this story that is simply amazing, and I mean that in the sincerest way. Consider the age of it. Sorry, trick question - we don't know how old it is. What we do know is that the story is timeless, a theme that carries through the ages and relates from the ancient Mesopotamians to today. That, in itself, is worthy of an "amazing" in my eyes.

But take the second piece, that the text wasn't even found until the mid-1800s, on tablets, and the story appeared only in fragments at that time. Parts had to be chased around the world from other sources to make it all come together, and in the end, it came to this one man - a Massachusetts man, I might add (proudly) - to create the beautifully flowing epic narrative that I have just read.

This story was saved. What has been lost?

The transformation of Gilgamesh is invigorating, and then heartrending, from hated ruler to beloved friend, to sorrowful and vulnerable man. He, as a part-god, faces death for the first time in his life when Enkidu is taken from him. It haunts him, causing him to go to the ends of the earth for answers, first, for how to get Enkidu back, and then for why he can't. This is pre-U.S. sitcoms. There is no happy ending. We are left with his despair, and it stings.

One odd note that struck me during the reading was the mention of Uruk, an important city of Sumer and Babylonia, ruled at one time by Gilgamesh. Tolkien's nastiest orcs are called Uruk-hai; a tribute to the Gilgamesh? It would be interesting to go back and peek into his mind. He could have intended it for their fierceness as warriors, but I am totally conjecturing.

Finally, I think I'm learning that I love epics. Beowulf is still my all-time favorite, but Gilgamesh pulled at my heart. I think I need to read a few more.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Old Coast Road from Boston to Plymouth by Agnes Edwards Rothery





Why I Read It: Some backyard history; I cover the same region for a magazine.

Summary: From Beacon Hill to Plymouth Rock by automobile in 1920; one very opinionated woman's thoughts.

My Thoughts: Well, I have never been so insulted by a 95-year-old book in my life.

But it's all relative, of course. Taking time, place and economic class into perspective, it was inevitable. And in reality it was only one comment, which made me laugh out loud with a "Hey, what's up with that?!" In discussing the changes to the Boston neighborhoods in the first two decades of the twentieth century, the author comments that the North End hadn't fared as well as others, inhabited then as they were by the "sons of Abraham and the Italians."

I'd like to think that we have moved past such things, so I'll give Ms. Rothery a pass on this one. Quite frankly, it's her sort of ridiculous frankness that makes the book so interesting. For instance, she has no problem telling us that the history of one of the towns on the road from Boston to Plymouth, Weymouth, is painfully boring. She felt that the first few years of Morton and Merrymount were the pinnacle of Weymouth history, that the next few centuries were drab. If only she could see the town now, after a naval air station has come and gone. Boring is hardly the word.

She also points to the old Plymouth records she had access to, and makes a case that the people of the 1920s were less lecherous, generally higher brow than even the Pilgrims. She describes the old portico over Plymouth Rock as horrid (it would be replaced within two years of publication of the book, so maybe she had a point).

While most of the book is hyperbole built off solid history lessons, one sentence she used caused me to think vividly. Imagine Plymouth Harbor, she pleaded, with naught but a small shallop in it. I couldn't. The Plymouth waterfront bustles all throughout the year - people, cars, boats, birds - and thus she stumped me. I couldn't fathom what it must have meant for the Pilgrims to watch the Mayflower disappear over the horizon.

In the end, the book was a lesson in historiography as well as anything else. There's no special depth to it as a history book, but it reads as at least a primer on the history of the South Shore towns, and makes for a fun trip down a familiar road, for me, at least.