Friday, August 15, 2014

Stones and Bones of New England by Lisa Rogak


Why I Read It: I am a self-professed taphophile.

Summary: A reference guide to some of the most historic and interesting cemeteries in the six New England states.

My Thoughts: It'd be easy for me to go on a rant about opportunities missed, but I think there's an important note that needs to be made about this book. The subtitle calls it  "a guide to unusual historic and otherwise notable cemeteries," not "the guide."

For you see, this is New England! We have such great depth of history (note - yes, Medievalists and researchers of antiquity, American history is but current events, but work with me here) that cemeteries in every town hold tales. Even the remotest of communities, in the deepest, darkest corners of New England, have secrets that rival all others around them.

So I won't even mention my list of cemeteries that could have been mentioned in this book. Instead, I'll simply applaud it for what it is: a wonderful survey. Sometimes, the place is the story. In other places, it may be an individual stone. In still others, it's a stonecarver who left his unique stamp on the local history. The author takes us on a quick journey through a few dozen of New England's most hallowed and most fascinating burial grounds.

As a collector - not of anything in particular, just one who tends to gather things - I've found cemeteries among my most beloved treasures. Use this book to get you started, then remember that no matter where you are, a cemetery will have a story for you.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs


Why I Read It: I'd read the other three A.J. Jacobs titles.

Summary: Jacobs continues his pursuit of self-improvement, this time focusing on his soul.

My Thoughts: When I first read the subtitle ("One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible"), I thought to myself, "How funny is that?! Why would anybody ever want to do such a thing?"

And the cover of the book, I think, fueled those thoughts. The robe, the sandals, the big beard, all juxtaposed with the New York City skyline, are meant to draw you in. Imagine, somebody walking around a modern-day American city dressed like a Jew from more than 2000 years ago! What will they think of next...

And it is funny. Jacobs is a talented writer. But I liken this work to Tony Horwitz' Confederates in the Attic. In that book, the author toured the South to find the places where the Civil War was still being fought, and found it in myriad places. In this book, Jacobs sought those places where the Bible is being taken at its literal word, the places where the ancient beliefs of the Middle Eastern lands still resonate today.

Much like Horwitz, Jacobs finds that hatred is rampant. Horwitz found racism, Jacobs finds antisemitism, misogyny and homophobia, all of which are derived from - and justified by - interpretations of the Bible. Of course, he finds plenty of good in the religious world, always seeking both sides to every debate. And while the book focuses on the beard, the clothing, and blowing a horn on the first day of the new month, the true story lies in the spiritual transformation Jacobs undergoes. He searches his soul during his Biblical year for signs of increased passion for religion, for deeper belief.

As usual with Jacobs, his family life plays heavily in the story, and why not? If you've got it, flaunt it. His collection of aunts, uncles and cousins provides entertainment enough in the many side stories he presents as his beard gets bigger and his list of OCD-like rituals grows. Life lessons play out before his eyes, and he finds their parallels in Biblical passages, reminding him that while a situation might seem new - a death in the family, etc. - it never is; somebody, somewhere has fought their way through it before.

If you've got heavy religious sensitivities in any way, this book is not for you. If you're agnostic and have ever wondered how the other half lives, or if you've got an open mind as far as religion goes, and are willing to let one voice tell you the story of one man's immersion in that world, then pick it up.

Friday, July 25, 2014

No Way Home by David S. Wilcove



Why I read it: I'm a nature nut at heart.

Summary: The demise of the world's great migrations, on land, in the air and the seas.

My Thoughts: This story is more poignant this year than ever, as September 1, 2014 marks the centennial of the loss of the last Passenger Pigeon. The bird that once darkened the sky for hours in migration has now been eradicated from our planet for 100 years. The act was unconscionable. It seemed impossible, even at the time, but it happened.

And we all know about the American Bison, as nineteenth century overhunting diminished its numbers to near extinction. The same can be said of Right Whales. It seems that in the latter half of the 1800s we just perfected the art of mass slaughter of abundant animals.

But what we haven't paid much attention to is the habitat destruction and fragmentation that have disrupted the flow of migrations. The author discusses the plight of the Red Knot, a shorebird that has crashed in numbers because of our greed. We harvest and chop up Horseshoe Crabs for bait  in such numbers that the knots, which once fed on them extensively at a mid-Atlantic refueling station, can no longer sustain themselves on their northward migration to their Arctic breeding grounds.

How much of the American West has been fenced in? How much of the African corridors through which Springbok once migrated? And what does a sea full of lobster traps mean for a Humpback Whale in migration? And what have dams on major rivers done to Atlantic Salmon populations?

We, as a world, have to consider the entirety of a species' existence - breeding, migrating, wintering - if we are to preserve them. But we are talking about transnational collaboration between countries of varying economic capabilities, not to mention conservation sensitivities and political intentions.

Can it be done? Yes.

Will it?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit by Corey Olsen



Why I Read It: I read Tolkien as a kid, have read a biography, love the movies and have played LOTRO (Lord of the Rings Online). Purchased at the MIT Loading Dock Sale.

Summary: One man's interpretation of The Hobbit.

My Thoughts: Somewhere along the way I must have read a book about reading a book. I mean, literary criticism has been around forever.

This, though, is a first for me, taking the journey of Bilbo Baggins through yet another set of eyes. So, let me set this up for you. The book itself is told through the eyes of a narrator, making it a third-person perspective. We are now taking a step back and through Olsen's eyes are seeing the journey from a fourth-person perspective; he sees the narrator as a character in the telling of the tale. Yet, in the end, as we know, we are told that Bilbo wrote the book upon which the narrative is based, There and Back Again. So we land somewhere about second-and-a-half perspective when all is said and done.

Olsen made this a straight interpretation on his part, meaning that he didn't attempt to pry into Tolkien's mind and say, "I think what he was trying to say was this." His Exploring is just that, a journey in itself, wandering alongside Bilbo, seeing the sights he sees and listening to the songs Bilbo hears from the elves, goblins and dwarves. It's also a psychological study of Bilbo himself, a scrutiny of which side of his personality, Took or Baggins (his family lines) wins out in each situation.

There are times, though, when Olsen evokes some offline Tolkien information, either from Tolkien's other works of fiction or his own explanations of the story. We learn about changes made to the original text when The Fellowship of the Ring came out, and what his original plan was for the killing of Smaug.

The question is, now, whether or not I should go back and read The Hobbit, which I haven't for a few decades, though I fear I've doomed myself by reading too deeply on the topic now. I took science fiction criticism classes at college and have never been able to enjoy a sci fi film again. Ehh...we'll see.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Rescue of the Bounty by Michael Tougias and Douglas Campbell


Why I read it: To review it for Sea History, the magazine of the National Maritime Historical Society.

Summary: We all watched it live on TV during Hurricane Sandy; the old wooden sailing ship Bounty is claimed by the storm and most of its crew is rescued by the Coast Guard.

My Thoughts: Some of these books are hitting closer to home than I would like them to.

First, I know one of the authors. Mike Tougias is a fellow Massachusetts writer, who flipped from nature topics to the sea. As he did so, I was navigating those same waters, and asked him to submit a few articles, book blurbs, really, to a magazine I was editing. I also arranged for him to speak at a few events I was leading in the region.

Second, I knew the boat. I'll never forget seeing Bounty at Fall River, near Battleship Cove, tied up to the pier. I knew it had a very cool history, appearing out in the South Pacific in the movie for which it was built, Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando. I didn't know that Disney then lay in its future, nor that this event would ever happen. What I saw was an old sailing ship with a wonderful backstory that was in rumored financial trouble; I had no way of knowing what its ultimate fate would be.

Third, I can pinpoint personal proximity to Captain Robin Walbridge, who went down with the ship during the storm, to a specific date and place. About two decades ago, on the 200th anniversary of the launch of the USS Constitution, the Navy sailed her around Boston Harbor. I was on a friend's fishing boat that day, joining with the thousands of others in the spectacle out on the sea. Robin Walbridge was up on deck of Constitution, the fill-in for the Navy captain should he become incapacitated. It's a weird connection to make - and it's one that those other thousands can now make as well - but here it is.

The book is half the tale of the Bounty, and half the tale of the rescue. One can hear Tougias' sea adventure voice coming through as loudly as Campbell's technical knowledge of sailing ships. They make for a good tandem in attacking the topic. And they don't shy away from the obvious question, the one we all asked when we first heard the ship was in trouble during the storm: what the hell are they doing out there? It's the underlying foundation of the book. Who was Robin Walbridge and why did he make such a poor decision, in retrospect? One wonders how the media coverage would have been had Bounty made it through unharmed. There would probably have been a mid-page mention of the "harrowing tale" of passage on rough seas rather than front-page headlines screaming for the captain's head.

Since this book was completed (I read it in galley form) the Coast Guard has released its investigation report, pointing the finger at the captain. Aside from his own, the decision to sail toward the storm took a second life, ironically the sole crew member who claimed distant relation to Fletcher Christian, the master's mate on the real Bounty in the 1700s. But should Walbridge's entire life be judged by this one bad decision? It's hard to say "yes," but saying "no" doesn't exactly make one feel good either.

My last thought is the historic impact. When Titanic sank and the world realized there were not enough lifeboats aboard the ship, passenger vessels around the United States scrambled to come up to new codes for the number of lifeboats now legally necessary. Will there be any fallout in the historic sailing ship fleet governance, any rules implemented because of the actions of Walbridge and the Bounty crew? Or was the error in sailing toward the hurricane so egregious that no such rules about weather states, pump power, etc. need creation?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Propaganda Technique in World War I by Harold D. Lasswell


Why I Read It: Picked it up at the MIT loading dock book sale. Gotta love a bargain.

Summary: An examination of the topic through the eyes of several of the major nations involved in the conflict.

My Thoughts: What is real and what is fake in wartime? How can we tell when words are delivered to us whether or not they are truly worth heeding, or generated in some foreign office intending to sway our opinions?

Lasswell's book, published originally in 1927 as Propaganda Technique in the World War, looks at not only what we consider to be standard usage of propaganda - for instance, dropping leaflets onto the enemy lines, trying to get soldiers to desert, defect or otherwise change their perspective on the conflict - but other important ways as well. How should we sway the thoughts of the citizens of enemy countries (Germany bought several American newspapers, the French published works in German, etc.)? How should we get the neutrals to best accept our point of view? How should we approach the maintenance of existing friendships between nations? How can we demonize our enemies in the minds of our own people while concurrently demoralizing the enemy's troops and citizenry?

Who should deliver the message? Was it feasible to send German speakers to America in the 19-teens to have them attempt to rally support, or would the message to Americans best come from Americans themselves? What are the traits of the best diplomats working with foreign governments?

When one considers the world in the second decade of the twentieth century, it's amazing the chips fell where they did. France and England had been at war for a thousand years, off and on. Could they unite to face a common enemy, in the face of that enemy spreading reminders of those past hatreds, and false tales about England taking over Calais for the next 99 years? America was strictly neutral, but populated by thousands of recent immigrants still connected to their home countries. Which way would they go? Would Central and South America follow, or could they be moved in another direction? And would America align with Great Britain, after all they had been through?

Lasswell also studies who should be in charge of propaganda (an individual? a standing governmental committee? a committee formed for the purpose?) and the perils of party politics dominating the propaganda messaging. Sometimes, the effectiveness of propaganda came down to cultural differences. The famous German example comes in a story about nurses. Germany executed a French nurse, and the French propaganda machine used the incident to great extent; when France countered and executed two German nurses, Germany's propaganda office did nothing. When asked why, the old Prussian officer in charge said, "They deserved it!"

The book reports on the physical delivery of those messages, and in World War I one of the most effective tools was balloons. The author makes a point of noting that the Allies had the advantage with this method, simply because of prevailing westerly winds.

Oh, how the world has changed, yet in some ways remains exactly the same.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sky Pilot of the Great Lakes by John Kotzian


Why I Read It: I was happy to act as an editor for the author.

Summary: A missionary in rural Michigan in the late 1800s finds his true calling when rescued by a United States Life-Saving Service crew off Bois Blanc Island.
My Thoughts: I've spent the past decade and a half as an expert in the field of maritime history, specifically that of the United States Life-Saving Service, a forerunner to the Coast Guard. For the most part, it seems, the story has been told; rarely does a new tale come along. But, the thing is, I know that they are out there. The magazine I edited on the topic probably touched on the experiences of 50-75 station crews throughout the United States. But there were 279 of them. There are more stories to tell. Sometimes the stories tangential to the world of the Life-Saving Service are as compelling as the tales of the deeds of the life-savers themselves.

John Kotzian's tale about the Reverend William H. Law is not just such a tale, it's a family history, as John is a descendant of the "Sky Pilot." No one was better positioned to tell this story.

Law stumbled into the lighthouse and Life-Saving Service worlds while living on Lake Huron in the late 1800s. He'd gone into missionary work in the area to serve the lumberjacks, sailors and the local Native Americans, but a chance encounter with the Life-Saving Service on Bois Blanc Island set the course for the rest of his life. In need of assistance in the teeth of a storm, his boat receiving a battering by the waves, Law never lost hope, but realized the danger he was in. Then, from seemingly out of nowhere, the life-saving crew arrived and carried him easily to safety. He spent a few days with them, heard their stories, began to understand how lonely and unrewarding life could be in both services, and dedicated the rest of his life to them.

His contributions were multitudinous, from the compilations of traveling libraries to the delivery of his own annual "messages," printed bulletins full of hope and good cheer. The most important action he took, though, was to personally wage a campaign for the pensioning of life-savers and lighthouse keepers. We'll never know how important his work truly was in creating the Coast Guard (by giving the life-savers at least quasi-military status in 1915 and taking them out of civil service, the federal government avoided, at the time, having to establish pensions for the entire civil service sector of the government), but we know he played a role. Lighthouse keepers would have to wait until years after his death, but they, too, would get their due.

Law's adventures carried him well beyond the Great Lakes, out to the Atlantic coast, where he interacted with one of the most well-known lighthouse families in American history, due mostly to the fact that the matron, Connie Small, wrote her memoirs and lived until 2005. Small's own book cross-references the tales of interaction with Law, his visit to her Maine lighthouse home and the letters they sent back and forth.

Had John Kotzian not chased down his ancestor's tale, we may have entirely missed the William H. Law story. Thankfully, due to this work, this odd but inspiring piece of Coast Guard history survives.