Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Birds of Pandemonium by Michele Raffin

Why I Read It: Free copy sent to the nature center at which I work; the front desk staff thought I would be the one who would give it the best review.

Summary: A woman finds and cares for an injured dove and discovers her passion.

My Thoughts: Oh, the obsession. It's an amazing thing that birds do to us. The sheer number of species in the world has driven birders to the very ends of the earth in search of glimpses of each and every one. Although this book uses a number in the 9000s, other estimates suggest 11,000 or more species may be out there.

In this case, it's birds brought home that have done the damage. It's incredible that the author has kept her marriage; I've seen and read about more than one that has died on the vine in the face of an avian obsession. Michele started small, and didn't heed the advice of other breeders. Before she knew it, she had aviary after aviary filled with injured, abandoned and otherwise down-on-their-luck birds, from parrots to pigeons to parakeets. The common link? Exotic and/or endangered. My diagnosis? An overexercised nurturing instinct.

But Michele did the right thing (in my opinion, of course) and turned her passion for breeding, raising and rescuing birds into a nonprofit organization. Why not? She always had a mission, so why not legitimize it with 501(c)(3) status? The work she was already doing can now be supported by grants, and by the work of volunteers.

The question for me whenever I read about an exoctics rescue system is why? The United States has plenty of species of birds that are declining or disappearing. Golden-winged Warblers, quite common forty years ago in my home state of Massachusetts, are all but gone. In ten years of birding, I've never seen one. Bachman's Warblers may be gone as well, the last one seen in Virginia possibly in the 1960s. Red Knots, shorebirds that once flew in huge numbers up and down the East Coast, are nearly as rare as those Golden-wings, destroyed by our greed for horseshoe crabs as a bait source; the Knots ate their eggs as sustenance for their migrations. Don't they all deserve a home?

But, reading this book, it struck me. When I think in terms of "native" species, I think the U.S., but in fact, at this point in world history, as we sit in the middle of the sixth great extinction of life on earth, "native" means much more. The birds of Pandemonium, from the Green-naped Pheasant-pigeons to the Lady Ross' Turacos (one pictured on the cover of the book), are native to our planet. Everything else has gone global these days, why shouldn't conservation?

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh

Why I Read It: Interesting intersection of my passions.

Summary: The true meaning of The Simpsons is finally revealed.

My Thoughts: I think I'm geekier than even I have ever thought.

Now, I'm no mathemagician (probably the only math joke that the author overlooked researching math references in the history of The Simpsons TV series), but I do enjoy me a good formula  or two. I love big spreadsheets, I dig charts, I seek trends. There's nothing about math in its many, many forms that I don't like.

I think, perhaps, that's why I have always loved The Simpsons.

It turns out that though there have been books written about The Simpsons and philosophy, theology and more, the true meaning lies in its mathematical constructs. And this is no joke. Many of the writers over the years have held PhDs in math-related fields. They've worked hard to drop math jokes into the episodes, sometimes knowing they were way over the heads of the general viewing public.

Simon Singh's book is one that provides us with that next layer of understanding, almost the behind-the-scenes peek, of how math is inserted into the show. It gives us a few of those freeze frame moments, when we say, "Wait a minute - that equation that just flew by Homer as he was walking in the dreaded 3rd dimension - was it random and meaningless, or was there something to it?" Usually, there was purpose behind it.

The book slides through The Simpsons and right into Matt Groening's other master television creation, Futurama, which, being based in the distant future, is depicted as a world in which math and science are king, but will that be the case, with today's learning trends? I guess that's a debate for another blog. But there's a reason why Madison Cube Garden is such a cool and funny reference. Only geeks like the writers of the show would take the "square" in Madison Square Garden as the literal shape, and figure out what the next geometric configuration should be.

So whether it's Lisa practicing sabremetrics, Home spouting theorems while wearing Henry Kissinger's glasses, or Futurama dropping BASIC language into background scenery, the math you see is not only real, it's going deeper than you think. Grab a seat, cut yourself a slice of pi, and enjoy this fantastical mathematical journey!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Undisputed: How to Become the World Champion in 1,372 Easy Steps by Chris Jericho

Why I Read It: Hulk Hogan won the WWF championship when I was 12. 'Nuff said. Hulkamania, once caught, is hard to shake.

Summary: Chris Jericho's journey to the WWE, out of it and back again, paralleling his life as a rock star, a burgeoning TV star and actor, and, most importantly, a family man.

My Thoughts: If there's one thing Jericho wants me to do in this review it's to use his new word "froot," a flexible term that can mean anything in any situation, but he's not going to get it. I refuse to use it.

The more I read abut the wrestling industry, the more I want to read about it. Jericho takes the peek inside the world of the pro wrestler one step deeper than I've ever been, talking about match construction, storyline writing, etc. I truly appreciated (both in this book and his first, A Lion's Tale, available in airport book stores everywhere) his brutally honest style.

Perhaps most importantly, Jericho did not even consider shying away from the most controversial of topics, the still-mysterious death of his friend and wrestler Chris Benoit. He has no problem defending Benoit, even to Benoit's children, when the rest of the world has labeled him a monster. Yes, his life ended in a monstrous way, but the rest of his life was not lived that way, Jericho argues. Jericho could have kept quiet or, worse yet, jumped on the bandwagon with everyone else, but his fierce independence and his belief in the rest of the truths of his friend's life would not let him.

The rest of the book is written with outrageously humorous takes on the events of his life. He is, if nothing else, both an egomaniac and humble. Many times both sides of his world meet and at those times he learns. He understands that he has been lucky to live the life he has, but also that it wouldn't have happened without his remarkable drive to succeed. Whether fronting Fozzy or challenging HHH for the world title, Jericho has given it his all.

Long live Y2J and all he has given to the professional wrestling business. I hope that he gives the same energy to his young family, and suspect he does.

Fine. I'll say it. This was one of the frootest books I've ever read.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Playing with the Enemy by Gary W. Moore

Why I Read It: Baseball and World War II? Come on. Do you know me at all by now?

Summary: A baseball prodigy is of fighting age when the big war starts, and risks his career by serving with the Navy; after several twists and turns, his career is over before it starts.

My Thoughts: I have to admit I was disappointed in this book if for only the nagging pulls of a personal pet peeve. But let me get the "good" out of the way first.

It's a fantastic story, one of hope, loss, redemption and rebirth. It's got everything a good World War II baseball story should have: Brooklyn Dodgers, Nazi mortar attacks, Patton, U-boats, and more. The protagonist is one for whom you want to pull. The story rises and falls where it should, and in the end the hero is just that, a man who rose above the forces in life holding him down and forged a great life for his family.

But much of it is fictional, in the sense that names are changed, characters are conglomerations of different people, and one can't tell what is truth and what is not. Historic conversations are fabricated (with lots of exclamation points). Characters are overemotional. The book's billed as nonfiction, but reads like a novel for the reasons stated above. And I'll be the first to admit that I have a problem suspending disbelief when something billed as fact is so hard to nail down as such.

Now, I am sure that the author has done his due diligence. One of my favorite lines falls at the end of the book, the kind of "a-ha" moment conclusion that gives one hope that truth has been realized, that history has been uncovered. I believe Gene Moore did most of what happened in the book. But being a historian myself, I have trouble with the blurriness.

All of that said, it was one of my favorite books of all time. (Weird, huh?). I think my heartstrings are pulled particularly hard by Gene Moore's story because it's told by his son. I, too, like many of us out there, am the son of a military man who went through his own hell but came out the other side as a better person in the long run. I understand where Gary Moore is coming from; the father-son bond is hard to understand if you've never been tied into it.

Here is where I would typically curtly sign off with a line like, "I just wish it was all true," but I won't. I love the story as it is and can bury my problems with it in a pet peeve cemetery. Gene Moore is a hero in the sense that most dads are. And that's good enough for me.

*Check out the December 2014 issue of Vietnam for the story of my dad's war experiences. I was privileged to write them up for the magazine, given the honor to memorialize my dad's contributions.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard

Why I Read It: Continuing my lifelong fascination with the Civil War; also, Glory! is one of my favorite movies of all time.

Summary: The story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

My Thoughts: I, of course, wondered what would be different about the book, having seen the movie as a teenager. But I didn't linger on that notion. There were a few major departures, like iconic lines attributed to one historic figure in the movie but actually uttered by another in the historic record, the displacement of events from ships to the shore, etc. But they in no way ruined the memories of the movie for me; I now just know where they are.

The key to reading this story in the wake of the movie is to know that it is biographical in nature, following the life of Robert Gould Shaw from childhood to death. The book in no way "fleshes out" the handful of leading African-American characters in the film. That was just never the author's intent. We learn a little about Shaw's superiors and the men who reported directly to him, somewhat about his family, but mostly about Shaw himself, what fueled him, and what fears ultimately consumed him.

The book is also a wonderful immersion into Victorian Boston, the world of Governor John Andrew, of William Lloyd Garrison and others. It brings us back to a place fired by a notion, the eradication of slavery. It brings us into the presence of Frederick Douglass. It brings us into the heads of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, as they maneuvered the chess pieces that led to the arming of African-Americans - including some former slaves - and, in Davis' case, the divining of consequences for the captured officers who oversaw them. While the South promised swift "justice," the North promised to retaliate in kind, eye for an eye, with Confederate prisoners, should anything happen to Union officers of African-American troops.

I think when we consider this book, we have to take two things into account. One, it was published in 1965, during the centenary of the Civil War. Two, it was published in 1965, during the Civil Rights movement. I would love to know how it was received when it was released, for if nothing else it is a story of inspiration, as portrayed in the movie two decades later.

Last year I spent a lot of time walking in cemeteries, and each time I came across a 54th soldier, I stopped and paid respect. I had to. For some reason, I couldn't just walk on by.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Why I Read It: The story seemed too interesting to pass up.

Summary: A reporter follows the story of the "immortal" HeLa cells back to the "donor's" family, then walks with them through their own journey of discovery about their past.

My Thoughts: We're only a hundred years removed from dirt roads and horses and buggies, and in some places not even that much. We're only a century and a half beyond the American Civil War, the conflict that ended slavery in the United States. We've come a long way, but we are not as advanced as we think we are.

In some ways, the rushes to advance have occurred in misstep. Nowhere is this reality better exemplified than in the juxtaposition of the American medical industry of the 1940s and 1950s and the home life of the Lacks family in rural Virginia at that same time. Physicians at Johns Hopkins diagnosed patients there using words the latter never had a chance of learning.

For many Americans the concept of rural poverty is undecipherable. We can say we understand poverty and get what is meant by living a rural life, but until we've seen it in action, considered it from all angles, we just don't truly know what it's all about. And so we come to the story of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta lived that life in the Jim Crow South, marrying a cousin and dying of cancer at a young age. Her cancerous cells - without any familial consent - were taken for lab use and became the standard experimental cells used in research around the world. They are sold today for large sums of money, yet her descendants cannot afford health care.

Skloot takes us on the road with her as she does her research. The book is not a straight history (though in some places it certainly is), but rather a first-person walkthrough of meeting the Lacks family and participating in their exploration of Henrietta's life and legacy. The story eventually centers on one daughter and her quest for knowledge about her mom and a sister mysteriously lost in the past as well.

The story is remarkable, when we consider that the HeLa cells have replicated themselves so many times that they could wrap the earth numerous times, still splitting sixty years after Henrietta died. We stand by  as the family comes to grips with their existence. Are they her mother or aren't they? Can they say, since her cells were shot into outer space, that their mother has been there, too?

The book wanders us into the waters of medical ethics from the 1800s to today, and begs us to consider the issues of research for the benefit of the greater population vs. personal ownership of our own cells. Should doctors and researchers be free to keep what is gathered from an operating table or an exam room and do with it whatever they wish? or should we, as patients, have the right to sell our cells to the highest bidder? Where is the line drawn?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Ted W. Lawson

Why I Read It: I'm still pursuing every story ever told about World War II.

Summary: A first-person narrative of the Doolittle raid in April 1942 by a B-25 pilot who survived it.

My Thoughts: I grabbed this book from a box of old tomes I had stashed away. When I pulled it out, it just felt right in my hands. My copy is an original 1943 edition, with nothing but a little top-down silhouette of a B-25 on the cover. It just drew me in, and I knew it's time had come.

When I purchased it, years ago, I did so because of the familiarity of the title, tying it into the movie of the same name. I've been a World War II-era movie buff for as long as I've been fascinated with reading books about the conflict. I had no idea, though, that the tale would be so gripping.

There are no chapters, no natural breaks in the story, and because of that fact, the book moves. And, due to the nature of the tale - training, transit, mission, crash, escape, repatriation, recovery - breaks are unnecessary. I found it hard to stop reading anywhere, not because there were no convenient places to bookmark, but because there was no stopping the flow. Once the crash occurs, every page brings another bit of tension. How close are the Japanese troops? Will they catch them, or will the Americans get away? What will become of the people who help them if the Japanese find them?

The book is full of raw World War II-style hatred for the enemy, and is a great immersion in the thought cycles of the day. In some ways, it's spooky to see the old style printing of names like "Dr. C_____," knowing that the author was protecting the identity of someone who was still at deep risk of capture and death at the hands of the Japanese. Lawson practices the same routine with the names of the villages he wound through during the tumultuous escape attempt, not wanting to give the Japanese a trail to follow.

In retrospect, it's amazing what was pulled off by the bombers on the Doolittle raid, a slug back into the face of the enemy in response to Pearl Harbor. The logistics of the raid called for guts in the extreme. Launching B-25's off an aircraft carrier had never been done, and for this raid the plan was to land in Chinese airfields, refuel and keep going. But being spooked by the presence of Japanese ships at sea, the planes flew earlier than expected off the Hornet and mostly ran out of or very low on fuel searching for the airfields in a storm. It was a miracle that the men who made it home did so.

Lawson lost a lot, personally, as a result of the mission, but did it for the right reasons for the time. He waved the American flag with his words at a time when many Americans needed such encouragement. That old school patriotism is generally lost now, but it was a building block to the world of today.

But no matter what one's opinions on those topics may be, as a piece of literature, this book is as thrilling as anything I've ever read. It's now permanently out of the box and onto my shelf.