30 December 2005

Admiral Boscawen

"I beg my dear will not be uneasy at my staying out so long. To be sure, I lose the fruits of the earth, but then I am gathering the flowers of the sea." - Admiral Boscawen to his wife, 1756.

There is a wikipedia entry on him, but a more detailed look up at the library or in the Oxford Companion To Ships and the Sea (Editor of the supposedly better 1976 version was Peter Kemp) would serve you well. Boscawen was a badass.

Music: two recommendations

First, Coupe Cloue. Haitian. Heard it in a cab on the way down to the Knitting Factory for the Fortress of Attitude show. We got into a conversation with the cabby about it and he wrote down the name of the group and recommended Henry Gesner in particular. None of this is available on iTunes Music Store.

Second, Devendra Banhart. Undefineable, but I would say folk would be the closest label to use. You'd hear him on KEXP (available on your iTunes radio) and WFUV (90.7 on your NYC FM dial). College radio. Cool lyrics and a nice mellow vibe. Fire up the hookah and turn up the sound.

27 December 2005

23. Incorporation by Conan Purves

Good story. I read it today in just about one sitting.

Coming on the heels of Snow Crash, I couldn't help but see some parellels. And I think it also reminded me of Lawnmower Man and Tron, though I have not seen either of those movies in years. Influences, not robberies.

The basic plot: Nick gets a new gadget that helps him navigate in his corporation's server. It consumes him, but also sets him free.

You should read it if you haven't: incorporationthebook.com

22. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

What a great book! It has been recommended to me by so many people, all trusted readers, so I am glad that I finally finished it. Hackers, linguistics, some math and number theory, avatars, the internet, skaters, and the mafia. Cool.

I definitely recommend it.

20 December 2005

TS Eliot

I just read that TS Eliot had two signed portraits on his wall: WB Yeats and Groucho Marx.

Nice.

The article didn't say how many unsigned portraits he had on his wall.

I read this in a magazine called "mental_floss." In the Nov-Dec 2005 issue.

14 December 2005

21. Everything I Learned About Business I Learned From Monopoly by Alan Axelrod

This was a very cool little book that I got from Rick for Xmas last year. I thought it would be a book about tips and tricks for how to win at Monopoly, or at least do better, like the book I got from Summer at Christmas 1997. That was the Monopoly Companion.

This book is not that. It is a guide to doing business Monopoly-style. As the author notes in the introduction, many parents and older folk think Monopoly is a great way to teach kids how to be responsible with money. Well, unfortunately the lesson that is reinforced in Monopoly is that risk is the key to success. Risk and pushing risk, taking chances, investing as deeply as possibly in sources of revenue, and making deals with other players until you are ready to stab them in the back – those are the lessons of Monopoly.

This is an interesting book for me to read right now because I am just starting the business plan for two ventures I'd like to start – a magazine and the Mashomack Boatshop that I spoke of earlier (on 8 December).

The business plan has a lot of mystique around it, like it's so hard to get right and write it and only an experienced person should be writing it. All false, as far as I'm concerned. It is just like a screenplay. Just another writing format to use to convey information. No big deal.

Anyway. I found the format of the book to be entertaining – short little bits of Monopoly wisdom followed by short little stories that illustrate that wisdom And clocking in at 200 pages it was a quick read.

"Fail not our feast"

So one of the 7th graders had a birthday party last week, on Friday, and nobody showed up. Not one kid.

We asked if the kid thought it was because of the snowstorm, but that didn't seem to be the case.

I want to respond in some way, to say it's OK, or will be, or help the kid just say, "fuc.kem" but I'm not sure what to do.

13 December 2005

if only

Copyright New York Times Company Dec 5, 2005

A man from Arkansas scaled the fence surrounding the White House on Sunday while President Bush was inside and was immediately captured by Secret Service officers.

10 December 2005

20. Hero by Dan Barkan

This was a good yarn.

I'll save the gory details for the final draft, and send my full critique right to the author himself. Dan wrote a short first draft, 68 pages, and it was a fun read.

The story is about many things, so perhaps the easiest way to describe it is to describe the characters. My favorite was Jinx, the young rascal that Hero, the main character pals around with at Hux War University. These two are fesity and fun, and she is irreverent and daring, but loyal and true to Hero. Next are Ghazi and his father Raj Alai. They are contacted by angels to perform a quest. And there is Angry Pipe, the tattooed, agnostic elf. He becomes the surrogate father for Hero and Ghazi late in the story as the quest's goals are shifted, or perhaps a better word is postponed. On the other side is Smoke, more a thing than a person. he's powerful and he's bad. He's in league with the mechanical Night Eaters. What are they after exactly?

I look forward to the long/full version.

that was close...

So a kid who attends the high school I teach at was stabbed in the neck Thursday after school. Seems he was walking back from his house (picking up his jersey for the basketball game) and he walked past a neighboring school. He saw a friend of his get into a fight, so DM rushes in. A friend of the other kid in the fight jumps in and stabs DM in the neck, cutting his carotid artery. DM's friend N puts his tshirt on DM's neck and they walk to Beth Israel hospital (which is right across the street from our school). Then the stabber tries to catch up to DM and crew to finish the job. The cops arrested him. The stabber is 14 years old. After surgery and five pints of blood, DM is in ICU and is expected to be OK.

Wild.

08 December 2005

Mashomack Boatshop

I am midway through setting up a nonprofit boat shop. The idea would be that the group, called Mashomack Boatworks, would take beat up and broken down sailboats, rowboats, dinghys, and rebuild them. If it used to float we'll rebuild it, might be one of our mottoes.

Ideally high school kids would do the rebuilding, but I would be open to community folks coming by and helping. I don't know how to build boats by scratch so it couldn't be a boatbuilding thing, yet, but that would certainly be in the long term plan.

It's quite a process to set up a nonprofit, but it's going. I already have an Employee ID Number (EIN) so I can start hiring folks. And I have a Fiscal Sponsor, so people can start giving donations (boats or money or tools or space) as soon as they want. No website, yet, and just a staff of one.

Mashomack is a Native American (Long Island) word for "those who go by the sea."

07 December 2005

A new alignment system for the D&D

Here's my new way, please comment.

But first a critique of the old system and why I find it doesn't work.

The current alignment system in D&D doesn't make sense to me, such as evil, pure evil or chaotic evil. Why would a being, by its nature, be evil? Why destroy stuff? What being in our world destroys for no reason? To destroy what one considers pointless or alienating, part of an oppressive system, doesn't make someone evil. I feel that often, the portrayal of evil in D&D has no overarching philosophy, other than world-domination. Or evil bad guys want to introduce extra-planar creatures onto the material plane so it will be "utterly destroyed." It makes no sense.

So evil doesn't exist. Sort of. What does exist is competing agendas and philosophies that provoke different biases, prejudices, and stereotypes. One man's Terrorist is another's Freedom Fighter. Were the Sons of Liberty terrorists?

I do like the axis though, and use it to explain Motivation, or Bias. Call it what you want.

Along the horizontal axis (the X-axis) is a spectrum, a political spectrum, I guess, with degree of regulation as its topic. It asks, "to what degree should the government regulate political, social, and cultural freedoms?" Heavily regulated on the left and unregulated on the right.

The Y-axis concerns the individual, and asks, "What is a person's chief motivation: the individual or the group?" Selfish-ism on the bottom and Altruism on the bottom.

So. If you are in the top left corner you would be someone who wants a lot of regulation and believe people are mostly for the group, putting others before themselves. I think the D&D would call a person in this box LG-ish.

And if you are in the bottom right corner, you want very little regulation, and expect people to be motivated by themselves. Would this be between CN and CE?

How about the bottom left corner? You want high regulations and believe people are selfish. Is there a match for this in the D&D? I don't think so. Is there a person like this in the world? Yeah, maybe the fear of others' selfishness motivates the government to regulate? I'm not sure.

And the top right corner leaves you with a person who wants unregulated societies and people who are mostly into the group. Anarchists? Local people in small groups who set the rules for themselves.

Here ends the first draft.

01 December 2005

1000 miles

I finally got 2005's 1000th mile on my bike today. I've done very little riding so far this school year. (I haven't been taking the train or driving either, spending many of the nights in the area.) Half of the 999th mile was on the Queensboro Bridge, that fine old span, that Gothic Beauty, that no fare thoroughfare. It's not as impressive as some of my other cycling milestones, and compared to them 1000 miles ain't squat. But I did ride my bike to work in February, getting a split lip from the cold. And I did wipe out into a snow bank after I hit some ice on the uphill end of the Queens-bound side of the bridge. I definitely wasn't feeling groovy then. And I only almost got hit by two cars, which, I think, is pretty good for 12 mos/1000 miles worth of riding.

28 October 2005

19. Rules of the Wild by Francesa Marciano

There were time I thought this was for sure a chick book. The narrator is a woman and the main thread is her finding and losing love, BUT it's not chick-lit.

The book is about Euro and Ameri expats living in Kenya and all the twisted reasons they are there and all the twisted relationships they get into. Ultimately it is a journey of discovery for our narrator, Esme.

Some of the dialogue in the begining is so bad you feel sorry for Marciano, but the description and protrayal of the characters is so good you forgive her immediately.

This was a good book and I strongly recommend it.

26 October 2005

18. You are Going to Prison by Jim Hogshire

Well, if I wasn't scared enough about going to jail, I am now.

Nothing about the experience sounds good. Or survivable. Hogshire goes through each step of the process, from seeing the rollers/flashing lights behind you all the way up to the electric chair. He even tells a beautiful little story about a Quaker who skips out on $10 bail and winds up in a Detention Center "covered wagon," a pair of bunk beds with a blanket thrown over top. Seems the war protestor spent hours getting gang raped and beaten up. Speaking of rape, if you go to jail, there doesn't seem to be much chance of not getting the shaft, so to speak. No anal rape metaphors in prison, it's all ass-banging reality. And there isn't much comfort in coming to the end of your sentence - it seems that is an even better time to get fu.cked in the keester because the bad guys know you don't want to get in trouble (by getting into a fight) just before you are about to get out because doing so might extend your sentence. And there are lots of ways to get your sentence extended. Jail is bad. Don't fu.ck up.

18 October 2005

17. Stormrider by Akira Yoshimura

Not that great. I'm reading a lot of duds this year.

This is the story of Hikozo, a young boy from a small village in Japan who get s agig as a cook's apprentice on a merchant ship. The ship gets into a big storm, gets dismasted, drifts, and is rescued by an American whaler. Then the castaways go on to America and various adventures.

There is almost no conflict in this story. It's more like Yoshi's writing a (boring) diary of Hiko's (boring) life. Toward the end of the book I had taken to calling it Boringrider. I'm falling asleep just trying to write this entry.

07 October 2005

16. The Dubliners by James Joyce

A collection of short stories. I had never read any Joyce, or so I thought, until now. I had read the story "Araby" in my intro to lit class at Suffolk Community College. Loved it then. Loved it now. This whole book was excellent. Each story was a delicious little bite. The last story, "The Dead" left me breathless toward the end. These are short stories. Nothing like what they put in One Story, the New Yorker, or the Atlantic. Excellence. More Joyce to come.

15 September 2005

15. South Sea Tales by Robert Louis Stevenson

Finally, a new entry. I haven't really sat still this past summer so I didn't get to read many books. I guess I did a medicore job in July, but August was just terrible (for reading).

This was a great book and I definitely recommend it.

There are five small stories and one longer story in the Tales. I absolutely loved the short tales, but I didn't care much for the longer. Actually, the end of the long story left me unsatisfied, but the action and suspense leading up to the last paragraph was great.

The first story was called "The Beach at Falesa" and concerns a British trade official who starts off his new assignment on the wrong foot with the locals. He winds up in a little battle with another trader, one who is in with the locals because they think he's capable of powerful magic.

Second is "The Bottle Imp" a great little story about greed, love, trickery, and magic. There is a magical bottle that will grant you wishes. You can own the bottle as long as you want, but if you die while you possess it you go straight to the Devil. You can't give it or throw it away, but you can sell it. The catch is that you have to sell it for a loss. So if you buy it for $10, you have to sell for at most $9.99. So the guy buys it so he can make himself rich and attract the attention of the Big Chief's daughter. He succeeds, they get engaged, and he sells the bottle. On his wedding night he discovers he's got leprosy. He manages to buy back the bottle and wishes his leprosy gone. He sells the bottle and then discovers he needs it again. And on and on until he owns the bottle, but can't sell because there isn't a lower currency. Oops! But then he confides in his wife and she tells him of lands where there are such things as currency lower than a dollar. They travel on, and the wife manages to get a proxy to buy the bottle from the husband, who she then buys it from. He figures out what she has done to save them and manages to get a proxy to buy the bottle from her and he buys it back. It's love. And I won't reveal the ending.

Next is "The Isle of Voices," another very cool story with some magic in it. On an island lives a very rich and powerful wizard. He has a very tough reputation and is not to be crossed. He also pays for everything in brand new gold coins. Where does he get the coins? His lazy-ass son-in-law is let in on the secret. Seems the wizard has a spell that takes him to a beach. They go and the son-in-law discovers that the shells of this beach turn to gold coins with the magic. So he tries to use the secret as leverage on the old man wizard who doesn't like it much. Wizard dumps him in the sea. Son-in-law is rescued by a passing merchant ship. He escapes the merchant ship and is abandoned on a small island, the same island the wizard visits. Mmmm intrigue. How will it turn out?

And the last real story is "The Ebb Tide" which is about some beachcombers who go on a very serious misadventure.

The book has two more very short little stories in it, which are more like fables than anything else. One is called "The Cart-Horses and the Saddle-Horses" about prejudging, and the other is "Something In It" which I am still thinking about. It's not a particularly deep story, or especially intriguing, it just seems so, I don't know, I can't quite put my finger on it.

Anyway. I have read Treasure Island and Kidnapped and really liked both of them, so I guess that makes me some kind of Stevensonian.

27 July 2005

14. The Good Shepherd by CS Forester

From the author of the Horatio Hornblower series comes this story of a destroyer captain coordinating the defense of a transatlantic convoy during WW2.

It was 188 pages, making it about 185 pages too long. Kind of boring. They get harassed by Uboats. A lot. Men die. Ships sink. The captain drinks a lot of coffee.

Speaking of coffee, Forester goes into a lot of detail about how the captain drinks it and how often it is brought to him etc. One of the junior officers that the captain dislikes gets a pot of coffee delivered to the bridge:

"Carling, would you have a cup of coffee?"
"I could use it, sir."
Carling had been on the chilly bridge for two whole hours. He poured himself a cup and added cream and sugar to reveal himself as the sort of man he was."

I picked up another Forester at the same time, but I think I might pass.

25 July 2005

13. River Horse by William Least Heat-Moon

Thoreau he is not.

The book is about two guys who try to cross America by river. They get a boat capable of navigating strong currents, deep and shallow rivers, and keeping the crew comfortable.

I'm going to miss some of their itinerary exactly, but they start from NYC, go up the Hudson, across the Erie Canal, down the Ohio, I think, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Yellow Stone, the Salmon, and then the Columbia. They do allow for the big boat to be carried by truck around dams and shallows, but try to then canoe instead.

For the most part, this was a pretty boring book. The author wasn't trying to be Thoreau, and he stayed away from trite introspection. I stayed with it until the end because I wanted to see what they would encounter and how they would make it across the Rockies. It wasn't easy. They had to time their trip so they could catch the snow melt off the Rockies, but couldn't get too far ahead because the Salmon river isn't one that anyone can chuck a canoe into and do. They needed an experienced guide because it is so dangerous. I think H-M said that Lewis and Clark carried their canoes for 90 miles of it so they wouldn't get killed.

I found three parts of the narrative exciting. First, I really liked the little stories Heat-Moon told about Lewis and Clark, a guy named Ballantine, and some German prince who all made their way across the West before it was colonized.

The second was how H-M describes the effect of civilization on the river. This was especially interesting to me after reading Earth Abides. First many of the dams are coming to the end of thier lifespans. The dams are an outmoded method of producing energy, according to H-M, and not worth the money they need to keep going. He says they are about to die because many of them, the shallower ones and the older ones, are being silted in. To get all of the silt out will take billions.

The third is also about man's effect on the rivers. So many riverfront communities have built levees and protective walls against floods that the river can't flood where it wants to, where it is supposed to, and where it has for billions of years. As a result, the floods downstream are worse. The Missouri is basically one giant canal, the stream bed is still natural, but the banks of the river are concrete walls, and somethign called "wing-dikes." No idea what they are, but I'm going to find out. Anyway. The other consequence of not letting the river flood where it is supposed to is that it doesn't leave silt for the farmers. Consequently they need more agrobusiness supplies like fertilizer and pesticides to keep their crops going. Consequently the river gets F'ed because the runoff kills fish and vegetation. And so on, and so on. Humans are seriously mismanaging the rivers.

I'm glad there was very little introspection, but reading the logbook of the trip was kind of boring. Whereas reading Thoreau can be boring, at least he is teaching you, questioning you, and provoking you. Heat-Moon complains about not knowing how Lewis and Clark felt at certain junctures, but other than being tired or hungry, I have no idea how either of the people on this boat felt either.

20 July 2005

12. Earth Abides by George Stewart

Great book. Got it from Crumbolst yesterday and stormed right through it. Reviews from Olman's Fifty, Mt Benson report, and Crumbolst

I realized, while finishing this book, that in addition to stories about animal societies (like Secret of Nimh or Charlotte's Web) that I also really like stories about the re-emergence/establishment of civilization - Lord of the Flies, the Rama series by Arthur Clarke, the first 7/8s of 28 Days Later, and this here book I just finished. I wonder if that is why, too, I like the DMing part of role-playing games so much. I get to experiment with my own societies and reasons for order and disorder.

The book is about how one man, Isherwood Williams survives after a strange fever wipes out (most of) humanity. He is away camping while the epidemic rages, and returns to the shell of civilization. He gets sick but doesn't die and has to make his way through the abandoned grocery stores and highways that are left behind.

I'd rather not give anything away, but will say that Stewart does a very good job making the assembly of survivors believable and giving amplifying detail (in the form of italicized omniscient narration) about the crumbling remains of American civilization. I hope that when it comes it's close to Stewart's description, I'll at least feel prepared.

The thing about this book though, is that while he does focus on the survivors, Stewart takes a lot of time to explain the consequences of the fall of man on the earth. It is about the people left behind, but more so how the earth reacts. I'm going to learn more about Stewart's ideas, but he does get into what happens when man is taken out of the environment-controlling and is removed as the top predator. Really so very interesting.

I've also wondered how I'd cope with some sort of apocalypse. I think I would do OK, but have wondered where I would go. East to LI? To the sailboat and be mobile on the water? Would I jump in the car and go south or west to more fertile places? I don't really have a plan, but I guess it would depend on the nature of the apocalypse.

I'm still digesting the book and will post again after I think a little more.

(I edited this post on 26 April 2008 to include the links to other reviews.)

13 June 2005

11. Idiot's Guide to the Vietnam War

Man, that was a complicated war. Lots of reasons, lots of sides, and lots of mistakes and misassumptions.

I read the book because I am teaching it to my 7th graders as the last unit of the year. We let them vote on what they wanted to learn about most, giving a ballot with 5 topics we thought we could teach reasonably well, and they chose Vietnam. I knew nothing about it beyond there were lots of sides, lots of mistakes and misassumptions, lots of reasons we got involved, and that it was complicated. I had virtually no idea what happened when, beyond what I learned in the movie theatres.

I know a lot more now, but feel that I could read the book again, or that there should be a sequel, with more detail and more primary sources. I need more information (new market: sequels to the Idiot's and Dummies Guides) and more detail.

I only chose this one to read because another teacher had a copy of it. I supplemented my knowledge with two pbs websites and a college curriculum I found online, and stayed one year above the kids. We also showed them the documentary about the Weather Underground.

Anyway. The writing style kind of annoyed me. At least three times every chapter the writer used the catch-phrase "but they were wrong." Fo example, "The VC thought the US would supply the South Vietnamese and advise them for a few years. But they were wrong." Another example, "LBJ figured the war would last two years and all he needed was a WW2 effort. He was wrong." And on and on. By the end of the book I started laughing when I saw them.

I recommend the book if you want to know a brief, light look at the war and what happened. I may look to see if they have a "Short History of the Vietnam War." I read the WW1 and WW2 books and found them to be worthwhile. The WW2 one is written by a dude named Stokesbury. A good name.

03 June 2005

10. In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov

Another book about the Arctic fell into my lap. It's the third book I've read about surviving in the cold and isolation of the North.

This was a good book. Albanov is the navigator on a seal and walrus hunting ship that sets out looking for new hunting grounds. The ship, the Saint Anna, gets locked into the ice and drifts along with the ice pack for the winter. This is normal, apparenlty, for hunting vessels to spend the winter trapped in the ice, and then get free and continue on their way in the summer. The Saint Anna though, gets locked in for the winter, doesn't get free in the summer and is looking forward to another ice-bound winter.

Albanov's relationship with the captain, Brusilov, deteriorates to the point where Albanov wants to leave and head for home. Brusilov gives him permission to build a kayak and a sled to help him get away. It takes him 90 days to go the 235 miles back to civilization. A bunch of the other sailors go with him, I think 9 in the party, but only Albanov and another make it back alive. No trace of the Saint Anna was ever found.

(Pretty much all of that info is on the dust cover, btw, so there weren't any spoilers.)

One thing that amazed me was that Albanov complains about the men in his party having apathy and laziness on their trip. He practically has to beat them to get them to collect firewood, go hunting, wake up in the morning, sit a polar bear watch, etc. Amazing that.

A second surprise was that Albanov hardly ever complains about the cold. In the Heimo Korth book (Last Frontiersman) cold is a constant predator that one has to guard against and plan for. Even in the Krakauer book (Into the Wild) he talks about the cold and desolation that comes with living in the tundra of Alaska. Only a few times does Albanov describe dangerous cold and that was usually during a gale or when someone falls through the ice. I wonder, were the men of the early 1900s hardier, or did Albanov skip talking about it because it was so obvious that it was cold he didn't have to spend pages and pages on it?

I recommend the book if you are into stories about adventure and pluck and real people figuring out how to get out of serious jams.

12 April 2005

9. The Secret of Nimh by Robert O'Brien

I loved this book.

It's a short, fast read. A kids book. Winner of the Newberry Medal. Written in 1971.

The story is about Mrs Frisby, who is a mouse. She has a winter home in the garden on a farm. As the ground thaws she knows she must move her family to the summer home in the woods because the farmer is going to plow up the garden. The problem with just packing up and going is that her youngest, smartest kid is sick with pneumonia. This leads Mrs Frisby on a series of adventures to rescue her home and children from the plow.

She enlists the help of a crow named Jeremy, a wise old owl, and the rats of NIMH. These rats are special. They are the Flowers for Algernon rats without the decaying intelligence. They have set up their own community near the farm but are unsatisfiied with a life of dependence. It seems they steal their food, their electricity, and their running water from the farm. What they want is independence, a farm of their own.

I like books that have intelligent animals, books that have the theme of "there's so much going on right in front of the humans but they don't see it." The inevitable satires are okay, but what intrigues me most is how the authors portray the animal society and structure, but also how the animals perceive the humans.

Anyway.This was not the deepest book, but it was fun to read.

30 March 2005

8. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A good book. It didn't grab me the way it grabbed the others, but it was good. Things came a little too full circle, though, a couple of times. Things that if I read them when I taught 9th grade Lit I would have crossed them out.

With that, I admit that there were gripping parts, by the last 100 pages I couldn't put it down. Some of it was shocking, and after a while I kept waiting to be surprised.

Anyway, read this book before the movie version comes out.

17 March 2005

7. In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck

Finally, another book read. February was a tough month for reading (and for biking - I got about 20 miles, if that).

I'll say right from the start that Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers. One of my favorite books is "The Winter of Our Discontent." Probably in my top five. And the other Steinbeck books I have read I'bve enjoyed a lot. Not just for the style of writing, the dialog and description, but the ideas and things the characters make me think about.

This book is set in the 1930s and concerns a labor strike at an apple orchard. Jim and Mac are the main characters and they set off to organize the strike. They do so by talking to the workers about how lousy their living conditions are, how lousy their work supplies are, and how low their wages are. Mac is the more experienced leader and Jim is supposed to be his student, learning how to organize laborers into strikers. Jim constantly asked Mac to use him, that he wants to be used to further the cause, and man, does Mac come through.

The story made me a bit sad, seeing how the labor organizers manipulated the workers into strikers by explaining how the owners manipulate them into being animals. Is that what it comes down to? The most persuasive manipulators? Mac turns heartbreak into opportunity (an old Wobblie falls off a ladder and breaks his hip which Mac exploits to illuminate how crappy their tools are) and so on. Whenever the strike looks like it breaks down, Mac tries to push a few more buttons to get the mob worked up. And while the goal is a better wage for the apple pickers (and to show the cotton growers they can't cut wages in the Autumn either) the long term goal is to get the strike to last as long as possible and to put up as much a fight as possible. Like a general in a war who doesn't care about casualties, Mac keeps pushing and pushing, small scale consequences be damned.

Though having said that I am a sucker for characters who act rather than get acted upon.

Like "The Winter of Our Discontent" the ending is not fully explained and spelled out, leaving it to the reader to sort of create a last chapter on his/her own.

This was a good book.

29 January 2005

6. Stiff by Mary Roach

This was an interesting book about a topic I hadn't really given a lot of thought to: what happens to you after you die? 300 pages, pretty informative, funny at times, and thought-provoking.

Each chapter explains a path that your body can take, or could have taken had we lived in a different age: anatomy lab, victim of grave robbery for some anatomist's experiments, organ donation, taken to a Tennessee university where they study body decay (they basically dump the bodies on the side of a hill and see what happens to them) for police departments, cremation, used in ballistic tests, car crash tests, airplane tests, cannibalized, and even used as compost.

The writing is funny at times (I almost said "lively."), and the author can't resist a few good (and a few bad) puns. Right up my alley.

While I was reading the book I was thinking about what I want for my dead body. Right at the end of the last chapter Roach talks to a funeral director who makes the pitch that the survivors should decide what is going to happen to the body because they are the ones who have to live with the consequences. Say I tell my wife and kids I want to be cremated and scattered, but they want to bury me and visit my grave - a conflict they are going to feel bad about forever, no matter what course they take. It's a good point, but I still want to have a say.

Donate my useful organs, cremate the rest, and scatter them in some large body of water. BUT, if that proves to painful for the survivors, then whatever. I just don't think getting buried, whole, in some gaudy, expensive box is a good use of time or real estate.

I recommend it if you need a nonfiction that will teach you something totally not normal.

26 January 2005

5. Old School by Tobias Wolff

This was a pretty good book. Another fast read, again just under 200 pages.

The story is about a kid, an all boys boarding school, the craft of writing, and the teachers.

The writing was at times funny, descriptive without being laborious, and brisk. I got into the main character, though I kept making comparisons to Holden Caufield. I guess that that was inevitable. And I'm sure Wolff thought of it too.

Apparently, from the fake stamp on the cover of the book, it was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award. Fancy digs.

I wasn't moved though, and I wasn't surprised by anything that happened in the book. Whether that is from good characterization, or something else, I don't know. The two plots, on throughout the book, and the other sort of springing up in the last chapter/section, brought the theme together neatly. Almost too neatly. Wolff doesn't tell us, he shows us, but even what he is showing us is sort of, I don't know, not so brilliant and sparkling.

I've not seen the movie or read the book "This Boy's Life" (also written by Wolff) and I'm not that inspired to. I will read "In Pharoah's Army" about Wolff's days in Vietnam, though. Maybe it will be as good as Time O'Brien's "The Things They Carried." I like Wolff's style and will give it another go, just didn't fall in love with this book.

25 January 2005

4. Alone Through the Roaring Forties by Vito Dumas

A fast little book (just under 200 pages) about an Argentinian cattle farmer who goes around the world in a 31' sailboat.

Vito Dumas was a farmer, rancher, and landsman who had a passion for long distance solo sailing. He decided to go around the world, around the 40th parallel, nicknamed the Roaring Forties because of the ferocious winds that come from the South Pole. He sets off during the middle/end of WW2, supplied by the goodness of his fellow townsmen. He was not very well prepared, at one point stuffing his sealskin coat with old newspapers to stay warm.

The writing is a little redundant, day after day of pounding waves and strong wind. In the hands of a better writer I would say he was doing it on purpose, trying to get the reader to see the repetitive nature of being at sea.

That's not to say there aren't moments of inspired writing. He is introspective and does go to sea for the solitude and peace it brings, despite the dangerous weather.

" What set me off, to throw off all my normal life and tempt fate? Was it to show that I was not lost after all, that dreamers repelled by their inward vision still lived, that romance somehow managed to survive? The young need examples; maybe, without being too self-conscious, I could provide one. I was torn between two alternatives: to stay, to lunch at a given hour, to wait for someone, to receive guests, read newspapers, and tattle with friends outside working hours: the clock would go on telling the hours and I should be one of those creatures chained to the treadmill of today and tomorrow. Or else - more generous perhaps even more altruistic - to respond to that appeal which John Masefield expressed so well in 'Sea Fever.'"

Some of the gaps in the story are a little annoying. He complains about scuvry setting in when he is 65 days at sea, how his teeth are getting loose and his gums bleeding, but as his stretch at sea lasts another month, what happens to the scurvy? His arm gets infected and he considers amputation, but gives himself a few shots of antibiotic and takes to the rack. All better!?

He does accomplish conquering the Impossible Route, though, as he calls it. And he accomplishes a few firsts of recorded sailing. He is the first to sail nonstop 7400 miles from South Africa to New Zealand alone. He's also the first to sail around the dreaded and stormy Cape Horn alone and survive. (Slocum did it too, as did some dude named Al Hansen, but Slocum took an inside route that went through the Straits of Magellan. Hansen went outside the straits, but was killed just after rounding the Cape.)

Some of the situations and his reactions are comical. At one point one of the lines controlling the spinnaker snapped and he says, "the sheet parted so I decided to take down the sail."

The book does share some of the tone and theme of Thoreau's commentary in "Walden." Like Thoreau, he says that if you want to get somewhere it's best to go alone, that waiting for others means not going. Like Thoreau he writes about opening your eyes and trying to appreciate the nature that surrounds us. He also writes about how important work is for clearing the mind:

"It is said that solitude is best shared with another. These seas offer joys to anyone who is capable of loving and understanding nature. Are there not people who can spend hours watching the rain as it falls? I once read somewhere that three things could never be boring: passing clouds, dancing flames, and running water. They are not the only ones. I should add in the first place, work."

Overall I'm glad I read the book, it adds to the collected lore I have about circumnavigation and solo sailing.

24 January 2005

3. Last of the Mohicans by JF Cooper

Great book. I can't say that enthusiastically enough. It was written in 1826 and is about the French & Indian Wars. It is the second book of the "Leatherstocking Tales" of which there are five books. I have already read the first, the Deerslayer. The main characters from that are in this as well.

In Deerslayer, the main characters, Deerslayer/Hawkeye and Chingachgook get into a jam at Lake Otswego. In LotM, a jam comes to them. After getting out of the first jam of the book (stumbling across an ambush set for someone else), they, like any good adventurers, shift priorities and accompany the daughters of an English commander to Ft William Henry. After the fort is given up to the French the daughters are kidnapped by Mingo Indians and taken up near Canada way. The heroes track the daughters and attempt a rescue.

Deerslayer, or Hawkeye, is a white man who "has no cross" and has lived among the Delaware his whole life. His best friend and running mate is Chingachgook, a chief of the Delaware. Not in the first book, but along for the ride in the second is Chingachook's son Uncas. He is the last of the Mohicans because Chingachgook has no other kids and the Delaware have been split up and dilluted by colonial empire-making.

If I didn't know better I would think the book was serialized. Each chapter ratchets up the action and intensity. The battle scenes are well described and fast paced. Not once does Cooper tell you what the characters are like, letting you see from their actions and the reactions of the other characters.

I have not seen the movie since it was in theatres, though fan favorite Madeleine Stowe is in it, and I think that since the book was so delicious I will skip seeing the movie again. Plus, the Mingo and Delaware tribes will probably be played very badly by white actors with bad accents and broken English.

20 January 2005

2. The Final Frontiersman

The second finished book of '05. This one was pretty good. Longer than "Into the Wild," but about a similar subject - the Alaskan outback. "The Final Frontiersman" is about Heimo Korth, a guy who grew up in woodsy Wisconsin and then moved to Alaska.

He does it in stages, failing at first, but slowly keeping at it, gaining skills, wisdom, and friends. Eventually he figures it all out. He does have a few close calls in the beginning, though, nearly killing himself a couple of times. I also wonder if McCandless read this book would he have died in Alaska? This book also illuminates just how much of a joke it was that McCandless thought he was in rugged Alaska. Korth lives above the Arctic Circle, and as they say in the book about 500 times, his closest neighbor is 50 miles away..

The book is not about how a white man does it (look at him go!), ignoring that people have lived above the Arctic Circle for millions of years. It does show pretty good evidence that the US gov't has conspired, by design or by accident, to deprive people the opportunity of "living off the land." In Alaska alone there are various abutting agencies and bureaucarcies who control 100% of the land. None of them allow someone to just simply set up trapping lines or build a cabin. People do it, but they are considered trespassers and have few rights to stay. Amazing. So even if one of the Eskimo or Savoonga islanders wanted to go back to their tribal places, unless they had a cabin before 1974, they are out of luck.

Another interesting part is how both political parties, environmentalists, and pro-oil folks are ruining the Arctic wilderness for types like Heimo Korth. The Republicans want to have no people so they can drill. The Democrats don't want drilling, but want to keep people out to "protect" the animals. Korth traps and hunts sensibly. If he doesn't then he dies. Or at the least, profoundly impacts his life if he overtraps, leaving fewer animals to breed and hunt themselves.

The food descriptions made me want to try some more exotic meats: caribou, bear, moose, beaver tail, etc...

The writing was pretty good, but parts seemed to bog down (or freeze?). I don't really care for psychobabble (Korth moved to the Arctic Circle to get away from an abusive dad). James Campbell, the writer, does steer clear of a lot of Romantic writing about the rugged outdoors. Yes, the Northern Lights are beautiful, but if you are out checking them you better have a shotgun so a bear doesn't kill you. The river is beautiful, but if your canoe tips over, you better get a fire started immediately.

And there are some far-fetched parts of the book where I began to think the Alaskans tried to pull the wool over Campbell's eyes. For example, he talks about "ice bears," bears who wake up early, hungry, and root around looking for whatever food they can find. To help keep themselves warm before spring comes, they roll around in the rivers and the snow until a coat of ice builds up on their fur. The exagerration came when Campbell said, "Worse yet, the ice bears are impervious to bullets."

I recommend it if you are into books about people who live outside the normal definitions, if you wonder what it would be like to live for months at a time with temps very below zero, or you have a hankering for Alaska.

17 January 2005

on books

He who resorts to the easy novel, because he is languid, does no better than if he took a nap. The front aspect of great thoughts can only be enjoyed by those who stand on the side whence they arrive. Books, not which afford us a cowering enjoyment, but in which each thought is of unusual daring; such as an idle man cannot read, and a timid one would not be entertained by, which even make us dangerous to existing institutions,--such call I good books.

Thoreau - from "A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers"

1. Into the Wild

The first book of 2005 completed. I thought it was good. I liked that Krakauer let me make many of my own conclusions about why McCandless died, and about the theories that were floating around Alaska.

I had been meaning to read this book for a long time and it's finally an itch scratched. It also led me to another book called, "The Final Frontiersman" about this dude Heimo Korth who lives above the Arctic Circle year round. He's also in Alaska, but many of his trap lines are close enough to Canada that he crosses the border to take a leak on the Canadian side. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Started 7 Jan - finished 8 Jan.