Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck

The author wrote an earlier book about the time when one of his older brothers and he flew a restored small plane across the U.S. as teenagers.  As a man in his 60s, he decided to do something similar with another brother, this time in a covered wagon pulled by three mules.  The result is mostly an interesting travelogue interspersed by memoir.
    Prior to reading this book, what I knew about the Oregon Trail was delt with in high school history.  There was a trail that went from Kansas to Oregon and a lot of folks travelled west on it in the middle part of the 19th century.  That one sentence is probably the same as that high school history book entry and I'm glad that Mr. Buck spends a good amount of time with how the trail got started, the number of folks who travelled it (400,000 or more), the perils they encountered along the way, and the trail's impact on the country's growth.
    He also spends a good amount of time of how large mules got their start in the U.S. by that canny business man, George Washington.  Turns out little donkeys bred to little horses make little mules good for hauling small loads.  Large donkeys (a gift to George from some Europeans) bred to large draft horses make great draft animals.  It was the start of a thriving industry not mentioned is those same history books.  All this history was good reading.
    Also good reading is the mechanics of getting the mule team and wagon, the obstacles along the way, how to drive a wagon, and work with mules.  Less good reading is the memoir part.  It gives insight into why he has more emotional baggage than can be hauled by a team of mules.  He's also somewhat tone deaf to his own prejudices.  A couple of examples include pointing out the sometimes negative impact of the Morman church has on areas where they predominate while noting the kind treatment received from every member along the way and a rant about highway police followed by the generous actions of a highway policeman.  He also notes the great similarities between his trip and those of a 150 years ago which doesn't jibe with him pulling out a cell phone for help while the settlers died from starvation and disease.  Still, he's also got a good sense of humor and acknowledges that often what he does is crazy and that he's got some interesting flaws.
    Overall, this is a good read and everyone in the family should like it, especially Ian.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

   Seems like most of my recent books have been histories of one sort or another.  Some are based on a lot of writing from the main characters to give an up-close look at what happened.  The better ones give context to understand why they felt and acted that way.  On occasion the author will really get into the characters and tell us what they were thinking and feeling, even if it's not supported by documentation.  And then there's this book.
   Cleopatra lived in the century just prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  She was not Egyptian in one sense because her ancestors descended from the family associated with Alexander the Great from modern day Greece.  That family, the Ptolomies, ruled for about 300 years and were as nasty a group of people as you'd want to meet.  This particular Cleopatra (there were six or seven, or not) was the last and most famous, what with plays, movies and a great deal of writing about here.  However, none of it is based on her writings or those most close to her.
   She lived in Alexandria most of the time.  It was famous for its light house, its massive library, and its great  beauty.  That's not today's Alexandria, because the old one drowned in the Mediterranean after a huge earthquake, to include the light house, the library, and most of the beautiful architecture.
   That left Ms. Schiff to rely on mostly Roman writing, which is unfortunate since those famous writers had axes to grind to remain in favor with whomever was in power at the time.  Think of trying to write about President Obama 2000 years from now if your only source was Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.  Make him a woman to boot and you're about there.
   The book ends up being a wonderful source for understanding the political currents of that century when Rome was coming out of a 400 year republic of a sort and moving into monarchies/ dictatorships.  However, Ms. Schiff fiercely defends Cleopatra to the point of distraction against probably unfair characterizations by the Roman writers and uses a whole lot of well-researched speculation about most everything that happened.  It's unavoidable, but tedious.
   Since I knew almost nothing about Cleopatra and what Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony had to do with it, as well as the dynamics of first century BC Rome, the book was worthwhile on those counts.  If you like most recent Pulitzer Prize-winning books, than you'll probably like this one.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol

What do you get when you mix a disgruntled teenager, a 90-year old ghost, and a murder mystery? A pretty great graphic novel, is what.

For almost a year, Katie has been reading graphic novels as quickly as I can drive them home from the library to her. I've flipped through a couple, but this is the first one I've finished. I can definitely see the appeal. It took me about an hour to read and I hurried up to finish before picking her up at the bus stop - I knew I wouldn't stand a chance once she got her hands on it.

Knowing she hadn't read it yet, I found myself wanting to censor the content or, maybe, not even give it to her in the first place. Some of the themes are above her current experiences - at least, I hope they are! There is smoking, underage drinking, and they use the word whore a couple times - mama cringe moment. But I'm glad I pushed past that instinct and finished the book because I realized the author had to take the story certain places to bring it back round to its beautiful ending. I trust my kid. I remember reading Judy Blume and feeling like she was the only one in the world who understood. Stories spoke to me as a child and I liked knowing I could read anything and explore topics on the pages that would be too scary to try out in real life.

I find myself thrilled my daughter is going to read this book (she started in the car for the five minute drive home.) It says things that every teenager (and tween) could stand to hear at least a hundred times. But it says it in a way that will be heard - not in parent-lecture form. Graphic novels like this weren't around when I was her age, but great stories were. Anya's Ghost would have made my young self happy - it makes my, ahem, older self pretty happy too.

Monday, November 09, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

So, I know it's been a while since I've been on the blog.  That doesn't mean I haven't been reading, it just means I've been too lazy to blog about it. But now I finally have a book that I think a lot of other people will like, not just me. And in her defense, mom, who was the one who recommended it to me in the first place.

When mom and dad were down recently for a visit, I kept talking about The Haunting of Hill House (which I really should blog about because it's the only book I remember reading that made me squeal aloud in fear.) One of the things I really liked about that book was the unreliable narrator. It made the whole experience even creepier - I wasn't sure what was actually happening because the main character was all batsh*t and stuff.

The Girl on the Train is similar in that the main character isn't very reliable about telling her story - mostly because she doesn't remember large swaths of time when she blacks out due to her alcoholism. But she's likable and interesting and from the get-go I wanted to know what really happened to the missing woman that aforementioned "girl on the train" eye-stalked every day on her way to and from an imaginary job.

Another interesting device the author used (besides unreliable narration) was giving three characters a first-person voice and limiting their narration to "morning" and "evening" snapshots of their days. This made me feel like I, too, was on a train and sneaking salacious peeks at their lives like a creepy gawker. Very nice literary style.

Thanks for the great recommendation, mom! If anyone else out there likes a good mystery, check this one out. I'll be curious if you're able to figure out whodunit very far before the end of the book. What a fun ride!

Thursday, October 08, 2015

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Last week, in "the Martian", we had a science fiction book based on science fact of a single man stranded on Mars and trying to stay alive.  In "In the Kingdom of Ice", there is a true story of a voyage in the 1880s to determine if there really was a warm water sea at the north pole that could be reached by breaching an outer barrier of ice further south.

If the second story seems more fiction than the first, you are in for a treat.  A portion of learnered men  in North America and Europe were convinced that the North Pole was an open sea year round, due to a number of theories such as tunnels from deep in the earth (maybe the earth was hollow) feeding warm air or water to the pole and warm currents in the Pacific and Atlantic shooting under the ice encountered as you sailed further north and resurfacing at the pole.  The same New York newspaper that had Stanley find Livingston in Africa decided to fund a Navy expedition into the polar ice cap to determine if the warm water pole theory was true.

The newspaper owner funded the whole thing, including buying the ship, giving it to the navy, funding the refit in a west coast navy yard and buying all the supplies.  The ship sailed north, eventually became trapped in the ice for two years and then sunk.  The crew dragged everything they could south trying for the coast of Russia.  The story was a world-wide sensation at the time and the captain and crew were honored as heros.

Everything in this book is well documented and the story is compelling.  The tale is interesting enough at the beginning and by the end, I stayed up late to get through the last 70 harrowing pages.  It's that good.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

A year ago one of the more tech-interested readers of our book club recommended this book.  It didn't make the voting cut but the book has become a best seller and a movie, so it was worth giving a try.

The author is a computer programmer and space fan who made a hobby of understanding how you could send a manned mission to Mars.  Once he was into it, he wondered how you would deal with some disaster there involving the crew.  It led to him posting a story for free on line of a single crew member being stranded and left for dead.  That got enough interest that he responded to reader requests to have a kindle version.  Now it's a best seller in kindle and regular print, much to the surprise of the author.  It's not your normal version of an author's start in the business.

Science fiction has all kinds of angles, but usually involves an imagining of a technology that doesn't exist today (warp drive or flying cars) but at its best still has humans acting as we know them today but dealing with a different context.  Because of Mr. Weir's extreme interest in the science, this story of a crew being the third to reach Mars, experiencing conditions requiring a quick evacuation with one of the crew apparently dying in the process, and that crewman surviving thereafter is as close to the known science of space travel as is available today.  It is both a strength and weakness of the book.

The story is a good one that moves right along.  You really like the stranded crewman and admire his ability to survive under extreme conditions.  There are no bad guys here, just people acting as you hope they would when faced with the terrible knowledge that a person is stranded alone far away with no immediate vision of how he can survive.  If you are interested in things technological, then the many descriptions of the science that allows him to move forward will make the story more believable.  If you are not interested, then the story still works, but you may skip a lot of the technical description.  Either way, it's a quick read and a good adventure story.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Elephant Company by Vici Constantine Croke

A Boston Globe blurb described this as "...blending biography, history and wildlife biology ... [in an] account of [Billy] Williams, who earned the sobriquet 'Elephant Bill' and his unusual bond with the largest land mammals on earth."

That's a good description of this interesting book, starting with a WWI veteran who went to Burma in 1920 to make his fortune.  He always had a strong attachment to animals and especially looked forward to the prospect of working with elephants.  The elephants were used to harvest teak in a reasonably sustainable fashion, which means clear cutting was not an option.  The various crews would take individual trees in a jungle setting, skid them using elephants to haul them through the jungle to dry creeks and river beds and wait for the monsoon rains to wash them down to areas where they could be rafted to saw mills.

The majority focus of the book is how strongly he bonded with these highly intelligent animals and how it eventually led to him using the elephants to rescue many people fleeing the Japanese takeover of Burma in WWII.  The book is at its best when describing the elephants, the environment, the actions of harvesting the teak and the interactions of the elephant handlers and the varied complex tasks the elephants accomplished.  The book also verged into what the elephants were thinking and feeling, especially in the presence of Billy Williams, and that may have been true, but went a bit overboard in attributing a sort of ESP between those involved.  Still, given some of the actions of the elephants, you can't really fault the author for ascribing almost mystical powers when describing these animals.

This is a very enjoyable story and a fun read.  Everyone in the family would like this book.