Thursday, October 24, 2013

One Crazy Summer

One Summer: America, 1927
by Bill Bryson

4 out of 5 Lindy Hopping stars

If you think that you had a busy summer, consider 1927:

Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic and became a national hero.  Babe Ruth broke his own home run record on a Yankees team that would be remembered as one of the best baseball teams ever assembled.  The Midwest was devastated by extensive flooding and the Secretary of Commerce Hebert Hoover was in charge of recovery efforts. A routine murder trial in New York became a media sensation for reasons no one can explain.  Sacco and Vanzetti were executed and sparked outrage around the world.  Prohibition was still in effect but that didn’t stop Al Capone’s criminal empire from reaching the height of its power. Capone also attended a boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney that would captivate the nation and still be controversial today.  A young engineer with the awesome name of Philo T. Farnsworth made a critical breakthrough that would lead to the development of television, and another entertainment milestone occurred when the first full length motion picture with sound began filming.  After building 15 million Model Ts, Henry Ford’s company ceased production and began creating the Model A. In South Dakota, the work of carving four president’s faces into Mount Rushmore began. Last but not least, four bankers had a meeting in which they made a decision that would eventually start the Great Depression.

And yet Bryan Adams picked another summer to immortalize in song…

Bill Bryson’s book is packed with the details of these events and many more along with plenty of related stories and anecdotes.  It should read like a trivia book of 1927 factoids, but what makes it more than that is the deft way that Bryson establishes the history of what came before as well as the long term impact.  For example, he doesn’t just tell the story of Lindbergh’s historic flight and of his subsequent fame, he also lays out in a succinct manner how America had been trailing the world in aviation up until that point as well as how it changed things afterwards.

It’s that context that makes this more than just a list of events, and he also goes to some effort to add depth in several places like describing how horrifyingly racist American society was in those days with the Ku Klux Klan enjoying a reemergence while even supposedly high-brow publications like The New Yorker would casually use ethnic slurs.  By the time he tells the readers about how outlandish eugenics theories became influential which resulted in tens of thousands of people being legally sterilized in the United States, the reader can understand all too well how it could happen in that kind of environment.

In fact, one of the things that jumped out at me about this is that most of the popular figures of 1927 were basically assholes.  Charles Lindbergh's boyish good lucks and piloting skill got the press to overlook that he was about as interesting as white bread, and he’d show a nasty streak of anti-Semitism later in his life that would severely tarnish his image.  Henry Ford was also a notorious anti-Semite, and he was also the kind of ignoramus that despised people with educations or scientific background.  His refusal to consult any types of experts led him to waste millions on schemes like trying to start a rubber plantation in South America and shutting down his assembly lines to retool for the Model A with no clear plan as to what exactly they’d build.  (After reading about Ford‘s stubborn mistakes, I can’t believe the Ford Motor Company managed to survive long enough to make it to the Great Depression, let alone still be in business today.)  Herbert Hoover led a life that should have made him  one of America’s most fascinating presidents.  He was a self-made success story who had traveled the world as a mining consultant and was credited with a relief effort that fed millions in Europe during World War I.  Yet he seemed to take no pleasure in anything other than work and one long time acquaintance noted that he never heard him laugh once in 30 years.  Calvin Coolidge believed so much in limiting the role of government that he spent most of his presidency napping and would refuse to take even the most of innocuous of actions like endorsing a national week of recognition for the importance of education.

It’s funny that since the book describes so many people as either being unlikable, unethical or downright criminal that one of the few that seems decent was Babe Ruth.  While all of the Babe’s bad habits are laid out here, he also comes across as one of the few that did what he was good at with an exuberant zest for life and generous spirit that was sadly lacking in many of his contemporaries.  The guy may have enjoyed his food, liquor and women to excess, but he never hid who he was.  Plus, he was fun at parties!

Bryson’s look at the events, large and small, that made up one pivotal summer is an interesting read that provides a clear window to the past while being highly entertaining.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Staying Sunny In Philadelphia

Silver Linings Playbook
by Matthew Quick

4 out of 5 crabby snacks.

Pat Peoples has been confined to the ‘bad place’, but he finally gets to leave and live with his parents until he can get back on his feet.  Pat’s main goal is to continue on a path of self improvement including working on being kinder, strenuous exercise and reading books so he'll be a better husband when he finally sees his beloved wife Nikki again after their ‘apart time’.

Pat likes being home, but his moody father refuses to talk to him unless the Philadelphia Eagles win.  Plus, his mother and his therapist are both encouraging him to spend time with Tiffany, a very strange woman who was recently widowed.  It’s almost like no one understands that he’s still married to Nikki.  As he works on becoming a better person, Pat gets to attend the Eagles home games with his brother and makes a lot of friends at the pre-game tailgates.  As they start winning, the superstitious fans think that Pat is good luck, and even his father becomes much friendlier.  As long as he can control his temper and continues to work hard, Pat is sure that he’ll get the kind of happy ending you see in the movies.

Since this is about a guy whose life has been shattered and he doesn’t even know it, you’d think Pat’s story would be incredibly sad.  Instead, the bittersweet humor that Mathew Quick has laced the book with makes it a pleasure to read instead of a depressing slog. Pat’s devotion to the cause of reuniting with Nikki can be simultaneously infuriating and endearing, and while we only get his usually slightly bewildered view point, you can also completely understand how those around him are feeling.

Quick also does a particularly nice job of detailing the highs and lows of sports fandom. Pat bonds with his brother and  becomes part of a community while tailgating. The team provides him a link to his emotionally distant and stubborn father.  Even his therapist is a rabid Eagle’s fan, and this helps Pat to trust and like him.  While the games provide great entertainment and instant connections, there‘s also a big downside to them.  An ugly incident with a rival team’s fan in the parking lot illustrates how sports fans can be merciless.  (It also highlights that wearing a rival team’s jersey to a game in Philly is a spectacularly bad idea.)  Pat’s dad is so wrapped up in the Eagles that a loss can make him even harder to live with.  When Pat makes a commitment to Tiffany that causes him to miss some games, everyone begins blaming him for the losses.

( However, I couldn’t be too critical of the characters being superstitious because I’m writing this on a Sunday afternoon waiting for the kick-off a Chiefs’ game while wearing the same red t-shirt I’ve worn for the last 6 games because they’ve won all 6.  As the commercials say, it’s only weird if it doesn’t work.)

I also very much enjoyed the movie version of this.  Even though it’s a fairly faithful adaptation there are also several big differences that made reading the novel surprising in several ways so this is one of those incidents where it’s well worth checking out both versions.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Toy Talk: A Fairy Tale With Profanity

Once upon a time, there was a carpenter named Otto who liked toys. Otto noticed that many people liked toys, but that for some reason there weren’t many public meeting places where these people could talk about them. Then he had an idea.

“I could build a large shed and put shelves inside the shed, and I’ll get pictures of all the toys in the land. Then I could invite toy fans to come pick out the pictures of the toys they’ve played with or are interested in, and they can put them on the shelf to display them, and other fans can walk around and look at them. This will spark all kinds of discussions. In fact, what if I give people a system to rate their toys so that passers-by will be able to see at a glance which toys are popular?” Otto told his friend Eliza.

“How much are you going to charge to do this?” Eliza asked.

“Nothing. It will all be free to all,” Otto replied.

“Are you fucking high?” Eliza replied. “Do you know what lumber costs? And how much work it will be to set all this up? Where are you going to get like a jillion pictures of toys? All this just so a bunch of toy freaks can sit around talking about them?”

“If I charge nothing, it will attract the toy fans. And I have some ideas about how I can make money from the toy sellers. The toy fans will have a place to gather with like-minded folk, the toy sellers will advertise there to their biggest potential buyers and be able to tell what kind of toys people like, and I might make a little money on the deal. It’s win-win-win.”

“Sounds pretty slim to me. But I like toys, too. What the hell, I’ll help,” Eliza said

So Otto cleared some land behind his house and built a large shed. Inside the shed, he put rows upon rows of shelves, and every shelf had a slot in front in which someone could put small wooden stars and write a label for them. Finally, he hung up a large sign over the entrance that said: Toy Talk – Free to All.

There were only small crowds of toy fans that showed up in those early days, and Otto would give the same spiel as they entered.

“Welcome to Toy Talk! We’ve created this place so that fans of toys can meet and talk about them. You can use as many shelves and toy pictures as you like. To help you organize the toys you already own or are interested in, we’ve given the shelves some basic names, but you can also add your own labels. Please use the star stickers we’ve provided, too. 1 for the worst and 5 for the best,” Otto would say. “Also, we have provided free pens and paper so that you can all write up reviews on the toys and tack them up next to the pictures. If you see a review you really like, you put this little I Liked It! sticker next to the review and you can write your own little note underneath the review if you have a comment.”

“Are there any rules?” some would ask.

“Yeah. We’d like you to stick to talking about toys. If you get into arguments where you use the really bad words or get abusive to another user, we’ll ban you. We wrote all this up and posted them on the wall over there, but it’s pretty long so most people don’t read it. Basically, it just says don’t be an asshole. I’m generally a pretty easy going guy who likes free discussion. But let’s be honest, it’s my shed so if you start pissing me off for any reason, I’ll change the rules to do what I want. What are the chances of that happening though?” Otto said sincerely.

“Only 5 stars? Can we have half-stars?” someone would inevitably ask.

“Dude, seriously? I built all this shit I’m letting you use for free, and your first question is about half-stars? Get the fuck out of here,” Otto would say.

Soon word of Toy Talk spread and more toy fans would came to the shed. The ones that liked certain types of toys began gathering into groups and discussing the subtle nuances of their favorite play things. Volunteers helped Otto organize the huge amounts of pictures. The reviewing became quite popular and the competition for I Liked It! stickers became such a driving force that Otto tallied up results weekly and posted the results on the bulletin board. Much silliness ensued because of this, but by and large they became a source of great entertainment for many in the Toy Talk community. Best of all, many of the toy lovers made new friends.

As Otto had thought, the toy manufacturers and sellers saw opportunities in the shed. Some began advertising their wares there and were interested in which toys were popular or disliked and so Otto was able to share the trends he noticed for a fee. Some toy makers set up their own shelves so that they could interact with fans of their work and share their thoughts on toys. Free advance prototypes of some toys became available to reviewers.

Then, Otto and Eliza, who had fallen in love during their hard work on the shed, got married. Even the most heartless and cynical Toy Talk users found this kind of sweet.

If this was a different kind of tale, that would be the happy ending. Unfortunately, this is not that kind of story.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

That F'ing Flowers....

Storm Front 
by John Sandford
Putnam Adult

3 out of 5 stars made of counterfeit lumber.

Minnesota state investigator Virgil Flowers is working diligently on a case involving Florence ‘Ma’ Nobles and her sons selling counterfeit antique lumber. Of course, part of the reason that Virgil is working so hard is that Ma is very attractive and flirting shamelessly with him. So when a call comes in from his boss Lucas Davenport with another assignment, Virgil is more than a little miffed.

It’s no big deal, Davenport tells him. A Lutheran minister named Elijah Jones who is dying of cancer stole an ancient inscribed stone called a stele from an archaeological dig in Israel and smuggled it home to Minnesota. The Israelis want it back and have dispatched an antiquities expert to makes sure that happens. Virgil just has to play tour guide, pick up the terminally ill minister and locate the stele. Davenport assures Flowers that he’ll back on his counterfeit lumber case in to time at all.

Virgil really should know by now that Davenport lies…

Jones plans to auction the stele off to the highest bidder to get the money needed to care for his wife suffering from Alzheimer’s after he dies, and it turns out the old man is pretty wily. The stele’s inscription has historic implications that could be very damaging to Israel so Hezbollah has sent a representative to try and obtain it for propaganda purposes. A couple of tough Turks with fearsome reputations also show up. Two spotlight hungry media whores who pretend to be scholars also want in on the action, and the Israelis have a couple of dirty tricks at the ready. Even Ma Nobles gets mixed up in hunt for the stele, much to Virgil’s consternation.

Soon there’s more allegiances declared and alliances broken than on a season of Survivor, and an increasingly frustrated Virgil can’t seem to make any of these double crossing idiots understand that someone’s gonna get killed if this foolishness doesn’t stop.

Sandford has a lot of interests other than writing and one of the them is archaeology. Per his bio on his web page, he has funded and participated in a large dig in Israel since the late ‘90s so it’s a little surprising that this is the first one of his books to feature an archaeological angle to it. Despite the international flavor with various groups and countries interested in the stele, this still has the same grounded style that you usually get in a Sandford novel. There are some great bits late in the book with Virgil interacting with the shadowy figures of some unnamed American security agency, but Flowers remains the kind of guy far more interested in reading a fishing magazine than worrying about international intrigue and national security.

There’s an almost playful attitude in this one, and while the story is treated seriously, it wouldn’t have taken much to turn this into an outright farce, kind of like one of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels. Sandford’s always had a sense of humor, but this is the first one of his books where he almost seems to make light of the stakes involved. There also isn’t much of the usual momentum and tension you get in a Lucas Davenport or Virgil Flowers novel. This isn’t a bad thing since it seems like a bit of departure from the others and with this many books in play, I like that Sandford doesn’t feel obligated to stick to the formula that has worked so well for him in the past.

It isn’t my favorite Sandford novel but it’s a fun one.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Questing For Fun

The Quest
Nelson DeMille
3 out of 5 stars.

Apparently Nelson DeMille wrote the first version of this book back in 1975, and it’s about people having an adventure while trying to find the Holy Grail. Even though I’ve been reading DeMille since the ‘80s, I’d never even heard of it. So despite his best-selling career writing thrillers about cops, spies and terrorists, I’m gonna assume that the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code really chapped DeMille’s ass, and that he decided to rewrite and rerelease this to get in on that gravy train.

Set during the mid-1970s, three reporters are in Ethiopia trying to cover the civil war. Henry Mercado is an older British gent who spent several years in a Soviet gulag and credits his survival to his finding faith in Jesus while there. Henry is accompanied by the much younger and beautiful Vivian Smith, a Swiss photojournalist, and they invited veteran American correspondent Frank Purcell along to get a first-hand look at the fighting. Purcell is wary of dangerous situations thanks to a year spent in a Cambodian prison camp, but a few too many cocktails at the hotel bar and a long look at Vivian convinced him to go along.

While spending the night in the ruins of a spa, a wounded Italian priest staggers out of the jungle with an incredible story to tell of how he has spent 40 years imprisoned after coming across a mysterious monastery in the jungle that he claims housed the Holy Grail. The priest’s info gives the three journalists a starting point to try and locate the monastery, but traveling in Ethiopia during a war is a dangerous undertaking.

If you read the official summary of this it states:

"Thus begins an impossible quest that will pit them against murderous tribes, deadly assassins, fanatical monks, and the passions of their own hearts."

That is a complete lie that is trying to market this as a rollicking adventure such as other stories about looking for the Holy Grail like Brown’s book or Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade. It’s false advertising that seems to be biting the publishers in the ass based on the reviews from DeMille fans I’ve read.

While there is danger to the group, it mostly comes in the form of one crazy Marxist general, a badly maintained airplane and the Ethiopian jungle. The murderous tribes are much discussed but never seen. The fanatical monks are just a bit of stage dressing, and as for ‘deadly assassins’, I don’t know what they're talking about there.

Like a lot of DeMille’s work, there’s a lot of talk and discussion about potential dangers, but the actual moments of the heroes in jeopardy are few and far between. A long interlude in the middle of the book revolves around doing research at the Vatican where the biggest threat is the love triangle that could end the quest. There are no ninja monks shooting poison darts or albino assassins running around killing people. Mainly they eat a lot of meals and drink a lot of wine and talk about what they’re going to do.

It’s not a terrible read. I find DeMille’s stuff generally enjoyable even in ones where not a helluva lot happens at times other than his protagonist sitting around being suspicious of the motives of others. The early stuff with the priests and the journalists being caught up in the Ethiopian civil war was exciting and compelling, and the third act with the actual hunt for the Grail wasn’t bad. I also learned a lot of interesting stuff about Ethiopia that I didn’t know.

But the middle section is almost entirely dialogue about research, relationships and faith which killed a lot of momentum and went on far too long. Overall, this didn’t provide much excitement for a book marketed as a thrilling adventure about the hunt for a religious artifact. Indiana Jones made it look like a lot more fun when he did it.