This is an interesting, if somewhat rambling "feature-article-turned-book" about the early 20th century explorer Percy Fawcett, who in 1925 disappeare...moreThis is an interesting, if somewhat rambling "feature-article-turned-book" about the early 20th century explorer Percy Fawcett, who in 1925 disappeared into the Amazon rain forest with his son and young family friend, never to be seen again. As I read, I couldn't help but compare Fawcett's story to George Mallory, who attempted to be the first man to climb Everest and likewise vanished. Both men were products of their times: "gentlemen explorers" supported by the Royal Geographic Society to put Britain's (and caucasian, western culture's) stamp on every last far-flung corner of the world--because God save the king. Both men also fought in and barely survived WWI, which may have influenced the extreme risks they took later. This psychology is nicely detailed in Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, a doorstop of a history book that vividly paints both internal and external struggles of the aptly-named "Lost Generation" of adventurers. Lost City of Z, on the other hand, is more of a surface read--it details the Indiana Jones mystery & action (flesh-eating maggots! poisoned arrows! giant snakes! seances!) and does a nice job laying out the history, but doesn't really delve into Fawcett's psychology & obsession beyond a brief sketch.
My main takeaway from this book had nothing to do with Fawcett. The "before" and "after" descriptions of the rain forest in Fawcett's day less than a century ago, and the Nebraska-like plains described by the author on his visit, or the westernization and gradual dissolution of local culture, seem like a much more pressing issue than a few lost white men and a mythical lost city (why is it so important that "backward" cultures have/had cities? If they don't, does it make them somehow less human? This bothers me.) I was a bit dubious at first by the way the self-proclaimed inexperienced outdoors-man author inserted his own Amazon trek into the story, but ultimately the before & after comparisons between Fawcett's journey's and his own (complete with satellite phone and aid from helpful archaeologists) gets the intended message across.(less)
This is a book I wish all my students would read. I may see if I can get my hands on a few copies as prizes for our end-of-term grammar competition.
Wh...moreThis is a book I wish all my students would read. I may see if I can get my hands on a few copies as prizes for our end-of-term grammar competition.
What a nice change to have a positive and hopeful book come out of sub-Saharan Africa! William Kamwamba is an incredibly intelligent and industrious young man from Malawi who rescues himself, his family, perhaps even his village from extreme poverty by building his own power-generating windmill. For me, the most interesting aspect was a cultural one, in which we see how magic and science are at odds with one another in William's daily experiences. The descriptions of a famine's impact on subsistence farmers who receive no buffer from the government during bad times was also eye-opening. However, the misery is tempered by William's enthusiasm and delight each time he solves some electrical engineering problem with only an English textbook, bicycle parts, scrapyard reconnoiters, and his own creativity. The audiobook narrator infuses every word with enthusiasm and is a delight to listen to. My only critique is that the book perhaps over-simplifies the broader context of African poverty and politics--but it's a good places for student readers to start. Now that William's story is out, it seems that for him, the sky is the limit--and I truly hope this is the case, and yet...what about all the other intelligent yet poor high school dropouts without windmills to prove their worth?
It will be interesting to see what more Mr. Kamkwamba can accomplish within his home country in the next few decades. Now his town has solar-pumped water--perhaps it's only a matter of time before other rural areas around Malawi see similar, home-grown power solutions.(less)
The Forgotten Soldier was first published in 1965, and concerns events that happened over 20 years previously, when the author was a teenager living i...moreThe Forgotten Soldier was first published in 1965, and concerns events that happened over 20 years previously, when the author was a teenager living in France who was drafted into the German army. The memoir has since become the subject of much criticism by historians who question much of the historical detail, especially with regards to troop movements and dates. Supporters of the work argue that historical facts of strategic troop movements can be found elsewhere, and that the strength of this particular work is in the emotion and the visceral experience, and I'll have to agree. The Commandant of the US Marine Corps must also agree, since this was on his official reading list in 2013.
This isn't exactly an easy read, but it hit me so much harder than I'd expected. Sajer maybe doesn't have the writing chops of Cather or Steinbeck, and even apologizes a few times for his "inability" to do his topic justice in prose--and I have in fact been tempted to take a shot of scotch each time I encountered the simile "like an automaton" (maybe it sounds less weird in the original French?)--but then I'll stumble into some little gem of poetic self-awareness that wows me. I think he's at his best when he doesn't appear to be trying.
We're thrown in with Sajer and his companions when they first arrive on the Eastern front, and there isn't really a chance to get to know the characters befor things start to happen to them--I suspect this is why it took me a while to get emotionally involved (but when I did...dang). Since he starts out in a transportation batallion as a truck driver, Sajer's introduction to war is surprisingly gradual, and he is emotionally shattered by the first (comparatively small) wartime effects he sees. He's utterly convinced that he's a coward, but his teenage naivite rubs off quickly. He doesn't exactly grow numb to his surroundings, but sort of alternates between cynicism--especially around even younger untested, brainwashed & eager teenaged boys--and determination to empty his head of anything that is not in his immediate surroundings or in the immediate present. At some point he seems to realize that the only thing he's really fighting for is self-preservation. It's like watching a kid shrivel emotionally and die intellectually, if that makes sense. The battle scenes do go on a little long, though, and it's the kind of book that requires significant mental breathers.
The part that really got me, though, is when Sajer meets his father (a Frenchman, who fought on the French side in the Great War) during a brief leave to Berlin. The father's awkward sadness with what his son has become is just devastating. On the other hand, he doesn't stray too far away from humor, either. There's a great scene involving his scrawny & underfed teenaged self, a handful of eggs, and a strapping farmer's wife...yeah, just go read it.
I was curious about what happened to Guy Sajer after the war--and it turns out that, interestingly, he became a very prolific cartoonist. There's a lengthy entry on him on the "Lambiek Comicopedia" (http://www.lambiek.net/artists/m/moum...) and it looks like he did everything from cute kids cartoons to some pretty racy-looking pulp, mostly under the pennames Dimitri Lahache and Mouminoux. Looking through some of the images, there is a lot of material reflecting his war experiences, such as:
It's interesting how the writing changes as he grows, and his own consciousness changes. I especially like the parts about him as a young schoolboy, s...moreIt's interesting how the writing changes as he grows, and his own consciousness changes. I especially like the parts about him as a young schoolboy, such as opening and closing his ears with his hands to make the sound of a train. And later, his constant wavering between blind faith and blind sin probably ring true to many (former) teenagers, especially those of us who went to Catholic school. Even nowadays, after the Second Vatican Council when the church was hugely modernized and the Hellfire speeches toned down, an undercurrent of Catholic guilt persists in the younger generations. Joyce was of the generation of my great-great grandparents, and I can only imagine that it must have taken a huge effort of will to have thrown off tradition (both national and religious) to be an artist.
This was my first Joyce, and while it wasn't an easy read, I found it more interesting and relevant than I perhaps had expected :)(less)
I read this one for a project I'm working on, and would recommend it mostly to history buffs, especially those familiar with the Trinidad area. The ab...moreI read this one for a project I'm working on, and would recommend it mostly to history buffs, especially those familiar with the Trinidad area. The absolute best book out there on German POWs in the US is Arnold Krammer's Nazi Prisoners of War in America. This one follows many of the same themes, but is of course focused on one camp. The author was not only an enlisted US Army interpreter stationed at the camp, but also a Jewish refugee who fled Austria in 1939 as a teenager--so he provides an interesting perspective, though he doesn't ever dwell on the irony of his situation). There's a lot of administrative detail covered here (how were prisoners transferred, what regulations covered them, how was was the mail dealt with etc.) which a casual reader may be tempted to skim to get to the more interesting little anecdotes provided by former prisoners, documents the author procured through the Freedom of Information Act, and from the author's own memories.
Most of us know about American prisoners in Germany, or even German prisoners in Soviet Russia...but few realize that over 115,000 German prisoners came to the US (not counting additional Italian & Japanese POWs), most of them after the mass surrender of Rommel's Afrika Corps in May, 1943. And based on what I've read here and in other sources, truth is often stranger than fiction. Compared to virtually every other incarcerated group during WWII, these men lived like nobility--unsupervised German officers exercising the Camp Commander's horses on the open range? Picnics in the mountains? There were escape attempts too, though none were successful. In a particularly bizarre ironic twist one POW, Til Kiwe, escaped the Trinidad camp three times. Once he rode a passenger train all the way to St. Louis in his German uniform before a GI returning from overseas identified his getup and had him arrested. Name sound familiar? Til Kiwe became an actor and later appeared as one of the guards in the film "The Great Escape" (look for him in the credits. He was Frick, one of the "ferrets").(less)
I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would. I'm not usually one for the "celebrity scandal/confession" type of book, but I do love those pee...moreI enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would. I'm not usually one for the "celebrity scandal/confession" type of book, but I do love those peeks into the power-struggles and self-rationalizations of criminal organizations...and if doping is a crime, then surely most of the pro-cycling world was a collection of criminal organizations in the '90s and early 2000s. Did I cheer for the US Postal cycling team back then? Of course. Did the idea of using performance-enhancing drugs seem at the time reprehensible, something undertaking by isolated, lazy and immoral riders? Yeah. Yet the truth is so much more complicated...and still it makes a lot of sense that ALL the top riders would have to be dabbling in EPOs and blood transfusions, when there is so much money AND national pride on the line, and when winning on "only bread and water" is impossible.
So, was pro-rider Tyler Hamilton a rule-breaking, anything-to-win doper? Yes. After reading this book, does he gain back a little of my respect? Absolutely. He isn't making excuses for himself because he declares outright, yes, I did that. But he lays out the entire story of his fall into doping and shows that there's a lot more to it than using drugs and transfusions as "lazy outs." If anything, the willingness to suffer beyond the average mortal is a hallmark of bike racers, and conveniently carries into the doping world.
The writing here, thanks to the help of Mr. Coyle, is very good, even gripping--down to the last gory detail of what it is like to accidentally transfuse a "dead" bag of blood that hasn't been stored properly (shudder). The most interesting part to me, though, was the Mafia-like power plays of Tyler's former teammate Lance Armstrong contrasting with the submissive, yes-men behavior of people like Tyler, who don't care quite as much about winning as they do about being part of the team. I'd recommend this one even to readers who don't follow sports or the Tour.(less)
*note* I received this book through the Goodreads First Reads program.
Reading this book is an Everest climb in itself. It is long. It is dense. It is...more*note* I received this book through the Goodreads First Reads program.
Reading this book is an Everest climb in itself. It is long. It is dense. It is packed with historical detail, possibly too much. Dozens of characters are introduced, their backgrounds and experiences in the Great War laid out for us so that we slog through Pachendale and the Somme at least three separate times. It will be hundreds of pages before we understand where these men fit into the Everest story. We will read of every political machination and act of snobbery conspired to forward--or prevent--the first British attempt to summit Everest. We consider giving up, closing the cover, and going home. There are many shorter books we could tackle and summit.
Except that some deep fascination with the unknown, something parallel, perhaps, to what spurred on the climbers themselves, latches onto us. We can't let go now. The summit is all but visible in the clouds. This enormous snowball of facts and politics and natural science that we've been straining against gradually begins to roll on the power of the human story--mostly Mallory and his approaching doom. The tumbling snowball becomes an avalanche.
Getting into this book requires a certain fortitude to stay with it for thirteen long chapters, but it is absolutely worth it. While part of me wishes the book was tighter, less redundant, and perhaps more focused on fewer important players (the Mallory sections are by far the strongest), I love the way Davis puts Everest and the early British attempts at "conquest" into context with history, politics, and culture. At times I had the feeling the author was throwing in every last detail from every diary and letter he could find (I'm not particularly interested in daily expedition dinner menus), but by the time I reached the last page I was unwilling to let go, as if closing the cover might confine Mallory, Irvine and the rest to the forgotten scree-strewn slopes of history.
I'm fascinated by WWII history, and I adored Roald Dahl books growing up, so why is this book so dry? Despite the title, this isn't really a book abou...moreI'm fascinated by WWII history, and I adored Roald Dahl books growing up, so why is this book so dry? Despite the title, this isn't really a book about Roald Dahl, per se. It actually follows a larger group of British diplomats/spies in DC, and follows their every minute, mundane activity, and records every last person, famous or not, with whom they have lavish parties. I just...*sigh*. It's too dull to listen to as an audio-book (I can't even skim!) and so I won't force myself to finish. The most interesting part of this book (well, the first half) is the anecdote about Roald Dahl writing his first children's book called The Gremlins: The Lost Walt Disney Production, A Royal Air Force Story by Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl, and which I must absolutely find so I can read it to my children someday. And there's another moderately amusing diversion about weekends in the country with President Roosevelt, but I think I'll just go watch the recent FDR Bill Murray film instead. (less)
Author Diane Ackerman is a naturalist and poet--not a historian or journalist--so this book is very different from what one might expect of a war narr...moreAuthor Diane Ackerman is a naturalist and poet--not a historian or journalist--so this book is very different from what one might expect of a war narrative set in occupied Warsaw. More than simply narrate the story of a mother, zookeeper and holocaust rescuer, Ackerman explores themes of human empathy and our links with animals. Why is it that some animals seem more human than we are, and some humans seem worse than animals?
Chapters bounce between showing the larger historical context of occupied Poland, and more intimate illustrations of life in the war-torn zoo which quickly become a sort of Noah's Arc for threatened animals and humans alike. This juxtaposing is unusual and rather brave, but I think the author pulls it off with her poetic sensibilities. By lining up contrasting images and ideas, our brains make connections that wouldn't be possible in a more traditional narration.
One notable chapter tells how the Nazi search for "racial purity" extended to animals, and that after German zoos looted captured eastern zoos, they started programs to back-breed extinct European mega-fauna such as the aurochs and tarpan by selecting for certain genes in eastern European (more "ancient-looking") cattle and horses, respectively. The controversial fruits of that project still exist today in Poland's primeval national forest. Yet in a weird twist, the motivation of ecological racism had consequences that allowed the directors of the Warsaw zoo to hide over 300 people and save them from certain death.(less)
Considering that this book inspired me to order a batch of rennet so I can make my own mozzarella, to *finally* reassemble my aerogarden with lettuce...moreConsidering that this book inspired me to order a batch of rennet so I can make my own mozzarella, to *finally* reassemble my aerogarden with lettuce seeds after being empty for a year, and even to start a batch of alfalfa sprouts growing in a tray...all these tangible effects should be enough to show that this book worked a little magic on me. I already agreed with many of Ms. Kingsolver's views on sustainability and eating locally, though I wouldn't claim to be much good at it. And I absolutely suck at gardening. (But I do like cooking and farmers' markets.)
But Ms. Kingsolver IS good at sustainability, and eating locally, and canning and cooking and gardening--even at coaxing a brood of shy turkeys into getting it on and having babies--and oh boy, does she let you know. There's something almost smug and sanctimonious in her tone as she tells you how wonderful it is to feed a family of 4 off of her own 40 acres. When the terms "like a Norman Rockwell painting" and "we live in Pleasantville" popped up, I felt a bit nauseous. When I suggested to my husband, who claims to have spent most of his childhood pulling weeds in his parents' vegetable patch, that maybe we should start a garden, he demurred, saying he'd gotten that gardening stuff out of his system long ago and doesn't want to spend evenings and weekends off of work doing more work. I suppose gardening can be grand if, like Ms. Kingsolver, you find it fun. But if you don't, it can seem like a drudge that will take over your life. (It's hard enough going out of town and finding someone to watch the dog. Imagine finding a small army to do your farm chores).
Barbara Kingsolver is a terrific writer, and I most enjoyed her anecdotes about her farmyard fowl (turkey sex!) and the never-ending "pets vs. food" dilemma that must be dealt with, especially when young children are involved. However, I suspect that if I hadn't already been on-board more or less with Church Locavore, I may have been put off by the preachyness. I recommend The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal which also address the topic of American food culture. These books might be more likely to convince the average person, but if you're already on the bandwagon and don't mind the constant reminders that you will never be as awesome a locavore as the Kingsolver clan, this one is pretty good, too. Did I mention it comes with recipes? :)(less)
**spoiler alert** The story of Louie Zamperini, a 4 minute Olympic miler, B-24 bombardier, castaway and POW is amazing. If anything, it's a little too...more**spoiler alert** The story of Louie Zamperini, a 4 minute Olympic miler, B-24 bombardier, castaway and POW is amazing. If anything, it's a little too amazing. I can see how this story of courage and survival has become a mainstream favorite (no fewer than 3 people recommended this book to me before I finally downloaded the audiobook for a long road-trip--perhaps the ideal format and situation for this long, harrowing book). LZ's story starts with a teaser prologue that gives the reader a glimpse of the drama/action to come--Louie in the water fending off sharks with his bare hands while a Japanese plane zooms overhead, strafing the area. This action prologue was probably a good call on the writer's/editor's part, as we are then rocketed back in time to Louie's childhood in Depression-era California, then to his remarkable (tragically short) Olympic career. Being a runner, I enjoyed the running segment a lot, but can easily imagine a reader with less enthusiasm letting her eyes glaze over here. Louie's running is interrupted by the start of WWII, and he trades his shoes for an Army Air Corps uniform and, as the prologue has already given away, is shot down somewhere in the Pacific. LZ's experience in a raft for 47 days, and his years as a POW of the Japanese, are as riveting as an action movie. However, I think the book falls short here for letting the action movie take over. A pattern is established: Louie meets an insurmountable barrier, and manages to overcome it by the sheer force of his iron will. Over and over. But we readers are shut out of Louie's inner workings. The trauma he experiences, which turns him towards alcoholism and away from his wife, is suddenly, inexplicably cured and explained away by a religious conversion that comes out of nowhere. I even wondered if I had picked up one of those Christian feel-good inspirational tomes by mistake, and had missed some "redeemed by Jesus!" cover blurb, or sponsorship by Billy Graham. More than anything, Louie's religious epiphany seemed to come so easily, the trauma from his past evaporate so quickly, that it seemed to me to take something away from all the other veterans who couldn't find an easy way out, and lived with the pain for the rest of their lives.
Still, this book works well as an inspirational "action movie" that is more interested in the "what happened?" than in the "why?" 3 1/2 stars (less)
Garden of Beasts--a reference to the wooded Tiergarten in Berlin, a hunting ground for Teutonic kings of yore--draws from the diaries of American amba...moreGarden of Beasts--a reference to the wooded Tiergarten in Berlin, a hunting ground for Teutonic kings of yore--draws from the diaries of American ambassador Dodd and his daughter Martha, paining a slice-of-life picture of mid 1930's city life during the Nazi's rise to power. If you know your history (or have read Herman Wouk's Winds of War) you know what's coming. In fact, I was struck by how familiar this Berlin is, having recently read Winds of War. Winds' advantage is that it has interesting, mostly sympathetic characters, and a plot. Garden, as a non-fiction work, relies heavily on the titillating details of garish Nazi grandiosity, not to mention Martha's numerous trysts with senior Nazi officials, to retain the reader's attention. Neither Martha nor her dry, academic, penny-pinching father are inherently interesting or sympathetic, although author Larson does endeavor to portray Dodd as one of the few American government officials who recognized Hitler's threat in the mid-1930's, but was not taken seriously. And yet, Dodd never stretches beyond the role of observer, and doesn't take much action beyond waving a metaphorical "danger" flag every so often. When the Jewish owner of Dodd's rented house wants to move his family upstairs, hoping the presence of the US ambassador will keep midnight visits from the Gestapo at bay, Dodd is nothing but put-out by the intrusion and the noise. He tries to have the American Jews in his office sent home, not because of the danger, but because "the Germans won't take us seriously" if they remain employed. Meanwhile, Martha dallies about with the head of the Gestapo, a Soviet ambassador, and even tries to get "set up" with Hitler (gag). While I find the history in 30's Berlin fascinating, I didn't think filtering said history through these particular people added anything. I'd recommend Winds of War instead.(less)