Friday, June 10, 2016

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

Wilbur and Orville Wright are two men that exemplify what it means to be an American inventor. At a time where most of the world thought heavier-than-air flight was a fool's errand at best, they took their lives in their hands in order to conquer the skies. Neither had a college degree, but Wilbur was a genius and Orville was one of the best mechanical minds of his age. By close examination of birds, careful reading of the work of fellow scientists, and daredevil experimentation they were the first people that safely flew a powered aircraft.

McCullough is an excellent writer and does a great job of telling the story of the brothers lives and their quest. They kept their aircraft and experiments largely private, so even after their initial successes most of the world remained skeptical. After finally holding public demonstrations in Europe and the US proving their accomplishments, the brothers became global heroes. Ironically, their flights to show the world were some of the last they ever made. Wilbur died of typhoid fever less than five years later, and Orville spent the remainder of his life fighting patent infringements and lawsuits. Despite this less than audacious end, the brothers names and accomplishments live on today, with possibly the coolest tribute being the fact that when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, he carried a swatch of muslin from the wing of the brother's 1903 Flyer.

First Sentence:
In as strong a photograph as any taken of the brothers together, they sit side by side on the back porch steps of the Wright family home on a small side street on the west end of Dayton, Ohio.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The B Side, by Ben Yagoda

The B Side: The Death of Tim Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song, by Ben Yagoda

My mother loves the theater and my father loved movies, so I grew up with the sounds of Broadway and Hollywood in the house. I'm as familiar with the music of Cole Porter, George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington as I am Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The B Side traces American song craft in the early 20th century, including the rise of ASCAP and BMI, the payola scandal, and the shift in prestige from writers to performers. It is sometimes difficult to read a book about music; words are for the eyes, but melody is for the ears (and both nurture the soul). This story often contains long lists of titles, such as "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)," "I Got Rhythm," "Always," "Stormy Weather," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," "You're the Top," "Sophisticated Lady," "Swinging on a Star," and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." I find it virtually impossible to see these names and not pause to hear the tune in my head, making this a very long read, albeit an enjoyable one.

One critique is that the author clearly has a distain for rock-and-roll that often seems arrogant. In places this comes across as broad overstatements such as "the pop music of every era offended and mystified the older generation;" while more true than not, I'm certainly an exception as are many of my friends. In other places, the sentiment is imperiously haughty: "But it isn't possible for [songwriters such as Willie Nelson, Brian Wilson, Smokey Robinson, or Paul McCartney] to write a standard—or, as Keith Jarrett found out, it is possible, but really hard." I believe "Yesterday" and "The Tracks of My Tears" are every bit as good as "Night and Day" or "Puttin' on the Ritz." Yagoda's point is that in his opinion rock is less musically and lyrically sophisticated than a standard, but he seems to have deliberately forgotten that beauty is in the eye of the beholder—or in this case, the ear...

First Sentence:
While not quite on the level of a Richard Rodgers, a Cole Porter or an Irving Berlin, Arthur Schwartz was certainly in the top echelon of American songwriters.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A Room with a View, by E. M. Forster

A Room with a View, by E. M. Forster

I sometimes find it easier to relate to pure fantasy or science-fiction novels than I do those set in the Victorian or Edwardian eras. People are very concerned with their status and appearances, and class warfare is subtle but real. Sexism is rampant, and as always, puzzling. "It was not that ladies were inferior to men, it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves." The plot here is largely driven by a young woman raised in this world, but awakening to modern modes of thought and behavior. She starts the novel on a well-chaperoned trip to Italy, but a chance encounter with a free-thinker starts her on a journey that leads to a tough decision: expression versus repression, ardor versus apathy, life versus lethargy. Not my favorite novel, but an illuminating look at an opaque world.

First Sentence:
"The signora had no business to do it," said Miss Bartlett, "no business at all."

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Mr. Hornaday's War, by Stefan Bechtel

Mr. Hornaday's War: How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife That Changed the World, by Stefan Bechtel

I had no idea who William Hornaday was before reading this book. Turns out not only did he found the National Zoo and run the Bronx Zoo, but he was basically the father of the modern conservation movement as well. Hornaday spent his early life traveling the world collecting (and hunting) animal specimens while becoming one of the leading taxidermists in the country. Taxidermy led him to realize that the American Bison had been virtually made extinct; this realization is what pushed him into the forefront of wildlife conservation. His tenacity in the face of hunters, the gun and feather lobbies, and the general apathy of the public led to the first strong national laws protecting animals being passed, and preventing the extinction of the bison and the fur seal.

The author is clearly sympathetic to the cause of wildlife preservation; the tone is one of condemnation towards those not firmly in favor of the conservation movement. He uses terms like "waking up" to describe joining the movement, and calls those not involved the enemy. Hornaday clearly held these opinions, but the same phrases and attitude pervade the narrative even when not quoting Hornaday directly. The biased writing didn't harm the story or make things any less interesting, but I did find it a bit jarring at times. Still, overall this was a well-researched biography about a very interesting man.

First Sentence:
On the fair spring morning of May 6, 1886, an intense-looking young gentleman with eyes that burned like meteors and a jet-black beard vaulted up the stairs of a Pennsylvania Railroad westbound train, which was steaming at the platform in Union Station, near downtown Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

what if? by Randall Munroe

what if? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe

Randall Munroe is the author of one of my favorite web comics, xkcd, and so I was excited when what if? was chosen for our book club. And for good reason: this is the funniest book I've read in ages. I read it while traveling recently and my wife kept looking at me oddly when I'd literally laugh out loud! The concept here is that Munroe gives "serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions," heavily laced with his trademark humor and cartoons. "Absurd" is certainly an appropriate word, with the book including questions such as "From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?" "How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?" and "What would happen if you were to gather a mole (unit of measurement) of moles (the small furry critter) in one place?" The author then examines the questions with a scientific bent, albeit often ridiculous as immortal people and bullets with the density of a neutron star are theoretical at best.

It is hard to pick my favorite vignette; they were all fantastic. "Periodic Wall of the Elements" discusses the possibility of building a periodic table where each block is actually made of the respective element. "The sixth row would explode violently, destroying the building in a cloud of radioactive, poisonous fire and dust. Do not build the seventh row." Actually, what I'm confused about is how. "Relativistic Baseball" examines a baseball being pitched at 90% of the speed of light, ending with "everything within roughly a mile of the park would be leveled, and a firestorm would engulf the surrounding city. Major League Baseball Rule 6.08(b) suggests that in this situation, the batter would be considered “hit by pitch” and would be eligible to advance to first base." And "Machine-Gun Jetpack" has possibly my favorite cartoon (included here) with the caption "Actually, what I'm confused about is how."

On top of the humor inherent in the questions and answer themselves, there is a constant stream of comedy throughout the narrative as well. Pop-culture references abound, with Gremlins, Furbies, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Dragon Ball Z, and Firefly making common appearances. At one point Munroe gets int an argument with himself in the footnotes about the proper capitalization and attribution of "Lego." And one of my favorite running gags was the use of [citation needed] for patently obvious items: "After all, the Empire State Building sits on a base like that, and it's more than a few days old[citation needed] and hasn't disappeared into the ground.[citation needed]" Even the book jacket was funny, with the flip-side showing a map of "the world after a portal to Mars opened at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, draining most of the oceans."

I can't say enough good things about this book. Funny and educational; everyone in my book club liked it, as did both of my sons. Munroe gathers these questions from his website, so hopefully a sequel is in the cards!

First Sentence:
Q. What would happen if the Earth ad all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Hell and Good Company, by Richard Rhodes

Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made, by Richard Rhodes

Before reading Hell and Good Company pretty much all I could have told you about the Spanish Civil War was that it occurred between World Wars I and II and Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls based on his experiences there. Rhodes only lightly touches the military and political aspects of the war, instead concentrating on the innovations that were made real during this time. I was shocked to discover that frontline blood donations weren't commonplace before Spain, and the practice of sealing open wounds and compound fractures with plaster to keep them clean and immobile finally gained medical acceptance at this time, too. Hard to believe that before the late 1930's a broken leg was usually amputated on the battlefield in order to save the soldier. Military tactics also saw a lot of advancement during this time; air power truly came into its own, resulting sadly in prominent, purposeful civilian targets and the first war with a city bombed into literal rubble.

Rhodes has a sophisticated writing style; readable, but with an impressive (and occasionally off-putting) vocabulary: "In pursuing a latter-day, reverse reconquista he was less a fascist than an aggrandized martinet." One chapter in particular I found difficult to finish; the author discusses the creation of Picasso's Guernica, explaining in excruciating detail how the painting changed with each small step in the artistic process. Oddly, there isn't a rendering of the entire finished work included, so much of the included minutia was severely lacking in context. This literary wandering was an anomaly, though, and the book itself was both engrossing and appealing, and I recommend it to anyone interested in this time in history.

First Sentence:
Barcelona, 25 July 1936: In the glare of Spanish summer, the first witnesses to the igniting civil war are leaving to tell the world.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures, edited by Sean Wallace

The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures, edited by Sean Wallace

As I've said before, steampunk isn't my favorite genre. When it is good it can be great, but often it isn't good at all. This collection is much the same, following the expected pattern. My favorite was Benedice Te by Jay Lake; it is an exciting tale of espionage set in the Texian Republic in 1961. Ticktock Girl by Cat Rambo was another good one, the tale of an android superhero told through memory logs. The rest were average to poor. If you are a huge fan of the genre then this book may be for you, but if not, I'd look elsewhere for entertainment.

First Sentence (from the Introduction):
What more can one say about steampunk that hasn't already been said?

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