Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is an interesting and fun novel set in the 1950s, covering well what women had to deal with at the hands of men. There's a tremendous amount of heart and humor in the book and a compelling main character, and almost equally interesting dog of hers, Six-Thirty. It's really a nice read.
words written down
This blog is all about words because they matter, they influence, they entertain and when you put them down on a page in a meaningful order, they acquire permanence. Contained here is my writing over the past 10+ years, primarily book reviews over the past ~5 years, and I also have a book review podcast, Talking Nonfiction, available on Apple or Spotify.
Wednesday, May 31, 2023
The Wager by David Grann
The Wager by David Grann is a good work of nonfiction subtitled A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder. Grann recounts the story of the British ship Wager that left England during a conflict with Spain in 1740, going after a Spanish ship filled with treasure.
The ship made it from the Atlantic to the Pacific, going around Cape Horn at the bottom of South America through the Drake Passage, spending more than a month in the rough waters where the two oceans meet, and losing, many to scurvy, around 100 of the original 250 sailors. The Wager then went north off the Chilean coast of Patagonia and ran onto rocks in the bay Gulfo de Penas. The sailors got off the ship and took small boats to what would become known as Wager Island. Grann recounts what happened next, with some of the party leaving to create a splinter group, making alliances with some and abandoning others. The Wager's captain, David Cheap, couldn't control the men and then shot and killed a man under his command after they had been on the island for 41 days. While stranded, the men came across people from the Kawésqar, an indigenousness group of a few thousand people.
A group then said they were leaving for England through the Strait of Magellan back to the Atlantic, this after Cheap said he intended to continue with the plan to attack the Spanish on the Pacific coast. The men left and Cheap along with 19 others, not all of whom were still following him, stayed behind. 81 men went through the Strait of Magellan, then north. After three and a half months, and 283 days after the ship had last been reported seen, 29 men reached Brazil, the port of Rio Grande. Then six months later, 3 survivors appeared in Chile, leveling accusations against the first men who appeared in Brazil.
Some of the party returned to England, and then, two years later, Captain David Cheap appeared in England with two others. He and his companions had been captured by the Spanish and held for some time before being allowed to return home. Accusations and counter-accusations were hurled between the men, leading to an eventual military trial. Also interesting from the story was that Commodore George Anson of the group of six ships the Wager a part of ultimately was successful in his mission to plunder Spanish riches, garnering the equivalent of some $80M in today's dollars before his return to England, but with the cost the lives of some 1,300 of the 2,000 men under his command.
Sunday, April 30, 2023
It's All Relative by A.J. Jacobs
It's All Relative by A.J. Jacobs is an entertaining book subtitled Adventures Up and Down the World's Family Tree with Jacobs telling the story of planning the Global Family Reunion event in 2015.
The book is all about family trees, looking at the history in one's family, seeing how we're connected with one another, what it means to be in a family, and how it influences who we are. It's a whimsical and interesting look at Jacobs with the Global Family Reunion pursuing the lofty goal of trying to shed tribalism, to move towards more of a shared connectedness between people.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin is a novel that chronicles the lives of video game designers Sadie Green and Sam Masur, along with their friend and colleague Marx Watanabe.
Tuesday, March 28, 2023
The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland
The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland is a powerful work of nonfiction subtitled The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World. It tells the story of Rudolf (Rudi) Vrba, one of only a handful of Jews to escape from the concentration camp. Vrba was born Walter Rosenberg, keeping the name he assumed after escaping, and the story preserves the memory of the atrocities by the Germans as they attempted to exterminate an entire race of people. A book like this is an important record of what can happen when evil is left unchecked.
The camp was both a killing ground and profit center, with Jews encouraged to bring their belongings, and then Germans pilfering the items, and either killing immediately or working the Jews to their deaths. It was noted as a point of ongoing discussion how many to instantly kill in the showers with Zyklon B gas and how many to keep alive and put to labor. Four out of every five Jewish arrivals at Auschwitz were selected for immediate death. Gold teeth were pulled out and prisoners were told to tie their shoelaces together, so the pairs of shoes could go to new German owners. The story is also told of the 5,000 Czech Jews who came into Auschwitz Camp B and lived as if they really were just resettled into a community, and the Germans brought them in with orders for them to be like that for six months and then killed. It was all done as a ruse in case they had to show outsiders a resettlement camp.
Vrba decided to make a mental record of what he saw, so he could escape and warn others, disrupting the killing machine. His notion was that if people knew of the extermination occurring at Auschwitz, either the Germans would be stopped, or at least the Jews would make it more difficult on the Germans, allowing some to escape. The concept was their assembly line of death worked so efficiently due to the lies told to the Jews. He wanted specifically to warn hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who were slated to be sent to their deaths, with Vrba seeing an extension being built onto the railway line to make their slaughter more efficient.
He and Fred Wetzler got out in April 1944, the first Jews ever to escape the concentration camp, with two more escaping several months later. When they got to freedom, they sat down for long interviews, with the account of those becoming known as the Vrba-Wetzler Report. It gave an itemized estimate of 1,765,000 Jews gassed to death at the camp between April 1942 and April 1944. The report had a circuitous path, it made it to some people, others pledged to give it to others and didn't, others saw it and pledged to act and didn't, others saw it and thought it so unspeakably horrible it must not be true. People often simply didn't want to believe possible what the Germans called The Final Solution to the Jewish Question. While this was occurring, 10,000-15,000 Hungarian Jews were daily arriving at the camp, with over 90% of them killed immediately. Some in leadership of the Hungarian Jew population that Rudi had wanted to warn were busy saving some of the people, but only those close to them. Even with this, it can definitely be said that the report that came out of Vrba and Wetzler was largely responsible for the saving of 200,000 Jews in Budapest.
Some six million Jews were killed by Germany and Freedland writes in the book about seeing Vrba in the nine-hour documentary, Shoah. He settled after the war in communist Czechoslovakia, then escaped to the West, eventually winding up in Vancouver, Canada. Vrba wasn't always afforded the respect he deserved, in part because he railed about those in Jewish leadership who let him down. He made the point that the machine relied on people acting like sheep, letting themselves be led to their slaughter. While it’s largely true that Jews didn't know they were going to be killed, Freedland notes that those not young simply might not have believed it possible, even if they knew, people could be in denial. Facts are one thing, belief from those facts can be another. Vrba also felt while at Auschwitz that if the outside world had full knowledge of what was occurring, the Allies would stop the killing. Reference is made to the Martin Gilbert book Auschwitz and the Allies that Vrba was interviewed for and in actuality, foreign powers did kind of know about the extermination of the Jewish people and didn’t concentrate on stopping it. Reasons ranged from whether a focused effort to stop the extermination would distract from the overall war effort to whether people would get behind saving Jews. It’s a solid and important book and Freedland in the beginning notes that the Vrba should be remembered for what he did, similar to how Vrba felt it vital that people know what the Nazis were doing to the Jewish people.
Sunday, March 26, 2023
Spare by Prince Harry
Spare by Prince Harry is an autobiography that’s both compelling and well-crafted, with Harry writing it along with J.R. Moehringer, ghost writer of Open by Andre Agassi and Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. It’s a very personal story that covers Harry’s life and the things that caused him to not be an active part of the royal family.
The British press would hound Harry and anyone associated with him, and palace advisors would leave him to fend for himself, with him being told about lies said of him to "ignore it and it will go away." The press operated at time on the basis that even if something was not true, the value they would derive from printing it outweighed the potential negative in libel suits. Harry also wrote about how as he looked at pictures from inside the Paris tunnel where his mom died when he was twelve, he saw how her dying face was lit up by flashes from press photographers. He also notes that one of the worst papers was News of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Harry's father and brother certainly don't come across positively in the book, but less for them being malicious, and more for them simply going along with what royal advisors wanted. One anecdote Harry tells is how when he got injured in military exercises just prior to joining the Army, the palace reported he got hurt playing rugby, so the press said he afraid to serve his country. It was interesting to read about his military service, with him first directing people toward enemy targets and then becoming a helicopter pilot. Also covered is his charity work, including for soldiers injured in combat (which led to the formation of the Invictus Games), and for people in Africa with AIDS. It was great content about Harry's love of Botswana, flying into Maun and spending time in the Okavango Delta in the Kalahari Desert. He would sit around the campfire, often with his friends Teej and Mike who owned a film production company, with the wilds of Africa just outside that circle. He refers to Botswana as being the most sparsely populated nation on earth, with 40% of the land given over to nature.
The latter part of the book is about his time with his now wife. The press was frequently racist toward Meghan, harassing she and her family and referring to her as being “from Compton, home of gangsters.” Things she was doing that at worst were cultural misunderstandings were blown up to be character flaws and conflicts. Palace decision-makers didn't back her in the press regarding things that she was criticized for, often when the same palace advisors had given her the go-ahead or direction, on things to do or wear. They also wouldn't officially contradict false statements, they just let them sit out there, perhaps in part because if she was getting all the bad press, it wasn’t being directed towards Charles or William. Harry and Meghan were in British Columbia, Canada when their security was pulled in March 2020, leaving them not knowing where they could go and still be safe. Tyler Perry offered them use of his empty house in Los Angeles, saying that he was doing it because of the love his late mother felt towards Harry’s late mother, Diana. There’s much in the book that’s a shame with the deterioration of Harry’s relationship with Charles and William, much that’s outraging with how the press and the palace advisors treated he and Meghan, and much that's interesting and really good storytelling.
Sunday, February 26, 2023
Bad City by Paul Pringle
Bad City by Paul Pringle is a solid work of nonfiction subtitled Peril and Power in the City of Angels. Pringle is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the book comes out of a 2019 Pulitzer Prize winning investigation for the Times into sexual abuse by Dr. George Tyndall at the University of Southern California, which came on the heels of reporting that Pringle did into Dr. Carmen Puliafito, Dean of the USC Medical School.
The majority of Bad City covers Puliafito, who while he was Dean, supplied drugs to a woman some four decades younger that he met when she was working as a prostitute. She later overdosed in a hotel room with Puliafito, an event that was largely swept under the rug by Pasadena police, ignored by USC leadership, and had publishing roadblocks put in front of it by L.A. Times editors. It's a good account of the influence of power, and dogged reporting by Pringle and his team to try to overcome those influences and bring the story public.
Saturday, February 18, 2023
Flight of Passage by Rinker Buck
Flight of Passage by Rinker Buck is a solid book, and the first from the writer of The Oregon Trail and Life on the Mississippi. Published in 1997, it chronicles the flight across the U.S. done by 15-year-old Rinker and his 17-year-old brother Kern Buck, a trip many reporters said was the youngest cross-country trip flown.
It's an interesting read about the journey, done with the encouragement of their father Tom Buck, a barnstorming air-show pilot for decades who lost a leg in a plane crash before the birth of the brothers. The book includes great content on the trip, the confidence that grew in the boys through it, including from flying the Guadalupe Pass through the Rockies, and the characters met along the way. It's a really good tale of a time in America and the completion of a fairly herculean task. Buck also details well the dynamic between he and Kern and how they interacted with their larger-than-life father.
Sunday, January 15, 2023
River of the Gods by Candice Millard
River of the Gods by Candice Millard is a solid book subtitled Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile. The book tells the story of Richard Burton and John Speke as the two British explorers searched in Africa to find what feeds the longest river in the world, and then to prove their dissenting opinions.
Burton was the leader of the 1856 first expedition to find the source. He was a master swordsman, impersonated a Muslim to go to Mecca, and was adept at languages, later to become known for his translations. Speke joined the expedition as a surveyor and the men were in Somaliland when their expedition was attacked and men killed. Speke was taken, but managed to escape while suffering eleven stab wounds. Burton was stabbed through his jaw, and the effort abandoned and the men returned home to England. Speke felt that the expedition was not prepared and it Burton's fault.
Despite this start to their relationship, the two set off on a second trip to Africa in search of the source of the White Nile. Joining the expedition was an African named Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who would prove important to their efforts, particularly Speke's. The expedition traveled from the Indian Ocean through East Africa and six months after they left the coast, Burton was almost completely paralyzed with malaria. Burton recovered somewhat and the two men came across Lake Tanganyika, the longest and second deepest freshwater lake in the world. They were the first Europeans to reach the lake, which Arabs had been to for decades. Burton believed the White Nile flowed out of Lake Tanganyika, but Speke had heard of another lake and wanted to go in search of it. Burton agreed to let Speke go without him and Speke and Bombay traveled on to Lake Nyanza, which covers nearly 27,000 square miles, more than twice the size of Lake Tanganyika. Speke immediately felt he had found the source of the Nile, and without his expedition lead, but Burton was skeptical of Speke's claim.
Speke returned on his own to England and immediately made the case for Lake Nyanza, which he renamed Lake Victoria, as the source of the White Nile and painted a picture of Burton as bedridden and unable to make the journey there. Speke received funding from the Royal Geographic Society to return to Africa and hopefully settle the matter of which lake fed the White Nile, with Speke now leading his own expedition. Speke returned to Zanzibar in 1860 and then he and the expedition got to Lake Nyanza, and a waterfall roughly sixteen feet high and nearly a thousand feet wide, with water from the lake going into the river. He didn't complete navigation of the lake or do anything else to definitely prove it the source, but he felt he had seen enough.
Speke returned to England in 1963 and wasn't very good at proving his assertation about Lake Nyanza over Lake Tanganyika. He didn't have enough evidence to back his claim, and Burton was a much better writer, providing detail that Speke did not. Burton and Speke were to debate the source of the Nile in a Royal Geographic Society talk on Sept 16, 1864, but Speke shot himself prior to it. Nearly a decade after Speke's death, someone else confirmed what Speke had said, Lake Nyanza was the source of the White Nile. It was later found that while Lake Nyanza the principal source, the lake is fed by many smaller rivers and streams, the largest of which is the Kagera River. Speke ultimately was proven correct, but history remembers Burton more, with his books, poems, and translations providing a greater measure of fame than his exploration.
Sooley by John Grisham
Sooley by John Grisham departs from Grisham's most common area of legal thrillers, with this novel tracing the path of Samuel Sooleymon, leaving war-torn South Sudan at 17 to play basketball in the United States.
Wednesday, December 28, 2022
Life on the Mississippi by Rinker Buck
Life on the Mississippi by Rinker Buck is an excellent travelogue of sorts, in the same vein of his book The Oregon Trail. In this latest effort, Buck chronicles a 2,000 trip down the Ohio and then into the Mississippi River in a wooden flatboat, the Patience. It's a great read about the people and history of the region joined with the experience Buck had traveling down the rivers.
Flatboats were a common thing in the early 1800s and Buck takes one from the town of Elizabeth, just above Pittsburgh, to New Orleans. He starts out a neophyte and learns how to boat on the river along with the huge commercial vessels, particularly the long barge strings above New Orleans. The book is a great story about an idea that's seen through, and Buck makes the comment that a river journey is an exploration of character. He at times travelled solo and at times with others and he and his crew solve problems along they way. They navigate the rivers, deal with pop-up storms that emerge without warning, force a beaching and then get back in the water, and find fuel when there's many stretches with none by the water.
Buck also writes about the communities, places like New Madrid, Missouri and Natchez, Mississippi. There were such interesting characters he met along the way, "river rats" who grew up on the Ohio or Mississippi. The rivers, especially the Mississippi, are commercial traffic heavy and to avoid a collision, he deliberated beached the Patience and relied on the wash from a tugboat wake to get him off the sandbar.
There's a lot about how the history Buck sees isn't always in the line with the idealized history we like to think of. He chronicles the slave trade and Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the devastating impact it had on lives. Buck also writes about his mother, who passed away not much before he started the trip, and how he would drop her off at the supermarket once weekly for her to do her shopping for an hour. It's a personal and interesting story that's told really well.
Tuesday, December 27, 2022
The Light We Carry by Michelle Obama
The Light We Carry by Michelle Obama is a solid follow up to her book Becoming from 2018. The first is more of an autobiography and this recent effort, subtitled Overcoming in Uncertain Times, notes that it contains habits, practices, attitudes, and beliefs; a series of reflection on things Obama feels to be important and leans on in her life. It's excellent and the chapters that stood out to me as particularly noteworthy are the following:
Starting Kind - Obama tells the story of her friend who each morning looks at himself in the mirror and says "Heeey, Buddy!" The idea is to take a supportive approach to a day, and it can be extrapolated out to a situation or even a life. She also notes that when a kid walks into a room, they're looking to adults to see if their faces light up when they see them. While we should do that for kids, we can also do that for ourselves.
Am I seen? - It's hard to go through life feeling different than others, like you don't belong where you are. She notes that it's hard to dream about what we can't see. When you're an "only" in a setting, the only person who is like you, it's hard to feel like you belong.
My kitchen table - It's important to try to make connections with other people, many of us are lonely. People are missing the sense of belonging with other people. We have to open ourselves up and take a risk to connect with others. She notes telling her daughters "don't do life alone."
Meet my mom - There's great content in the chapter that stems from Obama's mother, with various maxims she's learned about parenting: 1. Teach your kids to wake themselves up. 2. It isn't about you. Good parents are always working to put themselves out of business. 3. Know what's truly precious. 4. Parent the child you've got. 5. Come home. We will always like you here.
The armor we wear - Preparation can be an armor. Preparedness becomes a hedge against panic. And panic is what will lead you to disaster. There's also armor which insulates yourself from situations and can be exhausting to keep up, as it prevents you from being your true self.
Going high - We can consciously choose to lift the level of discourse in a situation, to not let ourselves be pulled down in the muck with others who want us there. Another way to describe it is "tell the truth, do your best by others, keep perspective, stay tough." Obama notes that going high is about doing what it takes to make your work count and your voice heard, "despite the despites."
Saturday, December 03, 2022
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White was first published in 1959 and over 10 million copies have been sold of this short book with rules of writing. Strunk was a professor of White's and self-published The Elements of Style in 1919. White forty years later expanded on Strunk's rules for the new book.
It's got a lot in less than 90 pages, with the things that stood out noted below:
Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's - this is true even if the name ends in s, so "Charles's friend" is correct.
To form the contraction for "it is," write "it's."
In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last - this is a serial, or Oxford, comma.
Do not join independent clauses with a comma - if clauses are grammatically complete, they should be separated by either a semicolon or period.
Use the active voice. Put statements in positive form.
Use definite, specific, concrete language. Omit needless words. Be clear.
The number of the subject determines the number of the verb - don't combine singular and plural.
A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.
Express coordinate ideas in similar form - this is the principle of parallel construction.
Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.
Avoid split infinitives - write "to inquire diligently" rather than "to diligently inquire."
Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs (verbs that have "ly" added to the end).