Monthly Archives: July 2013

Understories by Tim Horvath

UnderstoriesUnderstories by Tim Horvath

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book came to be via the Kindle Buffet as I was browsing about for something to read on vacation. Since I actually paid $1.99 for this book for a change, I’m exceptionally motivated to be honest about it.

Generally I like to frame my reviews as positives, negatives and summary. Occasionally, I come upon a book that breaks this mold because I can’t find an appropriate comment for some section. In this case I can’t really find anything negative to say about this book. The author is an obvious talent. He can craft sentences into the most twistedly entertaining prose I’ve seen in a long time. His talent for coining words baffles the dictionary and forces the reader to stop and think about what they’re reading. Horvath’s verbiage is high art.

As accompaniment, his content is delightfully surreal. Through all his stories there is a common thread of “What in the …?” that pleases in the same way that Dali’s melted clocks, though nonsensical on the surface, display a deeper and more significant undercurrent of importance.

In summary, well worth the investment of a few dollars. While the purchase should not be questioned, however, the environment of consumption should be carefully considered. This is not one to be read while the kids play frantically in a maelstrom of manic energy. Understories is best left for a quiet contemplative environment in which it can be completely and fully appreciated. Give this one some space in your brain and you shall not be disappointed.

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The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football by John J. Miller

The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved FootballThe Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football by John J. Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For once I actually bothered to acquire this book on purpose rather than receiving it for free. Because of that, I’m doubly motivated to be honest about it.

On the positive side, the book does cover a rather little-known period of history. We don’t often give much thought to the early-early history of football and in traditional history classes the wars get all the coverage. The life of collegiate athletes during the early 1900s is vastly under appreciated. Our author also does a great job of pulling forth some interesting tidbits from the period and stitching them together. In a vast deviation from my usual habit, I’m keeping this book on the shelf to read again in a year or so. It’s just that informative.

On the negative side, the whole Roosevelt connection is a bit of a sham. Yes, he agreed with the idea of keeping football around but his role was tiny when compared with others of the time. His portrait is on this book just to sell copies of it. Admittedly, that’s what got me to buy it but I did feel rather duped at the end. Further, the author does have some wonderfully history encapsulated in this book but it can get rather tedious. Events are not described in chronological order, are often repeated and sometimes just plain muddled. Organizationally this could use some work.

In summary, a lot of really nice factoids here for the patient. A bit of a misrepresentation as titles go, but still well worth the read.

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So what time is it anyway?

Tonight’s reading of Dava Sobel’s book ‘Longitude’ reminded me of one of my favorite great “difficulties” from history. Specifically, just how hard it has been throughout mankind’s existence to tell what exactly the time is. It is one of the most bedeviling of problems, since we live on a sphere and the motion of the sun and moon define the very concept of time for us. Unfortunately, twelve noon in New York looks exactly like twelve noon in New Delhi. The book’s topic is primarily that of determining longitude (obviously) but since this is so closely married to the more interesting problem of time-keeping, I felt it incumbent to tease out a few of the more interesting tidbits from tonight’s reading. It should be noted that I’ll only breeze over these points at the highest level. Anyone wanting to actually learn something should go read the book for themselves.

The book opens, and frames the problem of navigation with an ironic and grand story of misplaced wrath from 1707. A British naval officer is making his way home after a successful battle with a fleet of five ships on a very foggy evening. He is approached by a worried sailor who says his reckoning tells him that they are dangerously close to shore. The captain, offended by the affront, has the sailor hanged for mutiny. Minutes later, the entire fleet runs aground and the crews are almost entirely lost. With so few navigational aids, it was nearly impossible to be certain just how far east or west any ship might be. It all really boiled down to guesswork and even seasoned sailors were sometimes failures.

Galileo’s Celatone

One early attempt at solving this problem comes from Galileo. He noted rightly that the moons of Jupiter eclipsed and reappeared with amazing regularity. He constructed a device called a Celatone, combining a helmet and telescope, to aid sailors in observing the various movements of the moons. This, combined with a detailed table of expected movements would provide the time assuming that it was dark… and a clear night… and Jupiter also happened to be on the right side of the planet to be seen. Needless to say, this didn’t quite catch on. Somewhat relatedly, many years later a Danish astronomer, Ole Roemer, observed that the schedule of Jovian eclipses was inaccurate by several minutes depending on the relative positions of Jupiter and Earth in the solar system. He was able to use these deviations to make an exceptionally good calculation of the speed of light, which was thought at the time to be transmitted instantaneously.

Lastly for tonight, and most abundantly oddball, we have the story of “Sympathy Powder” from 1687. Sir Kenelm Digby is said to have discovered a “miraculous” powder that had the power of healing people at a distance. The only down side was that it was a rather unpleasant sensation when put in use. Using this miraculous concoction, the idea was advanced that a dog should be put aboard ship with a festering wound. Each day at 12:00 local time, the powder would be applied to some personal effect belonging to the dog, thus causing it to yelp and alerting the ship’s crew to the real time back home. Issues with this approach abound, of course, but it is a little known fact that this exact method of timekeeping is widely in use today. It is precisely this form of chronology that Doctor’s use to know when appointments are to be kept, at least if my own personal experiences with their promptness are any indication.

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Vacationland by Sarah Stonich

VacationlandVacationland by Sarah Stonich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As usual, I received this book for nothing. Somewhat unusually, I got it from GoodReads, which has since abandoned me in the realm of free books to review. Despite that kind and now unusual consideration, I give my candid opinion below.

To summarize the content, this book is a panorama centered around a small resort community in Minnesota. We’re treated to the viewpoints of the caretaker, the artist and everyone else in evidence during the 300 pages of this novel. More than any recent book I’ve read, this series of short stories covers the gamut of narratives that play out around a small Minnesota town.

On the positive side, the viewpoint(s) from which this novel is(are) written are profuse. We see this microcosm of the world from a variety of viewpoints. At the end, the reader knows everything they could possibly hope to know about this slice of the world. Its narrative is rich and inclusive.

On the negative side, there’s not much to say. If anything, the text drags on over long. While abundant in execution, it seems to be almost too abundant. I found myself with mind wandering far before the end of the novel.

In summary, highly recommended especially to those with a connection to the area. Those with less history in Minnesota will still be amused but not enthralled to the extent that the natives.

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