Tag Archives: travel

Book Reviews: Dancing in the Streets by Steven P. Unger (***)

As is usual I received this book free in exchange for a review. Despite the great kindness of the author I give my candid opinions below.

To start, I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to finish this book but I can imagine that for a certain sort of reader with more in common with the subject matter this would be a dizzying and unforgettable book.

I couldn’t wrap my mind around it because of the almost endless detail. The author describes the times in which he lived with a clarity that few others can even begin to claim. His descriptions are almost Dickensian in their richness and if one has even a remote hook with which to relate to this content then they’ll be inexorably drawn into this cross section of history so wonderfully portrayed. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that hook so it left me with mind wandering and doing the math to find out how long it would be before I could move to something else.

So, is this book for you? I would posit that the optimal readers of this book are in their 60s, or devoted fans of life in the 60s and 70s. They have had some chance to travel, rather randomly and broadly and probably have some stories of their own to tell from the era. Readers of this sort will nod in recognition when they read this book while I was just nodding off.

In summary, this wasn’t the book for me and may not be the book for a lot of people but to some out there this will be THE book that crystallizes their own lifetimes and echoes their own adventures in a former world much different than our own. I appreciate it for its attention to detail and its rare literary craftsmanship but I just couldn’t force my eyes to finish it. Probably a pity but such are the random vicissitudes of literature.

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Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security

Not a bad little read if you take it slowly.  Free to the first person who asks.  Oh, and vote the review helpful on Amazon if you find it so.

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October 12, 2013 · 5:07 pm

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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The Paradise Guest House by Ellen Sussman

The Paradise Guest HouseThe Paradise Guest House by Ellen Sussman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As is usual, I received this book for nothing from a GoodReads giveaway. Despite that kindness my candid thoughts follow.

A year ago, our protagonist was witness to the Bali nightclub bombings. Now she’s returning to the country to pay her respects and find the little piece of herself that she left behind.

This book really defies easy categorization (travelogue? romance? historical novel? escapism?) but at its heart it’s an allegory of guilt, grief and loss. Our heroine not only lost her friend when the bombs ripped apart the building she was sitting in but also her piece of mind and sense of self. In “The Paradise Guest House” we find a woman who is struggling to put her life back together after she discovers that bombs tear apart more than buildings.

From a writing standpoint this book is smooth as silk. I’m always the first to pick at an author’s writing but Sussman is no slouch at stringing words together. Her words form an uncannily vivid picture in the reader’s mind and if you read the acknowledgements it’s not hard to see why. She spent a month on site researching the country and talking to locals. I suspect it’s no coincidence that some of the names of her characters also appear in the list of people to whom she is thankful. The author has very skillfully put a month of her life to paper.

Topically, Sussman does a grand job of taking us to a place and time that we don’t tend to think about very much and letting us get a flavor for not only the country but the people in it from the locals who have been there all their lives to the imports who just decided there was no reason to leave. Geographically speaking, if this comes out as a movie it’ll be one of those you go to just for the breathtaking panoramas.

In summary, our author has given us a great view not only into the far-off land of Bali but also into the souls of her complex and skillfully portrayed characters. Her descriptive powers are almost Dickensian in their breadth and depth. As for the question of a category for this book, it really is all of the above: some adventure, some romance, some far-off foreign climes but mostly it’s about a woman who has lost something and has retraced her steps to find it again.

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Books: My Life in France (and an Exhaustive List of Every Meal I Ate While There) – Julia Child

My Life in France – Julie Child

Child’s book, it should be beyond surprise, reads rather like a cookbook. The reader is dizzied with untranslated French and long lists of French foods and left wondering if the subject was that of snails or gourmet crackers or perhaps the neighbor’s cat. The text is a skillful lesson in gleaning from context quickly which passages should be read in detail and which should be merely glossed over for lack of adding anything to the narrative. No matter how assiduous I might read and reread Julia’s detailed dinner menu from December 5th of 1962, it is exceptionally unlikely that any impression will be left on my apparently impregnable mind.

Actual writing aside, one is left at the end with a vast respect for the life that Child led. Her experiences were varied, her energy and patience immense and yet she never seemed to succumb to the egotism so common in the accomplished. She acknowledged that her chosen topic was a complex one but she pursued it with a vigor and exactitude that made it accessible to the common housewife of the time. Unlike her predecessors she took the time to make sure that the recipes in her book were not only detailed enough to be executed by the uninitiated but also didn’t include those ingredients that couldn’t be obtained outside of France. Her legend as the bridge between French cooking and America seems well earned.

Overall, I’d grant the book a few stars out of five but it would be much more entertaining to someone who had more of a connection either with cooking or with French culture. It is fairly hard to dive mind-first into a book that requires so much of it to be explicitly ignored.

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Sodden Teabags of the Soul

Sodden Teabags of the Soul

Sodden Teabags of the Soul

Some days one just sits down to write.  I have a list of topics that I very well COULD write about but for whatever reason they just don’t appeal at the moment.  So it’s Saturday.  I have this little internal upwelling in my chest that is either the nascent rumblings of a heart attack or the strange and giddy need to put something down on “paper” (or rather the most easily available electronic approximation thereof).

As I said before, it’s Saturday and another weekend stretches out before us.  Since I’m an American that means two things:

  1. There are dozens of options available to me from the arts to zoology.  The world is figuratively at my fingertips.  Lots and lots to do today.  I could be lazy and be entertained or I could absolutely push myself to the physical and psychological limit and make this weekend a real gasser.  Damn it’s good to be affluent and American.
  2. Despite all this I’m almost sociologically required to be dissatisfied with whatever the choices are.  As Americans we’re required to want more, more, more or at the least different, different, different.  I’m in the Midwest in February so long observation of the other people with whom I associate impels me to look to the south and say, “Boy!  Sure which I was on the beach in Florida right now!”  If I allow such silliness to creep into my head it does tend to have a deleterious effect on the perceived efficacy of the 174 things I have right here in town to entertain me this weekend.

This does beg the question of what the hell AM I going to do this weekend?  There are any number of ticketed events I could wander out to but the problem is that I’m not especially keen to buy tickets to anything.  I’m currently on a cheap binge so the thought of buying tickets to something for $25 each plus the almost compulsory dinner out before makes me knead my tongue with my teeth in a manner intended to keep the gnome of parsimony in my head distracted long enough for me to whip out my Visa.   The more economical options, while neither worse nor better, have the aspects of doing something outside when it’s 30 degrees to recommend against them.  Cleary this is a maelstrom of over analysis that requires a second party to participate in it.  As I write this Laura’s still slumbering peacefully away so she will no doubt soon rise with vigor and enthusiasm to break the impasse in my head.

Shifting gears most wildly, the above bit of blather brings my mind to another point on which I’d intended to write but never quite gotten around to.  In previous entries some of my situations have inspired a level of sympathy from my readers that was quite unintended.  I’ve often written and been quite perplexed when the response is roughly akin to, “Oh that’s terrible, hope it gets better soon.”  In these situations I can’t help but blink quizzically a few times while the words, “um, ok, it wasn’t actually –bad- in the first place, but OK…” roll lazily through my head.

In our society we value highly the sympathetic character in others.  We want others to understand our pain and appreciate it but sometimes I think this can be taken to an extreme, especially in cases where there really isn’t any pain, but merely some internal quandary to be untangled.  I often find myself writing things in a negative vein, expressing some conflict which I view as a puzzle to be teased out.  It’s been my observation that many people view this internal puzzling as an appropriate target for sympathetic responses but personally I find these puzzlings very satisfying and if they were to be unavailable I would doubtless find myself going in search of them like a Pooh bear in search of that golden sustenance so painfully extracted from the recalcitrant honey bee.  Oh bother.

And with that I close.  The tie-breaker in the decision on the day’s activities has arisen so I make my way to determine the fate of the day with her.  We shall see what the day brings.

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Report Card on 2011 and Goals for 2012

Since the holidays aren’t cliché enough, I think it’s time to write the post that everyone absolutely dreads: the personal goals year-end wrap-up post!  Yay, wrap-up post!  Yay, some stranger’s personal goals!

It should be noted at the onset that I don’t include in my assessment of the year things that have to be done and that would land me in hot-water if I failed to do them.  So we can take the usual claptrap as read: stay employed, don’t kill anyone, hug an offspring when appropriate, keep other people around me happy.  Let’s just say that’s all well and good because if it’s not, that’ll be a whole other post.

So I tend to break the “things I want to do” down into three basic categories: two involving my own personal output and one involving the input the world provides to me.  Photography represents my drive to get out and see and do new things.  As long as I’m photographing things I haven’t photographed before, I figure I’m pushing my way out into the world.  Reading and Writing represent my assimilation of the information in the world and my ability to regurgitate it in a hopefully meaningful way.  In general, my writing doesn’t aim to generate a new information but hopefully to bring existing information into a more readable and useful form to a different audience.  After all, where else are you going to get plot summaries and analysis on 50’s sci-fi short stories?

Photography: The raw numbers are OK, but not great.  2,839 photos added to the archives over the past year.  Considering that I probably took 12,000 or so and weeded it down to that number it sounds like a lot but it’s really rather a pittance.  The depressing part to look back on is that 95% of them were taken in Indiana.   There was a brief jaunt to Michigan which yielded some good photos but that’s still a tiny, tiny percentage.  Pondering further, the unamusing part of this is that exactly none of these photos were taken at anyone’s request.  In 2010 I at least had a couple of requests for photos but nothing in the whole year of 2011.  I’m not sure entirely how to change that given the glut of photographers in the marketplace but I certainly can’t lower my prices any.

The goal for the coming year must be to get out of the state more and surely I can hit the 5,000 photos mark in 2012.

Writing: As with photography, the raw numbers aren’t terrible.  Across four blogs and mostly in the last three months of the year, I managed to push out 173 posts.  Of course the raw number says absolutely nothing about the quality of said posts but I don’t feel like I’m writing crap just to write something.  I’ve leaned heavily towards sci-fi as of late but that will pass once I finish the current omnibus of science fiction and move on to more diverse faire.  I will say that I’ve taken on a few fairly massive projects with the Sci-Fi Omnibus and the notes for the textbook on Islam and managed to come achingly close to completion.  The brief “see every movie in the movie theatres” phase was also fairly fruitful.  So I’m hesitant to be too hard on myself given the density and scope of some of my undertakings.

In 2012, I’d like to start the “Agnostics View on Religion” blog that keeps rolling about in my head and perhaps split this blog into two.  I’m not sure having personal mumblings and literary junk so intermittently in one spot really makes a lot of sense.  The cross-over interest is probably fairly minimal and I hate the idea of boring one set of readers while engaging another.

Reading: It is said that in order to write well, one must read well.  2011 has been a travesty on that front.  I made it through a record low 19 books in 2011.  Before I looked back at the official logs, I thought the number would be much, much lower so I’m glad it’s at least that much.

For the coming year, I need to consume more to the end that I can produce writing that has more depth to it.  I’ve churned and bubbled through 2011 on largely the same ideas I’ve churned on before.  Need new words.  Oh, and also need to finish up the Islam textbook and these summations of 50s sci-fi stories.

To sum up, 2011 was rather a sleepy year.  I had energy but it was very localized.  I produced but it was not fresh.  I did, but the results were not very novel and not, honestly, all that interesting.  As I sit here and ponder the people around me, I find that my life is really rather shallow.  If we all are granted a reprieve from the apocalypse of 2012, then I’m hopeful that at the close of next year I’ll have more positive tales to relate.

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