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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Book Chat: Flora of Middle-earth; Plans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium

Posted by joeabbott on July 2, 2018

imageOK, first off, this isn’t a “review” … just my thoughts on a book I’d read. I realize I’d been calling these sort of posts “reviews” and they’re not proper analyses of books, just me babbling on a bit. I had two choices: change how I was writing about books or set expectations appropriately. So here I am … this is not a review, just me talking about various parts of a book I recently finished. And that book today is Flora of Middle-earth; Plans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium by Walter S. Judd & Graham A. Judd.

A true Tolkien nerd would have recognized my last post having the same title as used to describe Bilbo’s 111th birthday party in The Lord of the Rings (LoTR). Perhaps inspired by my recent reading of Flora of Middle-earth, but it’s my opinion this book should be reserved to be read and kept by only that same sort of person: someone so completely rapt by J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing and worlds that she or he would collect every little thing they might find on it.

Don’t get me wrong, the book is expertly written, is decorated with over 100 woodcut-style illustrations, and contains exceptional and scholarly botanical information … but it’s a pretty dry read containing a wealth of material unassociated with Tolkien’s world. Again, there’s plenty of merit to this work, but rather than carrying me away to Middle-earth, it roots me firmly in the here and now. As it does that well, let’s take a look.

The father-son team split responsibilities on the book with the father, Walter, a Professor Emeritus in the Botany Department at the University of Florida, wrote the text and the son, Graham, an instructor at Augsburg College and the Minneapolis College of Fine Art and Design, providing the illustrations in the style of a woodcut print.

The book itself is broken into 8 chapters, but Chapter 7 is the reason most anyone would crack this book: the description of the flora found in Middle-earth. Chapters 1-6 (~72 pages) cover introductions, overview of plant communities in Middle-earth, a long breakdown of botanical classification and identification, and a handful of pages on two singular trees: the Two Trees of Valinor. After that, Chapter 7 (~270 pages) covers over 120 different plants named in one of Tolkien’s Middle-earth-based works (which includes the Silmarillion, The Adventures of Tom Bombadill and the HoME series written by Christopher Tolkien). Chapter 8 (~4 pages), by Graham, touches on the illustrations and alludes to Tolkien’s own artistic talents.

The first chapters had me chomping at the bit for more, to get into the meat of the book and didn’t do a lot for me. Chapter 2, for instance, Plant Communities of Middle-earth included a diagram showing Middle-earth at the time of the LoTR in silhouette with a line somewhere north of The Shire separating the northern portion from everything in the south. These were the two areas of distinction … accurate (I guess) but hardly telling.

Judd does this a couple other times, pointing out mountainous regions and desert areas but he didn’t really need the dozen or so maps to make this point. Curiously he includes maps and discussion of the Isle of Numenor but doesn’t include Beleriand even though he notes flora from this area, and it’s vastly larger than Numenor. He whets your appetite without really expanding a lot of your knowledge of this chapter.

Chapters 3-5 were really beyond me. For someone who got the book to learn about flora in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, these chapters are a speed bump on the way to learning about that. Judd discusses the importance of green plants (The Diversity of life, with a Focus on the Green Plants), takes you through botanical distinction (Introduction to Plant Morphology: Learning the Language of Plant Descriptions), and then a lengthy identification chapter (Identification of the Plants of Middle-earth). It’d be one thing to learn this before a walk through a field, but when the plants are presented readily identified and named, it’s connected but unnecessary detail.

Chapter 6, Telperion and Laurelin: The Two Trees of Valinor, starts the engine, however, and brings you into a discussion of Middle-earth botany: a treatment of the Two Trees. It’s a brief chapter but nicely done, discussing what Tolkien created, which trees he may have based these imaginary specimens on, touches on their story, and treats the reader to an etymological discussion. It sets the stage for what follows.

And so Chapter 7, The Plants of Middle-earth, then takes you alphabetically (by common name) through the flora of Middle-earth. Each plant is introduced and includes a quote that addressed it from one of Tolkien’s sources; as an example:

OAKS (QUERCUS SPP.)

(The Beech or Oak family [Fagaceae].)

In a great hall with pillars hewn out of the living stone sat the Elvenking [Thanduil] on a chair of carven wood. On his head was a crown of berries and red leaves, for the autumn was come again. In the spring he wore a crown of woodland flowers. In his hand he held a carven staff of oak.

(Hobbit, IX)

These quotes are a lot of fun, as, after reading the plant name introducing the section, I continually found myself thinking back to the stories and wondering if Judd would use the quote from the part of the books I’d remembered. As often as not he didn’t, and I found those times more entertaining as he reminded me of another great part of a great literary work.

Judd then treats us to a discussion on the plant at hand; sometimes noting how often they were mentioned in the books, often mentioning the many other places the subject was found, or the appropriateness of the plant in that place and time. It was marvelous to appreciate just how well Tolkien knew his botany and placement of the plants in his world. It was clear he didn’t just say, “I need a new tree here … maybe I’ll toss in a Linden” … no, he understood the environment a species would like and made sure it was apt for the placement in his world. He also nailed the right seasons and the state of his plants at those times. I grew to respect Tolkien immensely for his diligence in this aspect of his works.

After a short discussion Judd included sections on Etymology, Distribution and Ecology, Economic Uses, and Description … but, truth be told, I scanned much of this and skipped some altogether.

Etymology was a mixed bag, with some parts dealing with aspects I was interested in, the Quenya or Sindarin treatments, and others less so, as it dealt with the common name and English and Latin etymology.

Distribution and Ecology was similar to Economic Uses in that it abandoned Middle-earth as a whole and addressed real-world details. While I got the book to know where and when plants were noted in Tolkien’s world, I care much less that Horse-Chestnuts, for instance, are a group of 12 species with distribution throughout our Northern Hemisphere; or that the Rowan, again, for instance, are widely used as ornamentals due to their showy white flowers and bright orange or red fruits (often held through winter).

After these sections, a Description follows, that focuses on the details laid out in the distribution and identification sections above. I admit to skipping many of these parts as it was dry for me and felt antiseptic alongside ents, hobbits, and elves. A short portion of the description of Hart’s Tongue:

Description: Herbaceous, evergreen fern, with short, erect, unbranched stem that bears brown scales. Leaves (or fronds), alternate, clustered, simple (and rarely apically divided, cleft) linear to oblong or slightly obovate, with a prominent midvein but the other veins obscure; the apex acuminate to acute , the base cordate, the margins entire and sometimes slightly undulate; the blade with a few scales on the lower surface or nearly glabrous; the petiole elongate, grooved on the upper surface, with scales toward the base.

Yeah … entire pages of this sort of stuff. Again, scholarly and associated, but hardly the stuff of fantasy storytelling.

The illustrations in the book, while distinct aren’t always enjoyable; either the artists style or the woodcut capabilities lead to distorted faces, or squat and hunched over figures. This is a shame because when Graham focused on the flora, the effect was quite nice. Or, when he kept the characters in silhouette (looking at you Sorrel) or when the characters looked normally proportioned (as in Niphredil) the result was rather pleasing.

image

While I’m not wholly taken by the result to Flora of Middle-earth, I can’t be anything but avid for the effort behind this work. The approach, to its ultimate detriment, is scholarly, the references and bibliography vast, and the commitment to the topic is nothing short of fantastic. I often imagined the Judd’s poring over the thousands of pages of texts and associated works by Tolkien and other authors, tracking quotes and references. Impressive.

I was genuinely surprised at how many plants were noted throughout the Tolkien legendarium and how well they were appropriately placed in his Middle-earth. It was interesting that, of all the plants noted, only potatoes and tomatoes were inappropriate (due less to being agricultural products than not being available as historical English cultivars … both being native to the New World); well, maybe tobacco, too, although Tolkien referred to it as “pipe-weed”, to avoid direct disassociation.

The book as a whole has a place in my library, as I’m a true Tolkien nerd, and I’m happy I’ve read it and learned a bit. However, I can’t recommend it without being super-clear that this is not a whimsical look at the flora of Middle-earth, but a treatise and scientific approach to plant-life in Tolkien’s universe. And to you, the reader of this blog: apologies for the length here and, as always, thanks for reading.

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Book Review: Lightly on the Land

Posted by joeabbott on April 7, 2018

P1020391This  books is unlike the others I’ve “reviewed” in that it’s less of a story and more of a manual. The title, Lightly on the Land, The SCA Trail Building and Maintenance Manual by The Student Conservation Association has been on my book list since Suzy and I built a trail through the back of our yard back in 2011. That said, even for an interested reader like me it was a long read.

My motivation was centered on the fact that we built our trail but I never felt we did it “right”. Mostly because we just cut away the turf, edged the sides, and initially laid in some wood chips. The wood chips are long gone, as chickens kicked that out, and it’s stayed mostly weed free due to traffic, but we just dug away! No planning, no special cares … that can’t be right, can it?

So, I wanted a book that would speak to trail building and maintenance, and my long association with The Mountaineers (the organization has a publishing arm, The Mountaineers Books, that released this book) convinced me this was the right one. But, I’m not loving it.

Most of the problem with the book was a pretty long introduction and a less than clear follow-up on specifics around trail construction. In way of example, here are the first 9 chapters of the book:

  1. Trails … this is an odd one; in addition to talking about the history of trails, it has a section called “what is a trail” … it really feels like these 12 pages could be put to better use
  2. Conservation Crew Leadership … intended as tips for running your own trail crew
  3. Involving Volunteers … ten more pages of things they didn’t say in the previous chapter
  4. Camping with Work Crews … again, content for running a trail crew
  5. Risk Management … welcome to the obligatory chapter for the risk averse for our litigious world
  6. Tools … a reasonable guide with some nice illustrations
  7. Crosscut and Chain Saws … while tools, these got their own chapter
  8. Measuring Distance, Grades, and Heights … a good section
  9. Trail Survey, Design, and Estimating Work … for the few useful parts of this chapter, it could have been worked into later sections

imageAnd then, after nearly 150 pages, you were at Trail Construction likely the reason you got the book! The ensuing 150 pages are reasonably good material but nothing that captivated me. After having read it and set it aside a number of months, I have little recollection of the book with no specific memories. Also, the pages aren’t dog-eared, there are no notations in the margins, or highlights throughout … I found nothing at the time of reading that made me want to remember it.

It’s not terrible but wasn’t laid out quite the way I’d like to learn: it just feels like lots of information and not enough structure around options, why you’d use one approach vs. another, and how these considerations complement each other. It had all the parts to allow someone to be successful but didn’t speak to me.

The book covers trail construction and maintenance, drainage, working with rock, timber management (as in felling trees, bucking timber, and using that in projects), and bridge construction. All of these are topics I like and wanted to know more about but I don’t think I was the target audience for this book. It really feels like it was written and targeted at a group of individuals teaching a class on trail construction and this book was a formalized manual that had been built up around the class.

While I will likely reference it when I start another project to build a trail, shore up a sloughing slope, or even build a small bridge, I can’t say it’ll either be looked at outside those instances and I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t feel it was complete. Meaning, I fully expect I’ll have to dig around on the internet or reference some other resource to have enough information to complete my project.

This is a fine book but not the one I wanted, and yet it’ll “git ‘er done” or at least give me some good information. When I reference it again, I will, however, ignore the first half of the book. If you pick it up, I hope you find it more accessible and complete.

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Book Review: Thing Explainer

Posted by joeabbott on April 7, 2018

image`I asked for the Thing Explainer, Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe on the strength of two facts: it was illustrated by the artist behind xkcd (gloriously simplistic but detailed line drawing) and proposed to explain everyday things (even complex things) in simple fashion. Sign me up!

While the premise is exceptional and the drawings always superb, I tired fairly quickly of the explanations. While it’s commendable for the author to attempt to explain scientific processes, machines, and even atomic matter without using technical jargon or complicated words, doing so using just 1000 of the most common words grew tiresome. “Gasoline” became “fire water”, “Christmas trees” became “winter family trees (the kind with boxes under them)” and “ink” becomes “writing water”.

While in and of themselves, any of these re-imagined words may be clever, dozens of pages of “clever” becomes trying and I found myself just glossing over the print or groaning as a “soccer goal” became “point sticks”. While I applaud the intent behind simplifying complexities, I also believe even the youngest person … or at least one who might appreciate the details of an internal combustion engine, an oil rig, or ballpoint pen … would recognize and understand the words gasoline, Christmas tree, and ink.

But the pictures! That’s where this book shines and why I’d strongly recommend anyone even remotely curious about how things work to pick this up. While copyright considerations will keep me from sharing many of the pictures, he’s a cruddy image taken with my phone to give you an appreciation of the art style and detail:

WP_20180407_13_48_50_Pro

That’s the internals of a digital SLR … Munroe illustrates helicopters, skyscrapers, bridges, batteries, laptops, bathrooms, a Saturn V rocket … he even drew the Large Hadron Collider! I mean, seriously … an atom smasher! He also covers the natural world (the sun, geological periods of the earth, life on earth’s family tree) and even the periodic table of elements.

Absolute props for having the courage to try simplifying material of that complexity, but consider using 5000 words, or make exceptions or whatever. In a few cases I found myself getting lost in “another kind of fire water” or even for things that I understand pretty well (that aerospace engineering bachelor degree wasn’t for nothing), his description of the Sky Boat Pusher (jet engine) was so obtuse it could have used a “now let’s pull all this together” sort of summary.

Ultimately, a book I’m happy to have and have pored over as part of my bedtime reading. Pick it up at the library, a used bookstore, or order your copy from a bookseller or Amazon … it’s worth paging through and discovering for yourself.

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Book Review: The Bishop’s Boys

Posted by joeabbott on April 7, 2018

WP_20180407_11_20_40_ProIn August 2016 I had the privilege of vacationing in North Carolina and, as detailed here, took a stop in at Kitty Hawk. As I often do while vacationing, I picked up a book with material relevant to the location I’m in; in this case, I picked up The Bishop’s Boys: A life of Wilbur and Orville Wright by Tom Crouch. While it took me a while to start the book … and maybe more time to get through it than I’d like to admit … it’s an exceptional story written in an easy, consumable style, and it’d take a book complete with DNA samples if you wanted a more authoritative biography.

To tell the tale of Wilbur and Orville, one needs to understand the family environment they grew up in, and Mr. Crouch was exceedingly well-served by the fact that the Wright brothers father, the titular Bishop, Milton, invested heavily in both genealogy and writing (and preserving) letters; a habit his sons and daughter continued through their lives. Each chapter of the book contains dozens of footnotes such that the Notes chapter at the end runs some 44 pages of entries similar to:

15. Fletcher, The Wright Brothers’ Home, p.44.

16. Personal conversation of the author with Ivonette and Harold Miller.

17. Undated clippings, Hawthorn Hill scrapbook.

18. Katharine Wright to Milton Wright, quoted in Ivonette Wright Miller, unpublished reminiscences, author’s collection.

So, if you want authoritative, you put in the work to gather 44 pages of entries like the above and then you craft a 600 page book from it. And the word craft is aptly used.

Crouch starts with some of the Wright Brothers’ forebearers, focuses on their father, and then details their lives. He stresses the brothers’ religious upbringing but, as far as I can tell, neither of the Wilbur nor Orville was exceptionally religious themselves. While they lived exemplary lives with unbending morale codes, from the telling in the book, their lives didn’t indicate significant attention to the church.

With a background in aerospace engineering, a couple things popped for me as I read this book:

  • Wilbur was the older brother and came across as the brains of the partnership
  • Orville was certainly smart and talented, but he appeared to be more of an engineer than a scientist
  • The Wright Brothers really did come out of nowhere in terms of solving the problem of flight … just a couple guys who were interested in the problem and approached it in a way as to address some fundamental issues
  • Their approach was two-fold: they constructed a wind tunnel to scientifically understand fundamental principles, and they focused on overall airframe control
  • After their initial discoveries and contributions, they did little to further the art and science of flight
  • They spent most of their later business years (less than two decades) in litigation before retiring
  • Wilbur died relatively early at 45; Orville lived for 71 years

WP_20160726_13_55_33_ProWP_20160726_13_56_01_ProWhat is amazing to me is that, after the Wright Brothers solved the problem of flight, many other would-be aviators were suddenly on the scene. And, while the Wright Brothers first true flight was in 1903, they spent the next few years in secrecy perfecting the craft. Then subsequent years were spent strategizing a business approach. They believed they had plenty of time, all the while the competition was fast on their heels.

It was gratifying and I felt a bit of a tingle reading about the Wright Brothers heading to France. Up to that time, the Wrights wouldn’t fly to “prove” they could … they wanted a contract and committed money before they’d fly. So, many considered them fakers. Finally, the competition was practicing short hops and awkward slow loops on an airfield before the Wrights took off in their plane. And, before astonished eyes, the Wrights practiced figure-8s, tight, controlled turns, and long, graceful trips around the airfield. Suddenly the world was a believer.

And, unfortunately, many others claimed the title of “first to fly” and whether through jealousy or for want of fame, it consumed the Wrights’ time and attention in the later years. And these weren’t only crackpots; the Smithsonian had initially asserted a competitor may not have flown first, but had the science understood to have done it. The assertion appears political, rather than science-based, and ultimately landed the 1903 Wright Flyer in England. That issue was subsequently settled and the craft is now in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

By the way, Crouch does a fine job of convincing me the Wrights were the first to fly and it’s a pity their talent was spent in later years in court, rather than in a laboratory or shop working on airplane improvements.

For a 600-page book, it’s short on pictures but, as I noted, it’s hard to believe a better telling of the story exists. While the effort behind the telling is exhaustive, the writing is anything but exhausting … Crouch keeps the pace brisk, the chapters easily readable (say, on the bus ride to work), and has a practiced hand at this story of aviation.

If you’re a fan or enthusiast of aviation, if you’re curious about a unique story in American history, or you just want an enjoyable, leisurely read, this book would be high on that list.

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Book Review : Two Years Before the Mast

Posted by joeabbott on February 10, 2018

Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal NarrativeI put this book on my gift wish list not so much because I knew what I was getting, but exactly the opposite: I knew little to nothing beyond the title. I had an understanding that it dealt with the life aboard a sailing ship and assumed I’d learn a bit about ships, sailing, and the day in the life of a sailor.

While I knew very little about Two Years Before the Mast, that’s about all one need to know: it’s a fascinating story but slim on education.

In the early 1830’s, a Harvard College student with the appropriately weighty name Richard Henry Dana, Jr., took time off from his studies for heath reasons and chose to join a merchant marine voyage to the California coast. He signed aboard a ship, kept a diary, and for two years toiled aboard several vessels before returning to Boston. For a part of  that period he was actually working out of a hut on the California Coast, tending and treating hides in wait for shipment back to the East Coast.

While I’d hoped to understand sailing ships better, there’s precious little in the way of education for landlubbers on the difference between a spinnaker, a jib, the mainsail, or any other sail. Various ropes for manipulating the sails, terms for the different vessels (brigs, hermaphrodite brig, etc.) are never explained in the context of the story (there’s a slim line or two at the back of the book), and even the day-in-the-life details are picked up slowly, as if through osmosis, rather than have it explained. It’s not a bad education, but it’s a slow one.

At one point in the book, Dana gives a description of the eating arrangements; it was a rare moment in which he stopped the narrative and described exactly how something worked. He’d noted that various conceptions of sailors dining at a table was laughable, as the rolling sea would never allow such an arrangement. Instead, each sailor is allotted a “kid”, which I take to be a wooden box … the equivalent of an oversized bowl … into which their food was served.

A mess, consisting of six men, had a large wooden kid piled up with beefsteaks, cut thick, and fried in fat, with the grease poured over them. Around this we sat, attacking it with our jackknives and teeth and with the appetite of young lions, and sent back and empty kid to the galley.

He goes on to note they were in “perfect health”, which is in a bit of contradiction with several other passages citing various shipboard disease and a case or two of scurvy. But, for a gang of young men aboard a sailing ship, it’s easy to imagine they burned through all these calories and more.

The story quickly goes from leaving Boston, to rounding Cape Horn at the bottom of South America, and arriving on the California Coast. There, several ships from the same company plied the waters up and down, sending working crews to shore to trade for hides. These skins (it was never clarified what animal they came from, but I assumed cattle but maybe there were several varieties) were then sent to a processing hut somewhere near San Diego, where some of the company men (and for about six months Dana participated in this operation) cleaned, tanned, and dried the hides before storing them in-wait for a ship going back to Boston.

At various time the ship would take on passengers and, in this passage, we’re treated to the colorful sailor language in describing the crew not knowing what to make of an East Coast professor, who was in California to see and learn new things … something that would be as commonplace as anything these days:

The Pilgrim’s crew called Mr. Nuttall “old Curious,” from his zeal for curiosities; and some of them said that he was crazy, and that his friends let him go about and amuse himself in this way. Why else a rich man (sailors call every man rich who does not work with his hands, and who wears a long coat and cravat) should leave a Christian country and come to such a place as California to pick up shells and stones, they could not understand. One of them, however, who had seen something more of the world ashore, set all to rights, as he thought: “oh, ‘vast there! You don’t know anything about them craft. I’ve seen them colleges and know the ropes. They keep all such things for cur’osities, and study ‘em , and have men a purpose to go and get ‘em. This old chap knows what he’s about. He a’n’t the child you take him for. He’ll carry all these things to the college, and if they are better than any that they have had before, he’ll be head of the college. Then, by and by, somebody else will go after some more, and if they beat him he’ll have to go again, or else give up his berth. That’s the way they do it. This old covey knows the ropes. He has worked a traverse over ‘em, and come ‘way out here where nobody’s ever been afore, and where they’ll never think of coming.” This explanation satisfied Jack; and as it raised Mr. Nuttall’s credit, and was near enough to the truth for common purpose, I did not disturb it.

One should note that, at this time, California was a Mexican holding and not until later (~1847) was it part of the United States.

The book contains many memorable moments and, of the sailing, their return trip back around Cape Horn in the southern hemisphere’s winter is the most gripping. Dana describes a ship that is jam packed full of hides … they really worked hard to maximize how many hides were brought back … and the vessel sitting low in the water, attempts to navigate the rough waters, heavy with ice and violent winds, safely through the world’s southernmost oceans. Ice covers ropes, sails are rime-covered and need to be beaten out by hand so they can be unfurled, sailors work in the coldest temperatures, and the decks are slick. It’s truly horrendous work.

Everyone was on the alert, and even the two sick men turned out to lend a hand at the halyards. The wind was now due southwest, and blowing a gale to which a vessel close-hauled could have shown no more than a single close-reefed sail; but as we were going before it, we could carry on. Accordingly, hands were sent aloft, and a reef shaken out of the topsails, and the reefed foresail set. When we came to masthead the topsails yards, with all hands at the halyards, we struck up “Cheerly, men”, with a chorus which might have been heard halfway to Staten Land. Under her increased sail, the ship drove on through the water. Yet she could bear it well; and the captain sang out from the quarterdeck, “Another reef out of that fore-topsail, and give it to her!” Two hands sprang aloft; the frozen reef points and earings were cast adrift, the halyards manned, and the sail gave out her increased canvas to the gale. All hands were kept on deck to watch the effect of the change. It was as much as she could well carry, and with a heavy sea astern it took two men at the wheel to steer her. She flung the foam from her bows, the spray breaking aft as far as the gangway. She was going at a prodigious rate. Still everything held.

While not typical and certainly not page-turning prose, I found myself getting caught up in the writing, vicariously sailing at world’s end in dark waters and in dangerous weather.

And the pages go like that: lots of descriptions of times and places I know little about. I can’t recommend the book for everyone: reading a 400-page book is quite a lot in exchange for a smile at learning to get a “ducking” means to be drenched in water. If you pick up Two Years Before the Mast you’ll do it for simple pleasures, colorful reading, and hearing about sailing aboard a merchant marine ship from a decent man. Me … I’ve had my fill for now. As one of the sailors in the book said about the prospect of getting to shore after two years on the sea: “Go away, salt water!” says Tom. “As soon as I get both legs ashore, I’m going to shoe my heels, and button my ears behind me, and start off into the bush, a straight course, and not stop till I’m out of sight of salt water!”

Thanks for dropping by.

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River of Doubt

Posted by joeabbott on August 19, 2017

Image result for river of doubtOn some occasions I find a good book through serendipity … a cover catches my eye, the jacket captures an intriguing element of the story, or even the title grabs at my imagination … other times the book is thrust into my hands. River of Doubt, Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey might fall into all three of the above serendipitous examples but it was an old college friend who introduced me to my latest read.

Upon a visit to our home, she wandered into what we call “the library” or “reading room”: it’s an extra bedroom in which we installed six 7’x3’ shelving units that contain old college texts, some knickknacks, and, yes, books. Most of them, however, are from our younger years: the under-appreciated Roger Zelazny, JRR Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, Nevada Barr, and loads of classics. As she looked over the spines, she asked incredulously if we didn’t read anything with a bit more of an adult flavor. I laughingly showed her our bedroom collection … the other shelves in our home stuffed with the books we keep at hand and have read recently. Suzy’s books influenced by plants, animal husbandry, and biographies; mine by historical science, construction, and wilderness adventure. She nodded without enthusiasm, I suspect not spotting books she’d read, and asked if I’d about a few other titles (River of Doubt and Lab Girl were in that list) and that was it.

But, I put River of Doubt on my Amazon wish list and so it showed up at some gifting event. And what a gift … you should put this book on your list or, better yet, just go out and get a copy to enjoy now.

River of Doubt covers roughly half a year of Theodore Roosevelt’s life: shortly after his defeat in the 1912 election, he craved escape, an adventure, and the idea of exploring an Amazonian river seemed just the ticket. Over about 350 pages, Candice Millard shares the story of just how dear that ticket cost.

Millard pulls together so many details, from the planning of the trip, to the political environment in South America (who was being honored by an ex-US President who did little on their behalf but much for US’s interest in their countries), to the Indian populations living in the Amazon, that is seems impossible for her to have pulled these details together 100 years after the fact. The veracity of her story is attested to by nearly 50-pages of Notes, Select Bibliography, and Acknowledgements and that this story has held up to be a national bestseller. It’s a helluva page turner.

While the story deals with tedium of an exploration excursion … and many details of these events can be tedious … she remains above the boring bits and brings to life the intriguing aspects. For instance, the trip into the Amazonian jungles was largely planned by a failed polar explorer, and was initiated by a priest who expected … and was surprised his request was denied … to be carried about the Amazon jungle by the native peoples on a palanquin. She details the boats that had been sent to South America and how inappropriate they were to transport to the middle of the Amazonian jungle (for which they were discarded) and how the boats they did use (native dugouts) were equally inappropriate for the exploration of a wild and unknown river. Even the politics of camp and how the US contingent got along with the Brazilians in the expedition, or how the elite officers and far more numerous crew got along once starvation and disease starting taking toll on them. Gripping stuff, all of it.

But a lot is said by the telling, as much as by what was told about. Millard scarcely lets you finish a chapter without a near-cliffhanger-like ending sentence. On the chapter where Roosevelt is gravely injured and largely a burden on the expedition, it ends:

Then, without a trace of self-pity or fear, Roosevelt informed his friend and his son of the conclusions he had reached. “Boys, I realize that some of us are not going to finish this journey. Cherrie, I want you and Kermit to go on. You can get out. I will stop here.”

And while many endings are sensationalistic, others of a more optimistic nature can pull you into the next chapter just the same. As I found late in the book, with rations running exceptionally low and Roosevelt incapacitated by fever and disease:

This was the first mark of the outside world that the men had seen since they had launched their dugouts on the River of Doubt a month and a half earlier. It was a sign of hope – a sign that salvation lay within reach.

You can’t tell me, even with the bus stop coming in the next minute or so, you’re not going to start that next chapter!

I’m a simple reader and a less capable reviewer but I found the book compelling, enjoyable, and I strongly recommend you read it when you’re able. Whether you like historical biographies and are interested in Roosevelt and his family (you’ll get that), if you like adventure tales and are curious how an ex-US President would find himself literally discovering for the outside world a 500-mile river in the Amazon basin (this is admittedly a bit more sensational than factual), or are intrigued by the history (on geological scale) of the Amazon and how the animals have evolved and adapted … heck, even if you are curious what a polar explorer would pack for a jungle expedition (spoiler: lots of condiments … he expected them to hunt most of the food they ate) … you’ll get it in this book!!

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One More Thing–a book consideration

Posted by joeabbott on July 30, 2017

Image result for one more thing novakI’m not calling this a book review … I just don’t have the chops to give this book fair assessment in my current mood, but I will consider it; come along!

B.J. Novak is perhaps best known for his work with a television program called The Office, a show on which he was a writer, director, producer and actor. That’s a lotta hats for a guy I only knew as Ryan Howard, the temp worker in the series. But, after reading One More Thing; Stories and Other Stories, I now know Novak as an author.

I read One More Thing on the bus ride to and from work every day, always looking forward to the amusing stories but mostly for how Novak wrote: his style is unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s taken me a bit of thinking, but I believe it’s the references he uses, the language of the day, or maybe his willingness to write things I haven’t read before. He intimately gets into the heads of his characters but can also hold them at arm’s length to talk about them dispassionately. The novelty is lovely and compelled me to read one story after another.

image

I mention that he uses references … by this I mean he’ll write a story that uses a personality I know and position them in odd situations as a main character. Johnny Depp, Tony Robbins, and others (many in a “Nelson Mandela roast”) have speaking lines and thoughts … making it a queer sorta “can he do that” moment for me to process. While I know little to nothing about most celebrities, I’m struck less by a “did that happen” thought than a “that seems plausible within the realm of comedy that may happen” and part of the tickle I get from the stories come from this.

By “language of the day” I not only mean the current vernacular but also what he writes about. He’s unabashed in dropping the F-bomb but isn’t using it as a shock mechanism that turns a person (or maybe it would just be me) off. The first time I caught the word I wondered if this would be “one of those books” but it was used sparingly and within character and affords the writing a bit of street cred over the carpet bombing usage that some writers opt for. Perhaps this is just a reflection of the company I keep and it not being the go-to word for impact and effect.

More than usage is just the things he writes about. In a retelling of the Tortoise and the Hare story (yes, the Aesop Fable), he takes us into the psyche of the Hare after losing the race, Another story that had me reeling was Julie and the Warlord in which we get a peek into what appears to be a blind date between a young lady and a literal warlord from war-torn middle-Africa. The concept is bizarre, the conversation banal, and the absurdity had my mind figuratively gasping like a literal fish out of water. “What??” was the thought going through my head.

This sort of treatment is given to implausible scenarios as well as “that could happen” pieces … enter “The Something” by John Grisham in which the titular author sends a draft copy of a book to his editors who release the novel under a placeholder name. The book sells as a Grisham novel would but we enjoy the thoughts and conversations from Grisham that explore his contrived vanity, artistic sensibility, and other emotions. Again, bizarre but entertaining nonetheless.

Who would consider writing about such things?

Well, Novak, for one. And he does it a lot … overall the book is some 64 stories spread over 275-ish pages. The shortest stories are barely three sentences where a few of the longer ones span 15 pages … so none are novellas and the change in length helps to add both novelty and interest in flipping the pages to get to the next story and enjoy that curious nugget. At the risk of violating a copyright or something, I’ll share one of his stories: Romance, Chapter One

“The cute one?”

“No, the other cute one.”

“Oh, she’s cute, too.”

And that’s it. On one hand I want a little more heavy lifting from my authors, but as a single story from over five dozen, it’s a fine addition. My mind swirls to flesh out the speakers, I place them in a scenario that’s fitting, I wonder if such an exchange might be realistic (and come away thinking it probable), and overall I’m entertained by something fairly simplistic. Who would include a story like this in his novel? Again … Novak, B.J. Novak.

This isn’t great literature but it does introduce me to a writing style I find unique and compelling. While I likely won’t reread the book, I’m happy to have had the first reading. Thanks for the entertainment, B.J. I’m looking forward to picking up your next novel.

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Turn Right at Machu Picchu

Posted by joeabbott on March 7, 2017

imageI could have sworn I wrote about this book previously but I have found nothin’ on my site … seems like an omission to not mention such an excellent volume so here goes!

A while back I was strolling the aisles of Costco and, as usual, lingered a bit at their book selection piles. And, in another usual happening, I tossed one of the paperbacks into my cart: Turn Right at Machu Picchu, Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time, by Mark Adams. In short: read it. The writing is clean and clear, the pages are full of pop culture references (meaning: fun), and it describes a story a bit short on adventure but deep in engaging history, marvelous characters (both historical and those in modern day), and the jaw-dropping premise of a person whose outdoor exploits consist of camping in a pup tent in his backyard as a child deciding to hike the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu (among other destinations).

I got the book as I know little about Machu Picchu … and what I do know is muddied in New Age beliefs of it being a “power center” … and I hoped the pages would be an engaging way to learn more about this location. And the book certainly came through in that regard. But, the story has multiple layers in it, making a straightforward “book review” a bit of a challenge.

First, Adams covers his story: his motivation for heading out on this trip, the guide who takes him to Machu Picchu as well as many other Incan sites, and the boot-in-front-of-boot hikes. And while boot-in-front-of-boot might sound boring, Adams has an engaging style and the command of an author who knows how to keep his audience interested. On top of that, his overall lack of experience under a backpack makes the tale equal parts preposterous and commendable.

Next, there’s the Incan story, of which some stuff is fascinating and wonderful, and others devastatingly tragic. I’ve read a number of books about the Spanish “conquest” of Mexico and South American and every telling leaves me shaking my head at the barbarism and fundamentally evil nature of mans’ mindset in those days. I won’t dwell on that aspect too much, as I have little in the way of structured thought on the matter, but whenever I hear these stories I wonder that someone didn’t say, “hey, stop a second … what the hell are we doing here?”

Offsetting the headshaking, the fascinating aspects were titillated by Adam’s telling of what’ he’d learned. There was intrigue about who (Westerner) really discovered (if you can discover something the locals already knew about) or visited the site first, wonder at how the site was selected to match up with the Incan religious\life\world views, and mystery that we still don’t really understand how near-prehistoric cultures achieved such engineering marvels. And I repeat that last part for emphasis: we just don’t know how they did it. Yup, we can see what was accomplished or take it apart, but aside from appreciating the mix of engineering and artistry, we don’t know how it was done. The story contained a description of and earthquake on Machu Picchu (or perhaps another Incan site) in which the stones “danced” throughout the rumble and then settled right back into place. Now compare that to “modern” villages that are all but destroyed in face of an earthquake!

And that was the part I was really interested in: why was Machu Picchu built there, what was the site used for, and who were these fabulous engineers who accomplished such a feat. And while archeologists continue to decipher the stones and artifacts left behind (the Incas weren’t much for writing and what text they did have were all but annihilated by the Spaniard clergy and those seeking to rule over them), our understanding of this people is only slowly evolving.

Finally, the book contains a bit about Mark Adams and a small part of his life. Admittedly it only covered a few pages up front to establish his credentials for taking this trip, and a few at the end as he talked about meeting up with his guide on the trip for a foray into Adams’ milieu, New York City. Again, engaging and a fast read, it seamlessly wove its way into a story on Machu Picchu without annoying as a “why is this here” sort of injection.

While all of that is a very fine “what is this book”, I’ll finish here by simply saying, read it. The pages turn quickly as the story evolves, you find yourself engaged in the story of the author and those around him, and you learn a little about a very remarkable place.

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Book review: The Book Thief

Posted by joeabbott on May 15, 2016

I don’t read many novels but in the recent past I’ve picked a few good ones; The Book Thief, written by Makus Zusak and published in 2006 was no exception. It is exquisite.

Like many of the books I “read”, The Book Thief was my road companion as I listened to it on CD in my car during commutes; and like the other enjoyable books I’ve read, the story made me long for heading to work early, wish for rush hour traffic, and look for excuses to take a drive somewhere. Heck, even the trip of less than a mile to our local Home Depot would give me another 15-minutes of the story.image

And, as with a previous book on CD I’d written about (The Hare with Amber Eyes), the reader is superb. Allan Corduner’s vocal talents easily pronounce various foreign words (mostly German) with facility and a complete lack of self-consciousness; he brings the various characters, both male and female, old and young, to life with distinction; and he voices the character Death without drama and as a wholly realized character.

imageDeath, you say?

From the initial words, Death is your companion. He is the narrator and your guide through the story of a small period of time in a young girl’s life. While the story isn’t about Death himself, you do pick up a few words of description … some of what’s he’s not, and a few details about what he is. In this story, Death is not a skull-faced, scythe-bearing reaper, but is the ferryman who collects the souls for those who just died and carries those souls … somewhere. While the story is a bit unclear as to where the souls go, it’s very clear that Death is quite tired of his job; a job he does because someone must do it and it’s his purpose. And in the early 1940s, there are many souls in his care.

He’s also invisible to most people most of the time but he comments here and there about people being aware of him, people hearing his footsteps or smelling his breath. And while he almost never interacts with anything other than the souls he’s transporting, he does pick up a small book dropped by a young girl. It’s the titular book thief’s journal and it is the basis for the story that unfolds.

The Book Thief

I had noted in Suzanne’s (my wife’s) presence one time that I’d like to read The Book Thief and I thought no more about it. I can’t recall where I’d heard of it, what I knew about it, or why it had come up … perhaps I just liked the title … but about a week later she presented me the audio book and I was delighted. Admittedly, that delight was dulled a bit on the initial listening: the book was set in wartime Germany (I’m not a “war guy” and had only recently finished a prior book set, in part, in that time) and the initial paragraphs seemed gimmicky: Death as the narrator, continued references to “the color of the sky”, and the mixing of the words describing senses: the taste of a sound, the color of an emotion, etc.

By the end of the second chapter, however, that impression had faded and by the end of the book, I was actively wondering what the color of the sky would be on this occasion. And I wasn’t let down, as Death tells us: … the sky I saw was gray and glossy. A silver afternoon.

I’ve read a couple books in which I love the language; the author’s usage, the descriptions, the way the words come off the page; The Book Thief is one of those books. A book you read and know the author feels the same way about words. A short way into the story we’re with the protagonist who is confronted, for the first time in her life, with a library; she’d only known a book or two prior to that. It was transformative and beautifully described:

Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-colored books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.

With wonder, she smiled.

That such a room existed!

Steadily, the room shrank, till the book thief could touch the shelves within a few small steps. She ran the back of her hand along the first shelf, listening to the shuffle of her fingernails gliding across the spinal cord of each book. It sounded like an instrument, or the notes of running feet. She used both hands. She raced them. One shelf against the other. And she laughed. Her voice was sprawled out, high in her throat, and when she eventually stopped and stood in the middle of the room, she spent many minutes looking from the shelves to her fingers and back again.

How many books had she touched?

How many had she felt?

She walked over and did it again, this time much slower, with her hand facing forward, allowing the dough of her pam to feel the small hurdle of each book. It felt like magic, like beauty, as bright lines of light shone down from a chandelier. Several times, she almost pulled a title from its place but didn’t dare disturb them.

Now that has to be penned by someone who loves the written word. It was the first time I had ever heard the bound edge of a book referred to as a “spinal cord”, rather than “spine” … it makes the books characters in the story, personifies them. And to distinguish the experience of touching the books versus feeling them … it describes how I think about some of the really great books I’ve read. It’s why, after listening to my library copy of The Book Thief, I returned and checked out the paper version.

Germany, sometime around WWII

imageThe story describes a very poor family who, in the late 1930s, adopt a young girl as means to additional income (state stipends or something) and for her to help around the home. It tells of a few years in her life: how she meets and makes new friends, how her adoptive parents hide a Jew during the Nazi pogrom in Germany, and how she comes to thieving books.

And while all of those details are wonderfully rendered, I think I liked the parts that describe and tell of Hans Huberman, her adoptive father, the best.

Hans embodies a gentle kindness that I had a hard time placing a finger defining until the narrator, Death, identified the word I was looking for: humane. Or maybe it was just “human”, but it wasn’t an exceptional quality, it was just that he cared, he had empathy … he was human. Perhaps this struck me as unique in a story about Nazi Germany, about poor people on subsistence living, about persecution; but it was one of my favorite parts and I enjoyed that it remained constant throughout the book.

While we get to know Liesel, the book thief, and it’s the story of her years with her new family and how she comes to love books and the written word, we see a lot of Hans, get to know Rudy, Liesel’s best friend, and even Max Vandenburg (the hidden Jew) and Rosa, Hans’ wife. And there are even enough hints and descriptions of Death himself scattered throughout the book  that we feel we know that character, too.

Yes, there are details about working during that period of time in German history as someone not affiliated with the Nazi party (there wasn’t all that much work … sorry, Hans), about parading Jewish prisoners through the streets, about book burnings, youth organizations, and any number of other details about living in wartime anywhere. But it was also rich with details about people; about the haves and the have-nots, about scared people in a fallout shelter, about the affect of losing children to the war.

I’m usually an action sorta guy: when I want to know what’s happening in a story, I typically don’t care about what someone’s thinking … I want to know what they’re doing. This story taught me my tastes aren’t necessarily that simplistic.

A well written tale

I knew I was hooked on the book when, sometime in the middle chapters, before Hans hands a scrap of bread to a Jewish prisoner and gains the attention of the Nazi party, that I exclaimed to Suzanne that I could happily enjoy the rest of the book “if nothing happened … they just made it through the War and went on living”. I didn’t need drama or intrigue to enjoy the story but, mostly, I realized I didn’t want trouble to come to the characters whom I was enjoying my time getting to know. They deserved the peace of boredom.

But, it isn’t that kind of story. Mostly.

The movie

Just as our local library rents CD books as well as the traditional paper versions, I found they also have a small selection of movies; of which, The Book Thief is one.

imageBecause The Book Thief focuses on thoughts and the qualities of people and not just action, it was a hard movie to make. As a matter of fact, I was surprised that it was a movie, and a recent one at that; it moved through the showings here without coming to my attention. But, on watching the it I have a strong recommendation: read the book. The movie isn’t bad, it’s just not as good as the book.

The characters don’t have the gaunt look … a look never described as such in the story, but one you expect nonetheless. The lead actress for Liesel is just to beautiful, but Rudy seemed to look about right. The mayor’s wife wasn’t sad enough, the parade of Jews didn’t have a stench of death about them. And Death himself wasn’t nearly as present … but, in that, the movie did fine.

It was also the changes they made to the story that caused me problems, too. Why didn’t we learn about Max’s fistfights with the Fuhrer? The backstory on the accordion or how Hans would earn money playing it some nights at a bar? Why didn’t they show the paintings in the basement … I really wanted to see them walking a tightrope to the sun.

One of the biggest changes was the books that were shown and those that weren’t. I get that one change (swapping a obscure title for a Jules Verne story) was prompted to be relevant to US audiences, but they never showed Max’s writings, they never introduced The Standover Man or The Word Shaker. Clever, imaginative things that really captivated me as I listened along.

Like holes in a fabric, the changes didn’t improve the story.

Again, I didn’t dislike the movie as much as I very much liked the book.

Coda

Your tastes will need to align pretty strongly with mine to come away from the book enjoying it as much as I did, but even if you’re a casual book-reader, this story and it’s telling will captivate and engage you as few others will. It’s novel in it’s telling and while a half-world and many decades distant from here, it’s intimate in ways hard to describe.

Go out and buy it, get it on loan from the library, and spend some time getting to know this offering from Markus Zusak; you’ll be very happy for the time you spend with his The Book Thief.

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Book review: The Hare with Amber Eyes

Posted by joeabbott on January 30, 2016

I enjoy a lot of the books I “read” through serendipity: happy chance … and my last book, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund DeWaal was no different.

The above “read” is in quotes because I listen to many of my books on tape (DVD\podcast\streaming\whatever) and, again, THwAE was a book I enjoyed on my drives to and from work. And it was telling that, on the days I’d drive, I’d actually hurry through my morning routine so I could get to the story more quickly and enjoy it a few minutes longer. It’s that sort of book.

Picking it up

My wife and I frequent two local public libraries … one farther away but with a larger selection … and I tend toward nonfiction books, mostly science related.  In that I’ve enjoyed stories of famous people, sailing solo around the world, stories behind chemicals and atomic elements, the US highway system, and all manner of things. But, I’m starting to deplete those shelves of novel content so my searches are broadening. And in such a sweep across nearby shelves, I came across DeWaal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance.

The back of the CD box contains the following summary:

The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who “burned like comets” in the nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox.

The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became the fifth generation to inherit this small and exquisite collection of netsuke. Entranced by their beauty and mystery, he determined to trace the story of his family through the story of collection. And so begins this extraordinary moving memoir and detective store as de Waal discovers both the story of the netsuke and of his family, the Ephrussis, over five generations.

OK, I’ll admit that, for a guy who likes science and “how it works” sorta stories, this wasn’t a slam dunk, but I was intrigued at how a Rothschild-like fortune could be burned through in a couple generations, who the Ephrussis were (I’d never heard of them … nor had I heard of “the renowned … de Waal”), and what a netsuke was. And because the library was out of books on Richard Feynman and didn’t have anything on inventors on the shelves, well, this 9-disc set would be my port in my current reading vacuum.

And I can only thank happy chance.

The story

The Hare with Amber EyesGiven my penchant for material matters, I was more interested in the collection of netsuke … who the artists where, how a netsuke was made, why they were collected … than about the Ephrussis and so I found the start of the story a bit off-putting: it focuses on the Ephrussis family more than on the hare with amber eyes and her kin. My interest in rich families is really minimal; perhaps I’ve been tainted by stories of entitled athletes, young entertainers who behave badly, or socialites’ vain pandering to ever-present cameras (side note: we need more rich people like Bill Gates in this world). But, my sentiments seemed to align with de Waal’s and so I continued listening.

And, over a disc or two, I learned of Charles and Viktor and Emmy Ephrussis and their collection of art, the social circles in which they turned, the summer homes built like small castles in eastern Europe, and the homes in Vienna and Paris which were described as palaces. While I am not an admirer of “family money”, de Waal brought to light many positive qualities in the family. The dedication of Charles on writing a book on art history … and where I might head to a library or museum for my research, Charles simply bought the artists materials as he was able; the banking business managed (or mis-managed) by Viktor, along with his library of first-folios and love for reading classics; and even of Emmy who lorded as a titan in the social world.

I reflect that the writing must have been exquisite because I hung on every word and found interest in the seasonal fittings for dresses, the routine of changing and accessorizing for nightly meals and dinner parties, and how de Waal described Emmy’s changing to be a family affair and time her children spent playing with the netsuke while they learned of fashion from their mother.

It was a story first and foremost of a family, and the netsuke were merely a possession that hung in the background: the warp to the family’s stories weft.

The Ephrussis

The Ephrussis started in Russia, a family that made their money initial on the grain exchange, but morphing that into a banking empire. They expanded into Austria and later France as various members settled and built their grand houses and establishing additional footholds in Europe. Sometime around WWI the Ephrussis were deeply connected to Austria and ended up siding with the losing side; and as such, lost much of their empire as the various settling out of such things happened; but still, the family was worth some 200-300 million when WWII rolled around.

And it’s here that I should mention the Ephrussis were Jewish.

While that fact plays a role in the story at nearly every turn, it’s during WWII that it becomes a defining feature. The family themselves were never very religious, leading a nearly secular life, but they did come from a Jewish line, identified as Jewish, and recorded family events at the synagogue, respecting Jewish identity. But yes, enter WWII.

At the time that Austria capitulated to Hitler and Germany, acknowledging and welcoming the Nazi Party to power, things changed overnight. While many of the Ephrussi friends encouraged them to put their money into other places, to relocate, and to essentially leave Austria, they didn’t. A characteristic ascribed to Jews at this time was not having a homeland, not being a member of their country, not being loyal … and Viktor Ephrussi appeared to want to do everything in his power to dissuade these characterizations from sticking to him or his family.

And so, after the Nazi’s rose to power, gangs broke into his house, stole his belongings, threatened his family, and nothing was done about it. As the noose was tightened on Jews across Vienna and they were no longer allowed basic rights, Viktor and Emmy stayed. And stayed. And then were no longer allowed to leave. By this time Jews were not allowed on public transportation, could not be in the parks, could not attend concerts or gather or even leave. And nothing they owed was considered theirs any longer.

The Ephrussi family bank was taken over, Viktor’s library was ransacked, the art was sent away, and his home, the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna, became home to a Nazi administration department.

An aside from the story for a moment …

While I’ve always thought the horrors of what man can do to man, especially during wars, is unthinkable, the plain telling of the systematic destruction of livelihood and lives of a particular group of people based purely on their religious beliefs is boggling. How soldiers could participate in these atrocities, how people on the street could allow it to happen, how governments could enact such policies … absolutely mindboggling.

And yet, the Ephrussi family endured all that.

Viktor and Emmy’s children had made it out of Austria, and their daughter, Elisabeth lived in England. Having a legal background, she was able to negotiate the bureaucracy and pay the fines and taxes and finally get those remaining in Austria out before the wholesale destruction of Jewish life reached a crescendo. But the family was destitute … or, as close to destitute as could be for a family that had lived in palaces. I’m not one for a lot of sympathy on lost wealth, but to have it taken from them with no recourse for restitution … well, that is absolutely another thing.

There was a lot more about the sons and daughters of the Ephrussi family, the diaspora of members to the various countries of the world, and ultimately the chain that led to Edmund and his work with pottery that took him to Japan and into the warm embrace of his great uncle, Iggy, who now owned the netsuke. But do yourself a favor and ignore the poor telling above and get this book and enjoy the story … the painful parts and all … for yourself. It’s a beautiful book.

The netsuke

The small collection of Japanese figures were pronounced “net-soo-kay” in the CDs but a subsequent interview with the author (included at the end of the discs) had de Waal pronouncing them something like “nets-kay”. However you say the word, netsuke are small carvings made in wood, bone, or ivory. The carvings are everyday things: rat or deer, or turtle or people on the street making a living; they can be monks or bathers or hare with amber eyes. They are intended as small, intimate items you’d use as a pull or hang from your belt or keep in your pocket for company.

In the late 1800s a collection of 264 were bought by Charles to amuse him as all-things-Japanese were raging through Europe and he was in want of appropriate items to decorate his newly built palais in Paris. Sometime in the early 1900s they were given to Viktor, as a gift to him when he and Emmy married.

They sat in Emmy’s dressing room and used as a distraction for her children as she dressed (in those days, dressing for an event taking the better part of an hour or more) and considered toys, more than art.

During WWII as the family’s home was being systematically cataloged and carted away by the Germans, a long-time maid to the family was enlisted to help with the packing up. That is, the Germans had her helping them package the Ephrussi art and property to be sent to museums or the homes of Nazi officials. As an unwilling participant, she noted the netsuke were being ignored for the moment and, over the course of weeks, would pocket a small item or two, and secret them away to be hidden in her bed mattress in safekeeping should the family ever return.

Some months after the war end … or perhaps prior to the official end of the war but during the American occupation of Vienna … Elisabeth did return to the family home. It has been stripped, a wing destroyed, and the Americans had now made it an administrative building of their own, but the maid still resided in a small room upstairs and it was then she was able to return the “childhood toys” to Elisabeth.

From there they were given to Iggy, Elisabeth’s brother, and made their way back to Tokyo where he lived and, upon Iggy’s passing, ultimately were inherited by Edmund.

And so these small wood and bone and ivory figures started in Japan some 150-200 years ago, made their way to Paris, then to Vienna, came back to Japan, and are now in England.

The production

A part of the beauty of The Hare with Amber Eyes is Michael Maloney’s reading. He has a wonderful accent (to this Yank’s ears), a strong control of words of various languages … which is needed for a story that visits the cities of Odessa, Tokyo, Paris, and Vienna … and he reads with the compassion of someone for whom the story has deep meaning. Inflection, tempo, and gravitas are all brought to bear in the telling of this deeply personal story.

He’s not just reading the book, he’s sharing it with you. And while I typically love the tactile qualities of reading something personally, I strongly recommend taking the time and effort to have the story read to you by this wonderful narrator.

Coda

Lately I’ve had the good fortune of reading a number of fantastic books, but The Hare with Amber Eyes stands above these. I learned new things, I was invited into social circles I’m typically not privy to, and felt moved as I seldom have by a story.

The book has been out five years already so you may have read it already; if you haven’t, pick up a copy or put it on hold at your library. This is a story worth enjoying.

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