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      Posting these cat-cartoons-without-the-cartoon was a long journey that I don’t know if I’ll repeat soon again. A daily blog is tough … even when you have your material handed to you! But, I couldn’t have done it without the artwork … Continue reading →
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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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.


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.


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.


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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Time to talk Einstein and science stuff

Posted by joeabbott on November 28, 2015

This post has all the potential of a long, rambling entry that typifies a lot of my writing. The kind that yells, “I’m not sure what my point is here, so I’ll just keep talking!” So, before I start, let me try and find my point to save us all a little pain.

I’m fascinated by Einstein and his theory of relativity, and while I could recite E=MC2 and state that he formed both a special theory of relativity and a general theory of relativity, and that he was somehow associated with starting the atomic program in the US … I couldn’t quite say how a German nationalist came to the US, how energy has anything at all to do with the speed of light, and exactly how relativity works.

Yes, I understood Einstein’s Jewish background and assumed he fled Germany around WWII, I’ve seen the diagrams of planets and the space around them as being modeled as weighted balls on a rubber sheet, and heard about mind experiment involving twins with one of them staying on earth and the other traveling near the speed of light on a trip … returning to find the earth-bound twin had aged much beyond that of her astronaut sibling. Yup, took physics in both high school and college and picked up on all of that sorta thing. But I never really got it. I just kinda understood it.

And so I spent a little time trying to rectify that through three books.

imageEinstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian

I enjoy a lot of perks working at Microsoft, but one of the best is meeting thought luminaries making tours and giving talks. Microsoft gets a fair number of these and they range from folks discussing cookbooks, to the preservation of wild places, to technology authors like A. Douglas Stone discussing his book: Einstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian. I was pulled to this talk with a friend who used to attend Princeton University and work under Stone. I don’t often feel like the dumbest guy in the room, but I was easily that guy as I sat for “light conversation” with my friend and Mr. Stone both before and after his talk. And while that afternoon was fascinating, let’s get to the book.

The premise of Einstein and the Quantum is to make the case that Einstein, who has an established position of disliking quantum physics (it’s bound up in his famous “God does not play dice” quote) actually played a founding role in establishing quantum theories, laying the ground work for others like Schrodinger and Heisenberg to make their breakthrough contributions.

My biggest hurdle in appreciating Stone’s position is that I don’t truly understand the argument or evidence. It’d be akin to me hearing that you’re having a neighbor dispute and seeing only your side of the controversy: I can only take your word and assume I’m hearing the whole story.

While I had heard Einstein’s dice quote previously, I just don’t have the appreciation for the depth of his dispute with quantum physics.

And so what I took away from Stone’s book was the details of Einstein’s personal life, his associations with other founding theoretical physicists and their seminal works, and the repeated message that Einstein participated strongly in the development of quantum theory both directly and through work helping shape other physicists thoughts on the matter. Which I accept as fact.

Stone does a fantastic job of telling a compelling but potentially very dry story in a lively manner: he’s engaging with technical and supporting facts, able to convincingly explain issues like the ultraviolet catastrophe, as well as cite published papers but maintains a crisp pace and not bog down into too much detail. For a smart guy like Stone, it probably killed him to omit some of the salient points, but it made for an engaging and very readable book.

In the end, for a book like this, you take away what you put into it. I tried following some of the hard science but, admittedly, was lost a time or two. I did myself no favors treating this as a nighttime read, covering the book over many many sessions … which causes one to lose their train of thought and often ask, “now what had I just been reading here … aha! yes, I recall …”

What I liked best was the readable style and, of the three books I’ll talk about here, Stone kept closest to the facts around Einstein and wonderfully filled in and colored my view of the great physicist.

imageAbout Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang

This was a bit of a toughie.

The book is long-ish (I listened in my car … 11 discs) and covers what I consider three areas about the nature of time: historical impact on human life; modern time and the impact on physics; and cosmological musing and the speculation on what time is. And while the book isn’t split like this, that’s the impact it had on me.

As far as the first section, historical impact of time, I loved the thoughts Adam Frank presented. I’d never deeply mused on how the impact of keeping track of time played out in history and had only appreciated “people got up and went to sleep with the sun” at its most anodyne basic.

According to Frank, time first started being tracked in monasteries as a way of calling the clergy to prayers or other parts of their lives. Timekeeping was only done as estimated by a “timekeeper” and even then differed from one place to the next. Later, with the development of clocks, time was kept at an hourly level and even then, it was only as accurately kept as clocks were made. With the development of the “town square clock”, a more regulated (if not just as inaccurate) version of standard time was established.

After town clocks were acknowledged, the railroad industry drove home the need to have a universal time standard and, with that, the time zones. Fast forward to the development of the minute hand (which may have come before the railroad standardized time) and the impetus for keeping time on jobs or at work down to the minute or sub-minute keeping … you can thank big business for that invention. And soon enough we end up with quartz crystal accuracy in timing and our computer calendar pop-ups telling us we have a meeting at a specific time.

After that section, the part involving Einstein shows up as he’s at the very heart of many of the current cosmological discoveries with his invention of space-time. While Frank’s book is ultimately about time, it was fascinating to hear how Einstein helped develop theories that pushed us further along the path of what time is and how it impacts us. Einstein’s theories, along with the groundbreaking work of Edwin Hubble and many others, led to the development of the Big Bang Theory, our views on the expanding universe, and a better understanding of the beginning of time itself … something we can get close to understanding but ultimately stop short of “time at zero seconds from the Big Bang”.

The last section started getting “out there” … as in, really out there. Some of it dealt with exotic theoretical models, like string theory, other parts addressed the multi-verse, he touched on “God” and religion a bit, and even entertained the notion there is no time but just a vast number of instances, separate and discrete from all others that give the illusion of history and future. It was hard to really appreciate this section.

From the earliest chapters Frank hinted at new interpretations of time and how the Big Bang Theory can’t answer fundamental questions or refute potential incompatibilities. To some of these issues, Big Bang Theory supporters have developed addendums to the model, like cosmic inflation, but problems exist that ultimately call to question the Theory and whether it’s a true interpretation of our universe and time itself.

Ultimately the book disappointed in that Frank never really gave me a satisfying answer to what time is. I very much liked the book for the first section and a better understanding of the Big Bang, if not Einstein’s contributions. After that, however, it was over my head and beyond my grasp; offering some information I liked (a string theory explanation) along with other material that seemed less well-supported and along the lines of exotic conjecture.

imageThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Einstein

I picked up this book by Gary Moring as I wasn’t satisfied with being merely a dummy but recognizing that I’m an idiot!! And, to be more honest, this is the book they had on the secondhand bookshop I frequent so it ended up in my basket.

My understanding of relativity was still weak at this point, so I picked up this book … which is about far more than just relativity and covers much of Einstein’s life and philosophies. As with Frank’s book (above), I found the earlier chapters the stronger ones and … I guess it’s just woven tightly into cosmology … the later chapters started to get into some heady topics that I broadly classify under “psychological”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to a good book on self-awareness and paradigms on human consciousness … I just wasn’t expecting them here.

Given the parallels between this book and Frank’s, I’m guessing there’s a standard approach to cosmology (which is more to the point of the books than just relativity) that goes something like: introduce physics in the natural world, move to quantum laws, try to find a bridge, and then introduce speculation.

But I’d like to back up just a bit and offer a few words on the structure of the book and then consider what I liked and where I got lost.

The first section of the book builds up what we know about the natural world. It starts with the ancient Greeks (who first started applying the scientific method), and then moved to Newton and his fantastic laws that seem to describe our world so well, they stood as the de facto LAWS OF EVERYTHING for hundreds of years.

At this point Einstein becomes relevant. Now, a couple things about Einstein; first, his contributions to science really are outstanding and should not be underestimated: they changed everything about matter and our understanding of how things work. Secondly, his most science-changing theories came relatively early in his life and, after that, he served science better as a figurehead and statesman than for his technical contributions. And, finally, his celebrity gave him world-recognized fame and allowed him to share his philosophical views. He was an extraordinary man who really did change everything.

But, he may not have been right.

Just like many scientists before Newton, and Newton himself, moved mankind’s views forward, they didn’t understand everything and later scientists corrected and contributed on top of their work, current understanding and experiments are calling to question the entirety of Einstein’s theories and finding them wanting. The book suggests this, but doesn’t really answer that question … which is understandable as an answer is still being sought.

The book covers an incredible breadth of topics and necessarily does so at the cost of being complete in any one area. Much of it is informative and enjoyable, but other parts feel incomplete. A lot of the problems are that I spent less time studying the volume than I did just reading through it, page at a time before bed. So, for this book, I suspect many shortcomings are a result of how I approached it over how it was written.


If I had to order the books I’d say: start with the Idiot book and then read Stone’s Swabian volume. Frank’s Time book really stands apart and while interesting, didn’t satisfy in its later chapters. And for those who want to know if I learned anything about relativity, I’ll try to summarize.

Most of what Einstein said is short and snappy … and a lot of the mind-bending stuff comes into play when you apply his contributions to specific thought experiments: like the twins who age differently. The two parts of his special theory of relativity state

  • For any non-accelerating reference system, the laws of physics behave the same as in any other non-accelerating reference system. Meaning, if you’re sitting in an easy chair watching TV, the laws of physics are the same as if you’re on a train at constant velocity heading into Seattle. Both systems are non-accelerating and therefore the laws of physics act the same.
  • Light travels at a constant velocity independent of the speed of the source. Meaning, if you could measure the speed of photons from a flashlight you turn on in your backyard, they’d be traveling at the same speed as those coming from the headlamp of a spaceship traveling at half the speed of light. It’s non-intuitive, but when accepted, the results of a lot of experiments are now more easily understood.

Again, what Einstein said is simple compared to the implications. And why does this have the time implications as noted in the thought experiment with the twins? Think of it this way: if light is measured as Velocity = Distance / Time,  and we know that Velocity (the speed of light) is constant but the spaceship traveler goes a long way (Distance), Time must also change for the equation noted to remain balanced. And time changing is nothing we had ever considered before … it had been held as a universal constant.

You’ll have to read one (or several) of the above books to get more of the details but, let’s just say this is considered heady stuff for a reason.

Thanks for dropping in and I hope you have been enjoying a few good books yourself.

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Let’s storm the castle once again!

Posted by joeabbott on November 26, 2015

I’m not a movie guy and don’t spend much time with Netflix or my video collection. Yes, even though I don’t watch many shows, I have a few on disk. Of those I’ll make time to see again (and again) is the The Princess Bride. I love the clever wordplay, the memorable lines (see image below), the crazy characters, and the sly wit about the whole movie. The actors are first rate and just thinking about the show encourages me to enjoy another viewing.

imageBut, as I said, I’m not much of a movie guy. I am a book-guy … I have a number of magazines coming to the house, always have a book at my bedside, and will rotate through books-on-tape in my car. While I no longer use “tape”, the important point is that I’ll be listening to a little something I picked up at the library at all times. And so, while Suzy and I were in the Burien Public Library looking for books to listen to while driving about, I spotted As You Wish, Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride.

What’s it all about

The book is written by Carey Elwes, who played Wesley in the movie, and at 6-discs, makes for an easy “read” for the month you’re allowed to have it. We did, however, extend our listen for a second month as Suzy enjoyed it first and then I got to enjoy it.

The book amounts to a memoire from the lead actor and recounts, largely in a chronological order, the putting together, filming, and subsequent gatherings of the actors in The Princess Bride. Like the movie, this isn’t a bawdy tell-all or salacious gossip write-up, instead it’s a very sweet, always complimentary, and unerring upbeat telling of the filming, Elwes was a relative new and unproven actor at the time of casting him in the lead and he’s clearly star-struck with some of the other luminaries in the film. While some might find the stories too much of a good thing, it captures a spirit of uplifting positivity that I loved nearly as much as the film.

One thought that occurred to me as listened to the stories is that the role of Wesley never seemed to be what the story was about. While I’d certainly recall Wesley and the Dread Pirate Roberts as key parts of the story, I remember Inigo and his vengeance quest, the ROUS, storming the castle, the giant Fezzik (and how I could never see him on screen without thinking about Andre the Giant’s wrestling roots), the crazy character Vizzini, and all the memorable sword fights.

Thinking on the great parts in the movie, I realized how central Wesley/Elwes is to the story, but with so much fun shared by all the other characters/actors, it’s easy to overlook the story as revolving around him.

I like to hear that

While many of Elwes’ memories are of the gentile nature and sweetness of his costars, he singles out two individuals for much of his praise: Rob Reiner, the director, and Andre the Giant.

I try to avoid listening to or getting wrapped up in “Hollywood stories”, the kind of nonsense that’s reported on TMZ (the website that seems to focus on the bad behavior of folks in the Hollywood scene). So hearing Elwes recount the humanity and decency of Reiner as a director was a boon. During the shooting of The Princess Bride Reiner is colored as always upbeat, full of empathy, and able to pull the disparate actors into a family. And, the one time Reiner was noted as being down, his directing partner brought him out of his doldrums by juggling for him. Juggling! Yes, I’m showing my age but I love that kind of thing.

The other surprise for me was hearing how gentle and decent Andre the Giant was. As a person, it seems he took a calm and philosophical approach to life, being over-sized and always the draw for a roomful of eyes whenever he entered. It was a bit sad to hear about his drinking … and while his enormous size allowed him to drink more than the average person, it was clear it was a more central part of his life than was healthy. Yes, he lived in pain and he imbibed in part to assuage those issues, but I can’t imagine it did him good.

But I read between the lines. Andre was colored as generous, humble, and always gentle, calling everyone “boss”, regardless their position relative to his. Hopefully I’ll remember this more than his wrestling background the next time I watch the film.

imageAnd … action!

But, I’m an action guy at heart so two of the stories I remember best about the book are the injuries.

In one story Elwes breaks a toe and, throughout the rest of the film, must take great pains to mask or work around that discomfort. Read the book if you want the full story but it’s a hoot and I can see myself in the very same position.

The second injury was when Elwes, looking for a bit more realism, asks a fellow actor to give him a good wrap on the head in the scene in which he’s being knocked out. The request was taken to heart, the hilt of the sword was taken to his noggin, and, when he woke up, Elwes was taken to the hospital. Painfully amusing.

Perhaps I connect too deeply with this story as I recall how, in my childhood, I donned my brother’s football helmet and ran headlong into a wall in our basement … assured the protective gear would render me invincible to harm. Alas, that smarted.

Get the book … make that the audio book

If you’re a fan of The Princess Bride you should pick up As You Wish; it’s full of goodness and before the first disc is done, you’ll want to find a copy of the movie and watch it through. What I really liked about the audio book is that Elwes, a professional actor, does a really great job of reading his own book. He has a deep and resonant voice, he flawlessly recounts the tales, and creates an emotional connection you wouldn’t get in reading it yourself.

Another bonus is the contributions of the other actors from the movie, including Reiner. While most of their stories significantly add to the book, there were one or two times where they cut away to another actor to have his/her contribution something like, “yeah, that was really great … just great.” Which, arguably, doesn’t add quite as much as, say, a personal insight or quick story.

It’s a little unfortunate that some of the actors just sent in their comments, read by someone else; if only because hearing the actors/director in their speak their own words is wonderful. I especially missed hearing Mandy Patinkin’s voice, as his character, Inigo, is one of my favorites. But, this goes to show all-the-more why you should seek out the audio book. Just some really good stuff.

In all, I give As You Wish a ten: heartwarming stories, behind the scenes insights, and excellent production read by the author and star of The Princess Bride. Perhaps most telling is that I’ve pulled out our copy of The Princess Bride and we’ll be watching it this weekend.

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Birthday Book Review: The Simpson’s and Their Mathematical Secrets

Posted by joeabbott on November 4, 2015

imageI recently posted the short review of a book I received for my 50th birthday … an event that’s just about exactly two years old at this writing. Well, I also completed another book (I had a couple going simultaneously) and, upon checking the cover inscription, I see: Intriguing! Happy 51st, Joe. Momma. Yup, another birthday, another book from my mother, and another quick review.

The Simpson’s and Their Mathematical Secrets caught my attention as it fit a couple criteria I have for what I believe will be an enjoyable read: based on science, fun with pop culture, and written by Simon Singh. A while ago I read Singh’s The Code Book and did something that’s not typical for me: I read it a second time. And that time I wrote code to test out the different algorithms. It was captivating stuff.

imageI then read Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem and Big Bang and found I enjoyed those nearly as much. I can’t put a finger on the exact quality, but it’s a lucid writing that’s easily read and, even when imparting a complex thought, he does it with an easily understood language, a simplicity of structure, and clear description. All aspects that I find quite challenging. It’s just really good stuff.

At the end of his third book I thought I’d read somewhere that he hadn’t planned on writing anything else. I was disappointed but his point was: he’d set out to see if he could write a well-received book, he had, and there were other challenges to face. I respected that. But there it was, another book by the very-same Simon Singh, so onto my “wish list” it went.

It took a while to find the right time and place for this book. If it was like any of the other Singh books, it’d be a page turner, and so I brought it along on my annual hike with my old Boeing friends. These trips are part “get out there”, part “enjoy some downtime”, and part “catch up with old chums” … and we all bring a good book for those lazy afternoons where silence is as welcome as each others’ company. But a strange thing happened: I didn’t finish the book.

At over 200 pages it’s not a slim volume but neither a tome. The material wasn’t challenging but it just never grabbed me; never pulled me in. I always found it somewhat easy to put down and find something else to occupy myself with while the others were reading. The book isn’t a disappointment, but it stands apart from the Singh canon that I can’t put down.

The Simpson’s and Their Mathematical Secrets

The book is some 17 chapters with 14 dedicated to one of The Simpson animated television show, three dedicated to a sister show, Futurama, and a “Chapter 0” to explain the premise. You see, many of the writers on the Simpson’s (and Futurama) program have backgrounds in mathematics and science. With their geeky love of numbers and fun with words, the writers have imbued many episodes of both The Simpsons and Futurama with complex mathematical topics, scientific conundrums, and various other aspects related to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) curriculum.

In some cases it may be as simple as having the number representing Pi as a date, an obscure reference to a number with scientific significance in the background (look up 1729 in the book or on wikipedia), or even posing situations for which the writers created a unique theorem as proof!

All of the stories and episodes detailed were engaging and entertaining, but I just lost interest after a bunch of chapters knowing the next chapter was: yet another instance of numbers, math, and science being aspects in a television show program! Novelty, zing, any gotchas … it lost its punch and impact and fell into the bucket of “here’s another story”.

When I got home from the hike I was just over halfway through the book and had set it by my nightstand … and it sat there, slowly losing ground to woodworking catalogs, my Spider-man monthly comic, other books, and a new periodical I just picked up (JLC – Journal of Light Construction … part geek, part nerd, and part guy-who-can-build-stuff). When I finished You are Now Less Dumb, I did a bit of housecleaning, found the Simpson’s book, and finished it up in a few nights.

Nope, didn’t catch fire this time, either… I didn’t find anything new with the reunion; just a book I finished.


I feel badly for not being more ebullient about The Simpson’s and Their Mathematical Secrets because it’s a fine book. Singh writes with his usual lucidity, The Simpsons show is fun to showcase math with, and the behind the scenes stories are neat. But, it loses something in 17 different chapters essentially telling the same story.

I guess I’m not math nerd enough.

If you’re looking for a well-written book and your interests fall on the cross section of animated pop television and math, this may be exactly the thing for you. And if you’re a Simpsons fan, looking for every secret and behind the scenes story, it’s right up your ally. However, unless you’re a mathematician who can truly appreciate the difference between the many technical topics shared, it’ll likely be a book you enjoy and get through … but have a hard time (like me) recommending with vigor.

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The smartest book I’ve read

Posted by joeabbott on November 1, 2015

imageOn my fiftieth birthday my mother gifted me with a copy of You are Now Less Dumb by David McRaney. After I’d unwrapped it I read the cover inscription, “Happy 50th Birthday, Joe! I just glanced through this book from your “wish list” and in very short order I felt more dumb … Good luck with it! Momma!” I got the feeling this book would be an intellectual powerhouse.

I have a small affair with brainy books; I seldom read novels and prefer historical non-fiction … especially that relating to the physical sciences. I loved Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, was so engaged with A. Douglas Stone’s Einstein and the Quantum I’m now reading a second book on Einstein, and I’ve read any number of books on the elements and their stories (enjoying Theodore Gray’s Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe and The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean). And, besides those, I’ve been engaged with the history of Hawaii, how tea came to be the worldwide drink it is, and the ubiquity of salt. While the topics may seem anodyne, their stories are not!

So, You are Now Less Dumb hit my list as a teaching vehicle but it’s taken me a while to pull it from the bookshelf and place it on my nightstand. I sometimes have a couple books going at once and so I grabbed AsapSCIENCE: Answers to the World’s Weirdest Questions, Most Persistent Rumors, and Unexplained Phenomena as a companion read … thinking they’d be in the same ballpark.

And I couldn’t have been more wrong.

AsapSCIENCE (by Mitchell Moffit and Greg Brown) is written for high school students who are curious why farts small bad, whether eating boogers can harm you, and if the “5 second rule” really applies. The science is sound but the topics range from the narrow band of low brow questions you might hear amongst tittering teens. Now, don’t get me wrong: the book is intended to be fun and funny, presented with levity and accessible to people of all ages, but mostly the young. It’s a great hook to engage youth in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) topics but less good for those looking for a solid couple of pages to end the day on.

And I read it at the wrong time. I read it at the same time I was reading Your are Now Less Dumb … about the “smartest” book I’ve ever enjoyed.

I didn’t appreciate it at the time I started the book … I was looking for historical science, for stories about discoveries, and exposure to material relating to the physical world. And this book is not that topic.

The book takes the form of some 17 chapters, each dealing with a fallacy that is popularly believed and then explains the truth. Fallacies often include the words “bias” or “effect” and the truths are then backed up by any number of scientific studies, typically psychological in nature.

When I first started the book, I wasn’t ready for this sort of thing and found myself a bit lost, a little confused as to when the “story” would start, and I continued slogging through it in hopes that I’d be getting to the “good stuff” soon enough. It wasn’t until about the third chapter that the rhythm of the book hit me and I started to understand what the author was attempting … about then, the “good stuff” didn’t come to me, but I started understanding it was all the good stuff!

The fallacy that was my light bulb, appropriately enough (due to his studies in electricity), was The Benjamin Franklin Effect that goes

THE MISCONCEPTION: You do nice things for the people you like and bad things to the people you hate.

THE TRUTH: You grow to like the people for whom you do nice things and hate people you harm.

The chapter then covers varying studies backing the truth of the matter and explains how the human mind works. In this case, the effect is named for Benjamin Franklin who wrote about his experience in running up against one of his detractors early in his bid for public offices. Rather than launch a smear campaign against said detractor or challenging that person to some sort of contest to prove his position, he actually requested the detractor loan him a book. Back in the late 1700s, books were valuable commodities and as public face was important, the confused detractor loaned it to him. In several days time, Ben returned the book with a thank you and found that the detractor’s attitude slowly but certainly changed. Whereas the detractor had previously spoken ill of Benjamin and his policies, he now found a growing ally. You see, you grow to like the people for whom you do nice things … even if you’re not sure why you did the nice thing.

That chapter continues to support the second part of that clause (you … hate people you harm) and the book as a whole follows that model throughout.

Other chapters that captured my attention include:

The Backfire Effect – I like this chapter because it helped explained some of the behaviors I experience when talking to rationale people (whom I like and respect) about seemingly black-and-white topics. Our views/opinions differed but I was never able to get them to “see my point of view” and their arguments seemed to devolve into chaotic chatter.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking after your beliefs are challenged with facts.

THE TRUTH: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger

Deindividualization – I like this chapter because I’ve often wondered if I’d get caught up in looting and rioting, or if I’d be the “voice of reason” I think I’d be. Sadly, after reading this chapter, I’m unsure.

THE MISCONCEPTION: People who riot and loot are scum who were just looking for an excuse to steal and be violent.

THE TRUTH: Under the right conditions, you are prone to losing your individuality and becoming absorbed into a hive mind.

The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight – and this chapter was lovely in that it explained why we live in a Lord of the Flies sorta world. Or, maybe not why, but showed that we do and how it takes effect.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You celebrate diversity and respect others’ points of view

THE TRUTH: You are driven to create and form groups and then believe others are wrong just because they are others


Overall, You are Now Less Dumb has its challenging moments, the material and studies are thick with intellectual viscosity, but was an exceedingly pleasurable read. I found that I was starting to make time for reading … as opposed to my usual “knock out a few pages before I go to sleep”. I’ll definitely need to read it again, but it’s opened my eyes to not only see the world, but seeing myself and how I behave in that world. Fabulous stuff.

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