Archive for January, 2014

Review: One Summer, America, 1927

Friday, January 31st, 2014

Bill Bryson has a knack for taking disparate facts and building them into an interesting narrative.  in 1927 he does this with significant aplomb, picking a few larger than life people and watching how their lives and times mesh and unmesh.

1927 is a good year for such a study of America.  It’s the year that Lindberg crossed the Atlantic, that the Yankees fielded perhaps the greatest baseball team ever – led by Babe Ruth, and that’s just the beginning. Bryson is a natural raconteur and he both provides the color commentary on the larger than life protagonists, and he generates the overarching narrative the pulls the whole thing together.

He doesn’t stay completely in 1927, of course.  There are activities that set context for what happens in ’27.  There are activities that have their real repercussions after 1927, though their roots are there.

Along the way Bryson shows us how 1927 reflects our time – show trials and pointless celebrity – and how it differs.  It’s compelling to see how much and how little we have changed as a nation.

Strongly Recommended.

Slippery When Wet

Friday, January 31st, 2014

I like to start a few days a week with a 20 mile ride before I get to work.  On Wednesday (29 Jan) I set out to follow the Ballona Creek Bike Path to Redondo Beach and come back.  It’s a ride I’ve done many times.

This morning was very foggy. Coming down the path, it was common to not be able to make out the opposite shore of Ballona Creek.  There were crew teams out rowing in, which surprised me.  I was having a very good ride, though.

The bike path turns left to cross a bridge and as I took that turn, the bike absolutely shot out from under me.  The wheels had both let go of the wet pavement together and the bike slammed me to the ground like it was a mousetrap and I was sitting on the bar.  I’ve crashed before, and often remembered thinking “this is going to be bad” as the accident evolved.  This time I felt my helmet and left side hit the road and thought “that was bad.”  And it was.

The road rash wasn’t much to speak of, but I had cracked my hip awfully hard.  I managed to stand up, but realized pretty quickly that while my hip would hold me, I couldn’t take a step with it. Shortly afterward a fellow named Allan stopped and helped me get the bike out of the way.  At this point I’m lying on my side on the path.  I fish my phone out and call 911.  And get briefly put on hold.  Apparently lots of accidents happen in the fog.  Eventually we get to an operator who dispatches emergency vehicles (after another hold).

The paramedics arrived and picked me up with care and put me in the Ambulance. We worked out that I was a Kaiser member, and they took me to the closest Kaiser facility.  I’ve never done that little negotiation about where to tale an injured party based on their insurance.  It all worked out, though.

The fine folks at Kaiser ran me through the x-ray machine, and sure enough my hip bone was broken.  Pretty cleanly and in a good spot, but definitely broken.  Looks like we need to fix that. (Incidentally the only upside of breaking your hip at 46 is that everyone says how young you are.  It’s nice to hear.)

So, now I have a pin in my hip to match the one in my ankle on the other side.  I’m practically bionic.

And, surprisingly, it’s Friday afternoon and I’m home with a walker. Both legs will take weight, and I can walk pretty well with the walker, though it definitely hurts and tires me out. The doctors are still talking weeks  of recovery – and I believe them.  But I can walk around my house 2 days after breaking it.  Days of Miracle and Wonder.

Everyone at Kaiser was great, so thank all of you.

And thanks to all my friends who have been sending kind words and offers to help – including teaching my class on Thursday.

Review: Trinity

Saturday, January 4th, 2014

Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Trinity is a history of the development of the atomic bomb told in comics.  It shows off comic’s power in relating history rather than providing escapist entertainment very well.  It’s strengths are comics’ strengths and so are its weaknesses.

The main weakness is that compared to a pure text history of the same subject, there are less technical and historical details.  Everything is told primarily through images, not as text or illuminated manuscript, so details must be thinner.  The content difference is similar to the difference between reading a history and watching a documentary.

The strength is in the power of those images to draw the reader into the narrative.  Fetter-Vorm does a great job conveying the times through his depictions of places and events, and of capturing the minds of the protagonists through showing their faces and staging the various scenes.  While few statistics and dates come through, Trinity communicates more context and personality.

In addition to capturing the humans involved in this drama, Fetter-Vorm uses his images and layouts to make the science behind the bomb intuitive.  By using the sorts of images and analogies that were used at the time, he also keeps his sense of time and place intact, even while he is explaining abstract physics. It’s a nice, powerful use of the medium.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Manhattan Project and the personalities involved but have an interest, Trinity will draw you into that world powerfully.  It may spur you to read in more depth later to get additional details.

Strongly recommended.

Review: A Christmas Carol

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

I did read A Christmas Carol, and I do like to write at least a capsule here about everything I read.  Honestly, Carol has become so much a part of the popular culture that there’s not much at all to say about it.  In fact, the thing that struck me most is that the source material brings so little to the story that the movies, plays, comics, etc. have not.

Carol really is a simple, well-told story about a miserly old misanthrope who is led back to the path of righteousness by spectral visitors.  It’s been completely assimilated into the culture.  I didn’t get much new out of reading the original.

Review: A Tale of Two Cities

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

The classics are always difficult to meaningfully comment on. A Tale of Two Cities is primarily Dickens commenting on the Reign of Terror, as he commented on other injustices.  His literary chops are impeccable, so the work is brilliant.

Two things stand out to me.  First, he takes the position that the Reign of Terror was a predictable and natural reaction to abuses of power. It’s one thing to take that position academically.  Dickens constructed evocative characters and scenarios that bring these ideas home.  I wouldn’t say he creates believable characters and scenarios; there is quite a bit of high melodrama here.  High melodrama can be as much fun and have as much influence as more three dimensional construction.

That strong representation of how individual actions build to historic upheavals is enlightening and frightening. The feeling of both seeing how history happens and not being able to change it feels like a truth.

The greatest part of the book is the redemption of Sydney Carton. Again, this is melodrama of the first degree, including the uncanny likeness of Carton and Darnay as well as the relative merits of their characters.  And I know what happens – I’ve read Tale before. But Dickens’s ironic, mordant, determined prose moves me every time. The feeling of both the need for redemption and the seed of that redemption growing from that bad life is palpable and reassuring.  The allusions to Christ are not misplaced, despite them being a bit heavy.

That pure demonstration of the redemption of a man, and perhaps a nation, is what draws me back to A Tale of Two Cities.

Strongly recommended.