Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Yoko Finds Her Way by Rosemary Wells

I am about to take a flight on an airplane. It is good that I have read Yoko Finds Her Way by Rosemary Wells. Yoko teaches readers young and old how to watch for directional signs that help them get to the airport, through checkin and customs, and to the gate for their flights. With good signs, it might be easy to navigate through the big airport, but Yoko goes through one wrong door. Getting back to her mother is a little adventure.

We have been reading Rosemary Wells books in our house since my daughter was little. Our daughter has graduated from college and is living her own life in another state now, but Bonnie and I still like to bring home the author's brightly illustrated books. I particularly enjoy the oriental touches in Yoko Finds Her Way.

It is also good to know that there will be food at the airport.

Wells, Rosemary. Yoko Finds Her Way. Disney Hyperion Books, 2014. ISBN 9781423165125.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Age of Vikings by Anders Winroth

Crime did pay. That seems to be one of the messages of The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth, a new history of the Norse warriors from Princeton University Press. Being from an academic press, the book is academic in tone, as you might expect, but there are interesting ideas and stories within its ten chapters. One is that the acquisition of booty from raiding coastal towns of Britain and continental Europe helped transform violent people of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden into mainstream European Christians. Winroth focuses on the 8th through 11th centuries during which the Scandinavians joined the European community.

Winroth describes Viking warfare, exploration, shipbuilding, trade, monarchies, religion, arts, and literature. There is sometimes not really as much detail as I would have liked, but there are many gaps in Viking story. Its warlords had skalds (poets), but they were
not concerned with written accounts, and the writers of rune stones were deliberately misleading. Scholars are still scratching their heads trying to sort out the truth about the Vikings.

Some readers will enjoy The Age of the Vikings because there are still some mysteries, such as just how did they make it to North America and why are there so many Arab coins found in Scandinavian digs? There is still something about which to wonder.

Winroth, Anders. The Age of the Vikings. Princeton University Press, 2014. 320p. ISBN 9780691149851.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Beatles vs. Stones by John McMillian

How could I not read Beatles vs. Stones by John McMillian? I was in fourth grade when I first heard the Beatles singing "She Loves You" and "I Saw Her Standing There." In fifth grade I saw A Hard Days Night. I have had Beatles recordings in my possession ever since.

I did not pay much attention to the Rolling Stones until their single "Ruby Tuesday." I considered them as just part of the wave of British bands that included Herman's Hermits, the Animals, the Dave Clark Five, the Who, and the Hollies. Just a music fan, not a critic, I did not rank them in any way. I also liked the Stones' "Get Off of My Cloud" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash," but I never bought another of their records until middle age.

Growing up in the middle of nowhere, not reading rock magazines, I was never aware of a rivalry between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Even as an adult reader, not seeking gossipy publications, I rarely found stories of a conflict, so a whole book on the topic caught me by surprise. Its cover suggests a boxing match or sporting event, which in the end seems an appropriate suggestion. The story of Beatles vs. Stones is that of competitors, not enemies.

In the beginning, the Beatles helped the Rolling Stones with advice, contacts, publicity, and songs. There might never have been much conflict if it were not for journalists asking leading questions. Young men with inflated egos and desiring attention often then responded to sensational negative reporting with trash talk. Friendships between members of the bands warmed and cooled throughout the active phases of their careers. The disputes were relatively juvenile until Mick Jagger recommended a crooked manager to John Lennon.

Beatles vs. Stones is an interesting and entertaining account of the bands and their times that will appeal to Baby Boomers and their children who have heard so much about the good old days. It does not take long to read and may nudge some readers to get out the old albums.

MacMillian, John. Beatles vs. Stones. Simon and Schuster, 2013. 303p. ISBN 9781439159699.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles

I have often heard that travel is insufficient for experiencing other places. To truly know a place, a person needs to live there. British author Polly Coles had been to Venice numerous times as a child and adult before she moved there with her Venetian husband and four children. She recounts a somewhat difficult but rewarding year in which she became well acquainted with the city's backstreets in The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice.

Not as many people actually live in Venice as you might suppose in a historic city. Only 60,000, according to Coles. Many Venetians from long-established families have vacated the city, as landlords have turned their apartments into more profitable tourist accommodations. Many of the city's workers have to commute every day, walking across the canal bridges or riding the train or water buses. They also have to wear their Wellingtons to wade through the frequently flooded streets. As a result, many Venetians resent tourists and outsiders who settle in the city which they themselves can no longer afford.

Coles strives to befriend Venetians and succeeds with most of her daily contacts, but everyday is a challenge. She pays frequent visits to teachers and school officials with requests concerning the education of her children. She also has to think quickly to get proper service from appliance delivery men. Up and down four flights of stairs, sometimes with children who have sprained tendons or broken ankles, life is not easy in Venice.

Readers who enjoy Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti Mysteries will recognize the Venetian weather and some of the places that Coles describes in The Politics of Washing. They will also recognize Italian words, such as carabinieri, imbarcadero, and pasticceria. Coles provides a helpful glossary of such terms at the beginning of the book. Few libraries have this recent British memoir, but it is worth seeking out.

Coles, Polly. The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice. Robert Hales, 2013. 206p. ISBN 9780719808784.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II by Vicki Constantine Croke

No one should be surprised that I read Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II by Vicki Constantine Croke. On this blog I have reviewed at least six elephant books, including The Elephant Scientist and The Elephant Whisperer recently. Also, I have featured news about the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which operates elephant preserves in Kenya. Elephants, pandas, and birds are high on the scale of our interests in our household and at this book review.

Closer inspection of the three titles above reveals that the books are also about people who study, protect, and work with elephants. In Elephant Company, the subject is Billy Williams, who went to Burma in 1920 to work with Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, a British company that harvested teak logs from rain forests. Williams had always loved and worked with animals in his native England and quickly developed the skills of an elephant veterinarian. Working closely with the mahouts who road the elephants as they hauled logs, Williams introduced more humane treatment of elephants, lengthening their lives and saving the company having to capture more wild elephants - dangerous work that often involved injury and death of elephants and humans.

Elephant Company compares well with the other elephant books that I have read. The author tells a story that seems new to contemporary readers but would have been known to many newspaper readers in the 1930s and 1940s. She vividly describes life in a remote region of the waning British Empire and recounts a horrific period of Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia. She also celebrates the relationship between Williams and an elephant known as Bandoola. I enjoyed several happy days of reading.

Croke, Vicki Constantine. Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II. Random House, 2014. 343p. ISBN 9781400069330.

Friday, October 10, 2014

JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President by Thurston Clarke

Over time, stories of decades often are reduced to key events. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is certainly one of those events. It tops the list of pivotal moments in the 1960s, a decade of great promise and disappointment. In JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President, author Thurston Clarke expands the story of the early 1960s, reminding older readers of the complex national and international politics of the Kennedy White House.

Like many history books focusing on specific time frames, JFK's Last Hundred Days includes many stories from outside its focus. Clarke includes accounts of John F. Kennedy's childhood, youth, service in World War II, early political career, marriage, and first two years as president. These accounts are inserted as flashbacks as Clarke counts down the days to Kennedy's visit to Dallas in November 1963. In doing thus, Clarke makes almost every day rich and lively. Deep in details, though I certainly knew the outcome of the story and noticed foreshadowing, the assassination still seemed to spring on me as a reader.

Clarke's attitude toward his subject is apparent from the title. What might not be expected by readers is how thoroughly the author describes Kennedy's faults, such as vanity, recklessness toward personal safety, and adultery. Whether the reader leaves the book with a positive, negative, or mixed attitude may depend more on the reader than the author's story. Clarke seems to tell us everything.

Like all good history, JFK's Last Hundred Days is still relevant. Readers may rethink whether today's politics is really meaner than ever before. They may also question whether promises to keep American soldiers out of combat zones will be kept. The audiobook is a good option for busy readers.

Clarke, Thurston. JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President. Penguin Press, 2013. 432p. ISBN 9781594204258.

Audiobook. Penguin Audio, 2013. 12 compact discs. ISBN 9781611761719.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds by Miyoko Chu

The fall migration of birds is in full swing now. Not wanting to miss any of it, I am eager to leave the house with our binoculars and camera to see what I can see and photograph. But I do want to stop for a moment to say I just read a great book on bird migration, Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds by Miyoko Chu. The author tells fascinating stories about little birds who take incredible journeys and about some of the people who follow them. She also identifies some of the best locations for witnessing the glories of the migrations. More places go on my travel list.


Later. I am back from the Morton Arboretum. I saw lots of birds today, but they were mostly resident birds instead of migrants. Many of the birds who need to go south have already started doing so. In Songbird Journeys, the author tells how dates and routes of migrations can vary from year to year, but the result is often the same - birds arriving in the same locations, maybe even the same nests. This may be a year for early cold. Birds can sense this, but their decision-making as to when to migrate is not perfect. Sometimes great numbers of birds die in storms.

I enjoyed Chu's stories about bird researchers. In 1965, Richard Graber from the Illinois Natural History Survey tried to follow a gray-cheeked thrush on which he had tied a tiny radio transmitter. Small birds need tiny transmitters to keep from weighing them down. At dusk when the bird rose for its nighttime journey, Graber took off from the Urbana, Illinois airport to follow. Little did he know that he'd get as far as Lake Superior before losing the bird a little before dawn. The bird burned a couple of ounces of body fat. Graber had to land once and refuel his plane.

Another story involved a researcher who banded a warbler near Lake Erie in late summer. When he travelled to the Dominican Republic to study warbler, the first bird he caught in his net was the same bird.

Chu emphasizes how much there is still to learn about bird migrations. Where some of the birds spend winters has not yet been discovered, which worries conservationists. The loss of habitats in both North and South America is the major threat to the survival of songbirds.

I am glad to have read Songbird Journeys. It would be great winter reading for many North American birders.

Chu, Miyoko. Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds. Walker & Company, 2006. 312p. ISBN 9780802714688.