Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Making Toast: A Family Story by Roger Rosenblatt

In contrast to the previous book that I reviewed, I kept Making Toast: A Family Story by Roger Rosenblatt on my to-read list for several years before I finally borrowed it as an audiobook. I had forgotten its topic, and several minutes into the book, I was mildly surprised to discover it is a book about grief. I have listened to numerous books by authors telling about their grief in recent years. I would say the books are preparing me for future events, but I can tell that each person responds differently to deaths in families. None are really ready for the deaths of parents, spouses, or children.

Like Blue Nights by Joan Didion, Making Toast is about the death of a daughter. Unlike Didion, however, Rosenblatt's story focuses on the new roles that he and his wife assumed as live-in grandparents for their daughter's three children and on the lives of those children and the widowed husband. Drawing from his talents as a novelist, he shaped the story much like a play. I can imagine Rosenblatt as the character that sometimes steps out of the action to narrate and then steps right back into the scenes.

Making Toast is a lighter variety of grief than that found in Levels of Life by Julian Barnes. That is not to say there are not tears and pain, but Rosenblatt and his family pull together to cope. His book will be of comfort to many people, but not all, as he is not religious. Like all the books on grief that I have read, it is relatively short and quick reading. It can be found in many public libraries in print and audio downloads.

Rosenblatt, Roger. Making Toast: A Family Story. Ecco, 2010. 166p. ISBN 9780061825934.

Audiobook. Blackstone Audio, 2010. 3 compact discs. ISBN 9781441721365.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Walking the Amazon: 860 Days, One Step at a Time by Ed Stafford

I missed learning about Walking the Amazon: 860 Days, One Step at a Time by Ed Stafford when it was first published in the U.S. in 2012. It only came out in paperback, and I am guessing that it did not get much publicity. I have already forgotten how I learned of it. I think a Chicago Tribune travel writer mentioned the book last month. I placed a reserve on the book immediately instead of putting in on my to-read list. I had to know how anyone could walk the the length of the Amazon River.

The idea of walking the Amazon is totally crazy. That is actually why some of his sponsors supported Stafford and his original partner. It had never been done before. One sponsor hinted that failure was acceptable, even probable, but the effort was worth financing. Stafford himself often seemed to question why he was pursuing such a strenuous, dangerous, miserable task. He had started with some lofty ideals, such as bring attention to the plight of the Amazon rainforest and its people, but he was also hoping for some personal glory. On an average day hacking his way through dense brush or wading chest deep in flood water for hours, he spent more time just hoping to find a comfortable place for the night and something to eat.

Like Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods, Stafford was not really prepared or even in proper physical shape when he started. Unlike Bryson, he never left the trail completely to come back significantly later to do more. He sometimes took a boat trip ahead to choose where to walk or diverted to a city to the north or south to get supplies, but he always soon returned to the spot he marked to continue his trek.

The author was rarely alone, though his cast of companions changed through the trek. A Peruvian named Cho made most of the trip with him. Thanks to Stafford's blog and other publicity, a collection of friends, sponsors, and news reporters joined him for sections of the trip.

Stafford would not have succeeded without help from many of the poorest people in South America, who gave him shelter, food, and guidance. Though he tried to compensate some, he was at times flat broke. This raises the question of how ethical was his at times illegal quest. I would love to hear a book group debate Stafford's goals, thinking, and behaviors. Was the quest worthwhile?

Stafford, Ed. Walking the Amazon: 860 Days, One Step at a Time. Plume Books, 2012. 319p. ISBN 9780452298262.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton

I did not plan this. Bonnie brought home Eye to Eye: Photographs by Vivian Maier (see previous review) just about the time I brought home Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton. I did not see a connection at first. They were just two books on a bookshelf. Then the obvious struck me: they are both books of street photography!

The photographers and their books have some obvious differences, of course. Maier was born in New York and moved to Chicago where she took black-and-white photographs in the 1950s to 1970s. Stanton was born in Chicago and moved to New York where he took color photographs starting in 2010. Maier was secretive, never showing her work. Stanton posts his on his Humans of New York website and his Facebook page. They would be like night and day, except for their ability to get expressive photographs of people.

Readers find more stories in Stanton's Humans of New York. He seems to have talked with many of his subjects and add quotes on or to the side of the photographs. Because the images are colorful and often humorous or beautiful, readers may be more inclined to want to visit 21st century New York than time travel to mid-20th century Chicago. I enjoyed recognizing Central Park, Times Square, the Met, and other New York locations in some photos. The majority, however, are in the neighborhoods of the city.

The HONY website was unavailable a few days ago but is now back featuring Stanton's photos of the Ukraine and India and other countries on his World Tour. I hope another book results. I like that many of the best photos from his archives have been collected in the Humans of New York book. I hope it lasts in libraries for a long time.

Stanton, Brandon. Humans of New York. St. Martins Press, 2013. ISBN 9781250038821.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Eye to Eye: Photographs by Vivian Maier

Two sides of Vivian Maier are on display in Eye to Eye: Photographs by Vivian Maier, the third collection of the photographer's work to be published since her death in 2009. The first is the Maier who seems to have asked permission to photograph people along city streets or in parks in Chicago, New York, or on vacations abroad. The second Maier is the woman who was bound to get photographs of people who interested her with or without permission. No matter which Maier was working at the time, the result was sharp images of people looking into her camera.

Not all of the subjects look pleased, of course. The girl getting out of the car in Wilmette (page 153) looks like she was starting to yell at Maier. I imagine the woman in on the street in Lake Forest (page 201) was thinking "Why won't this person leave me alone?" But there are just as many smiles. The young woman waiting for a train in Chicago (page 167) looks jolly and the older woman in Sandwich, Illinois, (page 203) seems about to laugh.

The subjects were not all women. There were blue collar workers, homeless men, children, and families. From France, Italy, and Malaysia, there were farmers, shopkeepers, mothers with children, and even what I assume were holy men. Not having Maier here to tell us who the people were, we are free to imagine their lives and stations.

The photos were taken between the 1950s and the 1970s, and all are in black-and-white. All have labels saying simply a city or country and an approximate year. In a few the background is indistinct, but many have identifiable settings as well as people. Chicago area residents may be able to pinpoint exactly where Maier stood when she took her photos. The images help us remember or imagine times past, depending on our ages.

It would be so cool to discover someone you knew in Eye to Eye or other books by Maier. Unless, of course, they looked very unhappy in the photos.

Maier, Vivian. Eye to Eye: Photographs by Vivian Maier. CityFiles Press, 2014. 207p. ISBN 9780991541805.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

In a Rocket Made of Ice: Among the Children of Wat Opot by Gail Gutradt

My daughter Laura and her husband Luke just went to Cambodia as part of their honeymoon tour of Southeast Asia. Both are very interested in places and people far and near, and I await to hear what they saw. In the meantime, I read In a Rocket Made of Ice: Among the Children of Wat Opot by Gail Gutradt, the author's observations as a volunteer in a what started as an AIDS hospital but evolved into a home for children orphaned by AIDS. Set between 2005 and 2012, Gutradt saw numerous young Cambodians grow and leave the safety of Wat Opot to join in the effort to rebuild their country. She also saw many children die from AIDS.

Much of the book is about the children who receive shelter, educations, and (if necessary) antiretroviral drugs at Wat Opot. Gutradt tells their various stories from the viewpoint of a caregiver. Readers can not help but feel close to their plights.

Gutradt worked alongside a Wat Opot founder, Wayne Dale Matthysse, who as a medic in the Vietnam War witnessed many atrocities. His work among the poor of Cambodia is in some sense an act of contrition as well as a bold experiment in charity. He is a sort of laid-back Mother Theresa who has thrown off religious proselytizing. Jesus and Buddha get equal billing at the center. Gutradt writes lovingly of Matthysse's work without minimizing the difficult ethical decisions he makes daily.

Cambodia is still struggling to recover from the mass murder of the Pol Pot regime and the worldwide AIDS epidemic. Though antiretroviral drugs have slowed the epidemic and let many Cambodians live somewhat normal lives, the disease is still a grave concern. Cambodia relies on foreign aid to provide AIDS care, but funding is shrinking in the wake of economic recession and greater military spending. Growing resistance to the drug treatments also threatens the current stability.

In a Rocket Made of Ice gives us a thoughtful glance at lives far different from ours with equal doses of hope and concern. It would be an excellent choice for issues-driven book clubs.

Gutradt, Gail. In a Rocket Made of Ice: Among the Children of Wat Opot. Alfred A.Knopf, 2014. 322p. ISBN 9780385353472.

Monday, September 08, 2014

A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not" Ripley by Neal Thompson

I have never subscribed to a newspaper running Ripley's Believe It or Not strips on its comic page. I thought the strip had probably ceased and was surprised to learn that it is still being published. According to the Ripley Entertainment Inc., the strip begun in the 1920s is still in hundreds of newspapers in over forty countries. You may also see daily strips on the website. There are also Ripley books, videos, podcasts, museums, and aquariums. All of this is the legacy of a strange, mostly forgotten man who died in 1949.

In his book A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not" Ripley, Neal Thompson tells about Robert Leroy Ripley, who was born in 1890 in Santa Rosa, California, home city of the church built from one tree (which was featured in an early Believe It or Not strip). He was know as Leroy or Roy as a child and was very impressed by sports heroes. Never very studious at school, he spent much of his time drawing; one teacher took pity on him, letting him substitute drawings for essays as long as they were on the assigned topics. This illustration work prepared him to be a sports cartoonist. Thompson tells how Ripley landed cartooning jobs at newspapers in San Francisco and New York. While overseas covering Olympic games and other international sports events, he collected odd facts and occasionally drew them into his cartoons. A strong response to these special strips led to his changing the focus of his work, eventually emphasizing bizarre stories and facts. As his popularity rose, he was asked to lecture, which led to vaudeville, which led to radio, which led to films, which led to television. Like Bob Hope or Will Rogers, he became a celebrity in many mediums.

Though the rags-to-riches story is admirable, Thompson's description of Ripley is not very attractive. The cartoonist stuttered, had buck teeth, dressed in flashy clothes, and was always very compulsive. Most importantly, he seemed to have had many habits and prejudices that look especially bad in hindsight. Even in his day, he was criticized for the sensational quality of his cartoons and radio broadcast, but he was very popular with the general public. I can see why modern defenders of broadcast media and entertainment might want us to forget the real Mr. Ripley, but newspapers and broadcast networks prospered featuring his low entertainment for decades.

I listened to A Curious Man read by veteran audiobook narrator Marc Cashman. The celebrity story never bogs down in the telling, as the text keeps introducing new phases of Ripley's varied life. It is a bit sad at the end, but many biographies are.

Thompson, Neal. A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not" Ripley. Crown Publishers, 2013.

Audiobook. Books on Tape, 2013. 10 compact discs. ISBN 9780385366373.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Naturalist's Big Bend: An Introduction to the Trees and Shrubs, Wildflowers, Cacti, Mammals, Birds, Reptiles and Amphibians, Fish, and Insects by Roland H. Wauer

The title pretty much says it all. Naturalist's Big Bend: An Introduction to the Trees and Shrubs, Wildflowers, Cacti, Mammals, Birds, Reptiles and Amphibians, Fish, and Insects by Roland H. Wauer is a great model of the kind of book you will find in National Park Service bookstores. It provides a history of Big Bend National Park and identifies many of the plants and animals in the park - with hints where to find them. It will be very helpful to have read when I finally make it to the park.

The surprise here is that I grew up in West Texas and never went to Big Bend. The distances in that region are vast, but that really is not a good excuse. I should have made an effort as an adult to go before now. I still don't have a plan to get there, but I am thinking of it more and more. There is so much there to see, as the author tells us.

In the chapter on fish, there is a great story about the saving of the only population of Big Bend Gambusia on the planet. I have heard the story before about how the fish were all captured and moved into a safe pool until their own pond could be cleared of invading species. I was happy to read Wauer's account, which included a bit about his role.

There are many birds and wildflowers, as well as cacti, reptiles, and insects in Big Bend. Wauer's observations make the litanies of plant and animal species enjoyable.

You may notice if you read this blog that I have been highlighting books from the University of Texas Press recently. This book is from the rival Texas A & M University Press. It appears they both have a tradition of publishing useful natural history titles. I need to retire so I can read more of them and travel to some of the great parks described.

Wauer, Roland H. Naturalist's Big Bend: An Introduction to the Trees and Shrubs, Wildflowers, Cacti, Mammals, Birds, Reptiles and Amphibians, Fish, and Insects. Texas A & M University Press, 1980, 1973. 149p. ISBN 0890960704.