Archive for June, 2009

Book Review: Salt and Saffron by Kamila Shamsie

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Pakistan

Author: Kamila Shamsie
Title: Salt and Saffron
Publication Info: Bloomsbury USA (2000)
ISBN: 1582340935

Summary/Review:

This contemporary novel tells the story of Aliya, a Pakistani woman of an aristocratic family who becomes reacquainted with family members – first in London and then in Karachi – after being away for four years at a university in America.  Aliya thinks of herself as a family historian and a storyteller, but over the course of the novel she becomes aware of aspects of her family’s story she never knew, especially that relating to the Partition of India which also divided the family.  It’s easy for me to get lost in this book, both by the complex family relations and the many Urdu terms sprinkled through the text.  On the other hand, unlike many Around the World for a Good Book choices, Salt and Saffron is funny.   I knew this right from the start when Shamsie writes: “Confused?  Would you rather I changed the topic to yak milk production?”

The plot feels a little flimsy and soulless as if its there merely to serve an intellectual exercise about genealogy.  The novel has its moments and overall I’d say its a good but not great book.

Recommended books:
Rating: ***

Book Review: Outposts by Simon Winchester

Author: Simon Winchester
Title: Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire (2005, originally published 1984)
Publication Info:D 4449(6) Harper Audio
ISBN: 0060797185

Previously read by the same author:

Summary/Review:

I’ve read several books by Simon Winchester who writes about things that interest me – travel, history, natural history, science, culture, geology,cartography, and lexicography – all with much detail and some fascinating tangents.  Yet he’s not too serious and studious.  This is mind candy for people who like to think.  I also enjoy his audiobooks since he narrates them himself in his charming English accent.

Outposts is built on the idea of the “sun never sets on the British Empire,” still true today albeit stretching its rays to catch the tiny settlements and islands that still fly the British flag.  Winchester wrote this book originally in the 1980′s in the wake of the Falklands War and reminds me of The Kingdom by the Sea by Paul Theroux which also explores issues of empire except in Britain itself.  Things have changed even in the 25 years since the book was written and for the audiobook Winchester drops out the chapter on Hong Kong now that it’s been transferred to China.

The places he visits include the islands of Tristan, Gibraltar, Ascension Island, St. Helena, and Pitcairn.  The latter oddly enough was in the news recently due to the island’s history of child abuse (not mentioned by Winchester).  The most interesting part of the book for me was the first chapter when Winchester sailed by yacht into the British Indian Ocean Territory and Diego Garcia, an area restricted by the British and American military forces based in this remote outpost.  Winchester relates the shocking story of how over 2000 residents of these islands were forcibly relocated in the 1960′s to create the military base and his own adventures trying to penetrate the secrecy and security.  The rest of the book is less compelling and seems to get bogged down in less-than-delightful tangents and tales of approaching yet another distant island.  There are better books by Winchester out there than this one that I’d recommend you read instead.

Recommended books: Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress by Jan Morris, The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain by Paul Theroux
Rating: **1/2

Concert Review: Butterflyfish

On Saturday, June 27th we saw the new band Butterflyfish at the Wellesley Village Church.  We were enticed by a listserv description of the band that plays a mix of folks, gospel, bluegrass, and country (and reggae, not mentioned in the invite) targeted to children and families:

There is an underlying theme of spirituality – as parents we were looking for music that underscored the idea that we are all rooted in spirituality without being heavy handed or laced with synthesizers! Couldn’t find any so we wrote our own!

As an added bonus, a musician we like a lot, Marc Erelli – a fine singer/songwriter, folk, country, troubadour – would be playing with the band.  Erelli must be one of the most generous musicians around and really like performing, because he plays with everyone!

We were late for the show but glad we made it.  The band performed standards like “Amazing Grace” and “This Little Light of Mine” along with some lovely originals.  I’m fond of the song “Music” which has the chorus:

We are going to a place where music falls and fills up everything. Though it might be a long time, but it’s going to be all right because we’ve already started to sing.

The band members Matthew Myer Boulton, Zoë Krohne, and Elizabeth Myer Boulton sing some lovely harmonies and keep things upbeat and entertaining.  Even my son who is a non-stop bundle of energy sat still on my lap for several songs.  Peter got up to dance and run around the sanctuary during the encore but even then was really enjoying the music.  The instrumentalists were great too, with Mark Erelli on guitar, Zack Hickman on bass and Charlie Rose on banjo.  Erelli also sang lead on “I’ll Be There” in tribute to Michael Jackson, which was far better than the Mariah Carey version.

After the show there was a reception with church punch and cookies.  We also picked up a copy of the Butterflyfish band album “Ladybug“.  I suggest you do to if you like folk music, gospel and children’s music, or any of the above.

Seashore Trolley Museum

As a Father’s Day treat, Susan & Peter took me to the Seashore Trolley Museum in Arundel, ME.  Admission was free for Dads with their children and Peter was free himself by virtue of being under five.

Click for complete gallery of Seashore Trolley Museum photos.

There are two surprising things about the Museum that stand out.  First, despite being a museum of mass transit the museum is located in a relatively remote and wooded area.  And yet, as we would soon learn, during the golden age of trolleys even this part of Maine had a trolley line.  Second, on first view the Museum has kind of a “cluttered attic” look to it with various vehicles parked all over an open yard, some of them in rather decrepit condition.  Again we would learn that restoration of these trollies is a long and laborious process which is a labor of love by the Museum’s volunteers.  It is to their credit that they save so many vehicles from becoming scrap and making the available for visitors to see.

Right upon arrival we boarded a restored Third Avenue Railway streetcar from New York City (which later did a stint in Vienna, Austria after WWII) for a ride along a restored portion of the Atlantic Shore Line Railway.  A conductor punched our tickets, and Peter & I enjoyed looking out the window and playing on the seats.

The conductor punches our ticket

The conductor punches our ticket

After returning to the Museum proper, we took another ride on the Shuttle – a Dallas Railway & Terminal Co. car – to the Riverside barn. One of the volunteers gave us an excellent walk through of the trolleys on exhibit. From that point we were pretty much on our own to wander around and explore the trolleys and other vehicles on display and dodge rain drops. Not only are there passenger trolleys but work cars, freight cars, mail cars, and even a prison car!

Twin Cities Railway Company Gate Car

Twin Cities Railway Company "Gate Car"

Some of our favorites include:

  • Glasgow Corporation Transport #1274 – a double decker with plush upholstered seats on the first floor and leather seats on the upper deck because that was the smoking area.  Peter enjoyed climbing up the steep narrow staircase.
  • City of Manchester parlor car – an elegantly decorated and detailed car used by railway officials and dignitaries in Manchester, NH.
  • State of the Art Cars (S.O.A.C.) – rapid transit cars designed by the U.S. Department of Transportation and tested in five cities – including Boston – in the 1970′s.  Peter particularly enjoyed exploring this train.
  • Twin Cities Rapid Transit #1267 – these homemade “gate cars” worked the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul with the large platform and gates allowing for quick boarding by large numbers of passengers.
  • West End Railway Co. #396 – a “Boston Special” wooden streetcar from the early part of the 20th century
  • Cleveland Railway #1227 – The conductor/volunteer (in the photo above) snuck us in the center-car entrance of this trolley which was undergoing renovation for 20-years to get to its current lovely condition.
Boston Special streetcar

"Boston Special" streetcar

Although there are trolleys from around the world, I particularly liked the relics from Boston’s public transit. These include signs from when the Charlestown elevated and Washington Street elevated closed down. The biggest piece of Boston transit history sits in the parking lot surrounded by weeds. Northampton station once was elevated over Washington Street near Massachusetts avenue but was torn down after the Orange Line was rerouted in 1987.

Northampton station from the Washington Street Elevated in Boston

Northampton station from the Washington Street Elevated in Boston

I had a great time and would love to visit again to explore this large collection of transit history.

Beer Review: Peak Organic Pomegranate Wheat Ale

Beer:  Pomegranate Wheat Ale with Acai
Brewer: Peak Organic Brewing Co.
Source: 12 oz. bottle
Rating: ** (6.5 of 10)
Comments: It’s organic!  It has pomegranate!  It has acai!  Holy moley, there’s a lot of novelty to this beer! Luckily, it also has a good flavor as all the elements are well-balanced (there’s corriander spice in there too) for unique beer experience.  The beer is partly cloudy gold with not much of a head.  The aroma is that of a sweet bread.  The taste is citrus and spice without being overwhelmingly sweet or spicey.  I like the nice mellow aftertaste the best.  Something different and not too bad.

Meme: iTunes/mp3 library

Via Wordishness

Number of Songs: 12,267
Number of Albums: 1223
Most Recently Played Song: “Run Run Away” – Slade
Most Played Song: “Wind and Rain” – Crooked Still
Most Recently Added Album: Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music – Ray Charles

First Song Alphabetically: “A-Punk” – Vampire Weekend
Last Song Alphabetically: “Zooropa” – U2
Smallest Song Numerically: “1-2-3”- Len Barry
Biggest Song Numerically: “1999″ – Prince & The Revolution

Shortest Song: “Kangaroo-SFX”- Carl Stalling (0:03)
Longest Song: “Comes A Time”- Grateful Dead (36:29)

First Album Alphabetically: Abbey Road, The Beatles
Last Album Alphabetically: Zooropa, U2
First Album Numerically: 1-2-3-4 Die, The Ramones
Last Album Numerically: 1964 Rock ‘n’ Roll Era

First Five Songs That Pop Up On Shuffle:

  1. “Low Down Man” – Squirrel Nut Zippers
  2. “You Don’t Know” - Erin McKeown
  3. “Achin’ To Be” - The Replacements
  4. “Bought For A Song” - Fountains of Wayne
  5. “When Your Heart Is Weak”- Cock Robin

The Flat is Where It’s At!

If a Jamaica Pond tour isn’t enough for one weekend, head to Charles/MGH station on Sunday June 28th as Boston By Foot presents the Tour of the Month, The Flat of Beacon Hill.  This special tour will focus on the lesser known and once unfashionable area built on made land along the Charles River.  Stepping off at 2 pm, tour admission is $15 per person, but only $5 for Boston By Foot members (one of the many reasons to become a member!).  This tour is also an event for the Boston By Foot Meetup Group, another great way to get involved, meet people, and learn about our fair city.  I will not be leading this tour myself, but I can assure you that some of the finest and knowledgeable guides will be.

A view of Brimmer Street in the Flat of Beacon Hill

A view of Brimmer Street in the Flat of Beacon Hill

Click here for many more photos of the December offering of this tour.

Official description of this tour:

On this walk you will discover one of Boston’s least known and most delightful neighborhoods. The Flat of Beacon Hill is built on 19th century made-land along the Charles River. The Flat is geologically part of Back Bay and culturally park of Beacon Hill, with the architecture of both. This intimate patch of real estate soon acquired carriage houses and horse stables owned by the wealthy families living on Beacon Hill. Today, many of these edifices have been converted into charming residences and seamlessly blend among the notable landmarks such as the Charles Street Meeting House, the Church of the Advent, and the Sunflower Castle. What do Sam Mayday Malone, a private-eye named Spenser, a Fox Terrier named Igloo, and seven strangers have in common? They all know the Flat is where it’s at!

See you on Sunday!

FREE Tour of Jamaica Pond on Saturday!

The Jamaica Plain Historical Society debuts its newest neighborhood tour of Jamaica Pond this Saturday, June 27th at 11 am.  The 90-minute walking tour will discuss the residential, industrial, and recreational history of this scenic gem.  The tour departs from the bandstand near the intersection of Pond Street and Jamaicaway, and yours truly will be one of the guides.

Jamaica Pond Panorama, copyright Steve Garfield.  From Flickr under Creative Commons license.

Jamaica Pond Panorama, copyright Steve Garfield. From Flickr under Creative Commons license.

Official description from the JPHS website:

Once a gathering point for Boston’s elite, the Pond had previously been put to industrial use as tons of ice were harvested there each winter. Learn about the movers and shakers such as Francis Parkman who made their homes on the Pond’s shores. Discover how the Pond was transformed from private estates and warehouses into the parkland we know today.

Come one come all and get some fresh air after being cooped up inside all these days.  Don’t forget that the price of this tour is FREE, although you may want to sign up for a JPHS membership starting at $15.

Book Reviews: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Author: Karen Maitland
Title: Company of Liars
Publication Info: Delacorte Press (2008)
ISBN: 978-0385341691

Summary/Review:

Set in Medieval England just as the deadly pestilence is landing on the shores of that island nation, Company of Liars follows the travels of a group of nine who band together for safety as the first hope to find profit and then simply find safety with the plague – and maybe a wolf – licking at their heals. The characters are all archetypes of some sort but are fully developed as the novel progresses: the narrator and relic seller Camelot, the courtly musician Rodrigo of Venice and his moody apprentice Geoffrey, the cranky magician Zophiel, a young  painter Osmond and his pregnant wife Adela, Cygnus the storyteller who has a wing in place of one arm, Pleasance the healer, and the creepy albino child Narigorm who foretells the future by reading runes.

Maitland creates an overwhelming sense of menace as the company has to escape the pestilence and other external threats while not even knowing if they can trust their fellow travelers.  For each of the nine has a secret, some quite obvious, some less so but all compelling.  The conclusion of the novel is quite abrupt and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, which I’m okay with.  I was disappointed that after creating uncertainty between supernatural and rational explanations for the incidents that befall the company that Maitland comes down clearly on the side of supernatural in the concluding chapters.  That is, of course, if Camelot is a reliable narrator.

This is an excellent book full of suspense, intriguing characters, and a well-researched slice of life of the medieval world during the plague.  Many reviews compare it to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but apart from being a band of travelers who tell stories the similarities end there.   I think the Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and The Plague Tales by Ann Benson are more complementary books to Company of Liars.

Recommended books: The Black Death by Philip Ziegler, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, and The Plague Tales by Ann Benson
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Lebanon

Author: Kahlil Gibran
Title: The Prophet
Publication Info: Alfred A. Knopf (1973), Edition: 91st.  Originally published 1923.
ISBN: 394404289
Summary/Review:

I selected The Prophet as an Around the World For A Good Book choice for Lebanon but really I’ve been meaning to read this book for quite some time.  Especially since a I few years ago when I met Kahlil Gibran’s cousin and godson – also named Kahlil Gibran – on a sculpture tour of Forest Hills Cemetery.  The Prophet is a series of lessons given by a prophet to the townsfolk on topics varying from “Children,” “Self-Knowledge,” and “Good and Evil.”  It has many of the paradoxical formations found in many works of inspirational literature including Lao-Tzu’s “Way of Life”, the teachings of the Buddha and The Beatitudes of Jesus Christ.  Like those other works, it’s not really a read once and remember book, it’s more of a come back to again and again and find a different pearl of wisdom book.

Favorite Passages:

from “On Eating and Drinking”:

But since you must kill to eat, and rob the newly born of its  mother’ s milk to quench your thirst, let it then be an act of worship.  – p. 23

from “On Self-Knowledge”:

Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”  Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”  For the soul walks upon all paths. – p. 55

from “On Death”:

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.  And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.  And when the shall claim your limbs, then you shall truly dance. – p. 81

Recommended books: Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, The Bible
Rating: ***1/2

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