2007 Year in Review: Favorite Books

Every year since 1996 I’ve made a list of the ten favorite books I read that year (here is my 2006 list). Rarely are the book actually published in that year, the only common factor is that I read them in the same year (The six books I read that were actually published in 2007 are in bold on the complete list below). Instead of rating books from 2007 this list is more of a way to remember books of quality for the future.

Apparently I’m not alone in this endeavor as the book blog The Millions has just run a series called The Year in Reading where authors were asked to list their favorite books read in the past year. They make a nice point about the timelessness of books and how their effect is enduring long beyond the date of publication.

But books, unlike most forms of media, are consumed in a different way. The tyranny of the new does not hold as much sway with these oldest of old media. New books are not forced upon us quite so strenuously as are new music and new movies. The reading choices available to us are almost too broad to fathom. And so we pick here and there from the shelves, reading a book from centuries ago and then one that came out ten years ago. The “10 Best Books of 2007” seems so small next to that.

With that in mind, here is my list of favorite books from 2007 listed in the order I read them:

  1. Thumbs, Toes, and Tears by Chip Walter
  2. The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day
  3. Jamestown, the Buried Truth by Bill Kelso
  4. Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born by Tina Cassidy
  5. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
  6. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  7. The Time it Takes to Fall by Margaret Lazarus Dean (as an added bonus, the author has “friended” me on Facebook)
  8. Quicksilver / King of the Vagabonds / Odalisque by Neal Stephenson
  9. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  10. Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird by Andrew Blechman

Complete List of Books Read in 2007:

  1. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  2. Subway Style: 100 Years of Architecture & Design in the New York City Subway by the New York Transit Museum
  3. Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress by James Morris
  4. Thumbs, Toes, and Tears by Chip Walter
  5. The Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willet
  6. Spain 2007 by Rick Steves
  7. The Holy Thief by Ellis Peters
  8. Mrs. Pollifax Unveiled by Dorothy Gilman
  9. Brother Cadfael’s Penance by Ellis Peters
  10. Europe Through The Back Door 2007 by Rick Steves
  11. Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi
  12. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
  13. Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  14. Living Vatican II by Gerald O’Collins, S.J.
  15. The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day
  16. Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  17. Bound to Forgive by Lawrence Martin Jenco, O.S.M
  18. Confessions by Augustine
  19. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
  20. The Secret Family by David Bodanis
  21. Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead
  22. Jamestown, the Buried Truth by Bill Kelso
  23. Micronations: The Lonely Planet Guide to Home-Made Nations
  24. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
  25. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
  26. Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born by Tina Cassidy
  27. Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us about the Mind by Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff, & Patricia K. Kuhl
  28. The Remarkable World of Professor Phineas B. Fuddle by Boaz Yakin, Erez Yakin and Angus McKie
  29. The Five Fists of Science by Matt Fraction and Steven Sanders
  30. Practicing History: Selected Essays by Barbara W. Tuchman
  31. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
  32. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  33. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  34. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  35. Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
  36. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
  37. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
  38. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
  39. First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde
  40. Michael Tolliver Lives by Armistead Maupin
  41. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi
  42. 1776 by David McCullough
  43. Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton
  44. Severance by Robert Olen Butler
  45. Acadia Revealed by Jay Kaiser
  46. Foul Ball by Jim Bouton
  47. The Global Soul by Pico Iyer
  48. The Time it Takes to Fall by Margaret Lazarus Dean
  49. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
  50. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  51. King of the Vagabonds by Neal Stephenson
  52. Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe
  53. Jamaica Plain by Anthony Mitchell Sammarco
  54. Jamaica Plain: Then & Now by Anthony Mitchell Sammarco
  55. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  56. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  57. Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
  58. Hypnobirthing by Marie F. Mongan
  59. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
  60. Outside Lies Magic by John R. Stilgoe
  61. Clara’s Grand Tour by Glynis Ridley
  62. Odalisque by Neal Stephenson
  63. The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp, M.D.
  64. Local Attachments by Alexander Von Hoffman
  65. Emergence by Steven Johnson
  66. Lincoln’s Dreams by Connie Willis
  67. Sync by Steven Strogatz
  68. Ernie’s War by Ernie Pyle edited with a biographical essay by David Nichols
  69. Language Visible by David Sacks
  70. Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird by Andrew Blechman
  71. Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon by Jim Paul

And now I can get cracking on the 2008 reading season. With suggestions from my readers (thanks Craig and Susan) I’ve put together a Books to Read page complete with books for Abraham Lincoln Day, Lent, the Around the World for a Good Book Series, and book groups I belong to. It looks like a lot of great books await me!


Movie Review: The Triplets of Belleville

The Triplets of Belleville (2003) has it all. It’s an animated feast for the eyes featuring a bicyclist named Champion, his heroic grandmother Madame Souza, his dog Bruno who barks at trains, the mafia, grotesquely fat people, three swingin’ old ladies, and some groovin’ music. And it has hardly any dialog (yet is about 10,000 times better than the last film I saw with limited dialog, Drawing Restraint 9). I’m so glad I finally saw this film, I think it will be one of my all time favorites.

Check out the opening of the film which is one the great sequences I’ve seen on film in a long time (albeit I’m creeped out by the part where Fred Astaire is eaten by his shoes and Josephine Baker caricature is kind of racist, although it is an attempt to replicate animation of more racist times).

Links of the Day (week, actually) for 30 December 2007

Book Review: Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon by Jim Paul

One day Jim Paul decides that he wants to launch rocks into the ocean with a catapult and so he convinces his friend Harry to colloborate with him in building one, a process described in Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon (1991). Paul manages to convince National Park Service to allow him to use the catapult at the abandoned forts at the Marin Headlands and even gets a grant for $500 from the Headlands Center for the Arts. Naively, Paul believes that $500 will cover the entire project (and then some) and is surprised when he ends up sinking hundreds of dollars of his own money into the project.

Similarly, Paul knows next to nothing about constructing a catapult. Harry has all the technological knowledge and is pretty much solely responsible for its successful completion. On the other hand, the cranky Harry has none of the whimsy that Paul has in his desire to fling rocks for fun.

Early on, the reader learns from Harry that a true catapult is more of a large crossbow. The trebuchet or “Monty Python type” he deems too inefficient and likely to break down. So they build the crossbow type of catapult acquiring parts from a strange variety of shops in the seedier parts of Oakland and San Francisco that specialize in steel-working, salvage, and boating among other things. In intermediary chapters Paul visits the catapult in history from its (supposed) invention in Syracuse by Archimedes to the fall of Jerusalem, King Edward’s conquest of the Scots, and even more tangential connections such as the Oppenheimers and the atomic bomb.

Overall, I found the historical chapters more interesting than the story of the catapult’s construction and deployment. Paul just tries too hard to find humor in places where he was really pissing people off (especially Harry). Similarly, the whole project seems to end up being a whole lot of nothing up to and including the lecture they deliver which is an exercise in cringing to read. The highlight of the contemporary part of the book comes just before the lecture where Paul and Harry wander to the shore where there rocks landed and discover that it is a nude beach.  Some poetic passages and observations make for insightful reading, but this is pretty much a hit or miss book.

For another opinion, here’s a review from the New York Times from June 6, 1991 by Christopher Lehman-Haupt.

Favorite Passages

Looking for the beginning of the catapult in history, I found it attributed to Syracuse most authoritatively, but discovered it in other places as well, and I began wondering if I hadn’t gotten the terms wrong: not that history produced the catapult, but rather that the catapult produced history. Catapults made empires that kept records, and defended those empires so that it was more likely that such records might endure for posterity. Perhaps, too, later writers simply credited their ancestors with inventing the catapult to confer the prestige of the technology on their own cultures. In any case, old catapult stories appear in various places, usually with the historical implausibility and psychological cogency of myth. – p. 59

Extreme Napping

Today we received more boxes in the mail with gifts for Peter.  I opened the boxes with scissors and read one of the gift books to Peter.  Afterwards I decided I would take a power nap on the couch.  At that point I realized I still had the scissors in my hand.

Susan said, “It would be rather dangerous to nap with scissors.  Would that be Extreme Napping?”

And that clicked in my mind an idea for a fantastic competitive sport.  Extreme Ironing already exists, so why not Extreme Napping.   It would be death-defying, yet restful at the same time.  Think of it:

  • Climbing to the top of Mt. Everest … and then taking a nap.
  • Tying oneself to the hands of the clock face on the Houses of Parliament tower just as Big Ben is about to strike 12 … and taking a nap.
  • Leaping off a bridge and landing on the top of a moving train … and then taking a nap.

I figure that competitors can have those EEG monitors put on their heads to measure how deep a sleep they fall into during their extreme activity and that can be counted toward their score.

In real life, the most extreme places I’ve slept are:

  • While working on a rooftop on a house in Appalachia (with the edge of the roof over a deep gully) I nodded off right there on the roof.
  • In Bermuda, I slept on top of casemate overlooking the ocean at the Royal Navy Dockyard.
  • Of course, I’ve also slept at 20,000 feet above the ground and underneath the English Channel, but I suppose it’s not too extreme to sleep on a commercial airline or a Eurostar train.

I suppose Gary Cherone would be good at Extreme Napping, more than words can describe.

2007 Beer in Review

My friend Brian recently observed that I’ve been reviewing more books and fewer beers since becoming a parent. Indeed, one of my goals for this blog was to sample and review new beers, but I didn’t get too many reviews up (although I did drink the beer). Nor did I accomplish my goal of putting my old list of beer reviews online.

I rate beers by awarding points for their appearance, aroma, taste, how they look after a few sips, and overall quality on a ten point scale. Any beer that earns 5 or more points is worth trying again and I rank these with one to five stars. Any beers below five points are on a descending spiral of badness. I tend to screen out bad beers ahead of time so I don’t get many no star beers. Sadly though, I’ve not encountered many Five Star beers this year either.

Here’s a handy chart of all the beers reviewed in 2007:

Five Stars

Four Stars

Three Stars

Two Stars

One Star

No Stars

May 2008 be a good year for beer!

Book Review: Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird

Before reviewing Andrew D. Blechman’s Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird (2006), a book I learned about on the WBUR radio show “Here and Now,” I’d like to relate a few of my own pigeon memories:

  • I’ve long been a fan of pigeons and enjoy watching them (but not feeding them) in Boston’s parks. Once in the North End, I saw a bunch of big pigeons figting over a chunk of bread in the Paul Revere Mall. I thought if I tore the bread up into smaller pieces, every pigeon would get an equitable share without fighting. It was a social experiment gone awry. More pigeons arrived out of nowhere and now there were the same number of pigeons fighting for each of the smaller pieces as there were for the original big piece.
  • In London’s Trafalgar Square, famed for its pigeons (with a song in Mary Poppins no less), seemed fairly bereft of pigeons. I saw a bird of prey circling the Nelson Monument, so I asked the Heritage Guards what type of bird that is. “It’s an ‘arris ‘awk,” replied on of them. When we asked if the hawk keeps the pigeon population down, he responded “It keeps the pigeon population moving. The lads who come on Saturday morning with shovels keep the pigeon population down.” Grim stuff.
  • Nearby in Hyde Park, a father and daughter are feeding the waterfowl in the Serpentine. The father tells the daughter, in a blatant display of anti-pigeon bias, not to give any bread to the pigeons. “Nasty ol’ pigeon,” says the girl as she drives away the innocent rock dove.
  • Meanwhile in Piazza San Marco, the famed pigeons are still an attraction. One of them dive-bombed me within minutes of disembarking. Tourists feed the birds and pose for photos with the pigeons on their arms and heads. According to Rick Steves, the vendors sell a birdseed with pigeon birth control drugs mixed in. While the pigeons are an attraction in Piazza San Marco, John Berendt writes in The City of Falling Angels that they are actively discouraged in the rest of Venice. After reading this book and learning about pigeon behavior, this sounds like Venetian officials are trying to have their cake and eat it too, an impossible task.
  • Who can forget the pigeons hatched and raised on our porch in Somerville? Unfortunately for my former landlord, I’ve learned that due to the homing instinct of pigeons, that porch will forever be home for those two young pigeons.

This is a lovely book about pigeons. The subtitle refers to how pigeons are much beloved in certain niches while despised as “rats with wings” by the great majority of city dwellers. In fact, pigeon-hatred is a relatively recent phenomenon, and Blechman hypothesizes that people don’t so much hate pigeons as they hate large numbers of pigeons and specifically pigeon droppings. Blechman explores several aspects of pigeon-loving and pigeon-hating society and dispels some myths. For example, pigeons are not a significant health risk for carrying and spreading disease, as the anti-pigeon front would have us believe. Here are some things I learned:

  • the lives of pigeon-racing enthusiasts, especially Orlando of the Borough Park Homing Pigeon Club in Brooklyn who prepares his birds for the Main Event. This race sees pigeons shipped to far away places like West Virginia where they are released to race back to their coops.
  • heroic pigeons such as Cher Ami who rescued the Lost Batallion in the Argonne Forest despite being wounded himself, G.I. Joe who saved the lives of British soldiers in Italy in WWII and was honored in the Pigeon Hall of Fame, and pigeons who worked for the CIA.
  • The National Pigeon Association Grand National where fancy pigeons are displayed and judged (and sold), a major event for pigeon fanciers akin to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. This includes a Parlor Roller competition, birds that bizarrely roll across the ground (as opposed to roller pigeons that do mid-air somersaults, also a strange and non-beneficial behavior). Here’s a video of roller pigeons in action:
  • Charles Darwin’s fascination with the study of pigeons which was central to The Origin of Species.
  • Live pigeon shoots throughout history, including the controversial Labor Day event in Hegins, PA which became a target of animal rights activists.
  • Dave Roth who lives in a house full of pigeons in Arizona and founded the Urban Wildlife Society and has influenced communities toward more compassionate and effective bird control methods. Other organizations such as PiCAS have established humane methods of reducing pigeon populations in cities my reducing public feeding and setting up lofts for the pigeons throughout the city.
  • The extinction of the passenger pigeon by over-hunting, with the last pigeon Martha expiring in the Cincinnati Zoo. “It’s the only instance in history when the moment of a species extinction is known: September 1, 1914, at about one P.M. (p. 118).”
  • Pigeon People, a New York-based listserv that acts as a rock dove rescue league. Blechman also meets an underground pigeon protection network called Bird Operations Busted that prevents the netting of birds for pigeon shoots.
  • Heavyweight fighter Mike Tyson is a devoted pigeon fancier, although Blechman is unable to get an interview with Tyson.
  • Squab are also considered tasty to eat.
  • Paccom Films about pigeons.  I kind of want to get these DVD’s now.

This is a great book for pigeon lovers, and perhaps even better to recommend to pigeon haters. I think the noble pigeon is all the more my favorite.

Movie Review: The Longest Day

Once again inspired by watching Ken Burns’ The War, we watched The Longest Day (1962) a dramatization of the D-Day invasion.  Its a long film with a mammoth cast that appears to be trying to tell the entire story of D-Day from every angle all at once.  Despite some typical Hollywood hokiness, The Longest Day does a good job of sticking to the story.  Every character speaks his/her native tongue and typical stereotypes are avoided, although each nationality is colorful in their own way: the French are rather nutty, the Germans are arrogant and dismissive of the Allies even as they’re losing the battle, the English are eccentric, and the Americans are goofy in an aw-shucks kind of way.  The film tries to be accurate in depicting the invasion to the smallest details but they do leave out one of the most interesting parts to me, when the naval captains disobeyed orders and brought their ships dangerously close to shore to provide artillery cover for the landing forces.  The film has some great film sequences including a tracking shot over the beach that must have needed thousands of well-coordinated extras.

The Longest Day’s cast is full of the top American and European actors of the day, although I think I’d have trouble picking them out even if I knew who all of them were.  Some big name actors like Henry Fonda are basically reduced to one-scene walk-ons due to the massive scale of the film.  One of the stand-out performances is Kenneth More as Colin Maud standing on the beach with his bulldog encouraging British shoulders by telling them “the war is that way.”  Similarly,  Robert Mitchum rallies the troops on Omaha Beach as General Norman Cota.  John Wayne has a big part as paratrooper Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort and plays it in the typically corny John Wayne manner (ducks as John Wayne fans come in to defend the Duke).  One performer, Henry Grace, was not an actor at all but cast merely because he resembled Dwight Eisenhower.  It’s a pity that they did not go through with the plan of having then-former President Ike play himself.

Library Links of the Day for 27 December 2007

I’m on holiday break thanks to my union so I’m not thinking too much about library work right now, but here are three interesting stories I’ve culled just for you!

Links of the Day for Christmas

Merry Christmas to all.  I’ve had a wonderful day celebrating with my family and friends.  I hope it was a happy, hopeful day for everyone.

Here are some Christmassy stories for the day:

  • National Geographic features an essay about Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus: “Bethlehem, 2007 A.D.” by Michael Finkel (December 2007).
  • Snopes has the scoop on one of my favorite historical events, the Christmas truce of 1914. It’s kind of hard to believe something like this would happen during the first World War.  I also had always assumed it lasted just a few hours but it turns out that it lasted through New Year’s Day in some places.  And it figures that the Germans would beat the English in the soccer match as they have done for decades since.
  • This Holiday Season London’s Streets Are “Absolutely Jammed” due to streets being open only to pedestrians reports Streetsblog (by Aaron Naparstek, Dec. 10, 2007).
  • Robert McHenry of the Britannica Blog takes on the phony war on Christmas in “This Christmas, Just Say “No” to War” (December 24, 2007).
  • Jonathan Schwartz decries the commercialization of decrying the commercialization of Christmas in “My Christmas Message” at A Tiny Revolution (December 24, 2007).
  • The World Almanac remembers the Christmas when Nancy Reagan sat in Mr. T’s lap (Posted by Edward Thomas on December 25, 2007).
  • Bad Astronomy skeptically explores the star of Bethlehem.
  • I close with this lovely quote from Saint of the Day (Christmas at Greccio, Dec. 24, 2007):
    • God’s choice to give human beings free will was, from the beginning, a decision to be helpless in human hands. With the birth of Jesus, God made the divine helplessness very clear to us, for a human infant is totally dependent on the loving response of other people. Our natural response to a baby is to open our arms, as Francis did, to the infant of Bethlehem and to the God who made us all.

Mattapan Trolley Returns

Good news from the MBTA.  The Mattapan High-Speed Trolley reopens tomorrow after 18 months of renovation.  I’m a big fan of trolleys and streetcars but I’ve never ridden on this branch of the Red Line.  Based on the MBTA’s history with the Arborway Line suspension of service, I was worried the Mattapan line would never return.  I hope they have all the snow cleared off the tracks for tomorrow.

More trolley love from Feb. 5, 2007.

2007 Year in Review: First Sentences

Some blog memes are hard to resist. I’ve seen a lot of librarians doing this on their blogs and apparently it started in Western Australian at Ruminations. This is a list of the first sentences of the first post of each month of the year from Panorama of the Mountains:

January: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

February: Brigid of Kildare is the secondary patron saint of Ireland and the most prominent female saint of my ancestral land.

March: Who loves the USA?

April: Once again it’s time for me to post all the interesting articles, news, and opinion I’ve read in the past month regarding faith, religion, and spirituality for the month of March.

May: The other day while recovering from dental surgery I watched March of the Penguins (2005) the third in a string of recent big screen documentaries about birds along with Winged Migration (2001) and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005).

June: Today I’m putting up the links to two funny websites made up entirely of things that people just stumble upon.

July: Just wanted to give a shout out to my Canadian readership — should I happen to have one — on their day of national celebration.

August: …from the Anderson Bridge.

September: The first subway in the United States headed underground (or “off the earth” as newspaper headlines of the time exclaimed) 110 years ago right here in beautiful Boston, Massachusetts.

October: And so the Mets season has come to an end, sooner than expected, but somehow it was a long ways coming.

November: The Happiest Baby on the Block (2004) is a self-help book for new parents to help soothe fussy babies recommended to us by several of our fellow new parents.

December: A year ago today I began Panorama of the Mountains with my first post.

So it looks like a typical year filled with saints, religion news, politics and culture, stuff around Boston, movies, pandering to Canadians, the Mets, babies, and navel-gazing. Interestingly I’ve given up on the Religion News of the Month and Friday Sillies features and I made it through an entire liturgical year of saints so these types of posts are going to be less representative of Panorama of the Mountains in the future.

Anyhow, more navel-gazing year-in-review posts are due in the near future.

Books to Read in 2008

I’m such a compulsive reader that I need to keep lists of all the books I want to read. This is something I’ve been doing for at least 15 years. At first, I wrote down the book titles on scraps of paper which I inevitably lost. Then a friend told me she kept her book list in her journal so I tried that, but it became messy with scratch-outs and additions. Sometimes I bought the books I wanted to read but I’ve learned that I never read books unless I have the deadline imposed by a library due date, so now I don’t buy books unless I can’t get them any other way. The past few years I’ve kept my list in an Excel spreadsheet.

Now that list has grown out of control. I’m going to post that list online as a page in my blog, but I need some help paring it down. So I’m asking you my readers to take a look at the list as it is now and tell me which of these books I should try reading in 2008 and which books I should scratch. Additionally, if you have suggestions for other books you think I should read, feel free to add them, but not too many.

I’ve highlighted the names of authors I’ve read and enjoyed previously. Sometimes I think I should read only books by authors I’ve never read before. Sometimes I think that idea is pretty dumb.

54 by Wu Ming
52 Weeks by Dave Hollander
Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
The Alienist by Caleb Carr
All the Right Places by Brad Newsham
All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer
American Hero by Larry Beinhart
American Road by Pete Davies
American Vertigo by Bernard-Henri Levy
Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw
Armed Madhouse by Greg Palast
Art of Urban Cycling by Robert Hurst
Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul by Francis Crick
Bad News by Tom Fenton
Beer: Tap Into the Art and Science of Brewing by Charles Bamforth
The Blind Side by Michael Lewis
The Bloodless Revolution by Tristram Stuart
Brookland by Emily Barton
Call Me the Breeze by Patrick McCabe
Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class… by Wendy Williams
Coast To Coast: A Journey Across 1950s America by Jan Morris
The Comedians by Graham Greene
The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
The Confusion by Neal Stephenson
A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester
Crooked River Burning by Mark Winegardner
Darwin’s Cathedral by David Sloan Wilson
The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
Death at an Early Age by Jonathan Kozol
The Death of Che Guevera by Jay Cantolt
The Declaration of Independence: A Global History by David Armitage
Deep Community by Scott Alarik
Dishwasher by Pete Jordan
The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger
Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes
Downcanyon:A Naturalist Explores the Colorado River Through Grand Canyon by Ann Zwinger
Empire Rising by Thomas Kelly
Fabric of America: How our borders and boundaries by Andro Linklater
Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery by D.T. Max
Fantasyland by Sam Walker
Feeling Good by David Burns
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Fire on the Prairie by Gary Rivlin
The Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner
A Game of Brawl by Bill Edward Kennedy Felber
Ghost Writer by John Harwood
Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs by Kathleen Brown
The Great Bridge by David McCullough
The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton
Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center by Daniel Okrent
A Home on the Field by Paul Cuadros
Hunting Mr. Heartbreak by Jonathan Raban
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
The Impossible Will Take a Little While by Paul Rogat Loeb
The Incendiary by Jessica Warner
In My Blood by John Sedgwick
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink by Tom Miller
Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man by Dale Peterson
The Journals of Lewis and Clark by Bernard DeVoto
Last Harvest: How a cornfield became New Daleville… by Witold Rybczynksi
Last Man on the Moon by Eugene Cernan
Lee Miller’s War by Anthony Penrose
Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza
A Light in August by William Faulkner
Literacy and Longing in L.A. by Jennifer Kaufman
Liverpool Fantasy by Larry Kirwan
Love and War in the Appenines by Eric Newby
Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution by Sean Carroll
Making People’s Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records by Peter Goldsmith
Man Gone Down by MichaeL Thomas
Manhattan ‘45 by Jan Morris
March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman
Middle Ages by Morris Bishop
Middlesex by Jefferey Eugenides
Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough
No Mercy: A Journey Into the Heart of the Congo by Redmond O’Hanlon
Nothing but an Unfinished Song by Dennis O’Hearn
Old Glory: An American Voyage by Jonathan Raban
The Old Iron Road by David Howard Bain
The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 by Michael Azzerad
Outposts by Simon Winchester
Oxford by Jan Morris
Pagan Holiday by Tony Perrottet
Paradise by Toni Morrison
Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle
A Peoples’ History of the United States by Howard Zinn
The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists, A Novel by Gideon Defoe
Please Kill Me by Leggs McNeil
The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth
Poor People by William T. Vollmann
Pride of Baghdad by Brian K Vaughan
The Power Broker, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Carol
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren
The Radical and the Republican by James Oakes
The Rascal King by Jack Beatty
Road Trip USA by Jamie Jensen
Rough Crossing by Simon Schama
Round Ireland in Low Gear by Eric Newby
Sacre Blues by Taras Grescoe
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
The Size of the World by Jeff Greenwald
Snow in America by Bernard Mergen
Spokesongs: Bicycle Adventures on Three Continents by Willie Weir
Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff
The System of the World by Neal Stephenson
Terra Incongnita: Travels in Antartica by Sara Wheeler
Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality by Ronald Mallet
Trading With the Enemy by Tom Miller
Trawler by Redmond O’Hanlon
True Notebooks by Mark Salzman
Truman by David McCullough
unSpun by Brooks Jackson
Where’s My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived by Daniel Wilson
The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations by James Surowiecki
Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

Book Review: Language Visible by David Sacks

Language visible : unraveling the mystery of the alphabet from A to Z (2003) by David Sacks is a lively history of each letter in our modern alphabet (called the “Roman alphabet” which is explained in the book). For each letter Sacks traces the history of its shape from the ancient Semitic carvings in the Egyptian desert to Phoenician and Hebrew letters to Greek, Etruscan, and Roman alphabets to Old English and medieval Romance languages to minuscule characters of monastic scriptoriums and the first printed letters and finally our alphabet today. Some changes in the alphabet are surprisingly recent. J, V, and W are all relatively young letters. Noah Webster had an inordinate influence in setting apart American letters from European.

For each letter, Sacks also traces the changes in the sound the letter represents. If there’s one thing you learn from this book it’s that while many languages share the same alphabet there’s absolutely no consistency in what sounds the letters stand for and sometimes they’re somewhat arbitrarily assigned. Sacks also writes about the social and cultural significance of each letter which is the most fun aspect of the book. For example, he relates one of my favorite stories about how George Bernard Shaw suggested spelling the word “fish” as ghoti, that is the “gh” of rough, the “o” of women, and the “ti” of station. Ghoti would make a great band name by the way and you wouldn’t even be able to be sued for copyright infringement by a Vermont jam band. Sacks also explains how the Anglo-Saxon letter thorn for the “th” sound was represented by the letter Y. This is why someone 200-years ago would write “Ye Olde Tavern” and pronounce “ye” as “the.”

This is a good read – both fun and educational.

Movie Review: The Saddest Music in the World

Sometimes I really don’t know enough about a movie before I start to watch it (but that’s not always a bad thing). Before watching The Saddest Music in the World (2004), I knew that it was about a legless brewery proprietress in Winnipeg* during the Great Depression who decides to host a contest to see which nation in the world can create the saddest music. What I didn’t know until the credits rolled was that this movie is a creation of Guy Maddin who also made Brand Upon the Brain! Fortunately, this movie was not as much of a mind-f–k as that Brand Upon the Brain!

Kind of the best way to sum up The Saddest Music in the World is to think of a combination of a vaudeville musical with a Louis Brunel surrealistic film crossed with Bob & Doug McKenzie’s Strange Brew. I think what caught me most off guard is that I don’t expect dream-like art films in soft-focus black & white to be so damn funny. The movie is full of great one-liners, many of which make it into the trailer.

Isabella Rosellini as beer baroness Lady Helen Port-Huntley gets the line the made me bellow out loud: “If you are sad and like beer, I’m your lady.” There’s also a great part where listeners in Prohibition America hear about the victorious musicians sliding into a vat of beer and being jealous. Rosellini is great as is Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall fame portraying the producer of vulgar Broadway-style music numbers. The music in the movie is pretty good, and surprisingly not all that sad. I particularly like how the songs of competitors from different nations are merged together.

I don’t think this movie is for everyone, but I got a kick out of it.

* Unfortunately, the Weakerthans’ sad song about Winnipeg “One Great City” does not make it into the film, as appropos as that would be.

Links of the Day for 17 December 2007

Before we get to the links, I just want to mention a couple of things:

  1. I’ve added a del.icio.us widget to the sidebar on the right which will show you the last 5 links of the day I’ve posted. I’m not sure what this does yet other than create redundancy but it’s a start. Again, any tips for social bookmarking/link sharing are much appreciated.
  2. I’ve finally caught up with my backlog of posts from the past six weeks. I’ve dated them all from the day I started writing them not the day they were actually published. If you’re reading this on a feed you’ve probably already seen them pop up, but otherwise go back to Nov 7th and read forward and see if there’s anything you missed. I’ve some ideas for interesting original posts coming up this week so this deluge of link dumps will come to an end.

And now the links of the day:

Library Links of the Day for 17 December 2007

  • Striving to be “container neutral” as a Librarian by Laurie (Laurie the Librarian, 11/22/2007) via Librarian in Black – “Container Neutral is defined as choosing the best format for the information source based upon needs not upon a goal to collect resources in a particular format.”
  • A Treatise on the Black Market of Holds by Sarah Houghton-Jan (Librarian in Black 12/13/07) – interesting views on patrons being able hold books at expense of browsers. News to me is that some libraries charge for hold services! I’d be so broke if Minuteman Library Network or Boston Public Library did that. I guess it’s part of the free library ethic of New England.
  • Explore your inner librarian via Tame the Web – this is just a link of a link and I’ve not had a chance to explore it but it looks worth saving for later.

Movie Review: Children of Men

If I’ve seen a bleaker, more depressing film than Children of Men (2006) I can’t remember it. The basic concept of this film is that 20 years in the future, women are infertile and the world has gone to hell-in-a-handbasket (whether the infertility and the worldwide anarchy are cause and effect remains unclear). Only Britain remains stable, and then only barely so under the control of a police state. People from the rest of the world attempt to emigrate to Britain but are rounded up, tortured and killed by the ever-present military police.

At the center of this story is Theo (Clive Owen) a government bureaucrat who seems to lead a somewhat normal life in London surviving a terrorist attack and wondering about the sensationalized mourning of the death of the world’s youngest person, an 18-year old Brazilian. He escapes to smoke cannabis at the hidden country home of his friend Jasper who is kind of a cyber-hippie (and wonderfully portrayed by Michael Caine so much that I didn’t even recognize him). The scenes with Jasper are about the only cheerful thing in this movie.

Soon Theo is drawn into a plot by his ex-wife (Julianne Moore) to help a refugee girl from Africa named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). Miraculously, Kee is pregnant and as the first woman to be pregnant in two decades she becomes something of a political football. Over the course of the film, Theo becomes protector for Kee and her baby as they try to find there way to safety amongst unspeakable violence. Much of the film from this point on consists of long, documentary-style takes of running gun battles where it is hard to tell who is fighting with whom or even what they hope to accomplish (and I assume this is deliberate by the filmmakers). At one point, blood even splatters on the camera lens.

This was a hard movie to watch, especially being a new parent of a tiny baby, but it is a thoughtful and well-made film. It even has some glimmers of hope that there may be a future for humanity even as the world goes to hell.

Movie Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas

I’ve been meaning to see Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) for about 15 years and finally saw it this weekend thanks to Netflix. Generally, I either love or hate Tim Burton films and this one is on the love side. It has a lot going for it. Visually it is stunning and I enjoy this style of animation. The story is clever and humorous and while there’s a “message” it doesn’t lay it on sickly sweet. At the same time it doesn’t veer to far the other direction into wicked mean-spiritedness. It’s also very short, but I think timed just right. So this is a good, fun film for any holiday occasion.

Movie Review: Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon (1975) is an historical epic directed by Stanley Kubrick famed for painstakingly recreating historical details and using innovative lenses to film in natural light. Barry Lyndon – née Redmond Barry – is also the film’s protagonist and he’s kind of dick. Ryan O’Neal (whatever happened to him?) portrays Barry well as a brooding brat who stops at nothing to climb the social ladder. As a young man in Ireland,Barry is in love with his cousin and challenges her suitor to a duel. Thinking he’s killed the man he flees to Dublin, gets robbed along the way, and joins the army to earn money. Fighting in Germany Barry decides the military life is not for him and deserts, but is caught and impressed into the Prussian army where he fights valiantly and earns the trust of his captain. Leaving the military he joins up with a gambler swindling people across Europe. Then he weds a noble woman, abuses his step-son, dotes on his own son, and runs up massive debts. All the chickens come home to roost when his step-son challenges him to the longest duel ever put on film. Barry loses his son, his legs, his wife and his fortune.

Barry Lyndon is certainly pretty to look at, but a lot of the scenery seems to be filler. Certainly no establishing shot was left on the cutting room floor. The story just doesn’t seem to be worth all the cinematography and three hours of film. The film is based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackery and Barry Lyndon is much like another Thackery adaptation I saw a few years ago, Vanity Fair (2004). Barry Lyndon and Becky Sharp are basically the same character – bratty, unlikable people from the lower sorts muscling their way into high society. Without ever having read anything by Thackery, I would have to guess that he really thought people should stay in their place and thus makes his novel’s protagonists so unpleasant as lesson.