Archive for December, 2007

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.
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