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


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:


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


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

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

Book Review: Wife of the Gods by Kwei J. Quartey

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Ghana

Author: Kwei J. Quartey
Title: Wife of the Gods
Publication Info: New York : Random House, 2009.
ISBN: 9781400067596

Wife of the Gods is a murder mystery set in the Volta Region of Ghana, the first in what will be a series about Inspector Darko Dawson of the CID.  Dawson lives and works in Accra, the capital and major city of Ghana, but is called in to solve the case of the murder of a medical student who had been working with the trokosi – or wives of the gods – young girls who are offered up to the local fetish priest.  Quartey balances a lot of issues in this novel: the country versus the city, the folkways and superstitions that retain a hold on many Ghanains versus Dawson’s skeptical, modern beliefs, and Dawson’s haunted past versus his effectiveness of working on the case.  Dawson is an interesting character with contrasting qualities:  a family man, a hard-working detective yet prone to rages and fond of marijuana.  This is a interesting story that offers a glimpse into life in modern-day Ghana.  The mystery is pretty good too.

Recommended books: I have no specific reccomendations but please ignore all the comparisons to the works of Alexander McCall Smith. This book and The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agencies are good in their own ways, but the similarities are superficial.
Rating: *** 1/2

Boston Walking Tours 2009

Last year I posted a list of walking tours in the Boston area in hopes of encouraging people to get out and explore the history, architecture, culture, topography, and nature of the area.  I’ve updated the list and links for 2009, once again giving primacy of place to the two organizations in which I volunteer to lead tours.

Boston By Foot – Boston’s premier walking tour organization is well worth becoming a member to take advantage of free tours, discounted special tours, and members-only events.  Check out the Boston By Foot Meetup Group as well for unique tour announcements.  I’ve highlighted the tours that I guide in bold below, although many other wonderful guides also lead these tours.

Seven classic tours take you around historic Boston:

  • Beacon Hill
  • Boston By Little Feet
  • Boston Underfoot
  • Heart of the Freedom Trail
  • Literary Landmarks
  • North End
  • Victorian Back Bay

Make sure to check out special Boston Harborfest tours offered June 30-July 5:

And don’t miss the special Tours of the Month offered on the last Sunday of each month at 2 pm:

Jamaica Plain Historical Society – 1 hour tours every Saturday morning at 11 am (Jamaica Pond tour is 90 minutes).  Again, the tours in bold will be led by yours truly.

Tour Date Location Tour Date Location
June 20 Woodbourne August 22 Jamaica Pond
June 27 Jamaica Pond August 29 Monument Sq
July 11 Monument Sq Sept 12 Sumner Hill
July 18 Sumner Hill Sept 19 Stony Brook
July 25 Stony Brook Sept 26 Hyde Square
August 1 Hyde Square October 3 Green Street
August 8 Green Street October 17 Woodbourne
August 15 Woodbourne October 24 Jamaica Pond

In alphabetical order below are a number of other walking tours I’ve heard about by word of mouth or web search.  I only have personal experience with a few of these organizations so don’t consider making the list an endorsement. If you know of any good walking tours in Boston not listed below, I’d love to add them to the list, so please post in the comments.

Appalachian Mountain Club – The Boston Chapter has a Local Walks Committee offering hikes to condition oneself for the mountains, nature walks, and social walks.
Arnold Arboretum – Boston’s tree museum offers regular highlight tours and special theme tours. Come back again because the tour changes depending on the season.
Audissey Guides – Download a tour narrated by local personalities for your mp3 player.
Black Heritage Trail – A tour of African-American history in Boston led by National Park Service guides, or you can take a self-guided tour.
Evening Walkers – A group for people who like walking. No narration, just scenery and a chance to meet people.
Friends of the Blue Hills – Group hikes and nature walks in the Blue Hills Reservation.
Brookline Food Tour – The way to Brookline’s heart is through your stomach.
Boston Athenæum – Art and architecture tours of this respected independent library. They also offer tours for members should you be so fortunate.
Boston Harborfest – Walking tours are among the many events of Boston’s Independence Day celebration, including special Boston By Foot offerings.
Boston Harborwalk – A self-guided walk along Boston’s waterfront. Check the calendar for tours and  special events in the spring and summer.
Boston Movie Tours – Tinseltown comes to the Hub in this tour of film locations.
Boston National Historical Park – Tours of the Freedom Trail and Charlestown Navy Yard led by National Park Service Rangers.
Boston Nature Center – Birding tours, nature walks, and hikes in the heart of the city.
Boston Public Library – Regular art and architecture tours of the oldest municipal library in the US.
The Boston Spirits Walking Tour – A spooky walking tour focusing on Boston’s ghost stories.
Boston Town Crier – Freedom Trail tours led by character interpreters of James Otis and Benjamin Franklin.
Boston Women’s Heritage Trail – Nine self-guided walks exploring women’s history in Boston.
Boston Your Way – Hire a private guide for a customizable tour (I wonder if they’re hiring).
Cambridge Historical Society – The CHS events calendar currently includes a garden tour and historic house tours.
Discover Roxbury – Tours and events highlight the diversity of this historic neighborhood.
Fenway Park – Go behind the scenes at the home of the Boston Red Sox, the oldest and smallest ballpark in Major League Baseball.
Forest Hills Cemetery – Boston’s hidden gem is full of history, art, and architecture, all of which is illuminated by a good tour guide (read about a great tour we took in 2007).
Franklin Park Coalition – A self-guided tour, trails, and special events throughout the year in the “gem” of the Emerald Necklace.
Freedom Trail Tours – You can follow the red line on your own or let a costumed guide show you the way with 3 different 90-minute tours provided by the Freedom Trail Foundation.
Gibson House Museum – If you’re admiring the Victorian architecture of Back Bay and want to see a house interior, stop in here for a tour.
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Society – Explore the new public space replacing the elevated Central Artery with special tours supported by Boston By Foot and other special events.
Harvard Campus Tour – Free student-led tours of the Harvard University campus.
Haunted Boston – 90 minute ghost tours of Boston.  Ask for Gretchen.
Historic New England – The HNE calendar offers neighborhood and historic property tours in Boston and throughout New England.
Irish Heritage Trail – A self-guided walk with guided tours in the works.
Learn English in Boston – Art and architecture tours of Boston for ESL students.
Lessons on Liberty – Costumed historical interpreters teach about Revolutionary Boston history along the Freedom Trail
Mass Bay Railroad Enthusiasts – Quarry to wharf tours of the remains of the granite railway in Quincy and Milton (part van, part walking tour).
MIT Campus Tour – Learn about the innovative architecture by world-renown architects that speckle the MIT campus.
Middlesex Fells – Check the calendar for special hikes or join the regular Babes in the Woods walks for parents and children.
Museum of Fine Arts – Regular free guided tours of the galleries (with museum admission) plus art & architecture tours outside of the museum.
The Nichols House Museum – If you’re admiring the Federal architecture of Beacon Hill and want to see a house interior, stop in here for a tour.
North End Secret Tour – Tours of Boston’s oldest neighborhood lead by a local resident.
The Path to Independence – Character interpreters offer a first-person historical perspective of the Freedom Trail.
Phantoms of Olde Cambridge -The ghosties of Harvard Square get their own tour.
Photowalks – Walking tours combined with instruction in photography on four different routes.
Paul Revere’s North End Walking Tour – An experienced guide from the Paul Revere House leads tours of the North End in early July.
South End Historical Society – An Annual House Tour is offered in October.
Unofficial Tours Present Harvard University – Fun tours of America’s first college.

Urban Adventours – Okay not a walking tour, but still cool environmentally-friendly and exciting bicycle tours of Boston.
Victorian Society in America/New England Chapter – Tours and talks of the Victorian heritage in Boston and its suburbs
WalkBoston – Boston’s walking advocacy group offers regular walks around the city.
Walking Tours of Historic Boston – Families and groups can book tours of Boston’s historic center lead by a children’s book author.
Watson Adventures Scavenger Hunts – A unique spin on the walking tour where participants gather together in teams to solve questions and puzzles.

Beer Review: Smithwick’s

Beer:  Smithwick’s Ale
Brewer: Guinness Ltd.
Source: Draught
Rating: *** (7.0 of 10)
Comments:  I should probably revisit old beers more often.  I first tried Smithwick’s in it’s home town of Kilkenny, Ireland in 1998 and was not too impressed and gave it a 5.7 grade.  Back in those days I was not yet into real ales or having them served at room temperature.  Smithwick’s has reached American shores in recent years and I’ve grown much more fond of it.  It has a pleasant red color and a musty aroma.  The flavor is nutty with a pleasing aftertaste.  The head is sustained while drinking and leaves behind irregular lacing.  Nice beer!

Book Review: The Last Fish Tale by Mark Kurlansky

Author: Mark Kurlansky
Title: The Last Fish Tale
Publication Info: Blackstone Audiobooks, Inc. (2008)
ISBN: 1433214776


Mark Kurlansky, author of excellent books about Cod and Salt, takes on the unique fishing town of Gloucester, Massachusetts in this work.  Kurlansky approaches Gloucester from all angles with a historical survey stretching back to colonial times (and earlier), cultural and sociological insights into Gloucester people, and every so often throws in a traditional seafood recipe for good measure.  Kurlansky alternates between fish tales – adventures of exaggerated braggadocio – and Gloucester tales – peculiarly tragice stories of those who went down in ships.

Mostly though, this is a book about Gloucester’s life blood – the fisheries and the commercial fisherman who sail out into them.  In fact, Kurlansky ventures far beyond Gloucester to Canada, Britain, and Europe to other fishing villages who essentially share the same ecosystem and suffer the same fate of fishing villages in a time of dwindling stocks, pollutions, and sometimes counterproductive government regulation.  This is a fascinating and lively book and I really enjoyed a learning a bit about a town so close to home, yet so distinctly separate.

Recommended books: Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic by Redmond O’Hanlon; Ptown: Art, Sex, and Money on the Outer Cape by Peter Manso; The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men against the Sea by Sebastian Junger

Book Review: The Cul-De-Sac Syndrome by John F. Wasik

Author: John F. Wasik
Title: The Cul-De-Sac Syndrome
Publication Info: New York : Bloomberg Press, c2009.
ISBN: 9781576603208


A new and timely book explores the housing crisis that has contributed to worldwide economic collapse over the past year.  Wasik deals out a fair share of blame to Wall Street, banks, home buyers, and governments, but chalks up the main problem to the unsustainable nature of larger houses being built in ever-increasing numbers at greater distances from the urban core.  The whole lifestyle of such homes is destructive to people’s health and happiness, the earth, and our bank accounts.  Much of the first part of the book is nothing new to anyone who has read anything about the destructive nature of suburbia and sprawl.  The second part of the book is more interesting where Wasik describes some innovative ways of sustainable development, starting with how houses are constructed and reclaiming cities and near suburbs (while eschewing so-called “green” buildings).  It’s an interesting overview with some good ideas but it feels a bit rushed an incomplete.  Granted though it is a continuing story.  Hopefully Wasik will be able to add a happy coda to future editions.

Recommended books: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs; Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back by Jane Holtz Kay
Rating: ** 1/2

Book Review: The John Cheever Audio Collection by John Cheever

Author: John Cheever
Title: The John Cheever Audio Collection
Publication Info: Harper / Caedmon Audio (June 2003)
ISBN: 0060554835


Preparing for career week in high school, the guidance counselor asked what type of job I wanted to have.  I told him I wanted to be an author.  He asked what type of writing I wanted to do, and I replied that I wanted to write stories based on the suburban experience.  “You should read John Cheever,” he suggested and then assigned me to an internship with the local newspaper.  Of course, I didn’t listen to his suggestion and didn’t read John Cheever until now (with one exception).

I was drawn to the Audion Collection from an episode of To The Best of Our Knowledge which featured clips of the stories read by Meryl Streep, Blythe Danner, George Plympton, and Cheever himself among others.  I am pretty amazed by these scenes of middle-class life in post-WWII America.  The stories describe a time gone by but still very familiar as it captures an era that was coming to an end in my childhood.  Cheever captures the everyday grief, mundacity, and petty jealousies of his characters.  Sometimes his stories take on a surreal Twilight Zone feel as in “The Enormous Radio” where the titular device broadcasts the conversations of other residents in an apartment building or “The Swimmer” where a man attempts to swim home through all the backyard swimming pools in his neighborhood on a journey that takes years.  There also is a time an O’Henry feel in stories like “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor” where in an ironic twist a poor elevator man requires more gifts than he knows what to do with.

The stories are grim, the characters are unlikable, but there’s something in the gritty humanity of Cheever’s stories that make me like them and want to read more.  Credit should be given to the voice actors who bring these stories to life as well.

Recommended books:
Rating: ****

Book Review: Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

Author: Chris Bohjalian
Title: Skeletons at the Feast
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2008
ISBN: 9781415948910


The William & Mary Alumni Boston Chapter selected this novel set in German-occupied Poland at the end of the Second World War.  It tells the story of three different journeys that intertwine and complement one another.  First there is the Emmerich family, prosperous German farmers in East Prussia with the elderly father and eldest sons off fighting, the women and children flee west to safety from the Russian army taking with them a Scottish POW.  Then there is Uri, a Jew who escaped from the prison trains and has spent two years taking on the uniforms and identities of various German officers both for survival and sabotage.  Finally there is Cecille, a French Jewish woman forced with her fellow prisoners on a death march (although this is the least well-realized of the three storylines).

Bohjalian does not shrink from the details of all that was horrible about the war and the Holocaust.  Yet, in the end this is a book about hope.  After tearing us down, Bohjalian builds us back up with the romance of 18-year old Anna Emmerich and the Scottish airman Callum, the persistence of Cecille, the bravery of Uri and many small, kind acts.  The one thing I wish the author had not done was to distance the Emmerich’s so much from Nazism.  It seems a cop-out that many authors/filmmakers fall on is the “good German” instead of trying to find humanity or promise of redemption in those who adhered to this evil ideology.

All in all a gripping and well-written novel.

Recommended books: Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Invisible Hook by Peter T. Leeson

Author: Peter T. Leeson
Title: The invisible hook : the hidden economics of pirates
Publication Info: Princeton : Princeton University Press, c2009.
ISBN: 9780691137476


I awaited the release of this book with great anticipation as it contains three elements I can’t resists: pirates, quirky application of social sciences,  and a terrific pun in the title.  Overall it did not disappoint.  Leeson examines the Golden Age of Piracy (roughly 1680-1720) through the lens of economics, seeking economic reason for what pirates did.  Much of pirate behavior is based in reaction to the harsh and unrewarding life of sailors under cruel captains.  Leeson shows how pirates preceded both James Madison and Adam Smith by decades by creating democracies and free market capitalism aboard their floating communities.  It was beneficial to the crews as a whole to elect their captains and to sign pirate codes that would determine fair treatment – and a fair share of the booty.  Pirates also should a fair amount of tolerance for black sailors among their crew making their racism subservient to the economic benefits of a good hand on board no matter what his color.

The “Jolly Roger” and the wild antics of pirates like Blackbeard also have an economic purpose – to force the pirates’ prey to surrender without a fight.  Sea battles would damage the pirates’ prize, their own ship, and perhaps even the pirates so it behooved them to act as threatening and crazy as possible to actually prevent violence.  For many of these reasons, pirate ships were actually popular among the ordinary sailors who were willing recruits into a society that would allow them a voice in how things are done and take home a greater share of wealth than they’d earn in the merchant marine.  The book concludes with a humorous management course as taught by a pirate with a syllabus of articles and books that back up the economics behind the pirate way.

One quibble I have in this book is that Leeson often deviates from economics to slip in Libertarian ideology in tangents that seem odd and out of place.  For example, he takes up several pages to convince the reader that all government is based on the threat of violence as opposed to pirate societies which were freely joined.  He even writes of the benefits of pirate torture in regulating the behavior of commercial ship captains (who had to treat their sailors well lest they too be caught and tortured by pirates) but seems to see only evil in any regulation whatsover by government.  Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable and educational book that brings the dismal science to life through the romance of piracy.  Arrr!

Recommended books: Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt; Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly
Rating: *** 1/2

Book Review: “The System of the World”by Neal Stephenson (Book 8 of the Baroque Cycle)

The Baroque Cycle comes to an end in the third book of the third volume (8th overall for those who are counting), The System of the World (2004) by Neal Stephenson which is also entitled “The System of the World”.  The major world events underlying the previous book pretty came to a conclusion with the Hanoverian succession at the end of “Currency.”  The final book instead focuses on the more personal stories of Stephenson’s main characters.  Will Jack Shaftoe escape the noose of Jack Ketch?  Will Newton and Leibniz end their quarrel?  What will become of Daniel Waterhouse’s many schemes in science and politics?  What will happen at the Trial of the Pyx?  Stephenson answers all of these questions in his entertaining and informative style with many tangents, including a duel with cannon.

I must read these books again.


Book Review: The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Author: Salman Rushdie
Title: The Enchantress of Florence
Publication Info: Overdrive Publications (2008), Audio CD
ISBN: 1436119375


The  story in the book is about a visit by a Florentine man to the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, claiming to be a long lost relative.  But the The Enchantress of Florence is about stories themselves, stories told by the characters, interweaving and overlapping with reality.  There’s a good mix of history, fiction and the fantastic to be found here, reminiscent of Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle.  And while the Mughal emperor may claim kinship to the gods, this book is far more earthy capturing in words humanity at its basest in war, sex, and filthy, filthy language.

The writing style of the book just oozes with machismo, especially as read by Firdous Bamji.  I’ve never read Rushdie before so I don’t know if this is typical of his writing style but it is well-suited to the time and the characters.  Women don’t come off well in this novel as they are sexualized, objectified, vain, coquettish, mystified, and even imaginary to the men that see them only as mirrors. The way Rushdie piles on the stereotypes in a Joycean fashion leads me to believe it is meant as parody. Despite all the unpleasantness, Rushdie creates something beautiful in his words.

This is the best type of novel their is: one that transport you to a different place and time for an escape yet shares stories and ideas that make you think.

Recommended books: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson
Rating: ***1/2