Cities with Mountains

I’m a man of extremes.  I love urban living, but when I want to get out of the city I want to get way out of the city, skipping over all those suburbs.  Ideally my best vacation spot is on a remote trail hiking up a mountain.  Too bad that the best of both worlds is hard to find – cities with mountains.  Most cities are built on a plain by a river, not mountainsides.  Boston has some nice steep hills – and once had a three-peak hill the English called Trimountain (which was later torn down) – but nothing really mountainous.  So on this hot summer day in the city I’m going to write a tribute to four cities I’ve visited that have mountains within their environs.

First up is Eugene, which technically doesn’t have a mountain but a butte, but a butte is close enough.  I hiked up the trails of Spencer Butte on a visit in 1997 and it was a lovely escape from the city with a lot of typical public park ammenities with some added elevation.  Spencer Butte tops out at 2055 feet (626 m) although oddly it felt the least “mountainous” of the four urban mountains I’ve climbed.

Here’s a view in all its black & white beauty:

To be honest I'm not sure if this photo is of Spencer Butte or from Spencer Butte, but you get the gist
To be honest I'm not sure if this photo is of Spencer Butte or from Spencer Butte, but you get the gist

The following year I visited Edinburgh, Scotland which I wrote about on the tenth anniversary of the visit.  I was awed by Arthur’s Seat which may be the most urban of mountains with the city streets and buildings going right up to its foothills.  Arthur’s Seat is only  823.5 ft (251 m) but I’m certain its elevation rises most dramatically around the surrounding territory of any of the mountains in cities I’ve seen.

Im almost fell to my death trying to make this self-portrait.
I'm almost fell to my death trying to make this self-portrait.

Montreal, Quebec is actually named for its mountain Mont Royal.  I climbed the mountain with Susan & Camille in May 1999 and a few days later rode my bike to the summit.  Mont Royal gets bonus points for being in a park landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted and a spiff cross near the summit. Mont Royal stands at 764 ft (233 m) and is the lowest of the four “mountains.”

Taking in the view of Montreal in my bright yellow bicycling jacket.
Taking in the view of Montreal in my bright yellow bicycling jacket.

Finally there is the city of Salzburg, Austria which Susan & I visited in 2003.  Located in the Alps, Salzburg is surrounded by mountains but the closest to center city is Mönchsberg.  This mountain is fortified with the ancient Hohensalzburg Fortress looming over the city but also felt the most wild, as if we may wander off into some primeval forest of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  Mönchsberg may also be the steepest of the urban mountains I’ve visited including one section of sheer rockface with monk’s cells carved in the side.   Mönchsberg is 1,771 feet (540 meters) high.

The monks' cells carved in the side of Mönchsberg.
The monks' cells carved in the side of Mönchsberg.

So have you been to a good urban mountain? Does your city have a mountain of it’s very own? Share your stories below, I need some cool thoughts for these hot days!


100 Favorite Albums of All-Time (60-51)

Part five of my top 100 albums of all time.


60. The Remix Album…Diamonds Are Forever by Shirley Bassey (2000)

If this list of favorite albums confirms anything it’s that my musical interests are diverse.  I like electronic music.  I like loungey pop songs sung by a Welsh chanteuse.  And dang it, I like them mixed together.  The best thing about this album is how the remixes emphasize rather than overwhelm Bassey’s vocals.  Bassey’s famed for singing the theme songs to three James Bond films (Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, and Moonraker, all represented here) but I’m particularly fond of her take on “(Where Do I Begin) Love Story” and “Big Spender.”

59. Songs In The Attic by  Billy Joel (1981)

Billy Joel is a divisive figure.  Many people pan him as schmaltzy and derivative.  Millions more  love him.  I was in the later category from the age of 7 until my college days.  Glass Houses was the first non-kiddy album I ever owned (co-owned with my sister) and remains a sentimental favorite.  While I’m not that into Joel these days, Songs in the  Attic remains on my iPod.  It’s a collection of songs Joel recorded early in his career with session musicians re-recorded with his band after he became famous.  The energy of such songs as “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway)” capture Joel at his best.

58. Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night by Stereolab (1999)

Stereolab’s music is hard to describe.  Electronic – lounge – fuzz – experimental – free jazz  – and all tres Euro.  Kind of like Shirley Bassey remixed but planned that way from the start.  This album is probably an enabler to my ability to enjoy dissonance.  Standout tracks include “Fuses,” “Italian Shoes Continuum,” and “Infinity Girl.”

57. Truth and Soul by Fishbone (1988)

This ska/funk/hardcore/et al band performed at the first “real” concert I ever attended supporting their excellent album Reality of My Surroundings in 1991.  This earlier album though is the strongest and most cohesive album Fishbone ever released.  It mixes a strong social message with a fun party vibe.  Highlights include “Bonin’ in the Boneyard,” “Change,” and the Curtis Mayfield cover “Freddie’s Dead.”

56. Homegenic by Björk (1997)

This is the second and highest ranked Björk album in this list although I was sorely tempted to include them all, not to mention her work with the Sugarcubes Life’s Too Good.  But Homogenic is Björk at her best – lush and rhythmic, emotional and experimental.  Favorite tracks include “Jóga,” “Bachelorette,” and “All is Full of Love.”

55. The Beatles [White Album] by The Beatles (1968)

The first two Beatles cassettes I bought were their 1962-66 compilation and The White Album  They were both double albums so I thought I was getting a good deal.  I also didn’t know what I was getting into.  The music on The White Album was nothing like The Beatles music I’d heard on the radio growing up.  This album is The Beatles at their most experimental, venturing into country, folk, blues, vaudeville, heavy metal, and whatever “Revolution No. 9” is.  The sad side of this album is that it documents the band at a time of squabling and “artistic difference” with members of The Beatles playing with guest musicians more than with one another.  Still though, it’s all pretty good, intriguing stuff.  Favorites include “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” “Blackbird,” and “Long, Long, Long.”

54. Portable EFO Show by  Eddie From Ohio (1998)

Eddie from Ohio are always best in concert and this is the best of there many live albums capturing them at a time when I think they were at their peak.  I actually picked up this album at the concert when it was first released and the song banter on the album was still topical.  Highlights include “Cleo & Tony Medley,” “The Three Fine Daughters of Farmer Brown,” “This My Town,” and Eddie Hartness’ drum solo on “Very Short Fuse.”

53.  Last Splash by  The Breeders (1993)

The oscillating bass line of “Cannonball” provided the backing track to my Junior year of college.  Last Splash is 90’s indie rock as I want to remember it best.  Other highlights include “Divine Hammer,” “Drivin’ on 9,” and “Saints.”

52. Ágætis byrjun by Sigur Rós (1999)

Can music be both soothing and unsettling at the same time? Sigur Rós made it so.  I was late to the Sigur Rós bandwagon but after hearing this album I hopped on for the dreamy, ambient, and cinematic beauty of their music.  Highlights include “Svefn-g-englar,” “Starálfur,” and “Ný batterí,”

51. Crosby, Stills, & Nash by Crosby, Stills, & Nash (1969)

Like The Doors, Crosby, Stills & Nash are a band whose entire reputation relies on a brilliant debut album standing out like a diamond in the rough among their later smooth rock and hippie self-parody. Let’s ignore that though and enjoy the brilliant lyrics and beautiful harmonies of songs such as “You Don’t Have to Cry,” “Long Time Gone,” and “Wooden Ships.”

Book Review: Rex Libris: I, Librarian

Author: James Turner
Title: Rex Libris: I, Librarian
Publication Info: San Jose, Calif. : SLG Pub., [2007]
ISBN: 9781593620622


Rex Libris is a tough-as-nail librarian now several eons old fighting to protect knowledge and make sure books are returned on time, even when they’re held by intergalactic space creatures.  This comic book/graphic novel is funny and intelligent and lets you on what life is really like for a librarian.  I just wish Turner didn’t give away so many of our secrets.

Rex Libris succeeds at being witty whereas the Noah Wyle Librarian movies are just goofy (although the latter has Bob Newhart, so a point scored to them). I found the writing to be similar to the creative vein of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels.
Recommended books: Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde, Five Fists Of Science by Matt Fraction, andVandals in the Stacks? by Richard J. Cox.
Rating: ****

Book Review: FREE: the future of a radical price by Chris Anderson

Author: Chris Anderson
Title:FREE: the future of a radical price
Publication Info: New York : Hyperion, 2009.
ISBN: 9781401322908

Previously read by same author: The Long Tail


I downloaded Chris Anderson’s latest book as an audiobook from iTunes.  The price I paid was … FREE!  The entire book is based on the concept that in an era when much content is cheaply reproduced, that Free is a good idea for many producers, marketers, and business.  In fact, Anderson argues that it is a good way to make a lot of money.  Not everything is free of course, Anderson proposes many models most avidly the Freemium model where a basic service or product is given away in hopes of luring customers to the premium version. Anderson calls on historical examples and current practice to support his theory.

It was an interesting book and a good follow-up to The Long Tail.  I’m said to say that I misplaced my notes, otherwise I’d have more to say about this book.   It’s already stirring up some good debtate.  Read Malcolm Gladwell’s review and Anderson’s response for starters.
Recommended books: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (ironically), Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, Fire in the Valley: The Making of The Personal Computer by Paul Freiberger (for a more in-depth story of the dawn of the information age).
Rating: ***

Book Review: The dangerous joy of Dr. Sex and other true stories by Pagan Kennedy

AuthorPagan Kennedy
Title: The dangerous joy of Dr. Sex and other true stories
Publication Info: Santa Fe, N.M. : Santa Fe Writers Project, 2008.
ISBN: 0977679934


I selected this book from the Library Thing Early Reviewer program because I knew that Kennedy was a Boston-area writer, but that was the extent of what I knew about her.  Then I let the book sit around for over half-a-year, because I wasn’t sure it was the type of thing I wanted to read.  My mistake, because Kennedy is a brilliant writer.  Her sentences are very spare, but contain the precise wording necessary to convey complex ideas and emotions.  I imagine Kennedy labors over each sentence for hours to get the wording right.  If she doesn’t, then I hate her because no one should be able to write that well, that easily.

The essays in this book are written in a literary nonfiction style – what Kennedy calls “true stories” – and mostly are short biographies of interesting people.  Most of these people are involved in science, technology, or medicine, all of them are innovators and have tormented lives that motivate them.  Stories include:

  • the title story about Alex Comfort, the psychologist behind the book The Joy of Sex.
  • Amy Smith who strives to invent things that can cheaply and easily be adopted poor, remote areas of the developing world.
  • A young female weightlifter, Cheryl Haworth, who seems to have a future as the strongest woman in the world.
  • Amateur researches examining the effect of electric charges on the brain for improving memory, intelligence, and personality.
  • Vermine Supreme, a prankster-activist.
  • A man who wants to restore the coastline of Eritrea by planting mangrove trees (Dr. Gordon Sato).
  • Singer/songwriter/collaborator extraordinaire and child prodigy Conor Oberst.
  • Saul Griffith, who wants to teach the next generation to be tinkerers and inventors.

The book also contains autobiographical stories from Kennedy’s life, most interesting is the revolutionary yet commonsensical ideas put forth in the essay “Boston Marriage” about women sharing lives and residences together.

Recommended books:

Book Review: The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Canada

Author:  Carol Shields
Title: The Stone Diaries
Publication Info: New York : Viking, 1994.
ISBN: 0670853097


First impression:  This author has a predilection for unsettling, detailed descriptions of human flesh in order to get the point across that a woman in overweight.

Second impression:  Shields also has a disturbing hang up about sex and sexuality.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Or unusual.

Third impression:  While this book is ostensibly about a woman name Daisy Goodwill Flett the reader rarely hears her voice.  Daisy’s family and friends are the narrators and often go on a bit about themselves more than Daisy.  Its like we can’t really approach Daisy, we only touch her tangentially.  In that way it’s reminiscent of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Fourth impression:   Who are these people in the photographs in the centerpiece?

Fifth impression: While each chapter is titled as a specific period in Daisy’s life, the narrative is nowhere near that linear.  Flashbacks cunningly fill in details we were spared earlier in the novel, as if we’re learning as we’re growing older, just like Daisy.  The chapters vary widely in writing style too – one chapter is the dying vision of her father, one chapter is entirely letters written to Daisy’s newspaper column about flowers, and one consists of divergent opinions from family and friends about Daisy’s mental breakdown. In this sense it reminded me of Ulysses.

Sixth impression:  The writing in this book is brilliant – moving without being manipulative.  I didn’t think I’d like it at first but for the second half of the book, I couldn’t put it down.

This book was selected by my W&M Boston Alumni Chapter book club and I’m also assigning it to represent Canada for Around the World for a Good Book.  After reading so many books by authors from developing nations who’ve relocated to Europe or America, here’s the rare instance of an author born in the United  States moving to Canada.  Despite that, and despite the fact that even the protagonist spends part of her life in the US, I like the internationality of the book, and at least one commentator considers The Stone Diaries to be the Great Canadian Novel.

Favorite Passage:

When we think of the past we tend to assume that people were simpler in their functions, and shaped by forces that were primary and irreducible.  We take for granted that our forebears were imbued with a deeper purity of purpose than we possess nowadays, and a more singular set of mind, believing, for example that early scientists pursued their ends with unbroken “dedication” and that artists worked in the flame of some perpetual “inspiration.”  But none of this is true.  Those who went before us were every bit as wayward and unaccountable and unsteady in their longings as people are today.  – p. 91

Recommended books: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Ulysses by James Joyce
Rating: ****

A Day in the Life of a Librarian

Librarians everywhere are signing up for the Library Day in the Life project as a way of showing what we do to fellow librarians, library school students, and anyone curious.  I missed out on this the last time it occurred so I definitely wanted to participate this year, especially since I’ve been looking for ways to kickstart the library content on this blog.

My position at my place of work (MPOW) is Information Lifecycle Management assistant.  The job title is not the most self-evident and in the year and one month I’ve been working in this position the responsibilities and definitions have shifted.  Basically, I work with people and records whether those records be active (records management) or permanent (archives).  My typical responsibilities involve accessioning records for storage or for archives, retrieving & returning boxes at the request of an administrative or faculty office, and answering reference questions related to archival material.

That scratches the surface, and hopefully this exercise will explain more.  With no further ado, I present…

A Day in the Life of an Information Lifecycle Management Assistant


  • wake up (late).  My son gets me up with zerberts and lots of giggling. Get ready for work.
  • My wife drives my son and I to the school.  He goes to the childrens’ center, I go to the library.
  • begin work day by checking emails, planning out tasks for the day and other administrative tasks.
  • check out Twitter and FriendFeed to see how my other library peeps are doing.
  • continue an ongoing reference project to learn about details of the lives of students from China who attended the school in its early years.  This involves reviewing registrar records, yearbooks, and alumni bulletins among other things.
  • at request from a faculty assistant, arrange to have boxes picked up and returned to offsite storage
  • prepare a student file for loan to the admissions office.
  • Lunch!  I eat a salad and read the Rex Libris graphic novel.
  • Spend an hour on-call to page materials from the stacks for patrons in the reading room.  Spend the time populating a spreadsheet for records storage stats and reading scholarly articles and blogs relevant to my job.
  • At request of my manager, I refile boxes related to a reference question we worked on last week.  Also photocopy a few pages of interest to the patron.  I cut my finger when trying to remove the staple.  Ouch!
  • Resume research on Chinese students.  Also work on a similar question about the school’s earliest research in India.
  • Close out my day of work.
  • Go to childrens’ center to pick up my son.
  • Take bus to public library.  I get teased for going to the library on my time off, but MPOW generally doesn’t specialize in stuff I’m interested in.
  • Ride subway home.  My son is inordinately fussy.
  • Relieved to get home, eat supper, put the boy to bed and go to bed myself.  Whew!

I’m glad to get that done.  Now I’ll have to find time to read what everyone else wrote.

Beer Review: Rogue Shakespeare Stout

Beer: Shakespeare Stout
Brewer: Rogue Brewery
Source: 22 oz. bottle
Rating: **** (8.9 of 10)
Comments: Rogue Brewery is one of the most creative and competent craft breweries out there, one which I had the delight of visiting way back in 1997.  I hadn’t had a Shakespeare Stout in a while and decided it would be worth revisiting.  Oh, is it worth revisiting.  This is a dark, dark stout with a foamy tan head.  It’s tastes like bitter chocolate with hints of stone fruits and licorice.  The beer is smooth and velvety on the tongue.  Good stuff! Yum!

This is as a good a place as any to link to a great blog post about Beers Named After Books and Authors.

Beer Review: Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy

Beer: Summer Shandy
Brewer: Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company
Source: On-tap
Rating: ** (6.8 of 10)
Comments:  I’ve reviewed a couple of Leinenkugel beers before and found them a bit too sweet for my tastes.  Yet on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon I was drawn to the Summer Shandy.  Shandy is basically lemonade mixed with beer so I expected it to be sweet as well, which it is, but surprisingly it’s more balanced than the other Leinie’s brands.  It was just the thing to refresh a dry throat and keep my sweet tooth happy too.


Beer Review: Redhook Long Hammer IPA

Beer: Long Hammer IPA
Brewer: Redhook
Source: On-tap
Rating: ** (6.5 of 10)
Comments: I always think Redhook beers should come from Brooklyn, but in reality they are brewed in Seattle.  I don’t generally like IPA’s but the Grand Canal was out of pretty much everything on tap, so I gave it a try.  Luckily, this IPA was not overly bitter and had a nice balance of flavors.  A decent but not great beer.

100 Favorite Albums of All-Time (70-61)

Part four of my top 100 albums of all time.


70. Hot by Squirrel Nut Zippers (1996)

The swing revival was a fun addition to the Nineties’ music scene, and SNZ stand out as a band that went beyond just covering old standards but adding their own clever quirkiness to make the music fresh and new.  Bonus points are awarded for naming the band after a Cambridge, MA confectionery.  I’m also entranced by Katherine Whalen’s sultry, expressive voice.  Favorite tracks include “Hell,” “Put a Lid On It,” and “Twilight.”

69. Fancy Ultra Fresh by the Freezepop (2004)

By coincidence this is another band that revived a music genre – this time 80’s synthpop – and are named after a snack, and are based in Boston.  They write sweet and clever songs about love and science and best of all you can dance to it.  Highlights include “Bike Thief,” “Parlez-vous Freezepop,” and “Outer Space.”

68. Christmas Day in the Morning by Revels (1990)

The Christmas Revels are an annual holiday tradition in Cambridge, MA where old time songs of yule and many other folk songs from around the world are revived.  I have all their albums and they’re all great, but this one stands out as one I want to listen to even in July.  Highlights include “The Gower Wassail,” “The Jolly Old Hawk,” and “The Christ Child Lullaby.”

67. ONoffON by Mission of Burma (2004)

Not many bands can break-up and come back together 20 years later with an album just as good as their earlier material but that’s just what Boston-based post-punk band Mission of Burma did with this ONoffON.  Highlights include “Max Ernst’s Dream,” “The Setup,” and “Falling.”

66. Mountain Radio by The Benders (2003)

Yet another Boston band reviving an older music style – this time string band music played with a punk attitude (similar style & with overlapping membership to The Resophonics who have an album at #74 on this chart).  Standout tracks include “Cheers to the First Snow,” “The Road Home,” and “Double Yellow.”

65. Wattstax (1972)

This is the soundtrack to the brilliant documentary/concert film set around the Wattstax concert at Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972.  Musically this is a microcosm of the best in blues, gospel, soul and funk in the early 1970’s.  Performers include The Staple Singers, Albert King, Carla Thomas, Little Milton, a beautiful church-based recording by The Emotions, and culminating in an electrifying performance by Isaac Hayes at his baddest.  As an added bonus the introductions by Jesse Jackson and other stage banter are familiar from sampling by rap artists like Public Enemy.

64. Vampire Weekend by Vampire Weekend (2008)

After hearing the African pop melodies mixed with frat boy ethos of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” I looked forward to Vampire Weekend’s debut album with great anticipation, something I hadn’t done in a long time.  It was worth it for the joy of hearing tracks like “Mansard Roof,” “A-Punk,” and “Campus.”  This is also the most recent album on the entire list.

63. The Carl Stalling Project (1990)

Carl Stalling worked with Warner Bros. from the 1930’s – 1950’s scoring the soundtracks from the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series of cartons.  This album strips (most of) the dialogue from the cartoons to allow the listener to enjoy Stalling’s innovative, rapidly-changing music.  Stalling preceded the “mash-up generation” by about three generations by dropping musical references to classical pieces and popular songs of the day into his compositions.  Worth checking out for “Porky in Wackyland / Dough for the Do-Do” where the music tells a story more fascinating than the actual cartoons.

62. The Doors by The Doors (1967)

The Doors are greatly overrated band in many respects, but there first album is a masterpiece of psychedelic blues from start to finish.  Two songs that stand out are covers of Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man” and Bertolt Brech’s “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)”.  Standout original tracks include “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” and “Soul Kitchen.”  Too bad that the Doors for the rest of their career recorded only about a half-dozen songs I find worth listening to.

61. Molinos by The Paperboys (1998)

The Paperboys are a versatile band of Celtic/bluegrass/world beat musicians lead by Canadian-Mexican Tom Landa.  This is the best of their many great recordings with highlights like “Waste Some Time,” the title track, and “After the First Time.”

Charles River Basin Walking Tour

I promote a lot of tours on this blog, but if there’s one tour you must take this summer it’s the Exploring the Charles River Basin tour offered by Boston By Foot guides (including myself).  The tour steps off at 2 pm on Sunday, July 26th from Nashua Street Park just opposite the exit from the Science Park MBTA station (exit away from the way to the Museum of Science.  Admission for this tour is $15/person and $5 for card-carrying members of Boston By Foot.  A great excuse for getting a membership now!

Not to frighten anyone off but this tour covers about two-miles of some-times rough ground with little protection from the elements.  So come prepared with appropriate clothing and fresh liquids.  The tour lasts approximately 2 hours but you can duck out pretty easily at the 90-minute mark.

While Exploring the Charles River Basin,  you will:

  • discover three brand-new parks that most people don’t know exist.
  • history of the Charles River and its ever-encroaching banks
  • hear mellifluous words like bascule, freshet, and sluiceway and find out what they mean too
  • cross not one but two dams
  • see the only city jail with a waterfront view and a park across the street
  • ponder our litigious society
  • find what remains of Miller’s River
  • get a new perspective on the world’s widest cable-stayed bridge
  • and without fail you’ll see all manner of transportation, roads, railways, bridges, and waterways

Come join us by the banks of the Charles River!
Come join us by the banks of the Charles River and find the Lost Half Mile!

Book Review: A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

Author:  Barbara Tuchman
Title: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
Publication Info: [Ashland, Or.] : Blackstone Audiobooks, 2005. (Originally published in 1978)
ISBN: 9780786152940

Other Books Read by This Author: Practicing History, The Guns of August


The same historian who wrote an entire book – The Guns of August – about just one month in the First World War and found in it a microcosm of the war in its entirety goes an entirely different route in this book, taking on an entire century of an entire continent.  Not just any century, but a pretty rotten one.  The Fourteenth Century in Europe is marred by the Hundred Years War, Papal Schism, climate change (the Little Ice Age), the last Crusades, pillaging brigands, and if that wasn’t bad enough – the deadly pestilence.

With so much ground to cover this book delightfully veers off on numerous topics, kind of a cluttered attic of medieval facts.  Yet, Tuchman still manages to draw out one clear focal narrative and that is that the calamities of the 14th century sowed the seeds of the modern world.  Corruption in the church – from the warring popes down to local parish priests known for sleeping around and gambling during mass – lead to Reformation and the eventual downfall of Christendom.  100 years of warfare lead to increasing national identity for France and England that broke down feudal loyalties.  Peasant revolts eerily foreshadow the French Revolution. Death and disease destroyed ideas of hierarchy and order, whether from God or from wealth.

Tuchman centers the narrative on the life of French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy, a 14th century Forrest Gump who happened to be at numerous pivotal events and had his life well-documented.  Also appearing in A Distant Mirror are John Wycliffe, Catherine of Siena, Geert Groote, and Charles VI whose monarchy would be marred by bouts of madness.  Fascinating events depicted include Christian movements like the Bretheren of the Common Life and Bretheren of the Free Spirit, The War of the Eight Saints, The Bals de Ardents, and the Battle of Nicopolis.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for over 20 years but was always intimidated by its length and the scary army of skeletons on the cover.  I’m glad that I finally plugged into an audio book adaptation and listened over a period of a couple of weeks.  Tuchman as always a crisp, detailed and entertaining writer (albeit a sometimes overly opinionated one).  This one will be worth reading again one day.  I find the whole period of time fascinating.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Nigeria

Author:  Chinua Achebe
Title: Things Fall Apart
Publication Info: Heinemann Educational Publishers (1971) [Originally published in 1958]
ISBN: 0435121626


Achebe’s novel depicts the traditional culture of the Igbo people in the late 19th century as a complex society unlike many European/American views of Africa of the time as “primitive.”  Central to the narrative is Okonkwo a strong man whose success as a wrestler has opened the door for him to seek leadership in the tribe.  Ambitious and something of a bully, Okonkwo is not a sympathetic character (fittingly as Achebe does not sentimentalize the Igbo and even show some as complicit when the Europeans arrive and “things fall apart”).

For breaking a taboo, Okonkwo is sent into exile and during that time European missionaries and traders arrive.  Some Igbo are drawn to Christianity and some hope that allying with the missionaries will help them redress that political flaws of their own society.  Okonkwo returns home and takes up the cause of driving away the foreigners with predictable results.

Things Fall Apart is a nuanced and truthful (if not factual) account of the colonial culture clash.  This novel is tragic, blunt, and in all things rather grim.

Recommended books: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (for a contrasting view)
Rating: ***1/2

Beer Review: Samuel Adams Boston Brick Red

Beer: Samuel Adams Brick Red
Brewer: Boston Beer Company
Source: On-tap
Rating: * (5.4 of 10)
Comments: This is a special release just for the Boston area.  Unfortunately, it’s not that special a beer. I got a pint at the Union Oyster House.  It’s color is obviously a deep brownish-red, with not much head nor any aroma discernible.  The taste is malty and bland.  Proceeds benefit Brewing the American Dream for funding lower income, so definitely check it out at a local Boston pub, but I don’t think I’ll have too many Brick Reds.

Old MacDonald’s Farm

I often find myself idly surfing the net and making discoveries of something from my past. Recently, I became reacquainted with Old Macdonald’s Farm, a place in Norwalk, CT that I loved to visit when I was very young.  Before being closed and replaced by a corporate office park, Old Macdonald’s Farm had:

  • an old-fashioned country-style restaurant that looked like it was in a barn with the booths decorated as stables (complete with the names of horses on plaques over the booths)
  • a candy store with lots of different types of penny-candy including every imaginable flavor of candy sticks.
  • a petting zoo with goats, sheep, cows and other farm animals.
  • a small amusement park with a train ride and other rides that appealed to small children

When it closed, I was heart-broken, especially since a covered wooden bridge was preserved to connect the very modern office park to its parking lot.  My younger self cursed the corporate suits who destroyed this little bit of Americana every time I passed and saw that bridge.  Okay, maybe not, but it was some similar emotion.

There’s not about Old Macdonald’s Farm on the web, but I found a couple of photos.  I was awestruck by how the photos look just as I remember.  The first picture is of the restaurant from a website called Cardcow which collects old postcards.

Vintage Postcards from
Wow! The pot-belly stove, the rafters, the farm implements, the barrels, the checkered table cloths -- all just as I remember!

The next picture is from a photo blog called Serendipitous by a woman named Kathy Chiapetta.  The photos appear to be scanned from a 2005 Darien Times article which is not available online.  The one thing I don’t see in any of the photos is a big waterwheel that impressed me as a child.

This picture looks like it was taken well before I was born, but otherwise it's pretty much how I remembered it. I was convinced that these stalls were actually once used by horses.

Thanks for indulging me. If you have memories and pictures of Old Macdonald’s Farm please let me know.
Previous Trips Down Memory Lane:

Forest Hills Cemetery Lantern Festival

Tonight we attended the 11th Annual Lantern Festival at Forest Hills Cemetery right here in Jamaica Plain.  This is the first time we’ve attended since moving to JP as last year I was violently ill at the time the festival occurred.  This year we had just as good a reason not to go and that is the fact that a toddler should not be kept out past his bedtime.  What could it hurt, I convinced myself, to just go around the corner for a little fresh air and fun, he’ll enjoy it.  We paid the price in the screams of an overtired boy, alas.

If in good health and accompanied by well-rested children, the Lantern Festival is definitely a great event.  Inspired by East Asian traditions, the Lantern Festival is a way to pay tribute to lost loved ones by decorating a lantern, lighting it and setting it afloat at dusk on Lake Hibiscus. “Drifting and flickering with the wind, the lanterns symbolize the soul’s journey when life ends.”

There is also a great variety of music and dance leading up to the floating of the lanterns including taiko drumming, gospel, and as we discovered among a dark section of gravestones, a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace.”

Our lantern is lit.
Our lantern is lit.
Our lantern floats off to join the other on Lake Hibiscus
Our lantern floats off to join the other on Lake Hibiscus
One of the most beautiful sites you'll see in Boston.

This bagpiper appeared out of a dark corner of the cemetary playing "Amazing Grace"
This bagpiper appeared out of a dark corner of the cemetery playing "Amazing Grace"

As an added bonus, here’s the best creepy movie you’ll ever see of a bagpiper playing in a very dark cemetery.

Forest Hills Cemetery is one of our favorite places in Boston and we’re members of The Forest Hills Educational Trust, definitely worth joining for their variety of arts and cultural events.  Below are some previous posts I’ve made about Forest Hills:

100 Favorite Albums of All-Time (80-71)

Part three of my top 100 albums of all time.


80. Other Voices, Other Rooms by Nanci Griffith (1993)

Another good example of the artist-as-interpreter with Griffith covering folk classics and obscure nuggets will the help of an all-star cast of collaborating musicians. Highlights include “From Clare to Here,” This Old Town,” and “Are You Tired of Me Darling?”

79. Profound Sounds by Josh Wink (1999)

I have a number of electronica discs in my collection with a lot of good tracks but it’s rare to find one as cohesive as an album as Profound Sounds.  The liner notes also include a nice tribute to the mix tape. Highlights include “K-Mart Shopping (Hi-Fi Mix)” by Nerio’s Dubwork Meets Kathy Lee,  “Vol 1” by Care Company, and “D2” by Johannes Heil & Heiko Laux.

78. Odelay by Beck (1996)

There those who foolishly thought Beck was a one-hit wonder after “Loser” were informed of their mistake by the hit “Where It’s At.”  Odelay also proved that Beck could make a great album.  In fact while this is the highest ranking Beck album in the top 100, I strongly considered putting some of his other albums in the list including Sea Change, Guero, and The Information.  Really, they’re all good. Highlights of Odelay include “Jack-Ass,” “High 5 (Rock the Catskills,” and “Minus.”

77. Songs from the Big Chair by Tears For Fears (1985)

This may be my guilty pleasure, but I’ve had a copy of this album pretty much since it was released so it gets a longevity award if nothing else.  In addition to the three singles everyone knows (“Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” “Shout,” and “Head Over Heals”), I’ve long been fond of the more avante-garde piece “Listen.”

76. Anthology of American Folk Music (1952)

This collection puts together many folk, blues, and country recordings from the 1920’s-30’s, a time when those genres hadn’t even been defined.  Influential of the folk revival of the 50’s & 60’s this anthology is great for studying American music and just plain fun to listen to.  Check out the Smithsonian Folkways Collection podcast (episodes 4-6) for more of the story behind the Anthology and then get a copy of  your very own.

75. The Divine Comedy by Milla (1994)

One would expect that a model-actress who records an album of songs she wrote as a teenager would create something unlistenable and self-indulgent. Lucky Milla Jovovich wrote mature, dreamy pop songs inspired by folk and Slavic traditioons that are well worth a listen. Highlights include “It’s Your Life,” “Gentleman Who Fell,” and “Reaching From Nowhere.”

74. The Resophonics by The Resophonics (2001)

The Somerville Bluegrass Boys first collection of excellent modern bluegrass music.  Their other albums are pretty good too as is anything Sean Staples works on. Highlights include “Willow Tree,” “Anna Lee,” and “Young Love.”

73. The Rhythm of the Saints by  Paul Simon (1990)

This album never got the appreciation of Graceland, but it’s almost as good. Simon’s well-crafted, impressionistic lyrics are accompanied by Brazilian and West African music.  The batucada drumming on the opening track was ear-opening for me as a youngster.  Highlights include “The Obvious Child,” “The Coast,” and “Born at the Right Time.”

72. Surfer Rosa by Pixies (1988)

Long before the Pixies became one of the best oldies bands touring about the world non-stop, they recorded one of the most influential rock albums of all time.  Includes some of the Pixes best songs such as  “Gigantic,” “Where is My Mind?,” and “Bone Machine.”

71. Violent Femmes by Violent Femmes (1982)

If you didn’t have a copy of this album in college, then your roommate did.  Either way you don’t need me to tell you why it’s great or list of the highlights.  You can probably recite the track listing from memory.

Book Review: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Togo

Author: Tété-Michel Kpomassie
Title: An African in Greenland
Publication Info: New York : New York Review Books, [2001] (Originally published in 1981)
ISBN: 9780940322882


Kpomassie, who grew up in a traditional society in Togo, writes a charming, insightful and very human account about his year living among the traditional societies of Greenland.  The story begins when Kpomassie is a boy and is injured in a fall from a tree.   In his convalescence he comes across a book about the Eskimos and finds himself obsessed with the idea of visiting Greenland.  After 10 years working his way across Africa and Europe, earning money and travel visas, Kpomassie finally arrives by ship on the shores of Greenland.

Kpomassie seeks out the most remote and traditional Inuit villages he can reach and enjoys the hospitality of many villages, forms friendships, and by the end of the book expresses the desire to live out his days in Greenland.  There are some great scenes of hunting for seal, fishing, community gatherings, and a ride across the ice by dogsled (and the embarrassment of falling off).  There’s also a dark side to Greenland as Kpomassie observes the loss of traditional culture to Danish colonialism, widespread underemployment and the ensuing poverty and alcoholism.  The sunless winter in the most remote village Kpomassie visits is especially depressing.

I broke my rule of focusing on fiction for my Around The World For a Good Book project because I could not resist the cross-cultural premise of a man from an African traditional society visiting the traditional cultures of Greenland.  Part travelogue, part memoir, and part anthropology, this is one of my favorite books I’ve read thus far this year.

Recommended books: The Silent Traveler series by Chiang Yee shares a similar warm, humanist style of observation and interaction of people from different cultures.
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian

Author: Patrick O’Brian
Title: The Fortune of War
Publication Info: W.W. Norton & Co. (1991) (Originally published in 1979)
ISBN: 0393308138


Patrick O’Brian wrote 21 books of naval adventure set in the early 1800’s featuring the rough but amiable Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend the ship’s surgeon and spy Stephen Maturin.  I like to think of these books as Jane Austen for men.  I read the first five books back in 2003 and enjoyed them well enough but found them difficult to read since I kept stumbling over terms like “fo’c’sle.”  Now I’ve discovered that the BPL has the Aubrey Maturin series available for free download as audiobooks so I can blissfully listen to the books, naval vocabulary and all.

Our heroes Aubrey & Maturin find themselves passengers on other British ships for most of this book.  The first ship burns and sinks, the second ship is captured in battle with the USS Constitution, and the third…  Well, I won’t give away the ending but it has better fortune than the first two ships.  The main part of the book is set in Boston where Jack & Stephen are held as prisoners of war during the War of 1812 and Stephen finds himself in the midst of covert spy activity with the French who are also in town. There are a number of humorous moments (including a Bostonian who allows the proper English is spoken in Boston even as far west as Watertown) and some crisp, detailed ship-to-ship battle scenes.

I don’t know if it’s the audiobook or that the book is set in Boston, but I like this book better than any of the others in the series so far.  I look forward to listening to further installments.

Rating: ***