Book Review: That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

Author: Richard Russo
Title: That Old Cape Magic
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2009)
ISBN: 0739318926

Previously read by the same author: Empire Falls

Summary/Review:  This is a book about a middle-aged man who had awful, unloving parents and his only good thing in his childhood were annual trips to Cape Cod that are highly romanticized in his memory.  As an adult he learns that he is more like his parents than he realizes and desperately tries to shake his attachment to them (comically so in that he literally carries their ashes in his car being unable to dispose of them).  His marriage falls apart, his daughter marries, and chaos ensues at the wedding.  This book features some really awful, irredeemable people as characters and cringe-worthy hijinks, but in many ways is very human in all the flaws of humanity.  It wasn’t a great book, but was okay to listen to as an audiobook for my book club.

Rating: **

Book Review: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

Rereading my 100 Favorite Books: #57

Author: Esther Forbes
Title: Johnny Tremain
Publication Info: 0395900115
ISBN: Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Summary/Review: Having listed my 100 Favorite Books of All Time, I want to make the effort to reread these books and see if my opinion changes for better or worse. Instead of reading these by rank I’m going to start by going way back and reading a book I last read 25 years ago.  I was in 7th grade and Johnny Tremain, a story about a boy in Boston during the American Revolution won me over.

So how does it stand up?  I remembered the basic plot well – Johnny is a promising silversmith apprentice, he burns his hand while working on the sabbath, loses his position, befriends another apprentice in the printing trade, and gets involved in revolutionary activities.  Other things I didn’t remember as well such as how much of an arrogant tool Johnny is at the start of the novel and his injury is a great humbling.

Despite this obvious moralistic tone, I think the novel holds up well.  Esther Forbes has a keen sense for colonial Boston and its people and doesn’t make any grave errors in historical accuracy.  The story has a good mix of adventure, inspiration, and thoughtfulness and a whole lot more moral ambiguity than I’d expect of a children’s book about the American Revolution written almost 70 years ago.

Recommended books: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Andersen
Rating: *****

Movie Round-Up

Mr. Bjarnfreðarson (2009) ***

An Icelandic comedy that combines dark humor, fish-out-of-water stories, and self-discovery all in one entertainingly bizarre package.  The titular character has been raised by his extremist socialist/feminist mother (the heavy-handiness of the stereotypes of the mother are my least favorite part of the movie) to an extent that he can’t fit in to every day society.

Heima (2007) ****

This concert follows the Icelandic band Sigur Ros on their heroic return to their homeland where they thank their country-folk with a series of free concerts.  The setting for the concerts emphasize Iceland’s natural beauty and include local musicians all captured with amazing cinematography.  So beautiful.

The Wind in the Willows (2005) **

An adaptation of the classic novel that starts off well but once Mole and Rat are left behind and it becomes all Mr. Toad it gets a bit silly and dull.

Finding Nemo (2003) *****

I introduced Peter to Pixar films with this classic and he received it well.  Apparently, the sharks are funny.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) *****

Peter didn’t like this one as much as the monsters were scary and we had to turn it off when Sully is sledding down the Himalayas.  I love it though.

The Fox & the Hound (1981) ****

I saw this movie in the theaters back when I was 7-years old and loved it. The story is much as I remembered it but the animation is pretty chintzy and I was surprised by how many of the voice actors were the same as “Winnie the Pooh.”  Peter enjoyed it too, although from his perspective this was “The Bear Movie.”  The bear is on screen for maybe five minutes, but it makes a big impression to a toddler.

Artisan’s Asylum

I’m generally skeptical about people posting links in this blog’s comments section asking me to promote things, but I took a moment to consider the following comment Frances Haugen on my Avenue of the Arts post.  I looked into it and it appears that Artisan’s Asylum is  legit and as a former Somervillian I’m all for supporting the arts.  Since that comment had nothing to do with the Avenue of the Arts I’ve moved it to its own post for all the (admittedly limited) promotional power of Panorama of the Mountains has to offer.

Hi Liam –

There’s a new open-access community workshop in Somerville called the Artisan’s Asylum that is trying to make available all sorts of tools (think wood working equipment, welding tools, circuits, sewing machines) so that people can create the things they’ve always wanted to.

We’re trying to measure interest in different kinds of classes that might be offered in August/September and find out what kinds of things people would like to learn about. We’re trying to get as many people as possible to fill out our class interest survey – could you post a link to it on your blog?

The survey is at:

Thank’s so much!

Boston By Foot Avenue of the Arts Tour

Huntington Avenue photo courtesy of Yarian Gomez's photostream on Flickr

Come out this Sunday July 25th at 2pm for a guided walking tour of Boston’s Avenue of the Arts lead by Boston By Foot guides (including yours truly).  The tour begins in front of The Church of Christ, Scientist on Massachusetts Avenue and the cost is just $15/person.  If you become a Boston By Foot member admission is reduced to just $5 and you get lots of other benefits as well.

Have you ever wondered why so many cultural institutions dedicated to fine arts, music, education, religion, and sports are clustered in one area in Boston?  As we walk along this cultural corridor we’ll explore the history of Huntington Avenue and learn about:

  • landmarks created by two of the most remarkable women in Boston’s history: Mary Baker Eddy and Isabella Stewart Gardner
  • not one but two acoustically perfect concert halls
  • not one but two historical figures named Eben
  • the oldest artificial ice sporting arena in the world
  • Boston’s lost opera house
  • the many innovations and contributions of the YMCA
  • the site of the first World Series game
  • expansion and development at Northeastern University, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
  • and much, much more

I’m particularly proud of this tour because I originated the idea and collaborated on the research and manual writing.  So please come out and join us to learn more about this fascinating Boston district.

Huntington Avenue in 1920, courtesy of Boston Public Library's photostream on Flickr

Football at Fenway

Last night, the beautiful game and a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark came together for the Fenway Football ChallengeCeltic Football Club of Glasgow and Sporting Clube de Portugal of Lisbon met for the first soccer game in Fenway Park since 1968.  I didn’t even hear of the event until Monday, but immediately found myself a ticket for this can’t-miss game once I heard of it.

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The Red Sox and the Fenway Park staff set up everything perfectly.  First, the choice of teams was inspired as it represented two of the Boston area’s largest ethnic groups the Portuguese and the Irish (while Celtic is a Scottish team they are strongly identified with Irish Catholics in Scotland, Ireland, and around the world).  I also like that they set up supporters’ sections for each team behind the goal lines.  I sat in the neutral section close to the Sporting supporters section and there were partisans of both sides all around me.  As a true neutral I rooted for a good game and for all the goals to be scored in the net near my seat.  As luck would have it, all but one goal would take place right in front of me.

The seating for the game was a bit awkward for soccer, although there are many seats at Fenway that are also awkward for baseball.  The pitch looked alarmingly small too.  There didn’t seem to be a midfield and goal kicks looked like they would soar into the opposing stands.  I read after the game that the field was only 98 meters long, short of the standard 110 meters.

I had an excellent front row seat just behind one of the corners in right field beyond the Pesky Pole.    The game was well-contested but scoreless until the 72 minute when Georgios Samaras (hirsutely reminiscent of Johnny Damon circa 2004) scored on a spot kick.  Hélder Postiga equalized on a gorgeous header at my end of the field ten minutes later.  That was the end of the game as far as FIFA was concerned but since they had a trophy to award the two teams participated in a penalty shootout.   All was even after five shooters per side, but then Sporting’s Liédson kicked the ball over the net and into the bullpen and Paul McGowan netted the winning goal for Celtic.

Other highlights of the game:

  • Both clubs wear a home uniform with horizontal green & white stripes.  While the Sporting players wore a navy & green away uniform, it was really hard to tell apart the fans in their replica jerseys.
  • The PA announcer introduced the starting forwards as “attackers.”  I liked that.
  • Fans were amused that the Celtic captain  is named Scott Brown, especially when he drew a yellow card.
  • Despite being a friendly there was some pushing and arguing during the match.
  • The Boston Pops played “The Star Spangled Banner” before the game.  They didn’t play the national anthems of Portugal and Scotland.  Does Scotland have a national anthem of its own?
  • Just before the game started they played “Shipping Up to Boston” on the PA system.  During the half they played “Sweet Caroline” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”  After the game they played “Dirty Water” and “Tessie.”
  • The atmosphere was great but the teams’ supporters did not do European style football chants and songs.  Mostly they did variations on the Red Sox chant “Let’s Go Cel-tic!” Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.

It was a fun night, and definitely should be the start of an annual tradition.  Perhaps Celtic can return to defend their title against a side from Brazil or Italy?  And maybe the Red Sox should play a baseball game at Celtic Park in Glasgow.  What I’d like even more though is if the New England Revolution build a soccer-specific stadium near public transportation in the Boston area.

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Book Review: Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

Author: Jonathan Lethem
Title: Chronic City
Publication Info: Doubleday (2009)
ISBN: 0385518633

Previously Read By The Same Author: The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn

Summary/Review: This science fiction novel is set in a Manhattan of the near future much like our own but with odd differences like a no-war edition of the New York Times, a tiger rampaging the Upper East Side, and a mysterious mist covering lower Manhattan.  Former child actor Chase Insteadman lives on residuals and his engagement to an astronaut becomes a daily feature of celebrity news when she is trapped on the International Space Station.  In the course of the novel, Chase becomes acquainted with several new people, most of interesting of which is cultural gadfly Perkus Tooth.  Chase and Tooth smoke pot (the “chronic” of the title) and have philosophical debates about cultural icons like Marlon Brando and seek to acquire the elusive vase-like chauldrons from eBay.

There’s a lot I like about this book in it’s little deviations from reality and how Lethem uses them to comment on our world.  On the other hand there isn’t a real plot to this novel and there are a lot of red herrings.  *SPOILER* I’m particularly disappointed by the cliched conclusion where Chase comes to the realization that there is no reality in his world. *SPOILER* Still, it’s a fun, quirky little book, especially to listen to the great voices on the audio book rendition.

Recommended books: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Out of our heads by Alva Noë

Author: Alva Noë
Title: Out of our heads : why you are not your brain, and other lessons from the biology of consciousness
Publication Info:
ISBN: 9780809074655

Summary/Review:  I thought I’d like this  much more, but I was disappointed.  Noë’s premise is a philosophical examination of the science of the mind and posits that we should no longer accept the belief that consciousness resides in the brain.  Basically he’s arguing the opposite of the Free Will chapter in 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense.  While it’s an argument I’d like to accept, I feel that Noë never really shows evidence for his thesis and that a lot of the complex language he uses serves to obfuscate rather than illuminate.  It’s just as likely that most of this went over my head though, so maybe I’m not the best person to review this book.

Recommended books: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson and Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human by Chip Walter.
Rating: **

Photopost: Boston Breakers

Tonight I went to Harvard Stadium to attend a Women’s Professional Soccer game between the Boston Breakers and Washington Freedom.  This was the first breakers game I’ve been to since 2003 so I’m long overdue.  I went accompanied by friends and family including my toddler son and a wonderful time was had by all.

Here are some photos from the game:

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Previously: New Women’s Soccer League in 2008!

Book Review: Better by Atul Gawande

Author: Atul Gawande
Title: Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance
Publication Info: BBC Audiobooks America
ISBN: 9780792747260


This book is a collection of essays about the need for excellence in medicine because the cost of even a small error may be fatal.  In the conclusion, Gawande makes suggestion on how the standards for being better can be applied to any field of endeavor.

Topics covered in the essays in this book include:

  • The spread of infection in hospitals that should be preventable but habits of medical staff are difficult to change.
  • The people skills required to stop the spread of disease in India.
  • A review of the current state of malpractice law that offers a good balance between the surgeon’s fears and the rights of the patient.
  • Amazing stories of doctors in India who regularly perform procedures outside their specialty and with limited resources but are as effective in healing patients as doctors in the US.
  • The conundrum of whether doctors should participate in executions to help make them more humane or should completely eschew any practice that leads to a death.

This book was selected by my book club and I was pleasantly surprised that it was better (ha-ha!) than I expected.  Gawande writes in a direct – sometimes arrogant – manner but at the end one can’t help but agree that he is on to something.  As an added bonus, he practices in Boston, so I know where to go if I’m looking for a good surgeon.

Rating: ***