Book Review: The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto


AuthorRussell Shorto
Title:The Island at the Center of the World
Narrator: L.J. Ganser
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, p2004.
Previously Read by the Same Author: Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
Summary/Review:

Shorto composes a brief, popular history of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, specifically focusing on the settlement on Manhattan island.  He contends that the Dutch colony is often overlooked in American history and what is known about it is generally based on English sources that downplay the significance of the Dutch. A decades-long project to translate and publish Dutch records in the state archives at Albany has opened a new understanding of the times when “old New York was once New Amsterdam.”

The narrative examines the history of the Dutch settlements between English New England and Swedish Delaware starting with the exploration by Henry Hudson of the river once named for him.  Relationships within the colonies, to the Netherlands, with other European colonists, and with the indigenous peoples are explored.  Some familiar names such as Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant pop up, but the key figure is the less well-known Adriaen van der Donck, whom Shorto considers a candidate for the founding father of New York.  He’s remembered indirectly by way of his honorific Jonkheer, became the name of the city built on his former estate, Yonkers.

Shorto argues that what the Dutch created in New Amsterdam ended up having lasting influence on the future United States.  Coleslaw and Santa Claus are just a couple of things that the Dutch colony introduced to the Americas. More specifically, Shorto illustrates how Manhattan became an early center of religious tolerance, cultural plurality, and free trade, all things embraced by Americans, albeit awkwardly in balance with the Puritan traditions handed down from our New England forebears.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

 

Movie Review: The Incredibles (2004)


Title: The Incredibles
Release Date: November 5, 2004
Director: Brad Bird
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

On the flight home from our honeymoon in Italy, my bride and were separated by Alitalia and seated at opposite ends of the economy cabin.  My loss was assuaged a bit by being able to stretch my legs under the curtain into first class, dining on wine and cheese, and watching The Incredibles on tv.   With a sequel released this summer, I thought it worthwhile to watch again. Probably relaxation and wine were my chief accomplishments of that flight because I didn’t remember the movie all that well.

Set in a stylized 1960s, The Incredibles recreates the golden era of superhero comics, but asks the question of what it would be like if superheroes married, raised a family, and tried to live a normal life.  The drama of the movie is inaugurated by Mr. Incredible’s mid-life crisis which draws him back into the superhero game behind Elastigirls’ back.  When he gets in above his head, she has to come bail him out and their children Violet and Dash get to use their powers to fight crime for the first time.  It’s a great movie that works on many levels, and in typical Pixar fashion has a lot of humor and a lot of heart.

For all the retro design of The Incredibles, I find it interesting how much it presaged the boom of superhero comic movies of the past decade and a half. In the interim between The Incredibles and The Incredibles II there has been 3 Spider-Man films (one finishing a trilogy and two from a reboot), 3 Fantastic Four films (including a reboot), Superman Returns, Christoper Nolan’s Batman trilogy, 9 X-Men films, 5 DC Extended Universe films, the entire 19 film run of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and others I’m forgetting.  The Incredibles‘ focus on interpersonal relationships within the family, a villain inadvertently created by the hero’s actions, and a society that seeks to reign in rather than celebrate people with powers are all facets that make it a forerunner of contemporary superhero movies.

Rating: ****

City Stories #1 – The Pigeons


City Stories is a new semi-regular feature where I will write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. This series is inspired by the writings of Max Grinnell, The Urbanologist. The first City Story takes place in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

My grandparents lived in the most boring place in the world.

Correction, my grandparents’ apartment was the most boring place, set in the middle of the world’s most exciting and vibrant city in the world.  My grandparents’ apartment was on the 23rd floor of the western building of the Towers of Bay Ridge, right where the Belt Parkway splits from the Gowanus Expressway.  My sister and I spent many a childhood weekend seeking some escape from the boredom that permeated from every corner of that apartment, including through the plastic-covered sofa.

As a child visiting this apartment – especially when it wasn’t Christmastime when at least there were new toys to play with – entertainment was hard to come by.  Television was the preferred source of diversion, but it wasn’t always available to us as my grandparents were watching their programs, or otherwise forbidden us from watching. Taking out the garbage was always a welcome chore as it meant being able to drop bags of rubbish one by one down a chute to a compactor in the basement.  After disposing our trash, we could keep the door to the chute open and if we were lucky we could see trash falling from higher stories and take the chance of trying to catch some.

Once these options were exhausted, my sister and I diverged on what to do next.  She often ended up in our uncle’s former room, excavating old issues of Mad magazine that were still piled in his closet.  I made my way to the terrace – what my grandparents called the small concrete balconies that clung tenuously to the brick facade of the Towers.  From here I could get a view of  New York City’s famous skyline, bridges, and even a tiny green dot I knew was the Statue of Liberty. I could also see a massive bus yard, where half-concealed by a building, I got a tantalizing view of what looked like red London-style double-decker buses, but could never verify for sure if that’s what they were. *

Eventually, one of our grandparents would have to take us outside. If it was our grandmother, we would typically end up in the Tower’s playground. The centerpiece of this playground was a geodesic half-dome one could climb up and dangle by one’s knees, knowing that should one fall, one’s head would be protected by a thin layer of rubber spread over the asphalt.

I always preferred it when our grandfather took us out. We would escape the Brutalist hellscape of the Towers for a stroll into the more human-scaled row houses and shops along Third Avenue. Our destination was The Three Jolly Pigeons. In the official nomenclature of restaurateurs, The Three Jolly Pigeons is classified as an “Old Man Bar.” True to form, the Pigeons (as my grandfather always called it) featured a long bar of a dark wood with a line of rickety stools, lots of oak paneling, and stained glass windows and light fixtures. The back room was separated from the main bar by a particularly attractive wood-panel and stained-glass partition.

My grandfather was an old man so naturally an “Old Man Bar” suited him. But I’m going to tell you something about my grandfather that I didn’t know. My grandfather was an alcoholic, and a particularly troubled one at that. One of my earliest memories of him was visiting the hospital after he crashed his car on Brooklyn Bridge. The “car crash” and “drunk driving” didn’t connect for me until years later. Children were not allowed to visit the patients’ rooms, so instead we stood outside waving at the window where purportedly my grandfather was waving to us. I was never quite sure that I actually saw him or was even waving at the correct window.

The stories I would later hear of his drunken anger and violence never matched the cuddly old man who’d bring us to this lovely oasis, buy us a glass of Coke, and give us quarters for the arcade games that we could enjoy while he spoke to his bookie. Yes, this is the other thing that I didn’t know at the time. It was not normal for one’s grandfather to regularly meet with a bookie, and I’d learn later that the other adults in our family were not aware of this habit. This is probably because he never said to anything like “Don’t tell anyone I’m seeing my bookie,” because then we totally would’ve ratted him out rather than going along as if it were normal.

But let’s return to those glasses of Coke and arcade games. The Coke was dispensed from a fountain over the rocks into a small glass. I can’t verify this, but it is my belief that the Coke served at the Three Jolly Pigeons was the best tasting Coke anywhere. The bartender would set our Cokes at the end of the bar for us to pick up and from there we made out way through the partition to the back room.

The entertainment equipment in the back room changed from time to time, but the mainstay was a coin-operated bowling game. The shuffleboard-style game was built on a long waist-high table (or shoulder-high table if you were under ten) along which one would slide a heavy, metallic puck. The bowling pins hung from a cabinet at the far end, and the puck wouldn’t actually come in contact with the pins, but you could knock them over if the puck slid over what looked like giant staples under each pin. The surface of the table was very slick and one could make the heavy puck move wickedly fast, smashing into the wall at the far end with a satisfying crash, and rebounding into one’s palm.

Over the years, I got very good at this game. Fueled by Cokes and quarters, I smashed my way into the ranks of shuffleboard bowling greats. Or so I’d like to imagine. I never saw another game like this until about a decade later while in a pub in St. George, Bermuda. I challenged my compatriots to a game and drawing on my skill honed at the Pigeons, I won a round of beer. In another timeline, I may have gone pro as a shuffleboard bowler.

In my memory, it was always daylight when we went to the Pigeons. The late afternoon sun shone through the stain-glassed windows with the multi-color rays tinted by smoke and dust in the air. I can still see the silhouettes of my grandfather and his bookie sitting across from one another at the table by the window in a mostly empty bar. But there’s one occasion I recall being at the pigeons after dark and in a crowded room, on the day after Thanksgiving when the sun sets early. I’ve never paid much attention to college football, but while waiting for another Coke at the bar, by chance I happened to look up at the tv to see Doug Flutie’s famous “Hail Mary” pass. There was some celebration among the assemblage of old men and I before they returned to their beers, and I returned to bowling.

Unlike many places from my childhood for which I have fond memories, the Three Jolly Pigeons still survives in Bay Ridge. Reading the reviews online, it’s hailed as a great place to see rock bands and karaoke, two things I could never imagine in the Pigeons of my time. But I like to think that in the dying rays of afternoon sunlight, the old men still gather to nurse a quiet drink, confer with their bookie, and perhaps buy a Coke for their grandkids.

 

 

* Seriously, this was decades before double-decker buses were used for sightseeing tours in New York City. If anyone could verify if and why these buses were in New York circa 1980-1984, I will love you forever.

Movie Review: Avatar (2009)


TitleAvatar
Release Date: December 10, 2009
Director: James Cameron
Production Company: Lightstorm Entertainment | Dune Entertainment | Ingenious Media
Summary/Review:

Avatar is a movie that has the unique distinction of being one of the top-grossing movies of all time while simultaneously being a movie that no one seems to like all that much.  I decided to finally watch it in small bits over five nights until I drifted off to sleep.  That I kept falling asleep during this movie is more of indication that I’m old and tired than that the movie is boring, but it should be noted that it is excessively long.

The gist of the movie if you’re not aware is that corporate interests from Earth want to exploit the natural resources of a moon called Pandora, but they find that the indigenous peoples, the Na’vi, in the way.  A team of biologists lead by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) negotiate with the Na’vi by genetically engineering Na’vi bodies which they control remotely through their minds.  The protagonist of the film is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disabled Marine who is called into use the avatar of his deceased twin brother.

The story has Sully gradually question his role in exploiting the Na’vi as he comes to learn more of their culture and falls in love with a female Na’vi named Neytiri.  It’s a message movie, but one that fails to hold the conviction of it’s messages (exploitation of indigenous people, imperialism, environmental destruction), and instead falls into tropes of the “white savior” complex and “explosions are cool.”

This is a very militaristic movie, and curiously the technology and behavior of the military forces in the movie are so similar to those depicted in Cameron’s Aliens, that I wonder if the two stories are set in the same universe.  There’s no subtly at all in this story, and in addition to the other “messages” in the movie the military are depicted basically reenacting atrocities from Vietnam and Iraq.

What stands out from this movie are the stunning visuals of the world of Pandora.  The movie is probably a bit better if I saw it in 3-D on a big screen as intended.  The best parts of the movie are when the narrative slows down and we the audience get to just explore the environment and learn about the Na’vi, even if these scenes add a lot to the movies length.  There weren’t Netflix series in 2009, but I kind of wonder if the whole story would’ve been more interesting if they had time to develop the world and characters rather than falling back on tired cliches to accompany the special effects. On the other hand, I’m not sure if Worthington’s acting would improve any.

Rating: **

Podcasts of the Week Ending June 16


Here’s what’s in my ears for this week so now it may be in your ears too!

WBUR News :: Capuano’s Challenge From Pressley Is Called A Fight For ‘The Soul Of The Democratic Party’

Insight into the inertia within the Massachusetts Democratic Party that holds back new ideas and new blood.

BackStory :: The Camera Never Lies?

The history of the early use of photography in journalism and the challenge for it to get accepted by the public.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: THX Deep Note

The history of THX, the certification process to guarantee a high quality audio experience for moviegoers created by George Lucas. It includes the story of how the famous deep note played before movies was composed.

Upon Further Review :: What if Tom Brady Never Became the Patriot’s Quarterback?

Backup quarterback Tom Brady became a Patriots legend when he took over for injured starter Drew Bledsoe midway through the 2001 season and lead the team to their first Super Bowl victory. This “what if” podcasts takes us to a world where that never happened in the form of a spot-on parody of a Boston sports radio call-in

Planet Money :: Ungerrymandering Florida

The effort to stop partisan gerrymandering and creating fairer representative districts.

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)


TitleThor: Ragnarok
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Director: Taika Waititi
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The third Thor movie (I haven’t seen the other two) and the 17th Marvel Cinematic Universe is a bonkers romp in superhero fantasy tropes. After Odin’s passing, Thor and Loki (kinda) need to prevent Ragnarok, the prophesied destruction of Asgard. They get sidetracked to a planet of garbage that is home to gladiatorial combat hosted by the Grandmaster. There they team up with Hulk and a drunken but still badass Valkyrie to finally make their way to Asgard to fight off Thor’s previously unknown sister Hela and her army of the dead.

This movie is defined by its bizarre tangents and the humor of the unexpected. The regulars – Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Mark Ruffalo – all dive into their parts, enjoying the opportunity to something more with their characters. Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the Grandmaster, Tessa Thompson is a terrific Valkyrie (I hope she’s a returning character), and Cate Blanchett is appropriately over the top in her evilness, and disarmingly sexy while doing so.

Rating: ****

2018 FIFA World Cup Rooting Preferences


The FIFA World Cup starts today.  I’ve been finding it hard to find the enthusiasm I usually have this year partly because corrupt FIFA is holding the tournament in corrupt Russia.  (Finding out that North America will be getting a share of that corruption, er, soccer excitement in 2026 takes away the sting a little bit).  Of course it also sucks that the USA failed (miserably) to qualify, and my backup squads in Ireland and the Netherlands are also staying home.

With that it mind here is who I’ll be rooting for in each group (I’m not event going to make an attempt to predict the outcome for this thing):

Group A – Egypt is the natural underdog here, appearing in their first Cup in 28 years with their superstar Mohamed Salah.  I also have a fondness for Uruguay, who tend to punch above their weight in the soccer world.

Hoped for outcome: Uruguay, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia

Group B – No strong feelings in any direction here.  I’ve come to appreciate Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal through reading children’s biographies.  I also like to see African teams succeed.

Hoped for outcome: Portugal, Morocco, Spain, and Iran.

Group C – Peru emerged from the tough South American qualifying group for their first World Cup in 36 years and thus the natural feel-good story for this group.  I also have a fondness for Australia as the antipodean counterpart of the US national team.

Hoped for outcome: Australia, Peru, France, and Denmark.

Group D –  OMG, how can you root for anyone but Iceland!  I’m also hoping Lionel Messi can do something good in what is likely his final World Cup.

Hoped for outcome: Iceland, Argentina, Nigeria, and Croatia.

Group E – Costa Rica won hearts and minds, if not quite enough games in 2014.  Let’s hope they bring the CONCACAF Thunder in 2018! And may Brazil atone for their embarrassment versus Germany.

Hoped for outcome: Costa Rica, Brazil, Switzerland, and Serbia.

Group F – I know I’m supposed to hate Mexico, but, screw it, I’m rooting for Mexico.

Hoped for outcome: Mexico, South Korea, Germany, and Sweden.

Group G – Panama qualified for their first World Cup at the USA’s expense, so they’d better make it worth it.  No strong feelings on the rest of this group, but it seems deserving for England to make an early Brexit.

Hoped for outcome: Panama, Belgium, Tunisia, and England.

Group H – Colombia was another exciting team in 2014 that I’d like to see go farther this year.

Hoped for outcome: Colombia, Senegal, Japan, and Poland.

 

And if any of this comes to pass, I’ll be the most surprised.

Are you watching the World Cup this year? If so, who are you rooting for?  Let me know in the comments!

2018 Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon #BAT2018


On Sunday, June 10th, my daughter Kay (a.k.a. “The Toothless Wonder”) and I rode in the Bikes Not Bombs 31st Annual Bike-A-Thon.  The ride helps raise funds for Bikes Not Bombs’ social justice programs in Boston and abroad.

We met our goal for fundraising (including for my son Peter who was not able to participate), but Bikes Not Bombs is still accepting donations if you wish to contribute.

It was a beautiful day to ride, and except for the steep uphills right at the beginning, it was a terrific ride.

 

Read about our previous Bike-A-Thons in 2011, 201320152016, and 2017.

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)


Title: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Release Date: April 4, 2014
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

This is the second Captain America movie and the ninth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The MCU works best when it adapts it’s superhero movies to different genres, and this one attempts a political conspiracy thriller, as Steve Rogers and his cohort uncover Hydra’s long-term plot to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. With one of the more streamlined casts in the MCU oeuvre ,Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff  and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury get a whole lot more screentime, and thus more interesting things to do with their characters.  This movie also introduces Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson / Falcon, an interesting character who in retrospect doesn’t get enough attention in the following movies.  Sebastian Stan returns as the Winter Soldier (aka brainwashed Bucky Barnes) and doesn’t do much more than shoot and punch, but it does give a background to Bucky’s role in future movies. The plot of this movie is well done, but there’s a lot more firing machine guns and blowing stuff up than I find interesting. More isn’t always better even in an action movie, but the Russos have a workman-like approach that lacks the artistry of some other MCU directors.

Rating: **1/2

Comic Book Reviews: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur (2016-2017)


Lunella Lafayette is a 9-year-old genius who is bored with school and fears her Inhuman genes.  When a giant, red T-Rex enters her life, she takes her first step into becoming the youngest superhero.

Author:Amy Reeder (Author) and Natacha Bustos (Illustrator)
Title: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur Vol. 1: BFF
Publication Info: Marvel (2016)
Summary/Review:  This book slowly introduces Lunella and how she gets acquainted with Devil Dinosaur.  Seriously, this is why I read compilation books because if read single issues with those “cliffhangers,” I’d tear them in rage.  Lunella is an interesting smart kid character, a bit snooty, but with a lot of internal conflict.  Devil Dinosaur travels into the present with a group of cavemen, an historical inaccuracy I’ll overlook, if only because the cavemen then become a street gang known as the Killer-Folk.  Much like other comics I’ve read recently (Ms. Marvel, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl), a famed Marvel Comics hero makes a cameo appearance to advise Lunella.  In this case it’s Hulk, who apparently can speak in full sentences in this universe.

Rating: **1/2


Author: Amy Reeder (Author),  Marco Failla (Illustrator), and Natacha Bustos (Illustrator)
TitleMoon Girl and Devil Dinosaur Vol. 2: Cosmic Cooties
Publication Info: Marvel (2017)
Summary/Review: Lunella finally succumbs to the Terrigen Cloud and her Inhuman power is not a desirable one (SPOILER: she switches minds with Devil Dinosaur and has no control of when it happens).  In other news, Mel-Varr, a.k.a. Marvin Ellis, a.k.a. Kidd Kree, a 9-year-old trying to prove his place among the Kree by capturing Moon Girl, makes life difficult for her both at school and during her crime fighting activities at night.  Ms. Marvel even has to step in and break up their squabbles.  It’s a good story arc with a lot of humor and a lot of pathos.

Rating: ***1/2