Category Archives: At Home

A Swing Set Swinger

This girl is a swinger…

…and a slider…

…and a see sawer.

So when her grandmother (my wife, affectionately known as Mimi) mentioned that she needed to get a swing set for her own backyard, it was absolutely the most logical thing. Just her granddaddy (me), the person who routinely takes her to the Children’s Museum each week where she gets to play on these things indoors, never thought of it. But thanks to Grandmother’s forethought and initiative, this was remedied this past spring.

This box was delivered to my son’s house just before spring break when her parents would both be off from school. Rather than picking up my granddaughter for our usual Wednesday afternoon together at the Children’s Museum, I came over for the assembly process at my son’s house.

As we removed the pieces from the box, my granddaughter thought it was great fun to get in the middle of things, even though she had no clue as to what the final product would be. But this partially assembled slide seemed as good a place as any from which to watch the action unfold.

The first step was to assemble the cross bar from four separate pieces that had to be tightly screwed together. Interconnecting the first two, my son and I failed to notice that the bar had been engineered to have a top side and a bottom side. And wouldn’t you know, as luck would have it, the first two bars came together very tightly with one side up and one side down. This was due to my tendency not to read over the entire directions prior to assembly in spite of how instructions always say to do so (this was certainly not the first time I had had to dissemble something to reassemble if correctly). We labored over getting them separated for quite a while until my son came upon the idea of spraying some WD40 on them to get them separated. That worked well although our hands were slightly slippery after that.

From then on, we tried to pay close attention to the fine details in the directions where such helpful notes were highlighted. In a relatively short time, we had the frame assembled.

At this point, my granddaughter may have begun to recognize what her daddy and granddaddy were putting together with hammers, screwdrivers, and wrenches.

To confirm her suspicions, we attached a couple of swings and quickly my granddaughter was ready to have some fun.

After that, we couldn’t put the rest of the swing set together fast enough.

Once we had assembled the two different gliders, we had enough swings for the whole family to swing on.

All that remained was the slide and the see saw.

And before we could even attach the slide to the frame of the swing set, my granddaughter was already climbing the ladder to slide down.

Playing on a see saw is one of my granddaughter’s favorite activities at the Children’s Museum, the spot she usually goes first as soon as we arrive. So when she realized she was getting one of those too, she jumped down on the yellow seat before I could even attach the fulcrum to the side frame. Trying as hard as I might, I could not attach it with her sitting on it.  When we lifted her off, she sadly burst into tears. So we had to finish as fast as we could so she could get back to her fun.

It ended up taking us about six hours to complete the swing set, just about the time the online reviews indicated it would take to assemble it, that is once you subtract the time it took us to separate the first two pieces. Fully assembled, the swing set was larger than any our kids had growing up. But Grandmother had wisely chosen one that all three of our grandkids could play on together at the same time when they were in town.

Since installing the swing set, our granddaughter has had literally hours of pleasure swinging in her own backyard. Now when I bring her home from Parent’s Day Out, one of the first things she does is head to the back door to go out and swing.

Now she just has to wait for her two cousins to come to town so all three can play together. And when they do, my wife will have realized her dream of seeing all three of our grandkids having a great time swinging together. What fun we have to look forward to.

Thanks Mimi!

Building Books – A Surprise!

On multiple occasions, I have written of my interest in learning about how different things were built by reading a book about the project. Loving all forms of transportation, in particular, cars, trains, and airplanes, I wrote last year of my long-standing desire to read about the building of the railroads in the US during the 19th century but how my efforts had been thwarted. I had purchased and read several books about railroads but had not gotten the story I wanted. As I said in that post:

What I really wanted to read about was the early tycoon days of how the railroads were built, the competition that ensued, and the rail barons that consolidated the many smaller roads into monopolistic larger lines.

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This is the book I put on my Amazon Wish List in November 2012. Reading the book description gave me the impression this was the story I really wanted to read.   But unfortunately, before I could purchase this book, it went out of print and has remained so ever since.

Then early last September, a package arrived at our house that by the look of the packaging and the feel of its contents, it was a book. Knowing that our youngest son had recently started graduate school and was purchasing his schoolbooks online, I ripped open the package thinking it was just another textbook he needed for his graduate studies.

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But when I pulled it from the package, I got a big surprise—it was the book I had been wanting for almost four years.

My first thought was I had accidently spoiled a Christmas surprise for me (not the first time I had done that either). I next asked my wife if she had bought it for me to which she replied no. I then discreetly asked all three of our children if they had started their Christmas shopping early. Again the answer was no.

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Then a few days later, I got a text from my brother asking if a package had arrived at the house. I replied that one had but that I had opened it potentially spoiling the surprise. He said it was a surprise but that he intended for me to open it as soon as it arrived. He explained it was not an early Christmas or birthday present but just a gift. After reading the disappointment in my voice evident from my blog post about not being able to purchase it, he had sought the book out and bought it for me. What a brother!   And what a gift for what he found turned out to be a very gently used copy in excellent condition!

With book in hand, it quickly moved up my list of books to read. And read I did.

Although this booked started similarly to the one I read last year in covering the fact that many of the railroads were originally laid out along old Indian trails or stagecoach routes, I could tell this one would be different as it included a multi-page preface of the cast of characters—the railroads and the railroaders key to this telling of the history of railroads in the US.

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And skipping over a few pages, I could see that it included maps that would help visualize the proposed routes of the eventual railroads.

I was not long into the book, having been introduced to some of the early tycoons that I learned of their consistent strategy. Obtain a lucrative land grant from Congress, incorporate a railroad company, name a president and other key players, vote to sell bonds or stock, and then begin construction with said funds. Since all of the land grants came with a stipulation of a certain amount of mileage completed between destinations within a certain time frame, there developed fierce competition between rival rails. And the frantic building pace frequently left the railroads in a precarious financial position with insolvency ever looming.

In fact some times “paper railroads” would be incorporated just for the sole purpose of bluffing a competitor into taking certain actions along a route or to motivate a consolidation of lines.

While a prominent milestone in the book I read last year was the famous driving of the golden spike by the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific in Promontory Point, Utah in 1869, that event occurred in this book before I was even 1/3 of the way through. And what was even more interesting was the little known and often-ignored fact (disclosed in this book) that while claiming to be the first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific had not yet bridged the 1,500-foot span across the Missouri River (Until their bridge was completed almost three years later, traffic was conveyed across the water by ferry). Rather it was the final spike of the Kansas Pacific railroad at Comanche Crossing Colorado in 1870 that marked the true completion of the first uninterrupted transcontinental railroad between the Atlantic and Pacific.

Featured prominently in this book was the contentious battle between the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad and the Denver and Rio Grande railroad as well as others. Two separate struggles through narrow passes in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona highlighted the stealth and aggressive tactics executives from each company would pursue, even to the point of gunfire to claim the pass for themselves. Ultimately it was multiple court decisions all the way to the Supreme Court that settled the dispute. But not before I got a real taste of the rail baron shenanigans I was looking for.

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But these conflicts were just a prelude for bigger competition. Not long afterwards, the Santa Fe and Frisco joined forces to attempt to build the third transcontinental railroad. Thwarting their efforts were none other than the Big Four out of California (Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford). And once Jay Gould began to work with the Big Four rather than against them, they proved a formidable opponent. It was exactly the battle royal among barons that I had wanted to read about. Ultimately it was the shrewd maneuvers and financial muscle of the Big Four that won the day preventing the Santa Fe from laying track into California. Left with the only option of cooperating with the Big Four, the Santa Fe and Frisco became part of a combined route with Gould and the Big Four.

But it wasn’t just the rail barons that fought aggressively with each other; towns along the proposed routes “politicked” hard to become the next rail boomtown. Recognizing the benefits to their local economy and their escalating land value, town fathers (who frequently had vast land holdings that would appreciate in value) offered enticing incentives for the railroads to choose their town. This heightened the struggle even further when competing railroads would “court” the same towns.

It was with sadness when I neared the end of this book for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, I knew how the story was going to end. While the race across the continent began in earnest during the Civil War and the expansion of the railroad network grew dramatically for the next 50 years, it was their extreme useful during World War I and II that marked the rare high-water marks that stood out among their years of decline. After World War II, it was the swiftness of the jet airplane and the individualized mobility of the automobile that doomed passenger rail service, a service I would have loved to enjoy had I been born just 15 years earlier.

Beginning in the 1950s, no longer were railroads consolidating to form mega-monopoly empires but rather merging as the only means of survival in a redefined era of freight transport sans passenger service.

Secondly, sadness that the story itself had come to an end for this book well told the tale I had wanted to read. The exciting times of railroad growth in the 19th century, the challenges the railroaders encountered in building through the mountainous west, and the machinations of the rail barons, the shrewd tactics they pursued, and the political moves they employed to build their empires all made for an extremely interesting saga. Closing the cover of the book, I felt I had learned a tremendous amount of this history, I had been entertained, and I had most certainly satisfied my quest for knowing more of this story.

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So thanks Bro, for a most satisfying surprise gift!

Four Years Blogging

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Wow, four years!

When I started this blog post on February 9th, 2013, I never envisaged I would still be publishing these four years later and yet I have been coming to you every Sunday morning since then, 208 in a row now. I know a number of my loyal followers—and I thank you heartily—have been with me from the very beginning and have willing read each and every one of my muses, graciously overlooking my occasional bad grammar or poor sentence structure. But also along the way, I have picked up some additional followers who blog themselves and then there is the occasional reader that happens to find my topic of the week of interest to them.

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To all of you I say a great big THANK YOU. It is with this knowledge of your continued reading as well as your encouraging and thoughtful comments that motivates me to write these weekly posts. For me, it is exciting to awake each Sunday morning and think of the possibility of people all over the world reading my latest post when it publishes.

But in spite of all your encouragement, I must admit that there was a time last summer when I didn’t think I was going to make it to this four-year anniversary. When I looked down my list of topics still to write on, there just weren’t that many left. As my existing readers know, I primarily started this blog to tell my story to my kids, my family members and my friends before I lost these old memories. This was my “Black Book” project (click here for an explanation). I also write on travel, vacations, reading, projects, cars, grand parenting, and sometimes just random things (my Entropy category). Many of these topics I saw that I had already covered extensively.

So I really began to rack my brain to come up with additional topics.

But then an event occurred that opened up a whole new category of exploration—the announced closing of my work site and as a result, my pending retirement. This along with a number of other new ideas that came to mind, as well as the milestone of hitting 60 years of age last year, gave me additional topics to script.

Credit: Saveup.com

Credit: Saveup.com

And write I did! At one point last fall, I had 16 posts written and scheduled for future weekly publishing with about six more drafted. I felt the goal of continuing my blogging through a fourth year was well within reach.

Credit: runforecaster.com

Credit: runforecaster.com

And then additional events transpired that I wanted to blog about soon after the event occurred.

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Some of my previously scheduled posts followed a sequential order and so I began to have to shuffle multiple ones around to squeeze in new posts. Some posts could not be moved, as they were most relevant for a certain date (for example, Toys on Christmas Day). Before I knew it, after two or three shuffles, some of my existing posts got pushed out several months into 2017.

I guess from a bloggers perspective, this was a good problem to have. In fact the words you are reading now, I wrote over four months ago after I had written and scheduled almost all of my future posts through this February date.

By nature, I am an early starter; I never like rushing at the last minute to finish a project that is due. Even when I first began to blog, I typically liked to have my posts written and scheduled a couple of weeks in advance. That way, if something unexpected came up during the week that prevented me from finding the time to write, I still wouldn’t feel pressured to be trying to finish a post on Saturday night, just hours before its planned publishing.

The down side of this most recent strategy last year was that once I finished what I thought was a particularly good post, I sometimes had to wait several months to get feedback from my readers if it was in fact worthy. There were even times when I had to read my own post on Sunday morning just to remember what I had written.

So having reached this fourth year milestone, my plan is to continue weekly posts. However, it just seems at some point, I am going to hit a wall where nothing comes to mind to write on. But if I can just make it until I retire later this year, I will have even more time to brainstorm ideas. And with more free time, hopefully I will also be doing even more interesting things to blog about.

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So cheers to another year of blogging!

Best Books of 2016 – Chapter Five

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Ever since reading Rat Pack Confidential by Shawn Levy, I had wanted to read a book about some of my favorite movie stars such as Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. But it was several factors that prompted me to read this one entitled, Paul Newman: A Life by Shawn Levy first. Interestingly, it was actually an interview with Richard Russo about Russo’s latest book, Everybody’s Fool (which I also read this year) that got me thinking about Paul Newman.

If you are not familiar with Russo’s previous book about the same characters, Nobody’s Fool, then you may not have seen the movie of the same name based on his book. In the movie, Newman played the affable character Sully. In the interview, Russo had glowing comments amount Newman’s performance as Sully and how he brought so much more into the character than was in the book (Newman had also been cast in the TV version of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Empire Falls). Russo’s one somber note was that he was sad that Newman wouldn’t be around for an encore performance of Sully if his latest book were made into a movie.

Ultimately the reason that I picked this particular book first is because it was another one-day $1.99 BookBub offer and the clincher was that it was written by the same author as the Rat Pack book I’d read which I had thoroughly enjoyed.

For a book that was not an authorized biography, this is a surprisingly complete and revealing story of Paul Newman. Despite multiple unsuccessful attempts to gain access to Newman, Levy assembled a well researched and detailed chronology of Newman’s life based predominately on previously published interviews and events that had occurred throughout Newman’s life. And there was much to that life that I never knew.

It was interesting to read how many of the movies Newman stared in came to be and what some of the reviews were once it was released. I particularly enjoyed reading how he interacted with Richard Russo on their collaborations together given the insight I had gained from his book interview. But there is so much beyond his acting career that I found of interest.

Newman was a car-loving guy just like me. But Newman extended that love of cars to racing as well where through much training and practice over several years, he became quite good at racing. In fact there were times when he put his acting career on hold to pursue racing and was rewarded with several wins. Newman was still racing into his 70s so it was a life-long sport he participated in. This love of racing also led to him sponsoring racing teams where he wasn’t always the sole driver.

But probably the two most impressive aspects about his life that I didn’t know was his philanthropy and his ability in spite of the “Hollywood-odds”, to celebrate 50 years of marriage, albeit with his second wife.

First, based on my own experience, I know that being married to the same person for 50 years is a tremendous accomplishment that requires continual dedication and commitment. My parents achieved it, my in-laws achieved it and it is an event I hope my wife and I will be able to celebrate as well. Among movie stars, it is a most rare occurrence.

Second, we are all familiar with “Newman’s Own” brand of salad dressing and spaghetti sauce, but it was amazing how this business that donates all profits to charity got started and what it has grown into today. But something I had completely no knowledge of was the camps for kids that Newman built all over the world originally for ill children but then expanded to other children in need. It is a legacy that continues today, one of Newman’s proudest accomplishments.

Paul Newman died in September 2008 and Levy’s book ends with Paul’s last recorded words. When I read those words, they brought tears to my eyes and a whole new found respect for the life Paul Newman led and the legacy he left behind. It’s a rare Hollywood story that reads so well.

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For my classic this year, I read Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea. There were several reasons I chose this one. First, last year I heard his daughter, Mariel Hemingway speak at a benefit dinner. The stories she told piqued my interest in reading some her dad’s books.

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Then when the US began to lift sanctions on Cuba and opened up US travel to there, I heard numerous news stories about the house where Hemingway lived and wrote. Often mentioned was this book and since it was his Pulitzer Prize winner, I thought it would make a good choice.

As with my other recent classic reads, I did not read this one in high school. But considering that it is only about 120 pages, it shouldn’t be a burden on a high school student. Even as slow a reader as I am, I read it in a single sitting in about 2.5 hours.

Other than the title, I knew nothing about this book except that it was about an old fisherman. For me, at times it tended to bog down as the old man endured wave after wave of hardship. But towards the end, I began to turn the pages more rapidly as I anxiously awaited the climax of the story. When I compare this classic to the ones I have read in previous years, I would say I liked this one the least. However, with a classroom led discussion, I am sure I would get more out of the too-short story.

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I hoped you enjoyed my book reviews this year. If I piqued your interest enough to read one, then my efforts have been worthwhile. But if you read one and thoroughly enjoy it as much as I did, then it will have brought pleasure to both of us. Because there is nothing better than a great book!

Best Books of 2016 – Chapter Four

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What an incredible story. Most everyone has heard about or is at least familiar with the tale of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped below ground and then rescued in 2010. Deep, Down, Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Hector Tobar tells the true story of what actually happened. By special arrangement, only Tobar, along with the makers of the recently released movie, The 33 (2015), had unlimited access to the miners, their families, and the miners written and photographic documents after their rescue. And even though the eventual outcome of this historical event is fairly well known, the details are not.

The book breaks down the story into three phases. First, following the collapse in early August, those on the surface are left to discover if there are any survivors. This involves an almost “fishing-expedition” like process drilling in search of the men. Then once evidence is discovered that the miners did in fact survive, the story swings into the multiple herculean efforts under taken to keep them alive and bring the miners out. Then once freed, the book describes how each miner individually fared following their celebrity status once they were pulled 2,100 feet from below ground.

It’s a story of extreme survival and rescue on par with Uruguay’s rugby team that crashed into the Andes Mountains, as told in the book and movie by the same name, Alive. If you enjoyed that book, you definitely won’t want to miss this one either.

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I just love Richard Russo’s writing. So when I learned that he had published a new book in 2016, Everybody’s Fool, I was delighted. When I learned that it was a continuation of a story he had published years earlier, Nobody’s Fool, I was ecstatic.   If you have not read Richard Russo before, I would start with Empire Falls, his Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Then start at the beginning and read all of his books. You’ll find that Russo is not a prolific writer like Cussler or Patterson who churn out book after book. No this is where quality over quantity definitely really matters.

This story interestingly covers a period of less than 48 hours, about 10 years after the time of the first book. But an enthralling 48 hours it is with numerous divergences back in time that bring richness and understanding of the lives of the characters. And from the opening pages to the very end, there are several story lines that twist and turn and in the end, each is illuminated.

Throughout my reading of this book, it was impossible not to picture Paul Newman—cast as Sully in the movie Nobody’s Fool—whenever the story turned to Sully’s troubles. Sadly he won’t be available if they turn this latest book into a movie. But even sadder was when I turned the last page of this book and realized it was over. All I can hope is that Russo is working on another new novel.

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A fiction novelist could not have concocted and written a more unbelievable story. And yet this book, The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald is a well-documented, non-fiction accounting of the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) price-fixing scandal of the mid-1990s. When I saw this title pop up on my daily Book Bub and read the brief description, I knew it was a must read. I recalled back to when the story first broke in the news and followed all the updates with interest as several well-known pharmaceutical companies were also implicated in the conspiracy.

The book is filled with incredible details about the case from the very beginning to the dramatic and surprising conclusion. And along the way, the story takes unexpected and sometimes shocking twists and turns that nearly derail the entire covert operation. Although lengthy (over 650 pages), it will keep you turning page after page (numerous times I had to force myself to put the book down and go to bed) as you learn some of the activities the FBI informant, Mark Whitacre, an ADM executive undertook. Since it has been almost 20 years since the incident, I couldn’t recall the final outcome. So the ending was not a spoiler for me but a surprise finish.

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Again I’m pleased with my one of my $3.99 BookBub finds. Were it not for that, I don’t know that I would have heard of Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall: A Novel unless someone had recommended it to me. Well I am now recommending it to you, my reader.

In case you have not heard about this book, it is the story of a private plane that crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. This is not a spoiler; this is what we learn in the very beginning of the book. Then interspersed among intriguing chapters that progress and reveal the story following the crash are other chapters about each occupant on the plane, providing some relevant background on them, and then how they each ended up on that plane.

The ultimate cause of the crash is not revealed until the very end of the book amid a controversial side plot so it will keep you in suspense throughout. I couldn’t put this book down (well one time I had to because I ran my iPad down to 1% battery left). It was fortunate that I started reading it over Labor Day weekend because I could read unhindered by the call of work. I finished it in three days. You may not read it this fast; but you’ll want to—or even faster.

To be continued…

Best Books of 2016 – Chapter Three

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I became a fan of Erik Larson after reading Devil in the White City several years ago, which was only reinforced once I read his book Thunderstruck. So when I saw that he had published another book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, I quickly added it to my wish list. I was not disappointed.

It is truly amazing to me how Larson can write non-fiction that reads like a novel, almost as if he were an eyewitness. His account keeps you enthralled from beginning to end and even though I knew how this story ended, it was still a page-turner for me. As usual, Larson interwove several related stories together to give multiple perspectives of the tragedy that occurred. The one story that surprised me the most was a love story that I knew nothing about, one that could have been a significant distraction to a key player within the story.

Jumping from parallel story lines in London, Paris, Washington and the north Atlantic Ocean, as the events unfolded I found myself hoping against hope for a different ending. But his telling is true to reality. Even when I got to the eventual climax of the tale, I couldn’t put the book down as my heart rate quickened as the disaster unfolded.

In the epilog, it was truly amazing to read all the “what ifs” that could have resulted in the story playing out significantly in a less tragic way. While one mystery of why the ship sank so quickly was largely explained, the overall puzzle as to why the attack occurred in the first place given the secret knowledge that was gained at the time will remain much in the fog that weather-wise, could have prevented the loss in the first place. Finishing the book left me thirsting for another Erik Larson.

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It was with immense excitement when I discovered that before he died, Jack Finney had written this sequel to his cult classic time travel book, Time and Again, a book written in 1970 and one that I had thoroughly enjoyed reading based on a recommendation from Stephen King in his time travel book 11/23/63.

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Before purchasing though, I checked out a few of the reviews and found them to be polar opposites. Having thoroughly enjoyed the first book, I decided to judge for myself, bought it, and chose to read it on vacation when I could enjoy long, uninterrupted periods of reading time.

As with the first book, this one wove actual historical events into the time travels of the protagonist, Simon (Si) Morley who this time documented his adventures with a portable camera, a device unavailable in his previous travel to the New York of 1882, when he was forced to make sketches of his travels. In this latest book, the intrigue involves Si on a secret mission to 1912 in an attempt to alter events that play not only into the beginning of World War I, but also the fateful loss of that infamous ocean liner on its maiden voyage in April of 1912, two seemingly unrelated events.

Again in this book, the moral dilemma is raised of the unknown and inconceivable consequences of altering the course of history, only this time an outcome that could directly impact Simon’s son. I won’t reveal the outcome so as not to spoil the ending for those of you who may chose to read this second book. But having read both books now, I find myself squarely in the middle of the reviews half way between the polar opposite positive and negative reviews. I would highly recommend the first book, which I thoroughly enjoyed several years ago. As to the second, I will say in my opinion it is not as good as the first. But for someone intrigued with time travel, they are both books worth reading.

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A book that had been on my wish list for over a year—ever since I heard a podcast interview with its author, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong—was Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. But thanks to an Amazon one-day sale for $1.99, I snapped it up. While the author interview was what originally piqued my interest, what got me to add this book to my list in the first place was a nostalgic memory from the first year I was married when my wife and I would watch a rerun of the show every afternoon after work. So I read this book with a number of visual fond memories from the TV series.

The TV show originally aired on Saturday night from 1970 to 1977. These happened to be the years I was in high school and college, a time when I would not have been caught dead at home on a Saturday night watching TV, which explained why I never saw the shows when they were originally broadcast.

While of late, I’ve read a lot of history books, I’d never read a book about a TV show before so I didn’t quite know what to expect. But the book followed a very natural chronological progression. Opening with the story of Mary on the Dick Van Dyke show and following that, how the producers came together to develop the new show’s concept, what was most enjoyable to read was the casting of the characters. Even though I knew who would end up being the selected actor or actress in each case, it was surprising how many of them were selected almost in a serendipitous way.

Once the cast was set and writers secured, much of the book revolved around many of the challenges encountered developing and filming the show with frequent push back from the network bosses. It was most eye-opening getting the “back story” behind some of the more revolutionary episodes—subjects that were often being broached for the first time in a 1970s era TV show. For instance, in the pilot episode, Mary was originally supposed to be newly divorced but the network nixed that in favor of a recent break up with a long-term boyfriend.

One of the challenges for Mary was actually overcoming the image of her not being Dick Van Dyke’s wife, Laura Petrie, but rather being the independent, self-sufficient single woman she portrayed in her new show. This she actually did extraordinarily well. But what I didn’t know from just having seen the reruns 10 years after they aired was what a huge impact the show had on television at the time. In its relatively short seven year run, it garnered numerous awards and was second only to All in the Family in terms of weekly viewership. Moreover, it was the first to feature a woman cast as the main character and employed many women writers when men wrote the majority of shows.

When the story unfolded about the final season, the emotions of the cast, now a family, literally came through the words and it was with sadness that I read these last pages. But with all the inside information gained from having read this book, I am now motivated to go back and watch all 168 episodes of the show, something I should have time to do when I retire.

To be continued…

Best Books of 2016 – Chapter Two

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In contrast to the shorter James Bond books that I read earlier in 2016, I spent a number of weeks in the spring reading one book that was over 975 pages long. It was my sister’s recommendation that prompted me to read Vincent Van Gogh’s extensively detailed biography entitled Van Gogh: The Life written by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. I started this book well before my scheduled trip to Amsterdam in April hoping to finish it before visiting the Van Gogh Museum there.

Although I was only a little over half way through the book by the time I arrived at the museum in Amsterdam, having read much of the book tremendously enriched my experience in the museum. Over the 20+ years that I have been traveling to Amsterdam, I have been to the Van Gogh Museum many times. But none of those visits could compare to this most recent one.

It was truly amazing to me having seen so many of Van Gogh’s beautiful paintings that they could have been created by someone who for the most part led such an unhappy life. After numerous failed attempts of trying to find his way in the world from struggling to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a minister, to selling art like his brother Theo, it was very late in life that Vincent began to create his art. At first with pencil and pen and then later with paint, Vincent worked very hard to master this career.

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Through reading this book, I learned that Theo’s support of his brother for these artistic endeavors was much more extensive and lengthy than I ever knew. And of all of the Impressionist artists that he studied with or worked with as he developed his own unique style, many were either names I recognized or their paintings were familiar ones I had seen in the museum. But above all, as I gazed at the long-familiar Van Gogh paintings, it was with all of the new background knowledge that I had gained that allowed me to make direct connections between the art and his life allowing me to see the painting in a whole new light.

Sadly much of his work was under appreciated in his lifetime with the first sale of his art not occurring until the year he died. And only after his death, did his work come into the prominence that we recognize it for today. Thanks to this book, I had a whole new appreciation for that.

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A book I heard about on one of my podcasts was A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse by Theresa Levitt. And it was a very nice surprise to receive it as a Christmas gift from my oldest son and daughter-in-law since it was a book about building things, a type I thoroughly enjoy. Never having lived along a coast, I wasn’t very familiar with lighthouses and in fact I’ve only been up in one lighthouse, Point Reyes just north of San Francisco when we vacationed there one year.

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I’ve always known the purpose of a lighthouse, to warn sailors against shallows and other hazards along a coastline, but nothing about how they came to be. I was actually surprised to learn that some of them in Europe dated all the way back to the 1500s. But it was the invention of the modern lens by Augustin Fresnel, a person I had never heard of, that vastly improved their functionality.

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When we visited Point Reyes, I remember being intrigued by the shape of the lighthouse lens and wondering why it looked like louvered glass. Little did I know at the time that I was looking at a Fresnel lens. Turns out, Fresnel was actually quite an accomplished scientist and it was his precise use of prisms that refracted and focused the light to make a much brighter beam; thus the explanation for the louvered look.

Up until his death and then continued by his brother, Fresnel worked diligently to upgrade the lights in all of the lighthouses along the French coast with Fresnel lenses. The challenge at the time was that glass molding and polishing was required to form the prisms into precision optical devices. These demands exceeded the technical capabilities of glass companies at the time and so many lens parts were unacceptable and had to be remade.

Interestingly, once the French coast was complete, not a single Fresnel lens existed in any of the American lighthouses. This had predominantly occurred due to a federal government policy of saving money, rather than providing effective lighthouses. Eventually, a lighthouse board made up of naval and technical staff overcame the ineffective previous staff and began to upgrade the lighthouses in the US.

This effectively was completed just as the Civil War broke out and then the improved lenses were removed and hidden to make it more difficult for Union ships to navigate southern waters in the dark. In fact the darkened lighthouse at Cape Hatteras actually cost the Union more ships through groundings than through military battles.

The importance of Fresnel lenses continued up through the Second World War and was only made obsolete by the development of radar and later GPS. But for almost 100 years, it was the Fresnel lens that made safe the waters along the coasts globally saving thousands of lives and ships. Through reading this book, I now knew the story behind this remarkable invention.

elsewhere

I have enjoyed reading every one of Richard Russo’s books so when I found out he had written a memoir, Elsewhere; I immediately added it to my book wish list. I knew many of his books were drawn from the area in which he grew up so I was interested to read the nonfictional backstory that led to his fictional novels. I was not disappointed and several times during my reading, the narrative of his life events at the time he was writing made me want to go back and reread his novels fresh with these new knowledge. In particular, I learned that the last book of his I read and thoroughly enjoyed, That Old Cape Magic, was actually written during the time that both his daughters were getting married within 12 months of each other on two different continents. Although a fictional story, it was surprising how true to life many of the events in the book were.

But for me, probably the most surprising new learning in this story was how large an influence his mother had been in his life. Up until the time of her death, rarely did a day go by that he was not somehow interacting or care giving for his mother. While reading his memoir, I also heard a podcast interview about his newest book, Everybody’s Fool, where in addition to the new book, he talked about his mother’s lifelong medical condition, one for which she was never diagnosed, but one that he only fully began to understand once one of his daughters was diagnosed.

Overall, it is a great read, a story that several times gave me pause to reflect on how my relationship with my parents had influenced my own life.

To be continued…