Tag Archives: Good Reads

Best Books of 2017 – Chapter 2

I’ve always been interested in reading books about our US space program and to date I think I have read almost every book written by an astronaut or about the development of the program. Like other scientifically minded young boys who grew up in the 60s, I found each new NASA achievement fascinating and even built models of Gemini and Apollo rockets. So when I learned of Nathalia Holt’s book, Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars, I thought this was definitely one aspect of our space program I had not read about.

Ask any Millennial today to describe a computer and we all know they will quickly launch into a discussion about a PC. But long before our modern understanding of what a computer is, a computer was a person that computes. This book tells the story of the women who were hired and worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, CA to perform complex mathematical calculations by hand using paper and pencil.  And since JPL got its start developing rockets on the grounds of Caltech, a campus I am well familiar with since my son-in-law did his post-doc there, I was taken in by the story as soon as I read the description of one of the rocket girls heels clicking on the red brick walkway as she hurried away from one of the accidents by the “Suicide Squad” that ultimately led to JPL being kicked off campus.

It is sad to note that it was partly because of a sexist attitude that ensured all of the computers at JPL were women for many of them came in with the same qualifications as the men who were hired as engineers. But in the 1940s, the men were engineers and the women were computers.

One of their original projects was to design rocket engines that could be attached to propeller airplanes during the war to enable heavy bombers to launch from the short deck of an aircraft carrier. Their hand calculations helped elucidate what fuels provided the most thrust. As the war ended, their math skills turned to calculating what it would take for a rocket to escape the earth’s atmosphere and launch a satellite into orbit. Sadly due to politics, JPL was barred from launching their developed satellite upon a four-stage rocket of their own design. We all know the Russians beat us in 1957 launching first Sputnik and then Sputnik II. Had JPL been allowed to launch when it was ready, the US would have beat the Russians by over a year.

As electronic computers became available, for some tasks, the Rocket Girls traded pencils for keypads and became the first computer programmers typing commands onto punch cards (ones I can remember using myself in college in the early 1970s). But the girl’s accuracy was no less important as a correct guidance program handwritten at JPL in Pasadena incurred a single transcription error when a male engineer in Florida transcribed the code onto punch cards omitting a single superscript bar which caused the rocket to be destroyed in flight shortly after being launched.

The main reason that I had not heard of the Rocket Girls is because JPL did not directly support the manned space missions. JPL only supported unmanned projects. But it was their exploration of our two closest neighbors, Venus and Mars with the Mariner missions in the 1960s that ended centuries old speculation that these planets were inhabited by living beings. And without the Ranger program sending probes to the moon, NASA would never have known the Sea of Tranquility was a safe place for man to land on the lunar surface.

JPL would go on to make further scientific history with the Voyager and Cassini missions sending probes to the outer reaches of our solar system. And as JPL progressed, it was satisfying to note that the Rocket Girls were eventually reclassified as engineers, a title they were duly worthy of and decades later, still staffed solely at JPL with women.

Once again, I have BookBub to thank for bringing to my attention this book as one of their daily specials. I have always been fascinated about the Titanic story and when Robert Ballard discovered the sunken ship (an event even featured in this novel), and published his incredible photos of the sunken ship, it simply whetted my appetite even more. What first caught my eye for this book was not so much the title but the famous four-funnel ship image on the book cover. In fact, the title, The Girl Who Came Home: A Novel of the Titanic by Hazel Gaynor, actually gave me pause before pushing the $1.99 purchase button thinking that it might be just a “chick lit” novel. But for me, it turned out to be a most enjoyable historical novel that cleverly interweaves actual Titanic events, real life passengers and crewmembers with fictionalized characters based on real life persons. The dedication page to the Addergoole Fourteen at the beginning of the book, confirms that there really was a group of 14 Irish men and women from a single Catholic parish in a small village in Ireland who set sail on that regretful maiden voyage.

Knowing that more than 1,500 people lost their lives and only about 700 survived, there are probably over 1,000 different Titanic stories of real people’s lives that could be told but not many of them that could have been as intriguing as this one. In this book, the story leaps back and forth between April 1912 and April 1982 overlaying a captivating human drama onto the actual events familiar to anyone who has read Walter Lord ‘s landmark book, A Night to Remember. The story centers around one of the last women, a third class passenger no less, to step into a lifeboat that fateful night and her great-granddaughter 70 years later. It is a tale of discovery for both women whose lives unknowingly paralleled each other, and in spite of unfortunate happenstances for both, ultimately led to a fascinating and surprising climax. If events of the Titanic disaster interest you, you will absolutely enjoy this book.

To be continued…

Best Books of 2017 – Chapter 1

Happy New Year! I thought I would begin the New Year with a tradition I started last year by posting around New Year’s Day my favorite books from the prior year.

But unlike last year, for 2017 I did not set a specific goal of reading a certain number of books during the year. This was because I knew, even though in 2016, the 45 books I read was the most number of books I had ever read, I would likely beat that number in 2017 due to an unfair advantage—having more time to read. Effective 31 October 2017, I retired from my job of 35 years but even before the end of September, I had read as many books in the first nine months as I read in all of 2016. Turned out, as things wound down at work, I had extra time on my hands and so put it to good use by reading. Since the end of September, I have finished reading an additional thirteen books. So for 2017, I read a total of 58 books, 25 fiction and 33 non-fiction.

And just like I did in 2016, I started off the New Year literally on New Year’s Day reading—Bond, James Bond. But this time, rather than picking up with the few remaining titles I did not read in 2016, I actually read the biography of Bond’s creator entitled The Life of Ian Fleming, by John Pearson. This was a slightly tattered, hard-back book published in 1966 that my wife found at an estate sale.

Credit: 007.com

It was really intriguing to read how the real life of Fleming and the fictional life of Bond closely paralleled each other. Fleming truly did draw from his own life experiences in many of the stories included in his Bond books. What was even more fascinating was that Fleming actually lived through and survived some of the same dangers that Bond endured in his adventures. And of the women in his life, some met with similar fates to those in his books.

It was during World War II that Fleming was exposed to much of the espionage work that played important in his Bond books. Just like his created fictional character, Fleming was a commander in the Royal Navy where during the war; he planned and in some cases actively took part in covert missions. Having read 10 of the 14 Fleming Bond books, it never occurred to me that some of the events portrayed in the books were actually based on true to life experiences of the author’s.

But what was most surprising to learn was how Fleming got his start writing the Bond books. While there is a quote of Fleming during the war that he planned to write the “spy story to end all spy stories,” it was many years later before he actually sat down to do that, cranking it out in just seven weeks at his Jamaican winter home, Goldeneye, as merely a distraction while his future wife painted outdoors. And for the next three years, he did the same writing the next three books over his two-month winter break in Jamaica. Despite this dedicated, rigorous schedule, the books did not bring him the financial rewards that he had hoped to gain. It was at this point that he felt he had written out all the stories he had and planned to kill off Bond in his fifth book. But a unique turn of events saved both Fleming and Bond when an unexpected trip to Istanbul allowed the on-location research for what would become another of his successful Bond books, From Russia with Love.

As I read the historical account of each book and got a glimpse into the back-story behind each one, it gave me a more in-depth appreciation for the books I had already read. But it also prompted me to accelerate my reading pace so I could jump back to where I left off reading the Bond books last year. As I closed this book on the sad note of how his life ended too soon, it was with a new appreciation of how intertwined the lives of the author and James Bond were that I began again to read Bond experiencing the vitality and vigor of Fleming through Bond’s actions.

And no sooner had I finished his biography that I read my last four Bond books in just 10 days—For Your Eyes Only, The Spy Who Loved Me, The Man with the Golden Gun, and Octopussy. And in each I looked for and found the incorporation of real life tales in 007’s escapades. But for an avid Bond fan of the 1950s and 1960s who looked forward to their annual “Bond Fix” with the release of another book each year, these four (Fleming’s 8th, 10th, 13th, and 14th), in my opinion, were not his best.

Would I recommend reading all 14 of the Ian Fleming Bond books? Absolutely! Just bear in mind that after reading the first seven, you will likely be a bit disappointed in half of the last seven, two of which are actually compilations of short stories. And as I said last year, read them in order by publish date. After reading The Man with the Golden Gun this year, there were enough references back to You Only Live Twice to make me want to go back and read that one again.

If you took my recommendation last year and read this book by David Baldacci, then you are in for another treat. I cannot think of a book I have read by Baldacci that I have not liked or been disappointed in and I have been a fan of his for many years. He has several character series that I have thoroughly enjoyed, The Camel Club and Will Robie, being the most recent. But in 2016, I was introduced to Baldacci’s latest character, Amos Decker, a cop/detective who has an extremely rare condition that allows him to remember everything—hyperthymesia—an incredible advantage for someone in law enforcement to have not just a photographic memory, but also total recall.

So when I saw that David Baldacci had published a second book based on this character, The Last Mile, I knew it would be a must read for my 2017 reading.

As I found with the first Amos Decker book, as soon as I finished one chapter, I didn’t want to stop to see what happened next. This book is centered on a death row inmate, Melvin Mars, and the interesting past that led him to this status. Through the introduction of this new character, we learn even more historical facts about Amos’s past and the unique connection between Amos and the death row inmate.

As the story unfolds, you begin to feel that you are on a roller coaster as the plot takes unexpected twists and turns. And as with actual roller coasters, you don’t want to get off as some of the biggest and most exciting parts of the ride are at the very end where as all of the details are revealed, you learn that some of the events that led to Melvin’s conviction date back to other historical and factual crimes perpetrated almost 50 years earlier.

If you haven’t read the first Amos Decker book, read it before you read this newest one. And if you are like me after finishing both, your only hope is that Baldacci is already hard at work cranking the next book in this series (which he has now done).

            To be continued…

Mary Tyler Moore Show

This was one of the really good books I read in 2016. As I mentioned in my best of 2016 books blog post, what got me to read this book 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.

One of the challenges for Mary in the show 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 at a time when men wrote the majority of shows.

With this historical knowledge of the series as background, I added all seven seasons (168 episodes) to my Netflix queue and began to watch the shows. I enjoyed hearing the theme song each episode and watching Mary drive her Ford Mustang to her new job in Minneapolis-St. Paul. And then at the conclusion of each introduction, watch Mary race out into the street and throw her cap into the air, an image one of the show creators wanted to convey analogous to when graduates have achieved their goal of graduation by tossing their mortar boards up in the air upon the conclusion of graduation.

Watching the first three seasons, I cannot recall a single episode that I didn’t break out into a really good belly laugh. The shows were just so funny. And for some, I could almost picture myself sitting on the balcony of our high-rise apartment while watching and laughing at these same episodes.

At the end of each of these first three seasons, there was an additional bonus of interviews with the surviving cast members. It was amazing how much older they all looked, except it seemed for Rhoda who still looked quite young. Sadly before I received the fourth season discs, Mary died at the age of 80. All of a sudden, the shows were in high demand and the first disc to season 4 showed “extremely long wait” on my queue. For some reason, Netflix shipped me disc #2 in February but it was not until June that I received disc #1. So there was an almost four month gap in my watching.

When I finally got the first disc to season four, it was interesting to see that the introduction had changed. No longer was Mary driving into her new life, she was boldly walking around the city as if she had arrived. I particularly liked seeing her confidently strut across the street in this outlandish outfit.

It was also intriguing to see all of the men Mary was paired up with over the many seasons. Probably the most unusual was Dick Van Dyke’s brother Jerry. If the producers wanted to distance her from her Dick Van Dyke days as indicated in the book, it seemed odd to have Jerry as a romantic encounter.

Throughout the seasons, Ted was ever the less than perfect anchorman. Several times references were made to once Ted’s true greatness had finally been recognized; he would no doubt become co-anchor with Walter Cronkite. So the episode when Walter actually came to meet Lou (they were old war buddies) was most enjoyable. Everyone was speechless and Walter got exceptionally long ovations before he could even say his few lines.

I found the fifth season shows particularly funny. I think the writers and producers were really getting into their stride. However, Rhoda was absent from the season even though she was pictured in the opening scenes shown while credits were displayed. In one episode everyone was buying her wedding presents and another they were flying off to New York for the wedding. I knew from the book that Rhoda was spun off to her own show but I was surprised they didn’t at least have a show that introduced us to her fiancé. Unless I fell asleep watching one of the episodes, I was really surprised. When Lou briefly rented Rhoda’s apartment after his separation, I knew Rhoda was gone for good.

The sixth season started off with another surprise, Phyllis had moved to San Francisco (she too was spun off into her own show). Now with both Rhoda and Phyllis gone, there was no reason for Mary to continue to live in her original apartment so one of the episodes showed Mary moving into a high-rise building where she would actually have a separate bedroom (rather than a sleeping couch in her studio apartment).

Part way through the fifth season, my wife began watching the shows with me and neither of us ever remembered any other apartment than the first one so we must never have seen either season 6 or 7. There was also a very emotional episode when Lou Grant’s ex-wife remarried and I figured we would not see her any more (I was right).

As the sixth season progressed, it seemed that the shows kept getting better and better. I found myself laughing more as the characters were getting more and more developed. And the subject matters portrayed became even more progressive. Like the time Ted and Georgette both dressed up in matching tuxedos for the annual Teddy award and Georgette sourly commented that together they looked like the little figures on top of a gay wedding cake (an issue we can’t seem to get over even 40 years later). Season 6 ended with Georgette pregnant right after adopting the cutest little young John Denver look-alike.

When I began to watch season seven, I started to feel sad knowing that the series was almost over. There were a number of really funny episodes though that kept me laughing and sometimes I would be laughing so hard, I would miss subsequent punch lines. This happened often whenever Murray would zing Sue Ann with a line and I would miss her snide response while she merrily rubbed Murray’s baldhead.

Over the seven seasons, Mary made great strides in achieving her goal of being successful as a single woman. As the book points out and as witnessed in watching all 168 episodes, this was a landmark show broaching many subjects on television for the first time. But at the same time, it is sad that she never could end up in a lasting relationship with a man worthy of her.

As I watched the last few episodes, I began to wonder how the show was going to end. One was a flashback to many of the bad parties that Mary had thrown and it was nice to see the old apartment and complete cast of younger characters that had started out on the show. When the final plot was revealed in the last episode, a surprise visit from two characters that had left offered a brief sense of joy.

But the final scene was absolutely a tear-jerker and when Mary pauses at the door she walked through for so many years and glances around the news room for the last time, it was with extreme sadness that I realized that as she turned out the lights, I was not only saying goodbye to Mary Richards, but to Mary Tyler Moore as well since her passing in January of this year.

Best Books of 2016 – Chapter Five

paulnewman

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.

oldmanandsea

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

deepdowndark

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.

everbodysfool

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.

informant

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.

before-thefall

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

deadwake

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.

fromtimetotime

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.

TimeandAgain

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.

marylourhodated

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…