Archive for August, 2013

Summertime Reads

After spending a couple of months with the first volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, I decided to try something less daunting for the summer. Unfortunately, even good reviews are not enough to guarantee a satisfying read … so let’s start with:

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larsen. This is about constructing the 1893 Chicago Exposition, which is what attracted me to the book in the first place. However, the book is also about a serial killer who was in Chicago at the same time. And I have to confess that I only made it about one-third through and I finally gave up. I have since read several reviews that point out that this book is really two stories only joined by happening in the same place and time frame. Crime, especially with the brutal descriptions supplied, is not my area of interest (for the same reasons I don’t go to horror movies). When I found myself not wanting to pick up the Kindle, I knew it was time to bail. I don’t abandon many reads, but this one just didn’t cut it for me.

I started the season with a re-read. Every so often I find it interesting to go back and read a book from my younger days. So this time it was Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. This was pretty groundbreaking stuff for 1961. Using today’s lens, not as much. The story is about the only survivor from the first expedition to Mars, who turns out to be a child born on the red planet and raised by the native Martians when the rest of the colonists die out. A second expedition finds the survivor and returns him to Earth. Without giving too much away, the rest of the book talks about how politicians and other people of power want to use Smith (the child born on Mars) for their own purposes. It’s a great premise and the first two-thirds of the book are quite riveting. Upon re-reading, I find a lot of Heinlein’s personal philosophy interwoven into the narrative and some just doesn’t stand up. But that is a little bit unfair since we are reading a book written over 50 years ago that reflected some of the more radical philosophies of the times. Was it worth re-reading – yes. It drags a bit at the end but it is interesting and Heinlein was a good writer. Fun to look back.

Next up was Storm Kings: The Untold History of America’s First Tornado Chasers by Lee Sandlin. This book was reviewed and recommended in the New York Times and as someone with an interest in the sky, this was a no-brainer. I quite enjoyed this book as it was not entirely what I expected. The story revolved as much around the science as it did the history of those involved in trying to determine the basis behind the storms – starting with Benjamin Franklin. What is fascinating is the fanaticism of the researchers. Their single mindedness reminded me of modern day entrepreneurs, who sometimes become convinced beyond all reason that their idea is the only one worth pursuing. What was particularly scary was the descriptions of the devastation in the 1700 and 1800s. At least now there is often some warning … in those days it must have seemed like the end of the world. I enjoyed this book, especially because of my interest in atmospheric issues and would recommend it.

After getting frustrated with The Devil in the White City, I decided to get something that was less stressful. I found This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band. I finished the book in a weekend, which says something right there. The book originally came out in 1993 and an afterword was added in 2000. I really enjoyed Levon’s story, which spanned from his childhood days in the American South to life on the road with the Hawks and then the Band. Part of the attraction for me was that Levon’s tale came close to home – Toronto in the 60’s. There is a strong sense of musical brotherhood throughout the book and that probably helps to explain Helm’s less the kind words aimed at Robbie Robertson. The book certainly framed the Band in quite a different light. Helm’s take on The Last Waltz was an eye-opener and I watched it again a couple of nights ago to confirm a lot of what is in the book. (Personally I could never figure out why Neil Diamond was in the movie – turns out Robertson was producing Diamond’s album at the time.) A great read, sad in places, humourous in others and consistently heartfelt. His music has taken on a new dimension after reading his story.

Always a glutton for punishment, I have started on the second volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill – it may be the only book I get to report on in the fall.


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