Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

We live in a cold part of the world. And this winter has been a bit colder than normal. We had a warm spell in January – it went above 0C for a few days and that seemed to lull people into a false sense of spring. On Groundhog Day, if there was a groundhog out and about, they did see their shadow. When a friend from eastern Canada asked what the state of the weather was on Groundhog Day, I said it had been cold and sunny. Oh, the groundhog saw his shadow … six more weeks of winter. We wish – six weeks would take us into mid-March – that would be early for us. We’ll take it – thank you very much.

February has been colder than normal. At the winter solstice, we get about seven hours of daylight. I know this is a lot by Arctic standards, but going to work and coming home in the dark is not particularly fun. So with the days getting longer but the weather staying cold, it just doesn’t seem fair. This past weekend was a great example. Woke up Sunday morning to clear, crisp skies with an air temperature around -30 C and for one hour at least, a wind chill of -39 C. For me, this was weather to hunker down indoors.

Which, in a roundabout manner, brings me to the subject of this post. I have an original Kindle (I have just ordered a paperwhite version) and I love it. Yes, I know the arguments about the tactile feel of a real book and I agree that the Kindle isn’t perfect. But it is portable and to be able to get a book anywhere (I have the 3G version) is amazing. So, I spent a lot of the weekend curled up with my latest book on the Kindle with my favourite tunes playing in the background. It is a relaxing way to spend time.

However, a couple of weeks ago I ran across articles in both the New York Times and the Atlantic about studies that show we, as a society, don’t read as much as we used to. While I know we have vast new ways of receiving information, it saddens me to think of not experiencing the pleasure of becoming immersed in a good read. A number of years ago a friend went to India for an extended stay and wrote a journal of his experiences. He called it, ‘Sipping from the Fire Hose’ and I was honoured when he asked me to edit and layout the final copy. It is an apt title and one of the reasons he chose it was that the experiences in India were so foreign and overwhelming that he could not fully comprehend what was happening in real time. It took laying out his thoughts and reflecting on the experiences for him to understand what he had seen. And that is what we seem to be doing on a daily basis with all the information being hurled at us from so many directions. For me, there are times I need to turn down the volume and reflect. It would seem that we are moving away from that paradigm. I am not sure that is a good thing. I see many times in my work where judgments are made without knowing the full context and taking time to consider consequences. Yes, you can have ‘paralysis by analysis’ but jumping to conclusions can be just as bad, if not worse. I don’t know if there is an answer to this, but immersing one’s self in a good read is a way to slow the world down and hopefully reduce some of the stress we place ourselves in. So maybe there was an upside to -30 last weekend.


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Humour (and yes, that is the proper spelling) is subjective. I grew up in a household that appreciated dry British humour. In fact, it was my father who suggested we what the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus after seeing an ad in TV Guide. The first sketch I recall was that of the flying sheep – I was hooked, and so were most of my friends. It was smart, quick, absurd and most of all – silly. There was a regular discussion about the week’s episode and lines of Python dialogue quickly became part of our regular lexicon. When the CBC failed to pick up one of the new series, we dashed off a 500+ name petition – that three of us spent several hours making up the names for.

Not only did we absorb everything Python, the show had some interesting unintended funny moments for us. When the first movie, And Now For Something Completely Different, came out, we went as a group to see it. As most of us had just passed the age where we could legally imbibe, we went for a few (or for some, more than a few) before the movie. We got to the theatre and settled in as the movie started when one of our group loudly announced that he had to go to the bathroom. We told him to go, but then he started to protest saying he would miss part of the movie. In the next instant he had come up with a solution. Movie theatres are sloped so he would just go down the aisle. On reflection, this did not seem to be the most appropriate action and we voiced our disapproval. Nevertheless, he started the process which then required three of us to drag him to the bathroom. All in the name of Python.

The second one I remember is going to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail with another group of friends. For some unknown reason, there was a short film in front of Python about these poor South Sea Islanders who were forced to leave their homes for a good part of the year to find food to feed their families. Absolutely the worst choice for a short before Holy Grail. The audience were laughing at all the serious bits and making snide comments about the plight of these poor people. It would have been a buzzkill of epic proportions if the audience had not been primed for Python. Before the feature started, one of the group offered to go and get snacks for all. We knew he had come back when we heard this loud call of ‘Albatross‘ as he was walking back down the aisle towards us. While he actually didn’t have any albatross, he did manage to sell most of the snacks to other patrons before he reached our seats – which of course necessitated another trip to the concession. Only at a Python flick.

Finally, I was at the university bookstore during my undergraduate years when I spotted a new Monty Python book on the shelves.

The Monty Python Bok

The Monty Python Bok

The first giggle was that book was spelled incorrectly. But the cover had dirty fingerprints on it so I started to go through the stock to find a clean one. Only to find that each book had the same fingerprints printed on the cover. Another funny – this is looking good. I took the book up to the front with several other books and gave them to the cashier. The elderly cashier went through each book and entered the price into the cash register until she got to the Python book. She stopped and said this is a library book – you don’t need to pay for this. I hadn’t noticed that there actually was a library card fixed to the inside front page – a library card that listed Sammy Davis Jr. and Margaret Thatcher as people who had borrowed the book.

The 'library' card

The ‘library’ card

I thought she was joking so I laughed and said that, no I really did want to pay for it. She smiled back and insisted it was a library book and I didn’t have to pay for it. I think I realized at this point she was serious, so I insisted again that it was not a library book. Afterwards I figured out that the price sticker was white on white (this being before the days of bar codes) and she probably never saw it (you can see the sticker scars on the upper left part of the dust jacket). I tried one more time and again she told me I didn’t have to pay. At this point, the line was getting restless behind me and I figured I had given it three tries, so I agreed and put the book into my bag. It seemed a very appropriate way of acquiring a Python book.

And after all these years, Monty Python still makes me laugh – thanks boys!

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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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Not too many books to report upon this time. I enjoy biographies and about two months ago I thought I would tackle William Manchester‘s biography of Winston Churchill (I went to high school at Sir Winston Churchill Collegiate Institute – Go Bulldogs!).

I got through the first volume (of three) but it took weeks. Manchester’s work, The Last Lion – Visions of Glory 1874 – 1932, was almost 1,000 pages in print. But it was a worthwhile read. Churchill was an extraordinary person – I was really only familiar with his involvement in the Second World War. His early life as a correspondent and army officer was filled with adventures all over the world. What I enjoyed about the biography was that Manchester did not only focus on Churchill but gave a broad context for the man and his actions. In these days of instant communication, I found it interesting that people like Churchill could make a good living (and Churchill was certainly gifted in his use of the English language) by writing about events in far places – even if it took weeks and months to reach readers in the homeland. From the accounts, Churchill was certainly opinionated but had a broad vision of events that allowed him to see developing patterns that others seemed to miss. At the end of the book, Manchester writes of Churchill’s concern about the rise of Hitler in Germany – and this before 1930.

It is not an easy or quick read, but I have no hesitation in recommending the book to anyone interested in Churchill or the world he lived in and helped to shape.

As I mentioned, I was a little burnt from the length of the Churchill biography. But, in looking for something a little lighter, I stumbled upon Nick Mason‘s autobiography called Inside Out. Mason is the drummer for Pink Floyd – one of my favourites from my youth. It wasn’t as insightful as the Churchill biography but as a quick read, I found it fun. Mason writes with a very dry English wit and while there isn’t a lot of depth, the book maps out the beginnings of the band and all the trials they went through to become the supergroup they became. If you are into Floyd, I would recommend the book as a nice overview of the group and their music.

Now on to summer reading!

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Every so often I run into a quote that causes me to stop and reflect on the words.

I am currently reading William Manchester‘s first volume of his biography of Winston Churchill – The Last Lion.

In the section of the book concerning home rule for Ireland, Manchester uses a quote from Nietzsche that stopped me in my tracks.

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

Friedrich Nietzsche

That one sent shivers down my spine.

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In a theatre!

And in 3-D!

A friend and I went to see the Hobbit last week. This was a relatively rare experience for me. The last movie I saw was the Amazing Spider Man when I went back to Ontario last summer (my niece and nephew chose). I had yet to see a film in 3-D as well.

As a big fan of the Tolkien since my high school days, I really wanted to see the Hobbit as it was meant to be seen (i.e. in a theatre). So, did I like it?

It was good – not great. I think Peter Jackson had a bit of a problem with trying to tell this story. As a prequel, you want the story to have the look and feel of the Lord of the Rings, but you also want to have something else to set it apart from the earlier film. I think the Hobbit achieved the look and feel of Jackson’s Middle Earth, but the familiar environment took away some of the wonder I felt when seeing the Lord of the Rings for the first time. Still, I was entertained.

The film was about 45 minutes too long. Having re-read the Hobbit over the Christmas holidays, I had a pretty good sense of the story. The fight scenes at times seemed far too long. The swooping and diving camera shots were familiar from the LOTR and were used a couple of times too many for my liking.

The 3-D was not over the top as I had been warned. I think I only winced once as something flew out of the screen. And the 48 fps issue didn’t seem to be that big a deal as well. I enjoyed the 3-D experience but I could also see how it could be overused to distraction.

I did like Martin Freeman as Bilbo. And the scene where Bilbo meets Gollum was really well done. I think that was the most interesting scene in the entire film. It is quite amazing to see the range of emotions that are conveyed through the digital character as Andy Serkis is able to pull off. And I have a soft spot for the Eagles …

So, I liked the Hobbit. It didn’t have the effect that seeing LOTR had on me, but it was entertaining and I will go to the next ones (even if there isn’t nine hours of story in the book).

And thank you Robyn … that was fun.

A postscript – A couple of years ago, I invested in musician’s earplugs. They weren’t cheap ($160), but they are custom fit and take out 15 db from the ambient noise. When playing with a drummer, they really help. I decided to take them to the film and was glad I did. It was loud. In 20 to 30 years, we are going to have a deaf society!

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Now that it is officially winter, I thought I would share my reading from the fall. So, in no particular order:

I just finished re-reading The Hobbit in preparation for seeing the movie. It is still enjoyable and a much lighter read than Lord of the Rings. There is certainly a childlike feel to the story especially when Tolkien takes on the role of the narrator. Tolkien has a number of pinnacle events in the story from the destruction of Smaug  to the battle of the Five Armies. This was a device he also used in the Lord of the Rings when you would expect the story would end with the destruction of the Ring, but continues on to Frodo’s return to the Shire and subsequent departure. It was fun to get reacquainted with the book again. Since I haven’t seen the film yet, it will be interesting to see how they get three complete movies out of the original story.

As a fan of history, I thought I would step out of my comfort zone a little and read some historical fiction. I read Ken Follett‘s Fall of Giants: Book One of the Century Trilogy on my Kindle. The book reminded me of one of the favourite authors from my youth – James A. Mitchener. There was a broad sweeping feel to the book and I enjoyed how Follett built the characters and weaved the story into actual historical events. It is a long read but it kept me engaged. One tiny item – every so often he would drop in a sex scene that was quite superfluous. I guess that is what sells. I will read more of Follett – it was nice to get involved in the book, characters and events.

In the history vein, I picked up Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History by Craig L. Symonds. As the title suggests, the book details specific naval engagements that range from the War of 1812, the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War II and the Persian Gulf War. I thought the author did a good job of placing the battles within the larger context of the conflict. The description of what the sailors had to endure, especially in the earlier battles, was something to read. I did think the book was biased, but I suppose this is to be expected – I guess no one wants to write from the losing side. It was a good read, not a great one.

My brother-in-law gave me Jackie Stewart‘s autobiography, Winning Is Not Enough, to read earlier in the year. Stewart was a three-time Formula 1 auto racing champion. I have an enormous amount of respect for Stewart who retired at the end of his last winning season. It takes a lot to quit when you are ahead. The book is at its best when Stewart talks about racing. He is very candid about the pain of losing so many of his fellow drivers and his decision to leave the sport. He did an enormous amount for safety in Formula 1 during and after his driving days. Where the book was disappointing for me was the name-dropping that took up a lot of the end of the book. However, the description of Stewart’s racing days made up for it in the end.

I did have the opportunity to see Stewart race three times at Mosport during his career.

Stewart's Matra on the inside of Mosport's corner 2 during the 1969 Canadian Grand Prix

Stewart’s Matra on the inside of Mosport’s corner 2 during the 1969 Canadian Grand Prix

I almost got to meet Jackie during the 1969 Canadian Grand Prix. He had a coming together with another car right in front of where we watching. Unfortunately I was off somewhere else taking pictures and got back to find out all my buddies had got Stewart’s autograph after he climbed out the of car. All I got was a shot of the wrecked Matra. But I did get to see Jackie win in 1971.

Jackie Stewart winning the 1971 Canadian Grand Prix in the rain at Mosport

Jackie Stewart winning the 1971 Canadian Grand Prix in the rain at Mosport

I did get one clunker this fall. I bought Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young for the Kindle. The book was supposed to be about the beginnings of folk-rock in England in the 60s. I have been a big fan of that style of traditional music fused with rock and roll for a long time and especially the music of Fairport Convention. It is not very often when I don’t get through a book but I couldn’t finish this one. Way too much detail and a tedious writing style did me in. I would recommend Meet on the Ledge by Patrick Humphries if you are interested in Fairport and the folk-rock movement. Electric Eden was anything but …

I have already started in on my winter reading and look forward to those winter nights curled up with a good book (or Kindle as it were).

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