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Posts Tagged ‘books’


Thomas Jefferson image, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Image collection.

Thomas Jefferson image, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Image collection. link

This post is long overdue.  I am currently reading about Teddy Roosevelt, almost a century beyond Thomas Jefferson in my quest to read about each U.S. President.  I had hoped to write about each President, but at this rate, I may be dead before I get to Obama!  Anyway, without further ado….

Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson left me puzzled about one of the most revered leaders of the revolutionary era.  Jefferson is an enigma, a complex amalgam of the best and the worst of American characteristics, a man to both revere and despise.

Known as he “the Sage of Monticello” and “the Apostle of Democracy”, Thomas Jefferson gets no shortage of encomium. Politicos of all stripes love to quote Jefferson, rallying the illustrious founder from his long dirt nap in support of or opposition to the cause du jour.  His face is on Mt. Rushmore, and he has his own monument in Washington.  Cities, counties, streets, highways, schools, particle accelerators, and even swimming pools are named in honor of the third president. But I think the most fitting tribute to Mr. Jefferson is his portrait on the face of the two dollar bill.

The Jefferson two dollar bill is legal tender, for all practical uses as good as George Washington’s greenback dollar. But we rarely see two dollar bills. Once I get one in my wallet, I’m torn. Should I hold on to it for its rarity, or try to get rid of it as fast as I can, because it is so…weird?  And so it is with Mr. Jefferson, people either love him or hate him.

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An image of John Adams from the collection of the New York Public Library.

John Adams, from the collection of the New York Public Library

If you haven’t heard from me on this site in a while, it is not because I haven’t been reading about the Presidents!  I started writing this post after reading McCullough’s “John Adams” in January.  Alas, many, many things prevented me from completing this post until now.  Enjoy!

Poor John Adams! Reading David McCullough‘s remarkable John Adams, you feel a little sorry for the guy. He was a hard-working, diligent public servant, a man of humble beginnings and humble means. Frugal, industrious, and dutifully loving towards his soul-mate Abigail, he really had few faults as a man. Yet, he never seemed to  measure up in the eyes of the public.

He served as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, esteemed by his peers for his eloquence in the cause of liberty.  He risked his life crossing the Atlantic to serve as an ambassador in France. On his second trip to France aboard the Sensible, the ship sprung a leak.  Passengers and crew worked hand pumps night and day to keep the ill-fated vessel afloat as it limped to port in Spain. Undaunted by this detour, Adams and his entourage scaled the Pyrenees in winter by mule train.  After a thousand mile journey, they arrived in Paris late, but unharmed. To say that this goes above and beyond the normal call of duty seriously understates his commitment to service.

In Paris, Benjamin Franklin, the famous and flamboyant American diplomat, ostracized Adams.  At that time, Franklin was a somewhat doddering old man well past his prime. If his fractious relationship with Franklin hurt him, his pain was soothed by his growing friendship and affection for Thomas Jefferson.  The two forged a life-long bond that would eventually be torn asunder over politics, but in their older years rekindled via a series of remarkable letters between the two founders.  Adams went on to secure financial backing for the American cause from the Dutch government and financiers in Holland, bolstering the war effort financially.

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George Washington (from the digital collection of the New York Public Library)

George Washington, from the digital collection of the New York Public Library

When I had this idea to read a book about every President of the United States, I came up with a few personal ground rules.  First, I would read a book by or about each President.  Second, I would read them in chronological order, according to the electoral succession of power. Third, when pinning down which book to read, I would limit myself to one-volume works.  Many notable presidential biographies are multi-volume epics, such as Edmund Morris three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt.   Finally, I would search for works of distinction, choosing books that are award-winning and recognized as authoritative.

Keeping those ground rules in mind, I knew that we’ve only had forty-four Presidents. Over the last few years, I’ve been reading fifty or more books per year, and thus imagined that with only forty-four presidential books to read, completing this quest in a year would be achievable. Of course, I didn’t realize the magnitude of the task before me.

Back in November, Barnes & Noble sent me a pre-holiday enticement, a 20% discount coupon for one item in their store, in addition to my B&N member discount. I can’t resist a bargain, so I searched online for an authoritative single volume biography of our first President, George Washington. After some research, I set my sites on  Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow, a well-regarded bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner.
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Old book stack

Books, Books, Books!  (Photo credit: Palmerston North City Library)

I’ve completed updating my 2012 List-o-Books, an enumeration of all fifty-five books I read last year.  As per my usual practice, the list is a hodge-podge of books with no particular theme,  a preponderance of non-fiction, and a few by some of my favorite authors.  The list includes one classic, 1984, a book I had somehow managed to escape reading until now.  A  number of books about food – particularly seafood – appear, but also a book about olive oil that knocked my socks off, and one about frozen food, or rather frozen food’s iconoclastic inventor, Clarence “Bob” Birdseye.  Throw into the blender one delightful road book about the Weinermobile, and it all added up to a fun, if scattered, year of reading.

There are two books I read that were a cut above the rest, absolute must-read books that I highly recommend.  Both books are  profoundly distressing, sobering windows into the darkest areas of man’s inhumanity to men.  These aren’t light reading, but worthwhile and engaging nonetheless.
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Still life

Still life of fish (Photo credit: mckibillo)

If you were searching for themes in the books I read, you would probably first notice the string of authors whose works I love : Bill Bryson, Mary Roach, and Simon Winchester to name a few. You would also find that I read Harper-CollinsBest American Science Writing and Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt‘s The Best American Science and Nature Writing series every year, reflecting my passion for well-written non-fiction.

And you might notice, as I recently realized, that I read a lot of books about fish.  I got hooked (pun intended) on this topic after reading a number of newspaper and magazine articles about the decline of fisheries worldwide, another looming environmental disaster that generations to come will need to reckon with.  Non-fiction writing about fish deals with ecology, biology, gastronomy, evolution, economics, politics, and a host of other topics that are of interest to me.  And I love to eat fish.

Consumption of proteins from fish

Image from GRID-Arendal, an organization established to support the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in the field of environment.

But, you say, “I don’t eat fish, at least not much. Why should I care about global fisheries?” And, if like most of my site visitors, you live in these United States where beef is king, you are probably right. But for a millions around the world, particularly in Asia and a large swath of central Africa, fish is a primary source of animal protein (see map).  These are some of the most populous, and politically unstable, countries on earth.  A threat to their food supply should be taken seriously. Without a healthy global fishery, famine would become widespread across the already impoverished continent of Africa, and Asian nations just emerging from decades of poverty would could face political turmoil from a hungry populous.

– Read on…

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Quail Ridge Books & Music

Quail Ridge Books & Music,
with owner Nancy Olson
(Photo credit: Independent We Stand)

For Triangle area readers, Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books is an institution.  For the many fans of the store, it was sad surprise to see the News & Observer‘s cover story today, announcing that the store’s owner, Nancy Olson, is retiring and looking for a buyer.  According to the article, Olson isn’t interested in just cashing out and retiring.  She wants to find a suitable, new owner to keep the store in operation, for the sake of her employees and the community.

Living on the West side of the Triangle, I rarely get to visit this gem of a bookstore.  Nonetheless, I sincerely hope the store finds a new owner that will preserve the reputation and good will Quail Ridge has built up over the years.  As noted in a previous post, the store has an amazing record of success and longevity, in business almost 30 years in the same nondescript location since 1984.  Kudos to Nancy Olson and her staff, and let’s all hope the story will continue.

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Image of Major Matt Mason toy

Photo of the Mattel’s classic Major Matt Mason toy, courtesy of
Keith Royson’s site.

When I was a kid in the sixties, Mattel™ introduced a new action toy to take advantage of interest in the Apollo missions to the space, and eventual landing on the moon.  Major Matt Mason was an astronaut action figure, who lived and worked on the moon.  I spent many a Saturday afternoon playing with Major Mason, sending him off on daring space journeys.  Being an astronaut was cool, and as far as I was concerned at seven years old, space was the place!  Someday we’d all be traveling, if not living, there.  Of course, I never would have made it past the entrance physical to become an astronaut,

But I’ve held on to my fascination with space, living out my fantasy from the safety of my living room armchair.  In the last few years I’ve read a few books on space travel.  My conclusion:  Astronauts went to the moon, so you don’t have to.   I suppose there’s nothing wrong with a filthy-rich bastard like Richard Branson or Larry Ellison blowing money going into space; as for me, if I were that wealthy, I could find better, safer ways to spend my money.

My Major Matt Mason toy is long gone, his space-suit sheathed arm, abused from too much twisting, fractured, thus revealing the bendable wire that was his skeleton.  Of course, had he been a real astronaut, a tear in his suit would have meant almost certain death, and, since I had lost his helmet, he was a goner long before the space suit accident.  But a torn space suit is just one of many ways to die in space; it is amazing our space services have had as few accidents as they have had.  Trust me, space travel is just not worth it.  Maybe you can afford to travel to space, but wouldn’t you prefer to just buy a fancy boat like Paul Allen instead?

But if you need further convincing, here are  some great space books to add to that stack by your bedside:

  • Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach.  Hilarious examination of all the pitfalls and perils of getting ready for, and going into, outer space.  Her description of drinking her own recycled urine is enough to convince you that being an astronaut is just not that much fun.
  • Out of Orbit: The Incredible True Story of Three Astronauts Who Were Hundreds of Miles Above Earth When They Lost Their Ride Home by Chris Jones.  After the space shuttle Columbia  disintegrated in a fiery descent, spreading debris across Texas and Louisiana, three astronauts remained in orbit in the International Space Station, with no way to return to Earth.  This is the story of their rescue.
  • Apollo 13 by Jeffrey Kluger and James Lovell.  Formerly published under the title Lost Moon, this is the book that inspired the fantastic Ron Howard movie Apollo 13.  James Lovell tells a first-hand account of the failed Apollo mission to the moon, and the heroic engineering improvisation that made the astronauts safe return to Earth possible.  The gruesome possibility of the Apollo 13 craft becoming a macabre permanent satellite of the Earth haunts me.
  • Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon by Craig Nelson.  The story of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 moon landing, arguably the zenith of American space travel successes.  Yet, while the story is a heroic victory for American ingenuity, it could easily have been a disaster.  Were you aware that Armstrong almost ran out of fuel trying to find a safe place to land the lunar lander?  Had he been unable to find a safe spot, Apollo 11 would be remembered as a tragedy, not the iconic moment in American post-war history that we know it as today.

Read on…

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