Monthly Archives: May 2013

Under the Sea (off New Jersey)

On Memorial Day weekend, my brother-in-law HR invited me to tour the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, CT. The centerpiece of the Museum is the submarine Nautilus, America’s first nuclear submarine. HR was in the Navy and served on Seawolf, which was almost identical to Nautilus. The Nautilus tour involved scrambling through hatches and up and down steep stairs. The compact efficiency and impressive technology fascinated me. We had a great time!

Climbing through Nautilus reminded me of a favorite book, Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II, by Robert Kurson, published in 2004. I’ve lived in New Jersey for many years, and I know “wreck diving” as the hobby and obsession of people who love risk. This book tells in exciting detail about the discovery and investigation of a German U-boat (U-869) from WW II. It was the kind of adventure divers dream about, stumbling onto something complex, improbable and historically significant. Shadow Divers is so well written that I couldn’t put it down.

While checking for publication date, etc., I learned of two other books on the finding of U-869 – Shadow Divers Exposed: the Real Saga of the U-869 by Gary Gentile, published in 2006, and The Last Dive: A Father and Son’s Fatal Descent in the Ocean’s Depths by Bernie Chowdhury (2012). The later examines one of the crucial events described in Shadow Divers, the terrible day when the father and son team of Chris and Chrisy Rouse goaded each other into diving in poor conditions, and both perished. You wish you could grab them and scream “Don’t do it!”

So now there are two more books for me to read. I’ll put them on my Kindle for my next vacation. Thanks, HR, for reminding me how exciting undersea adventure can be.


Religion and Family Life

‘Til Faith Do Us Part – How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America by Naomi Schaefer Riley, 2013.

I grabbed this from the “new arrivals” shelf. The author is a newspaper writer who was able to commission the extensive survey on which this book was based. She is very careful to ground her assertions within the data.

Riley says that Americans are not, by and large, “intentional” about marriage. We plan and work towards our careers. We may place a priority on living in a specific city or state. But we don’t PLAN marriage. I “came of age” in the sixties, when talking about what we wanted or expected from marriage became almost taboo. Young women were told to plan on self sufficient independence and if love, relationship and marriage happened, that was “nice”. What were young men being told? No idea…

Religion is important to many Americans, but most of us take a “break” from religious practice from the end of high school until some time perhaps a decade down the road. And so many important things happen in that decade! Very few people invest that time in deciding about matters of faith.

Riley takes a careful look at our attitudes towards diversity. It is widely accepted as a good thing. Riley’s conclusion: “Religion is not race and marriage is not a public school.” Intermarriage is harder (judged by divorce rates) than marriage within one’s faith, so looking for a religiously compatible spouse in not necessarily being prejudiced. Diversity within a family can have good impacts, but it also makes marriage difficult.

Maybe you caught the recent kerfuffle caused by a woman who said she now wished she had found a husband while at Princeton. She was roundly scolded for being “conniving”, but replied that the pool of really bright, interesting men is limited, and her critics were being unrealistic.

Riley thinks young adults should talk much more about religion, family life and community as they are courting and marrying. The relative “vacuum” (freedom?) of our twenties doesn’t last. We live our lives among webs of interconnection.

I particularly recommend this book to people who work with young adults, whether as teachers, counselors or religious leaders.

Filling the gaps – is Jane Austen worth it?

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.

Yes, it was worth it to go “back” and read the one Jane Austen novel I had missed. Mansfield Park kept my attention even though it is a long book.

Mansfield Park (and the fact that I hadn’t read it) came to my attention because I overheard part of a discussion claiming that Mansfield Park is about moral education. How do we learn ethical behavior? As usual, Austen creates highly developed characters to carry forward her plot. Their moral standing ranges from passive to rigidly cautious to frivolous and calculating.

Mansfield Park is built around an upper class English family – parents, two sons, two daughters and an impoverished niece. The niece is the protagonist. We see her grow from a shy outsider into a young woman of poise and character.

Spoiler alert! I’m going to discuss the end of the book.

The plot… The father of the family leaves to take care of business at a distant “plantation”. Two young adults, brother and sister, move into the neighborhood and become close to the siblings and niece. Misbehavior and flirtations ensue, followed by disappointment, heartbreak and disgrace.

The father returns, and “order” is reestablished. He ponders the behavior of the young members of his family, trying to determine how he failed them. His conclusion is that he had not really bothered to KNOW his children. He had rewarded good manners and accomplishments, without paying attention to personalities and ethical training. 

So, yes, the book is about moral education. It is delivered with Austen’s sly wit and delightful prose, and makes very good reading.

Everybody talks about…the weather

The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the volcano that darkened the world and changed history by W Klingaman and N Klingaman.

Here we sit worrying about global WARMING… But global cooling could be just as bad! One message of this book is that there’s a good deal we don’t know about atmosphere and climate. Research should be supported.

In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia exploded. Dirt and dust were flung into the upper atmosphere. The particles were big enough to block sunlight and too small to drop rapidly to earth. So the next year, the world’s weather was cold and stormy. Many areas experienced frost in every month of the year 1816. 

I’m from New England, so I paid particular attention to what was written about Maine and the surrounding areas. It was grim. Crop after crop was destroyed after planting, or before harvest. One consequence was the exodus of many residents, who decided to leave their rocky farms and head west.

One chapter of this book is entitled “Poverty and Misery”, and that sums it up. In Ireland, as hunger spread, civil authorities bemoaned that fact that the Irish clung to their habits of charity and community. They continued to shelter (and try to feed) wandering beggars. The beggars had fleas, which carried typhus. As people died, their families hosted traditional wakes, which offered another opportunity to spread disease. Along with food crops being lost, the Irish had difficulty harvesting the turf/peat they used for fires, so they were cold as well as hungry.

This book makes clear the changes that have come with improvements in communications and science. Nobody knew why summer never came in 1816. The extent of the problems wasn’t clear. The authors believe problems also arose in Asia and elsewhere, but there’s no documentary record.

We are fortunate to be able to predict some disasters. Imagine if we hadn’t know that Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy were coming! The loss of life would have been (even more) staggering. 

This book is well written. No scientific background is assumed. I would have liked a little more meteorology, but the history is detailed and interesting. Read and enjoy!

Book source – the new arrivals shelf

The “new arrivals shelf” reaches out to me each time I enter a library, whether I’m at the College where I work or my local public library. Most of the non-fiction that I read comes from the new arrivals shelf. I suppose I should plan my reading, look things up, go back into the shelves, but somehow that doesn’t happen. I stumble onto books on topics I would never think to investigate. Biographies of John Lennon, Art Williams (master counterfeiter) and Elizabeth Hughes (first child saved from diabetes by insulin). Memoirs by the wife of a reckless but astute field ecologist and by a man who trained to be an umpire in major league baseball. Odd bits of history from the New Deal and World War II. 

I do try to keep lists of books I intend to read, recommendations from friends, authors worth a second or third look, etc. But so often I find myself at the new arrivals shelf, entranced, distracted, and delighted!

Favorite novel – 2010

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (published in 2001).

I love this book! It’s wonderful. Looking back through my reading journal, I find that I (first) read it in 2010, but wrote only that it was “magical” and dealt with music and love.

!! SPOILER ALERT !! Stop here if you don’t want to know the outcome. But do read the book!

I wasn’t sure whether the term “bel canto” referred to the singer or the song. Wikipedia tells me it an Italian operatic style, light and agile, with clear phrasing. The main female character in the book is an American opera singer of highest reputation. She has the misfortune to be taken hostage at a diplomatic party in an unnamed third world country, along with several dozen men.

If I start to summarize the story, this will go on forever. The plot is “encapsulated”, tight – terrorists invade a party and take hostages. A long period of (gradually decreasing) tension and negotiation ensues. The mansion in which the hostages are held becomes a microcosm and Patchett develops complex, surprising and loveable characters and relationships within it.

Two themes that twine through this book are music and language. Everyone is in love with the singer – she is beautiful, accomplished, famous, and usually gracious. Even the young, unsophisticated terrorists worship her, and over time, everything revolves around her singing.

Two important male characters are an ultra wealthy Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosokawa, and his younger translator, named Gen. Gen becomes the communication node in a group where five or six languages are in use – Spanish, English, French and Russian, primarily, and sometimes Italian. it turns out some of the terrorists speak mostly an indigenous language, and barely understand Spanish, so Gen is sometimes at a loss.

There’s another fascinating male character, Messner, the Swiss Red Cross negotiator who is the only person able to come and go freely from the besieged mansion. He is sophisticated, experienced at negotiation, and knows that the situation is likely to end in terrible violence. So, what does it mean to be “neutral”? What can he accomplish?Messner struggles with this.

Inevitably, the fragile “community” is torn apart. All the terrorists are killed, and the hostages go back to their lives with memories and scars that will be permanent and incomprehensible to those around them. The book, somehow, is more positive than negative.

I will probably return to this book over and over. It’s a treat.

Biography at its Best

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher – The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan.

What a great piece of non-fiction writing! Curtis took his iconic “art photos” of Native Americans as their lives were changing from about 1890 to 1930. His opus magnum was a 20 volume set of books containing photos, language documentation, songs, stories and observations. He valued the life the tribes led before contact with Europeans. 

One premise he sought to prove was the the native people did, in fact, “practice religion”. 

I took this book with me to the car dealership when my car was subject to a safety recall. In the waiting area, a woman asked what I was reading. It turned out she was from South Carolina and carried Blackfeet tribal blood! She was thrilled by the Curtis photos and I told her to get the book from the County Library the following week, when I expected to return it. I hope she found it.

This book belongs in every public library and should be read by everyone who values cultural diversity. We are so fortunate that Curtis pursued his passion for the lives of native people, and that Egan produced this fine summary.

I read this book in October of 2012.

Book source – filling in the gaps

Every once in a while, I realize I missed something! That’s why I’m reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. I thought I’d read all her books, but suddenly found myself lost during a discussion of Mansfield Park. I quickly downloaded a Jane Austen collection onto my Kindle.  Has Mansfield Park been skipped in the recent spate of Jane Austen movies?

What other gaps do I have? I’ve read and/or watched lots of Shakespeare, but I’ve hardly touched the histories. I think I saw one of the Richards. I saw Henry the Fifth a few weeks ago, and felt lost. Big chunks of the tragedies are embedded in my brain (especially Hamlet’s soliloquies). I visualize the comedies in their wonderful BBC production versions. But the histories? Unknown territory. And what did I just find on my shelf? King John. King John?! Never heard of it. When someone mentions “obscure” works of Shakespeare, I think of Coriolanus. Some rainy day I will check out King John.

I’m behind on the popular literature of my own professional field (loosely, environmental management). I never read Silent Spring (Rachel Carson, 1962) or Since Silent Spring (Frank Graham, Jr., 1970). 

So many books, so little time!

Book source – common readings

Deciding what to read (next) can be a challenge! One source of books for me is the Common Reading (Freshman Year Experience) program at the college where I work. It’s not just that a book is selected each year. The selection process is excites me! Nominations are solicited from the entire faculty and staff. A committee whittles the list down to five, and anyone can comment or advocate. In a given year, one or two books may already be familiar, and I usually manage to read three or four on the list. After a few weeks of discussion, a committee makes the decision. One parameter is that the author must be available as a guest speaker (hence must be alive), presumably at a fee not too exorbitant. Other than that, the debate rages! What will Freshmen actually read? What should they read? Is 500 pages too long? Is a collection of short essays really a book? I love to hear what my colleagues think. Next year’s common reading is Spook – Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach. I’ve read it, and will post my journal entry on it another day.

Secular and Religious Life

Religion for Athiests: a Non-belivers Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton.

De Botton describes himself as an atheist, but sounds like a person who wants/needs religion. He asserts that religious organizations meet many universal needs (for community, education, love) better than does “secular society”. Because I work at a college, I was especially interested in his critique of higher education. He suggests that academic departments be restructured to address major life issues – love, friendship, fear, etc. Of course this presupposes that the purpose of college is to make “better” people – more fulfilled, more responsible and more ethical. I watch the battle between liberal education and career training rage daily. Reading Religion for Atheists would be a good idea for people on both sides of that complicated divide.

De Botton suggestions cover lots more territory – art museums, community, the psychology of pessimism, nurturance and family life. His critique of optimism struck a chord with me, reminding me of another book I liked (Bright-sided by Barbara Ehrenreich). That’s a subject for another post.

I recommend this book.