Monthly Archives: August 2014

“Tuxedo Park” by Jennett Conant

This is a great book for those who want to understand the role of technology in World War II. Tuxedo Park focuses on the development of radar. It begins well before WWII, and offers a picture of science pursued in a culture totally different from the academic/industrial climate scientists experience today. Science between the Wars was pursued by both academics and talented, wealthy “amateurs”. One of these was Alfred Loomis. He built and staffed a world class laboratory for his own “entertainment”. Some of his entirely fundamental research later found practical application in vital defense technology.

I was especially interested in details about the time period when England expected to be invaded, and scientific equipment was hastily transported to the US to avoid having it fall into enemy hands. Steps were taken to insure that if the transporting ship was bombed, the vital equipment would sink, rather than float!

Much has been written about the nuclear fission and fusion and the Manhattan Project, but I found this discussion of the development of radar very compelling.

This is the third book by J Conant which I have read. I think Tuxedo Parkwas the best. Conant’s book about Julia Child drifted off topic to other people, and the one about Roald Dahl didn’t impress me very much. Here are the titles of these books: The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, and A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS.

“What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim – A Midlife Misadventure on Spain’s Camino de Santiago de Compostela” by Jane Christmas

The first thing you need to know is that “Santiago“ is the apostle Saint James. His body is believed to be buried in the city of Santiago de Compostela in north western Spain, and routes to that location have become “pilgrimage” routes, traveled (mostly) on foot by Christians seeking spiritual refreshment. Jane Christmas joined this tradition. Her “quickie” explanation (you need one on this road) was that she was walking to “affirm her belief in God and celebrate her 50th birthday”. Good! And admirably clear, though I don’t know why she consulted a psychic during her preparations.

Christmas undertook serious physical training before her trek and began in good condition, through not, perhaps, fully adequate for crossing the Pyrenees at relatively high altitude, one of the first challenges of the route. Her “mistake”, while preparing for the pilgrimage, was to accept the company FOURTEEN additional women who, inspired by her example, asked to join her! She had not intended to be “in charge” and when that burden was thrust on her, she hit the road at a brisk walk and (unintentionally?) left the pack behind.

I didn’t particularly like the attitude she conveyed about this misunderstanding, which she dismisses with nonchalant statements that amount to “women are like that”, namely bitchy, whiney, cliquish, etc. I just think these were the wrong women…

Christmas’s descriptions of the Camino and the people she met are vivid and often amusing. The countryside and small towns sound wonderful. The fact that she found romance on the trail warms my heart.

I wonder what the Camino is now like. From what I’ve read, the number of pilgrims has increased steadily over time. I hope the hostel accommodations, which sounded sketchy at best, have been upgraded. There’s a whole literature of this pilgrimage, and I’m interested enough that I’m likely to check it out, reading modern accounts first.

“The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien” by Oscar Hijuelos

This book is the saga of a family, starting in the late 1800s in Ireland but taking place mostly in the United States. Nelson O’Brien left Ireland in 1896 and traveled to Cuba as a photographer in 1898 during the Spanish American War. In Cuba, he fell in love with and married Mariela Montez. They settled in Pennsylvania and raised a family of fourteen daughters and one son. O’Brien was a successful entrepreneur, keeping his family “comfortable” or at least approximately in the middle class.

The love between Nelson and Mariela never wavers. Their household is described as busy, noisy, happy and overwhelmingly female.

The main theme of this book is gender, or perhaps the female gender. O’Brien and his son live in a sea of femininity. Each seems alternately happy and baffled. The Montez O’Brien sisters follow many different paths – happy marriage, unhappy marriage, no marriage, teaching, performing, etc. The lone son worked as an actor and later became a photographer like his father. The son “discards” his Cuban heritage by acting under an anglicized stage name.

On the issue of gender, the Montez O’Brien family is tilted sharply towards the female, but other polarities are more even.

In appearance, some of the sisters are Irish, while others strongly resemble their Cuban mother. America is those years was prejudiced against both groups, but dark skin and curly hair were more unfavorably regarded.

The family was also “split” by language. Mariela never became comfortable speaking English, and mostly retreated to dignified silence outside the family. The older sisters were fluently bilingual, but the younger ones, raised more by their big sisters than their mother, never really learned Spanish, and hence were handicapped in understanding their mother and her family. Their efforts to learn Spanish later in life never seemed successful. One sister went to live in Cuba, but none lived in Ireland and few visited there.

This book is full of vivid, sensual images and emotions. The Pennsylvania house, in particular, is described so clearly I felt like I was living there.

Read this book if you like romantic fiction or family histories, or are interested in immigration and the sociology of America from 1900 to about 1960.

“Kismet, Karma and Kamasutra – Survive India or Die Laughing” by Narendra Simone

Attention, yoga buddies! Don’t read this book if you are sentimental about India. In fact, don’t even read this review. There is absolutely no yoga in the book.

Narendra Simone is an Indian who spent most of his adult life in other parts of the world, then returned, mid career, as an executive for a joint venture company. He is a dual national (a global citizen!), deriving Canadian citizenship through his second wife, his companion in the adventures described in this book.

Simone describes India as “the land of mystique, ancient culture and culinary delight”, which he then translates into “intense corruption, complicated bureaucracy and severe stomach cramps”. He also quotes the saying “A black man’s misery is a white man’s adventure”. In other words, he is NOT happy to be back. So he plays the whole thing for laughs, and there are many.

To be a returned Indian executive is to be a “mark” for every hustler in the country (as you are assumed to be ridiculously wealth), and to be constantly told that the reason you don’t understand the most preposterous decisions, explanations and situations is that you have lost your culture and become contaminated.

Simone’s description of a visit to an Ayervedic doctor is hilarious. The doctor assured him that since he had several siblings who died young, he would undoubtedly live for 100 years.

Simone and his family managed to have a good deal of fun along the way, but his parting words are “The only way to cope when your company offers you a position to work in India is don’t…Honest, take it from me. Just say no.” And he returned to Canada!

“Bird of Jove” by David Bruce

I found this book in an unlikely place, the gift shop of the Cape May Bird Observatory, which was about to close for the summer. There were the “real” books, the sale books, the donated books, and finally a shelf of books marked “no further reduction”. I can’t resist a bargain. I purchased “Bird of Jove” for one dollar.

“Bird of Jove” was published in 1971. It tells of the purchase of a rare Burkut eagle by an Englishman, Sam Barnes, who was traveling in a remote part of Kirgistan. Barnes was a naturalist and falconer. He was able to buy the rare eagle only because she suffered from a disease not curable in that isolated part of Asia. The eagle was cured quite simply with a common antibiotic, but getting Atalanta (as he eventually named her) to England was a monumental task in itself.

Living with (and training) a wild eagle in a small Welsh seaside resort town was challenging. Barnes and Atalanta had to cope with tourists (mostly harmless), aggressive motorcycles gangs and, to top it off, a fire bombing by Welsh ultranationalists. Time and again, Barnes had to nurse his terrified and sometimes injured eagle back to health and calmness.

Barnes says of falconry that a falconer must be “a practicing field naturalist first” and must also study folklore, history, botany and medicine.

This book raises SO many interesting questions! Is falconry an art and science that brings out good qualities in both human and animal, or is it a cynical exploitation of a wild creature? What is “intelligence” and what is “instinct”? When a trainer “dominates” a bird, does that behavior parallel anything seen in nature?

Barnes (and Bruce) anthropomorphize (make human) Atalanta a great deal. When they speak of her having a “temper”, what do they really mean? Might they be seeing something quite different, like fear or some other survival instinct? A bird may, to us, look “proud”, but I don’t believe it can feel “proud”. So what are we really seeing?

A part of the book I found especially endearing was Barnes’s efforts to deal with Atalanta’s natural cycle of mating, brooding and nurture of offspring. There was no eagle in England as a potential mate. Atalanta’s instincts led her to try to make a nest. She did it very badly – in the wild, the male would do most of the work. She laid two sterile eggs, and brooded them lovingly. Barnes was distressed for her. By chance, he found a nestling owl and decided to put it under Atalanta, taking away one of her eggs at the same time. Atalanta “adopted” the owlet, so Barnes got a second one, setting up a foster family. This seemingly logical step was complicated by the fact that owls and eagles don’t work the same shift! The owlets were active at night, when Atalanta’s daily rhythm led her to sleep. One owlet, which was driving Atalanta crazy, was soon returned to its original nest. The other was happy as an adopted eagle, until the age when baby eagles are normally driven away by their parents. Interestingly, the owl parents had never lost track of it and had continued to show up regularly with mice and other tidbits. So both baby owls returned to the wild, apparently unharmed by their temporary lives as eagle chicks.

This book is a wonderful read for anyone who loves animals and nature. David Bruce tells a great story. The book ends when Barnes leaves on an expedition seeking a mate for Atalanta.

“Bird of Jove” is dated, and I plan to go looking for “the rest of the story”, but I wanted to examine it first without “outside” input. Stay tuned!