Quick Review: Beyond Words

Title: Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel

Author: Carl Safina

Published: 2015

The down low: Nonfiction about animal behavior going into depth on killer whales, wolves and elephants.

Summary in 2 sentences: Carl Safina talks to numerous animal behaviorists and other who have spent their lives studying animals. He shares stories and insights into how animals think and feel, and proves that animals do have incredible human-like tendencies.

Why you should read it: If you like any type of animals, this is a great book to read, as Carl combines anecdotes about wolves and elephants in the wild with observations of his own pets (which include two dogs, a squirrel and I think a bird of some type). Also, it makes me mad that people still treat animals so inhumanely in this day and age, so everyone should read this to get a bit of perspective.

How Books & Bachelorettes categorizes this book: Critter nonfic

Young Men and Fire

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Young Men and Fire tells the tragic true story of the Mann Gulch Fire. The Mann Gulch Fire, which burned in its namesake in Montana for many days in August 1949, is one of the ten deadliest forest fires for firemen in United States History. Sixteen of the most talented young forest fighters in the country jumped over Mann Gulch on August 5, 1949. Three survived.

A little backstory: In the 1930’s, the Forest Service started to employ what they called Smokejumpers. These men would jump from a plane into the hard-to-reach areas of the wilderness where they would then have to fight forest fires. I’ve decided this is the scariest job I have ever heard of.

Norman MacLean (of A River Runs Through it fame) was himself a forest fighter and woodsman in the early days of his life. This book then is an interesting intersection between his interests in storytelling and his interest in the dead forest fighters, of which he could easily have been one. This was MacLean’s last work, and was published posthumously.

My disappointment in this book was that it seemed to focus less on the story of the boys (very little is known about their final minutes) and more on MacLean’s process of discovery. My favorite parts of the book were MacLean’s ramblings on the meaning of life. I flagged a few of these passages as a I read and have included them throughout this post.

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I grew up knowing the story of the Mann Gulch fire, thanks to my father’s love for Richard Shindell. Shindell covered the song “Cold Missouri Waters”, which was originally written by James Keelaghan after he read Young Men and Fire. For those unfamiliar with the story, the reason the fire has lived on for so long is because of the questions surrounded the boys deaths. Many parents of the deceased believed that Wagner “Wag” Dodge (the Foreman of the jump) killed their boys when he lit an escape fire. The main idea behind an escape fire is that it will burn the surrounding greenery so that by the time the actual fire catches up with where you are standing, there will be nothing left for it to burn and it will leave you alone. This did work for Dodge, but the other boys, who ignored his orders and continued for the top of the cliff, were potentially killed by Dodge’s fire. Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that the Forest Service covered up a lot of seemingly trivial details about the fire.

In his decades of research, MacLean encountered numerous interesting accounts of the way the Forest Service handled the incident immediately after the fact. While one man on the rescue crew attested to finding at least five burnt watches on the Mann Gulch hillside, the official inquest states explicitly that there was only one watch found, and that the hands had fused together at 5:55. What is interesting is that the member of the rescue crew who found the other watches swore that they all read somewhere between 5:30 and 5:45.

MacLean learns very little about the fate of the Smokejumpers that was not already known previous to his years of research. Even after taking the two remaining survivors, Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey, back to Mann Gulch to reenact their run from the fire, very little becomes clear of what happened that day. Perhaps the biggest take away MacLean had from his research, and what I find to be the most important lesson from this book, is this: while this accident was tragic and horrifying, it did help to prevent numerous deaths from fire in the years to come. This poignant paragraph discusses MacLean’s biggest takeaway.

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Walter Rumsey was 21 at the time of the fire. He died in 1980 in a plane crash.

Robert Sallee was 17 at the time of the fire and the youngest member of the crew, as well as the oldest surviving member. He died in 2014.

-A

 

Open

I had held off on reading this book for numerous reasons. The cover bothered me, I thought it would be boring, and I wasn’t all the familiar with Andre Agassi. Overtime I saw this book in the middle of my (rather daunting) to read pile, I asked myself why I even bothered to snatch it up at the book sale last year. Then I started to read it.

For a ninth grade dropout, Andre Agassi can write. I will admit that I was biased from the beginning because I love tennis. While I did find his descriptions of tennis matches amazing, I can see how some people wouldn’t. What I really loved about this book, however, was Agassi’s full commitment to being “open.” He tells the brutally honest story of growing up and hating tennis, his brief stint with drugs, and his failed marriage to Brooke Shields.

Perhaps most importantly in the book, and in Agassi’s life, is his charity work (besides his gorgeous family with current wife and tennis queen, Steffi Graf). Agassi built a charter school for underprivileged children in Nevada, his home state. For a lot of Agassi’s career, he couldn’t motivate himself. He writes about how he was disappointed to reach number 1 because it was never his goal, and that he did not know what his goal was. When he began to play for something bigger then himself, however, he found his stride. Once Agassi began fundraising, every game he played was for the kids who would one day attend his school. This was the motivation that had been missing from Agassi’s life previously.

Andre ends his autobiography with a word of encouragement to his children: “I hope it [Open] will be one of many books that give them comfort, guidance, pleasure. I was late in discovering the magic of books. Of all my many mistakes that I want my children to avoid, I put that one near the top of the list.”

I put this book near the top of my list of favorite books I read this summer/year. I would definitely recommend it to any tennis fans out there. I finished it just in time for Wimbledon! #win

Devil in the White City

“That night the exposition illuminated the fairgrounds one last time. ‘Beneath the stars the lake lay dark and sombre,’ Stead wrote, ‘but on its shores gleamed and glowed in golden radiance the ivory city, beautiful as a poet’s dream, silent was a city of the dead'” (333).

In Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, men squabble for power and wealth in the end of the 19th century. Larson’s nonfiction is set in Chicago in 1893, the set of the World’s Fair. Larson tells the story of two blue-eyed men thirsty for power of a different kind. Daniel Burnham is the charismatic architect who envisioned and oversaw the creation of the World’s Fair. H.H. Holmes is the charismatic doctor who killed numerous women during the World’s Fair.

Both men wanted what most men in Chicago wanted at the time, notoriety and success. Ambition seemed to me the prevailing theme behind Devil in the White City. Ambition led Chicago to win the honor of hosting the World’s Fair, ambition led to H.H. Holmes marrying numerous women, and perhaps even killing them, and ambition led to the incredible success of the World’s Fair, including the creation of Ferris’s wheel.

While this book had some tedious sections about Frederick Law Olmsted (the landscape architect for the fair), the overall feel of this nonfiction thriller was one of heightened anticipation and horror. I couldn’t read the last 100 pages at night.

In the end, the character that intrigued me the most was Sol Bloom, a minor character who was in charge of the Midway at the World’s Fair. Bloom, who started life as a poor son of an immigrant, became famous for his success at the Fair. He was 23 years old. Bloom has one of the last quotes in Devil in the White City, and it is a great one.

“‘But one thing was quite clear…’ he wrote. ‘[B]eing broke didn’t disturb me in the least. I had started with nothing, and if I now found myself with nothing, I was at least even. Actually, I was much better than even: I had had a wonderful time'” (381). In a time when most of America was thirsty for fame, success, and money, Bloom’s opinion on a life well lived was refreshing. It doesn’t hurt that he ended his life as a successful politician who helped create the United Nations.

-A

 

Under the Banner of Heaven

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer; 2003

Dan and Ron Lafferty murdered their brother’s young wife, Brenda, and her baby in cold blood in 1984. Neither brother had any remorse for the crime, claiming the murders were mandated by God. Brenda had been pushing back against the fundamentalist mission that had seized Ron and Dan, which included polygamy. The crime sets the framework for Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer’s examination of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints and its history.

Jon Krakauer’s narrative is fascinating, if not unfocused. Under the Banner of Heaven reads more like a history of Mormonism and “faith-based violence,” and less about the Lafferty brothers and their crime. Krakauer recounts several extreme cases of LSD Saints gone rogue, including a few chapters on Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping, and countless other stories of polygamy and sexual abuse. He also layers the history of the religion with the eventual murders of Brenda and her child, although this narrative approach becomes arduous and disorienting for the reader. I lost a lot of momentum in the middle of the book when al of these layers overburdened each other, but the beginning and end were strong. I do wish more had been devoted to the crime and the aftermath – Ron Lafferty’s trial was absorbing, and I wanted to read more about it. Regardless, Krakauer is a terrific writer, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his books in the future.

Krakauer also approaches the bigger questions – what drives people towards fundamentalism, and then towards violence? More thought provoking: where are the lines between deep faith, religious fanaticism, and insanity? Under the Banner of Heaven was written and published in the wake of 9/11, and although Krakauer isn’t explicit in the parallels between the Lafferty brothers and Islamic terrorists, it’s certainly implied.

I did feel that this book was fairly one-sided. If you look hard enough you can find extremists and fundamentalists in any religion, and Under the Banner of Heaven was pretty much only focused on Mormon fundamentalists – certainly not a fair or clear picture of the entire religion. Obviously, the extreme stuff is the more interesting stuff, so it’s easy to see how it happened that way, but there must be a reason to explain why this religion is growing as quickly as Krakauer asserts that it is.

-M

The Immortal Irishman

My 2016 reading challenge for myself was to read more non-fiction. I just finished The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan. The biography follows Thomas Francis Meagher, an Irish revolutionary who was sentenced to exile in Tasmania in his early twenties. Meagher played a key role in the failed 1848 rebellion in Ireland against Britain. Saved from the typical fate of revolutionaries (drawn and quartered), Meagher and his accomplices were sent into exile in the farthest reaches of the British Empire.

From Tasmania, Meagher escaped to New York City, where he began the second biggest role of his life, that of an American hero. Meagher, a staunch supporter of Lincoln, lead one of the most famous brigades in all of the civil war. The Irish Brigade was respected and feared by all they encountered. Meagher’s mysterious disappearance in 1867 is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the American West.

Egan tells Meagher’s story well, with slight pacing problems. The entire section of the biography when Meagher was stuck in Tasmania, and then when he was in the American west fighting vigilantes, I was completely bored. The rest of the biography, however, really blew me away. Egan vividly depicted Ireland during the years of the famine, as well as America during the Civil War. I was constantly surprised and entertained by just how much Egan knew about Meagher and, well, everything.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history (American or Irish). So thankful that I followed my dad’s recommendation and got through this hefty biography.

As an Irish soul myself, the final passage of The Immortal Irishman gave me chills: “It is the living, of course, who need these markers of the dead in order to make sense of their place in this world–more than eighty million people with some Irish blood, most of them no longer looking for a country to call home. For them, memory is not an unwelcome burden but the raw material of stories that will always be passed on, in song, verse or tale, the great survival skill of the Irish.”

-A

Modern Romance

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari; 2015

The trials of dating today is something that my friends and I talk/complain about often. To Tinder or not to Tinder; how much time to leave between messages when texting someone new; which social media to follow a new beau on; can guys who didn’t go to college with us actually be trusted, or are they all serial killers?; when do we give up and join a paid online dating service?; when do we really give up and fast track ourselves to spinsterhood? And that’s just to start.

Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance begins to address some of these modern day dating dilemmas. Aziz takes a light-hearted look at how dating has evolved over the last few decades, and takes us on a tour of today’s dating obstacles. This version of a comedian/celebrity book was refreshing, and I felt that he was mostly successful at objectivity. He teamed up with a sociologist to do all of the research for the book. It was also an effortless way to consume nonfiction because it was presented in simple layman’s terms with some comedy thrown in. Some of the material I recognized from his standup, but it wasn’t as fleshed out and thus not entirely repetitive.

I’m personally at the point where I don’t trust the intentions of people on Tinder and other free online dating apps. Each weekend when I’m out with friends I hear a new horror story about cheating or other related romantic deceptions. I’m pretty well-versed in romantic ventures gone terribly awry thanks to miscommunication over text messaging. So although Modern Romance didn’t have any information about dating today that surprised me, I did feel like it was beneficial to sit down and spend time thinking about what it means to have a “real world” and a “phone world.” Aziz offers useful advice about navigating these two world; for example, limit your virtual communication with a new person to 5 or 6 messages. After that, actually go our and meet them. Another one I liked: don’t focus on lining up a bunch of first dates. Instead, try to go for the 5th or 6th date before making a decision.

I did think that his take on dating today was fairly optimistic, if not overly so. He focused a lot more on the positives and how technology is improving our dating opportunities. This is probably a healthier perspective considering technology isn’t going to go away, however, I would have appreciated more about how all of this technology can also negatively affect us. Like how Tinder and similar dating apps encourage superficiality and give people a platform to essentially say socially unacceptable things that they would never say in person. He addresses this only at the most basic level. At times I did roll my eyes slightly, because of course his dating experiences are different – he’s a successful celebrity/comedian.

I read this in a day-and-a-half, no problem. Also, it probably goes without saying that this book is pretty hilarious and has its chuckle-out-loud moments. I highly recommend it to anyone who is navigating today’s dating world.

-M