Archive for the ‘Melita's Reviews’ Category

Melita reviews “The Statues That Walked”

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

The Statues That WalkedThe Statues That Walked : Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo

The gigantic, long-faced statues found on Rapanui, or Easter Island, have captured the popular imagination since Europeans first visited the remote Pacific island on Easter Sunday, 1722. Why was such intensive labor invested in carving so many (over 950) huge statues? What purpose did they serve for the Rapanui people? How were they transported such long distances by people who did not have knowledge of the wheel? When European sailors and explorers visited the island, they found a barren island with few resources and only about 3000 relatively impoverished inhabitants. There have been documentary films, fictional movies, and books (including Jared Diamond’s Collapse) which tend to theorize that the people of Rapanui committed a form of ecological suicide.

They believed that the statues pointed to a larger population, and a more sophisticated, hierarchical society with surplus resources and the time to devote to such carving. Beginning with this assumption, they imagined a cruel priestly class forcing people to cut down even the last tree on the island, in order to form pulleys and wooden sleds to drag the statues and erect them on altars. Once the trees were gone, there was less rainfall, degraded soil, mass starvation, and the collapse of a civilization – a cautionary tale for our times.

The authors of this fascinating book take a closer look at the archaeological and geologic record, and challenge the conventional wisdom in very convincing ways. For instance, it is completely plausible that the giant palm forests that certainly covered the island when the Polynesian settlers first arrived were killed off by the rats that accompanied the humans. Rats eat seeds and nuts and multiply very quickly. The slow-growing giant palms took sixty years to reach maturity and produce nuts, thus making it impossible for the forest to recover from a rat infestation.

As another example, Rapanui, like many Pacific islands, was formed by volcanic action. Volcanic soils are usually very rich and productive for agriculture. The soil quality of Rapanui is very poor, especially low in minerals. This may indeed have been effected by deforestation, but new research shows that because the volcanic action was so far in the distant past, the soil was already depleted of minerals when the first humans arrived. Rather than being poor stewards of the land, the Rapanui practiced lithic mulching – breaking rocks to help them release minerals and burying them in the soil. To European eyes, the rocky fields looked unproductive, but these rocks enabled the islanders to grow food and survive in a difficult ecosystem for centuries.

The authors, Hunt and Lipo, have re-examined old data and made new discoveries over many years of research in Polynesia and on Rapanui itself. They explain the “mysteries” of the island in excitingly new and rational ways. One such mystery is how the statues were moved. I won’t tell you here, but the title of this book gives a hint. This fascinating book reminds the reader that the scientific method only works properly if even popular theories are continually challenged and revised.

Melita reviews “Drama” by John Lithgow

Saturday, December 10th, 2011

Drama: an actor’s education by John Lithgow

You may recognize John Lithgow as an award-winning actor on stage, in movies and on television, or even as the author of eight children’s books.  His latest book, Drama: An Actor’s Education, is a very personal memoir of his life as an actor, rather than an autobiography.  Lithgow prefaces the book with the month he spent as a caregiver to his 86-year old father.  His father was having a difficult recovery from surgery and seemed to have lost the will to live, until Lithgow rediscovered the family’s favorite short story book.  In a moment of inspiration, he read to his father one of the stories his father used to read to him – P.G. Wodehouse’s  Uncle Fred Flits By. His father laughed, began to recover, and Lithgow had a revelation about the importance of storytelling and acting as a career.

This memoir is a tribute to his father, Arthur Lithgow, who was also an actor, director, and producer of many Shakespeare festivals and summer repertory companies.  Arthur achieved some respect but not much success in his theater career. The family was constantly moving and living on the edge financially.  Lithgow first describes these days from a child’s viewpoint of fun, and then with the more realistic insight of a mature adult.  I enjoyed John Lithgow’s tales of growing up in summer theater, as I have spent many summers doing Shakespeare with my family, although on a more amateur level.  Many of his tales describe the difficulties common to any young person who is constantly moving from school to school and trying to fit in.  Lithgow learned to act his way to popularity and acceptance in school and later on Broadway.  Very few actors attain the level of success of Lithgow, and as you would expect, the story of his acting life is a tale of skill, hard work, and what seem to be random chances.  I recommend this very personal book which is also one man’s musing on the arts and why they are important.

Melita reviews “Tough Without A Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart”

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Tough Without A Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart by Stefan Kanfer  BIOG Bogart

Humphrey Bogart died over half a century ago, and yet remains one of the most popular film stars of all time, ranked by the American Film Institute as the greatest male legend in cinema history.   Stefan Kanfer, in his new biography Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humprey Bogart  (BIOG BOGART), attempts to cover Bogart’s entire life from his birth in 1899 to his death at the young age of 57.  Most people know Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, or the African Queen.  But many do not know Bogart was in his late 30’s before he began his film career at Warner Brothers, and made many “B” grade movies in supporting roles before he gained star status.  Although he was born into a wealthy New York family, he drifted through prep school and then the navy, always in trouble with authority.  He started in New York theater as a stage manager and spent years working his way up through minor acting parts, slowly learning his craft.  He was no overnight success.  I found this book entertaining and easy to read.  There are a lot of details on Bogart’s private life, but the focus is equally on his work. This book doesn’t dig up new information.  Kanfer’s sources are secondary, and he quotes often from other biographies and autobiographies of Bogart’s contemporaries, but the author adds enough background information about the era and the people introduced that even someone who knows little to nothing about the twentieth century or cinema history will be caught up in the tale.

Melita reviews “The City of Dreaming Books: a novel from Zamonia”

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

The City of Dreaming Books:  a novel from Zamonia by Walter Moers  SF/FAN MOER

This book is like a ride at Disneyland for bibliophiles.  Are you an author?  A reader?  Someone who loves to prowl the shelves of libraries or bookstores?  If you love books – the feel, the look, even the smell of them -  this book was written for you.   Although The City of Dreaming Books is set in the Middle Earth-like realm of Zamonia and fits squarely in the genre of Science Fiction/Fantasy, this book is at times a humorous satire on the business of books, at times an elegy to the history of great writing, and at times just a brain-twisting puzzle book for English majors.  Pay special attention to the names of Zamonian authors.  For instance, if the letters in Rasco Elwid’s name are rearranged, they could be Oscar Wilde.  Who do you think Aleisha Wimpersleake might be?

Mr. Moers claims to have translated this book from the original Zamonian language of its narrator, Optimus Yarnspinner.  (It was then translated from his German into English by John Brownjohn.)  Optimus, from a race of literary dinosaur-like reptiles, is on a journey from his home in Lindworm Castle to Bookholm, a fabled city of books, to discover the author of a truly perfect work of fiction that had been bequeathed to him by his authorial godfather.  These few pages were so perfectly written that upon reading them his godfather was unable to continue as an author himself, due to the impossibility of surpassing that perfection.  We, alas, never get to read a word of this document, and have to be satisfied with the author’s description of the reactions of those who do.

In Bookholm and beneath it, in unending subterranean catacombs and prehistoric caverns, we meet an astounding array of imaginative characters such as Vampyrs, a combination of vampire and harpy; the Sphinxxxx, a voracious deaf and blind spider with sixteen legs; bookhunters, ruthless armored mercenaries who search the catacombs for valuable rare editions of ancient books; and the Fearsome Booklings, of whom I will say nothing and leave it to you to discover their traits. We also encounter unusual books, such as toxicotomes, which can maim or kill the unsuspecting reader who attempts to read them, or animatomes, which are living books that subsist mainly on a diet of bookworms.

While this book may be mistaken for a Young Adult fantasy novel, especially because Mr. Moers has liberally illustrated the pages with pen and ink drawings, it is a novel for adults, mainly because of the copious literary allusions.  The City of Dreaming Books should be read in a spirit of fun.  The journey through this book is like a trip through a fun house, around the corner always another surprise.  Mr. Moers obviously put no limits on his imagination while creating this alternate world, and as readers, we should just enjoy the ride.

[ed. note:  This is the third book in the Zamonia series, following The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear and Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures.]

Melita reviews “Wolf: The Lives of Jack London” and “Jack London: Photographer”

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Wolf: The Lives of Jack London by James L. Haley (BIOG LONDON) and Jack London: Photographer by Jeanne Campbell Reesman (770.92 RE)

James Haley subtitled his book “the lives of Jack London” because London’s life included more careers and experiences than you would think possible for one man.  Anyone who has read his adventure novels, such as The Call of the Wild, White Fang, or The Sea-Wolf, will have been struck by the naturalism and immediacy of his writing.   He came by his knowledge of the sea and the Yukon wilderness by living, working, and risking his life in those environments, just as the protagonists of his novels.   Author Haley has divided London’s life into fourteen chapters, each investigating a portion of his amazing life. He was born in 1876, and after completing 8th grade began his work career at a pickle cannery , earning ten cents an hour.   Such early experiences as a “work beast” turned him towards a life-long support of socialism, reflected in such books as People of the Abyss and The Iron Heel.

As a teenager he taught himself to sail, and even while making a living as an oyster pirate (which was an actual illegal profession in California in the early 1900’s) he began his self-education with the help of a librarian at the Oakland Free Library.   Still a teenager, he signed on to a ship sailing the Pacific to hunt for seals and steered through a typhoon at sea such as is described in The Sea-Wolf.  After almost dying in the Yukon, prospecting for gold, he determined to become an author and work with his mind.  He accomplished this by strength of will, memorizing dictionaries, and setting himself the goal of writing 3,000 words per day.  He became a celebrity, a war correspondent, and last, a rancher, dying at the young age of 40 due to complications of alcoholism and kidney failure.

Jack London:Photographer is a fantastic companion book to any biography of Jack London.  London purchased a folding pocket Kodak, one of the first popular cameras for amateurs, and taught himself to take pictures.  There are over 12,000 prints in the London archive, and the ones selected for this book reflect his wide-ranging interests and travels.  His photos of 1903 London correspond to his book on grinding poverty in the industrial age, People of the Abyss.  Photos of the Russo-Japanese War and the 1914 Mexican Revolution reflect his work as a war correspondent.  London and wife, Charmian, were immediately on the scene of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake with his Kodak, and the depictions of the destruction are stunning.  Also included are photos of indigenous peoples of the Polynesian islands that the Londons visited by sailing ship, in the days when very few European or American travelers went there.  While not entirely free of the cultural prejudices of the time, London’s photos tend to be more realistic and less stagey than others of the time period.   A fascinating glimpse into the past, and the work of an important American author.

Melita reviews “Twilight at the World of Tomorrow”

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Twilight at the World of Tomorrow by James Mauro    907.4747 MA   NEW

The subtitle of this both humorous and tragic book is “Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World’s Fair on the Brink of War.”  Thanks to author James Mauro, I began to feel how differently one might view the world in the 1930’s, when utopian vision and hope for technological progress clashed with the reality of Depression and World War. The stage is set in 1934, when two men scrambling for a scheme to make a few badly-needed dollars hit upon the idea of celebrating with a World’s Fair the 150th anniversary of the swearing-in of George Washington as president.  They were soon pushed to the side and the Fair’s theme became “Building the World of Tomorrow.”  Manufacturers built multi-million dollar pavilions to showcase their products in the future. GM’s Futurama was particularly popular, and not surprisingly depicted a suburban future heavily reliant on automobiles. The Fair’s utopian vision of the future did not include war, but as the Nazis moved across Europe, the pavilions of nations such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Austria began to go dark.  Political unrest led to numerous bomb threats and an actual bomb detonation at the Fair.

Mauro profiles two detectives on the bomb squad, as well as several well-known personalities of the time.  One is Grover “Gardenia” Whalen, who was put in charge of the fair due to his talent for spectacle and ticker-tape parades, but was fired for his luxurious tastes as the fair failed to meet costs.  Another is Robert Moses, who as City Parks Commissioner backed the fair only if it would be built in Flushing Meadow swamp, thus getting the funds to remove an enormous ash heap.  A third is Albert Einstein, who was asked to open the Fair by explaining cosmic rays in 700 words or less, as the switch was pulled to light the Fair’s towering symbols, the Trylon and Perisphere.  Mauro often tells the story in a humorous way, and in this case, Einstein’s majestic countdown leads to a total blackout.  Author James Mauro originally intended to write a historical novel, but I find the story compelling and fascinating in a non-fiction format.