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Thursday, January 27, 2011


I read and reviewed Laura Hillenbrands smash bestseller, Unbroken, here several weeks ago. I was so impressed by that true and remarkable story of survival, I decided to go back ten years in time. Hillenbrands first success was another true story, this time about a super athlete..... a horse. Seabiscuit was under sized, unappreciated and an underdog, until a few men recognized his true worth and gave him the chance to be a champion.

One little tidbit, in l938, this racehorse drew more headlines, articles and ink that Franklin Roosevelt and Adolph Hitler. If as a child you enjoyed " I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. I know I can." — Little Engine That Could , try this one for a grown up version.

Seabiscuit. Yes, I saw the movie ten years ago. The movie was good. The book is great. Including a description of the greatest race of all time - Seabiscuit versus War Admiral. I loved it
Here’s how famed sports writer Grantland Rice captured the race in his prose.
"The drama and melodrama of this match race, held before a record crowd keyed to the highest tension I have ever seen insport, set an all time mark.
You must get the picture from the start to absorb the thrill of this perfect autumn day over a perfect track. As the two thoroughbreds paraded to the post there was no emotional outburst. The big crowd was too full of tension, the type of tension that locks the human throat.
You looked at the odds flashed upon the mutual board–War Admiral, one to four, Seabiscuit two to one.Even those backing War Admiral, the great majority of the crowd, felt their pity for the son of Hard Tack and Swing On [Seabiscuit], who had come along the hard way and had churned up the dust of almost every track from the Great Lakes to the Gulf, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
After two false starts,they were off. But it wasn’t the fast-flying War Admiral who took the lead.It was Seabiscuit, taking the whip from Woolf, who got the jump. It was Seabiscuit who had a full-length lead as they passed the first furlong. The Admiral’s supporters were dazed as the ‘Biscuit not only held this leadbut increased it to two lengths before they passed the first quarter.
The ‘Biscuit’ was moving along as smoothly as a southern breeze.And then the first roar of the big crowd swept over Maryland. The Admiral was moving up. Stride by stride, Man o’ War’s favorite offspring was closing up the open gap. You could hear the roar from thousands of throats“Here he comes, here he comes!”
And the Admiral was under full steam.He cut away a length.He cut away another length as they came to the half-mile post–and now theywere running head and head.The Admiral looked Seabiscuit in the eye at the three-quarters but Seabiscuit never got the look.He was too busy running with his shorter, faster stride.
For almost a half mile they ran as one horse, painted against the green, red and orange foliage of a Maryland countryside. They were neck and neck — head and head — nose and nose.
The great Admiral had thrown his challenge.You could see that he expected Seabiscuit to quit and curl up." .......
And then.... well, Hillenbrand tells the rest of the story.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


The Grands. Ethan (Fargo, North Dakota), Leonard (Kilgali, Rwanda), Tensae (Ethiopia)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Washington's Crossing

Just another book about the revolutionary war? Not really. Top gun historian David Hackett Fischer won the Pulitzer Prize for Washington’s Crossing. There must have been something special about it. There was.
Professor Fischer follows General Washington as he led the crossing of the iced Delaware River during Christmas 1776. On the surface, it seemed insane to cross to the other side to face an alleged much superior force of professional enemy soldiers. However, the author shows that the overwhelming odds were in reality not quite so insurmountable. During much of the year, the American rag tag army developed a new form of hit and run fighting. It was suited to the Americans capabilities and resources. It also lacked rigidity of the British troops and their Hessian mercenaries. Some myths that Professor Fischer debunks include the Hessians were not drunk, but bone weary from constant assault from guerillas and the weapon differential between the two forces was not even close to the legends
Thanks to modern computing and research methods, we know more about the past than ever before. This allows the best historians to present fresh insights in long ago events.
More importantly Washington's Crossing is a nonfiction book that reads like fiction. It represents the best of modern American history writing. Original, insightful, well researched , and best of all, so well written as to be what is called in the book trade, a page turner. Really!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The King's Speech

The King’s Speech is a wonderful, heartwarming movie. Yes, I know some might be less than sympathetic to the notion that the King of Great Britain and Emperor of India and points in all directions, would have a serious problem with a speech impediment such as stammering. I mean, how tough can it be if your King, and have a beautiful Queen and two darling daughters? Well, think about it. We’re all human, king or not.
Really, if you’re an embarrassment to your parents and yourself, even a patient and super supportive wife might not be enough.
The Duke of York never expects to become King until his brother decides to marry a twice divorced American, who has had previous "experience" in China and the job falls in his lap. Then, there is Hitler looming on the horizon. And all previous attempts to "cure" his affliction have failed. That is, until his wife makes an appointment for him to seek help from a specialist, who doesn’t even have proper credentials. The plot is set..... and the movie is actually great. It’s a rare thing these days to see a real "adult" movie. That’s adult in the best sense of the word. Characterizations that ring true to the circumstances. Relationships that exist, change and develop in plausible ways. No gratuitous sex or violence. Leaving the theater and saying "that was a great movie." I liked it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Christmas Surprise

We had gathered in the living room in Colorado to open family Christmas presents. The grandkids were all excited as children are wont to do on Christmas Eve. Santa would be coming later that night but that was another story. Gramma took a chair and parents and children gather round the tree. Grandpa remained comfortably seated on the carpeted stairway.
A rotation plan saw each child and adult take their turn opening a package. In the hubbub, no one but grandpa noted the large plastic ball that came rolling down the stairs and hit him in the back.
Engrossed in all the excitement, I absentmindedly picked it up and tossed it back up the steps to the landing. Some minutes later I was struck again. Now completely puzzled, I picked it up, when the stern teacher voice of Mrs T inquired as to why I was playing with a ball. "It keeps rolling down the steps on its own," I replied in my best dumbfounded manner. Whereupon, oldest grandchild shouted, "it’s because our HAMSTER is in it and wants to come downstairs." Sure enough, looking closely at it, for the first time, a small furry creature was inside. Setting the ball on the floor, off it went towards the Christmas tree.
Apparently the Hamster had been removed from his cage, put him inside the ball, and gets his daily exercise that way. Amazing!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is the best, most fascinating, narrative biographical history, I’ve read in a long time. It belongs to the "survivor" story category and while true, it’s as such stories often are, almost unbelievable.
While largely confined to her home, due to chronic fatigue syndrome, the author researches the life story of Louis Zamperini. This is mostly done by telephone.

Zamperini is a child with, what today would be identified, as a serious psychological problem. Today, in school, that would require medication. In my day, it would have been identified as "ants in his pants," later evolving into juvenile delinquency. Growing up poor, in California, he is somewhat rescued by a compassionate older brother and a growing interest in track. He sets all kind of running records in high school and at U.S.C. Goes on to participate in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Is caught up in WWII as a bombardier, shot down in the Pacific, endures a 2000 mile odyssey on a life raft before being captured, imprisoned and tortured relentlessly by the Japanese. And that's only half of it.
Hillenbrand is really good at this sort of thing, as she proved in her best selling horse story Seabiscuit. I must add the characterization of Zamperini lacks a whole lot of depth. The psychological part that is. Then, a few details are definitely questionable. So it’s not perfect. Still this is, as I said, the most fascinating story I’ve read in a long time. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Mark Twain "Improved?"

From Paul Carrier at The Walrus Said
"I suppose it was just a matter of time. Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University at Montgomery, has edited new editions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that take out the nasty words. “Slave” is used in place of “nigger” and “Indian” is substituted for “Injun.”
Sacrilege (noun): gross irreverence toward a hallowed person, place, or thing.
Gribben argues that more Americans, including high-school students, will read Twain’s classics if offensive language is removed from them. Maybe he’s right. But if readers can’t cope with the language that Twain used then they should avoid his books instead of turning to sanitized versions compiled by someone who has the audacity to presume he can improve upon one of the greatest of all American writers."
As The New York Times said in a recent editorial:
"We are horrified, and we think most readers, textual purists or not, will be horrified too. The trouble isn’t merely adulterating Twain’s text. It’s also adulterating social, economic and linguistic history. Substituting the word “slave” makes it sound as though all the offense lies in the “n-word” and has nothing to do with the institution of slavery. Worse, it suggests that understanding the truth of the past corrupts modern readers, when, in fact, this new edition is busy corrupting the past."
When “Huckleberry Finn” was published, Mark Twain appended a note on his effort to reproduce “painstakingly” the dialects in the book, including several backwoods dialects and “the Missouri negro dialect.” What makes “Huckleberry Finn” so important in American literature isn’t just the story, it’s the richness, the detail, the unprecedented accuracy of its spoken language. There is no way to “clean up” Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work.
In its editorial, The Los Angeles Times acknowledged that Huckleberry Finn is right up there on the list of most-banned books in American schools, but the newspaper argued that “intelligent and sensitive discussion with students would be a better response” than altering Twain’s prose. The editorial continued:
"Twain's masterwork is a moving reflection of attitudes in the pre-Civil War South (and of its author's postwar sensibilities, which were ahead of their time with regard to race but behind our own). It's the struggle of a white youth, Huck, to reconcile his recognition of the humanity and equality of an escaped slave with the views of a society that considers him little better than an animal and uses epithets to describe him. The language, then, is very much part of the story and the history. Trying to protect students from the full ugliness of racism by softening that language does a disservice to them, and it's all too easy to imagine the crimes against literature that would result if this kind of thing caught on. We hope nobody gives Gribben a copy of Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," because the Bard's attitude toward Shylock the Jew was distastefully Elizabethan."

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Man Who....

No, not George, even though he is the hero of this book!

The man who did everything but stand on his head (Newt Gingrich) to get Bill Clinton impeached for messing around with a "aide" is now a successful writer of historical fiction. Of course, Newt, the disgraced former Speaker of the House of Representatives, was busy playing the same game as Bubba about the same time. Along with his co partner William R Forstchen, a college Professor of History, he recently wrote To Try Men’s Souls and against my better judgment I just finished reading it.
It might have had something to do with the fact that my free book supplier had sent me an email telling me that she had the new book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand on hand and ready for me to pick up. Knowing that I love historical fiction, she tossed in a couple of Gingrich potboilers for good measure. Now not wishing to seem ungrateful by refusing the later books, on the grounds that the author was a jerk as well as a hypocrite, I gracefully accepted all three. So here goes.
If you can skip the long and gratuitously propagandist, not too subtle introduction, it’s not too bad. The book seems basically accurate in its depiction of the desperate lunge across the Delaware to attack the Hessians at Trenton. The characters, actual and imagined, like Washington, seems to speak their lines in an appropriate manner. The waning chances of a revolutionary army, defeated and without supplies clearly come through. Some of the scenes wander off into other venues but don’t seriously hamper the story.
Now, if only a tiny, but determined group of present dayTea tax hating patriots, can overcome the slackers, disloyalists, Congressional criminals, alien fascist communists and those who have forgotten the true ideals of Freedom, Liberty and elite democracy, while ignoring the existence of slavery.....things will turn out just fine. Oh wait a minute those were the not too subtle innuendos of the Introduction. As I said, except for that, the story was not too bad. I’d give it a C+.