Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,000 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them

As the title implies, Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,000 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hohn, is a sprawling book about many things. It's about the "marginalization of animals" in modern society, about beachcomber subculture, about climate change, and about factory work. It's about the toy industry, the squalid factories of China, about the fascinating and unknown subject of container ships, and about Arctic expeditions through history. It's also about quests - some real, some literary, some imaginary. Hohn weaves threads of mini-histories into his unusual travelogue, using wide-ranging sources to weave together a rainbow of science, literature and popular culture.

At bottom, this book is about is how our disposable, consumerist world has poisoned the planet. Moby-Duck is perhaps the best argument for buying and using less that I've ever read. But it also shows us that the problem is systemic, and can't be solved at the individual level.

Framing the story, Hohn and his wife are expecting their first child. He has promised to be present at the delivery, and as the story progresses, this seems less and less likely to happen. Some readers may be offended by Hohn leaving his very pregnant wife behind as he travels the globe in pursuit of his research and writing obsession. (Personally, I am far more interested in his obsession than in his baby, but some readers may find this underlying thread selfish and irritating.) Of course, there are profound connections between the birth of a child and the degradation of our planet, as told through the story of an iconic childhood toy on a mythical global adventure.

This is an expansive journey of a book, and I followed Hohn every step of the way.

Here's an excerpt.
"There's nothing new around," he said. "Take Osiris. Even today, when the Nile floods, flotsam follows that same route. Not even pollution is new." He told me to think of volcanic eruptions, of the tons of pumice and toxic ash an eruption throws into the sea. No, when you studied the history of flotsam long enough you realized that only one thing was fundamentally different about the ocean now, only one thing since the time of the ancient Egyptians had changed. He took a sip of coffee from his mug, which was decorated with a painting of a cat. "See, pumice will absorb water and sink," he said. "But 60 percent of plastic will float, and the 60 percent that does float will never sink because it doesn't absorb water; it fractures into ever smaller pieces. That's the difference. There are things afloat now that will never sink."

. . . . "High-seas drift nets were banned by the United Nations in 1992," his version of the story began. "They were nets with a mesh size of about four inches, but they were, like, fifty miles long. The Japanese would sit there and interweave these for fifty miles. There were something like a thousand drift nets being used every night in the 1980s, and if you do the math, they were filtering all the water in the upper fifty feet every year. Well, they were catching all the large animals, and it clearly could not go on." . . .

According to Ebbesmeyer, those high-seas drift nets had not gone away, and not only because pirate drift netting still takes place. Before the ban, fisherman had lost about half their nets every year, and because the nets are made of nylon, which can last at sea for as long as half a century, those lost nets were still out there, still fishing. "Ghost nets," they're called. . . .

In Ebbesmeyer's opinion ghost nets may post a still greater danger once they disintegrate. While we were conversing on his patio, he handed me the oldest of the drift-net gloats. "Hold this a minute," he said. It weighed almost nothing. "Now put it down and look." On the palm of my hand, the float had left a sprinkling of yellow dust, plastic particles as small as pollen grains in which, Ebbesmeyer believed, the destiny of both the Floatees and of the ocean could be read.
Portions of this review originally appeared on wmtc: here, here, and here.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making

In 1986 a fire raged through Hampton Court,  a historic Royal Palace of the British monarchy. Lost in the fire were large portions of a masterwork by the famous British woodcarver Grinling Gibbons (1648 – 1721). Gibbons carved decorative mouldings that adorned the mantels and doorways of his patrons . He became famous for his signature intricate floral patterns of curled leaves and hanging fruit. Gibbons often embellished his designs with stylized ribbons. All of these elements— leaves, fruit, ribbons— were carved. The near life-like results are breathtaking.

The Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) agency was charged with finding someone who could restore the lost art. It was no easy task finding a second Gibbons.  Carving a series of leaves from wood, some made to look as though damaged by insects (yes the attention to detail was that meticulous), requires a steady, sure hand. Needless to say the HRP made it known that the less inspired masters of the wood carving fraternity need not apply. The task of finding a suitable carver was made all the harder because no one knows exactly how Gibbons went about creating these masterpieces.

Enter David Esterly, a scholar (think Harvard and Cambridge) who grappled with the philosophy of Plotinus and poetry of Yeats before embracing the art of wood carving at a late age. Today Esterly is a world renowned wood carver and sights Gibbons as one of his inspirations.

The book is Esterly’s memoirs about this restoration project that the HRP awarded him under a cloud of controversy (Esterly is American and some thought the job should go to a Brit). The story is multifaceted. You get bits of philosophy when Esterly contemplates the nature of art and art making. You get intrigue and mystery as Esterly and his associates puzzle over Gibbons’ technique finding clues in old photos, paintings and manuscripts. You get politics as Esterly finds himself unwittingly involved in the intrigues of agencies guarding Britain’s cultural heritage. You also get history as Esterly narrates briefly the life and times of Grinling Gibbons. All of these segments of the story are weaved together brilliantly and make for a compelling read. It doesn’t hurt that Esterly aside from being a world renowned carver in his own right is a very good writer with a talent for crafting inspired metaphors. The book surprises and educates.  


Life, the autobiography of Rolling Stones' guitarist and rock icon Keith Richards, written with journalist James Fox, is the first celebrity memoir I've ever read. I'm an unreptentant, unabashed Keith Richards fan, and if you share that interest, you'll find this book very entertaining.

The book is most engrossing and revealing, not for the dirt and gossip, but for the man's mind and heart. Keith Richards once wanted to be a librarian; he was also a Boy Scout. He became a junkie because he was shy and uncomfortable with fame, and because he loathed the idea of being a pop star.

The birth and trajectory of the Rollings Stones from Keith's perspective is fascinating. Imagining this scrawny kid from a working-class British town hearing Elvis Presley sing "Heartbreak Hotel" for the first time - listening to Scotty Moore's guitar sound over and over and over, his horizons bursting open - is incredible. But what's most interesting are Keith's reflections on music history, on the collaborative process of music-making, on being a songwriter - on art and life and the interaction between the two. Of course there are the drugs, the name-dropping, the wild life, the music industry, the road, but more than any of that, Life is a musician's and an artist's memoirs. If you don't understand where Keith Richards came from musically - the musical stream he leapt into, and how he helped change and re-create it - you might be surprised at the depth of this book.

The best part of the book, for me, was the first third, when it's all about music - Keith's discovery of the music, how it transformed him, how he transformed it. By the book's final third, if you know your rock history, you'll realize that Life is distinctly The Story According to Keith. All history is coloured by the teller, of course, but there are facts and there are fabrications and there are rationalizations. Nothing was ever Keith's fault, and even if it might have been just a little bit his fault, it was all in service of the music, and that excuses anything. If Mick became a big bad meanie for talking about adult concerns, that couldn't possibly be the fault of his partner Keith, who was living an extended fantasy adolescence.

And it's more than a bit discomforting to read about Keith's young son, Marlon, on tour with the band, a seven-year-old pressed into service as his junkie father's keeper. So it might have been better than living with his crazy junkie mother - and we hear from Marlon, who tells us it's all grand - but still. Some things are not easy to rationalize.

This New York Times review of Life really captures the spirit of the book. Michiko Kakutani calls it "electrifying," and says:
Mr. Richards's prose is like his guitar playing: intense, elemental, utterly distinctive and achingly, emotionally direct.
Here's a passage from Life quoted in that review.
I can’t untie the threads of how much I played up to the part that was written for me. . . . I mean the skull ring and the broken tooth and the kohl. Is it half and half? I think in a way your persona, your image, as it used to be known, is like a ball and chain. People think I’m still a goddamn junkie. It’s 30 years since I gave up the dope! Image is like a long shadow. Even when the sun goes down, you can see it.
If you know your Stones history, you know that Canada and the fair city of Toronto play a supporting role, and you might enjoy the bits of local history, as I did. I'll close this review with a side of Keith Richards you might not know.
When you are growing up there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equaliser.
This review was originally published in two parts, here and here, in wmtc.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness

I know it looks like a creepy book—the Frankenstein’s monster effect of combining three portraits of Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy doesn’t help. Even Nassir Ghaemi’s premise at first read seems chilling: some of the best leaders in the western world suffered from mental illness, and at times were completely incapacitated by their maladies.  However, Ghaemi’s compelling and well-argued thesis is that “the best crisis leaders are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal…[and] the worst crisis leaders are mentally healthy.”

This is a scientific yet highly readable book, adeptly written by Dr. Ghaemi, an expert in the field of mood disorders.  When I say expert, I mean, he is the Director of the Mood Disorder Program and the Psychopharmacology Consultation Clinic at Tufts Medical Center and a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.

Just to set up Ghaemi’s approach, he uses the term “madness” very loosely, almost with a note of sarcasm for the term. Most of the men (as they all are) suffered from forms of depression; either straight-up classic depression, bipolar disorder or what Ghaemi calls “hyperthymia” or a personality type that errs on the side of manic. In most cases, the subject is deceased and Ghaemi is gathering evidence from his four-part assessment: symptoms, genetics, course of illness and treatment. Using his subject's personal correspondence to family and friends and finding evidence that relatives also suffered similar sounding maladies, helps to contribute to his post-mortem diagnosis.

Ghaemi starts with depression. In this category he includes General William T. Sherman (American Civil War), Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln. All three men came to power in times of great crisis, specifically war. All three men had episodes of depression during their lifetimes that completely debilitated them, but who had gained other qualities like empathy, resilience and “depressive realism”. They could press through the difficult times without knowing the outcome, and subsequently lead others to do the same.  People spoke of Lincoln’s “gravitas”, Sherman’s empathetic savagery, and Churchill’s unwavering spirit in the face of adversity. Ghaemi makes a good argument that their depression forged this way for them.

As evidenced by the cover, he includes FDR and JFK in his mentally unhealthy categories because of two reasons: both men suffered from lifelong chronic illnesses, both had hyperthymic personalities--all energy and drive (including sex drive) and little downtime. JKF also was misdiagnosed for much of his life and as a result had peculiar treatments for his Addison’s Disease. In this illness, the adrenal glands do not produce steroids, which compromises the immune system. So JFK was on multiple steroids and was frequently fighting massive infections. He apparently took amphetamines and barbiturates as well. Somehow, his doctors managed to get Kennedy to an acceptable balance much of the time.

Not the case with Adolf Hitler. Hitler suffered from bipolar disorder and was on increasingly bizarre combinations of drugs to keep him on the manic side of his disorder. By the end of the war, Hitler was on steroids, amphetamines, barbiturates, narcotics and while experiencing mood swings that seemed to range only between depressive and manic, with no relief between.

Ghaemi makes a strong case for mentally stability for Richard Nixon, George W. Bush and Tony Blair, which proved how their normality was their downfall in times of crisis.

The epilogue is one of the most satisfying chapters. Ghaemi writes it like an academic essay, allowing detractors of psychological history to give their case and he to refute. I can’t say I’m on board with every one of his historical assessments but he really does build a strong case. Dr. Ghaemi does not feel that mental illnesses should be hidden, maligned or seen as shameful and this book is proof. He cites Aristotle in the author’s note and it is very apt:

“Why is it that all those who have become above average either in philosophy, politics, poetry or the arts seem to be melancholy?”

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

UFO Crash in Brazil: A Genuine UFO Crash with Surviving ETs: A Thorough Investigation

Readers of my reviews know that I do not believe in UFO's or life on other planets. I firmly believe that we on Earth are alone in the universe. That doesn't mean, however, that I don't enjoy a good UFO story or alien abduction testimonial. I am drawn to these modern-day fairy stories and when the library acquired UFO Crash in Brazil: A Genuine UFO Crash with Surviving ETs: A Thorough Investigation by Dr. Roger K. Leir, I knew I had to read it.

UFO Crash was published by The Book Tree, a small publishing house in San Diego that deals specifically with metaphysical, spiritual and other controversial subjects. Unfortunately the publisher did not seek the services of an editor, as UFO Crash was littered with numerous spelling errors. How could a practising doctor release a book for publication that was so sloppily written? Let this be a warning to any author: I don't care who you are or how many letters you have strung after your name, if you can't write a sentence in decent English, you come off looking like a fool. The entire topic of your book is overshadowed by the fact that you are barely literate. I cannot write about UFO Crash without pointing out that Leir wrote it's for its every time he wrote the possessive form. The capital city of Brazil is apparently Brasalia. If one claims to have written a "thorough investigation" about an extraordinary phenomenon such as a UFO crash with surviving alien beings, I am going to expect exceptional proof. That Leir couldn't even get the names straight of key people in the investigation who either served as interpreters or interview subjects made me lose more credibility in his skills as an investigator. For example, the first name of his interpreter volleyed from being called Rudolfo or Rodolpho or, worse, a young woman who allegedly saw an alien was named Valquira, Valquria or Valquiria--a different spelling on three consecutive pages. Reduncancies also made me cringe: surely an editor would have trimmed "9:00 PM in the evening".

So now you know that a blue-pencil grammar snob who doesn't believe in UFO's is going to review this book. UFO Crash is about an alleged extraterrestrial accident that took place in January 1996 near Varginha, Brazil. A number of aliens were reported to have survived the crash and were found near the site. Some aliens went into hiding and were discovered later. Leir conducted interviews through an interpreter with these eyewitnesses and with those who suffered in the aftermath of the UFO crash.

The interviews he conducted produced conflicting testimonies. The descriptions of the aliens differed wildly and dates didn't coincide. Don't investigative journalists try to pinpoint the exact date and time when an event occurred? When confronted with two different crash dates, Leir even provided a wacko theory that there could have even been two crashes. Not just one UFO sighting clouding people's memories, but two crashes. Who is this guy?

Leir claims that the Brazilian military hid the bodies and all traces of the crashed spacecraft. Doctors even operated on an injured alien. A soldier, alternately named Marco Eli Cherese or Chereze supposedly died after touching an alien with his bare hand. All of this is covered in merely 150 pages. His interview subjects gave the vaguest answers and in spite of this lacking testimony, and a complete absence of any kind of space debris as physical evidence, Leir is convinced that he had conducted a thorough investigation. His own assessment of his investigative efforts produced this laughably conceited claim:

"It is my unwavering and undoubting belief that this text, being an investigation into the absolute truth of these events, is one of the most important documents of the modern world and should be held in the highest esteem."

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

One Summer, America 1927

In 1927 America, Prohibition is in full swing, as is Babe Ruth’s big fifty-four ounce baseball bat.  Charles Lindbergh flies across the Atlantic and inadvertently launches a celebrity cult that would rival any in the 21st century.  It was a time, as Bill Bryson says, that “[p]eacefully, by accident, and almost unnoticed, America had just taken over the world.” One Summer, America 1927 is Bryson’s meticulously-researched ode to giddy post-war, pre-Depression America.

Already having proven himself adept at social history with At Home and A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson works hard to set the reader right down into the world of 1927. He outlines the summer in question month by month, May to September, feeding details to the reader as if we are living in the midst of it.

Time, not theme, governs Bryson’s approach to this book.  In the section on the month of May, Bryson tells us about the murder of Albert Snyder and the subsequent arrest of his wife Ruth and her lover. We hear about them again intermittently throughout the book as they rise and fall in the public interest, usually competing with Lindbergh for press coverage, but then do not learn about their ultimate fates until the epilogue.

This time-dictated method is usually very successful, but there are places where Bryson tries to fit in too much.  He wants to lay the groundwork as well as give us the 1927 particulars.  Between pilots competing for successful Atlantic flights, or baseball players with a variety of abilities, or bombs that blow up anarchists and politicians, there are parts that are needed to be read more than once. You know; to clarify which politicians use spit-ball pitches to protest which air flights…no, wait; that’s not it. You get the idea.

How does one end a great summer? With a dose of regret, I guess. With this great big ball of momentum, the end is a bit of a fizzle. Bryson does do a good job of tying up all his loose ends--in this case, all his loose ball players, pilots and politicians--but his enthusiasm has weakened.   

I must confess; I do thoroughly enjoy Bill Bryson’s upbeat and droll writing style. At last count I’ve read nine of his books, which, for a working mother of three, that’s a miraculous number of books by any one author!  My favourite is At Home: A History of Private Life, the premise of which may sound deadly boring (except to a social historian like me), but in the hands of Bryson, any topic is transformed into high entertainment. One Summer America 1927 is no exception.

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

As the full title of James Gleick's book implies - The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood - this is a book with ambitious intentions. It is a history of communication and information technology, a history of information theory, a historical perspective on our own information age, and predictions on where that age is going. It's a complex and multifarious book, sometimes engrossing, sometimes extremely challenging, usually very interesting.

In The Information, you'll read about Ada Lovelace, a mathematical genius, the biological child of the poet Lord Byron, and the first programmer, from the time when a "computer" was a person who added up numbers; the Jacquard Loom, a mechanical weaving loom that was a proto-computer, the pattern of an weave determined by punchcards; and the visionary Charles Babbage, a man so far ahead of his time that he said he would exchange all his remaining years to live only three more days, five centuries in the future. Babbage was trying to construct a true computer in the Victorian age: steam-powered, running on wheels and cogs.

The Information, true to its subtitle, is divided into three interrelated sections. I highly recommend the first and the third segments. Gleick walks the reader through math and engineering concepts with elegant analogies and well-chosen quotes. Where else will you read about cuneform tablets, the first dictionary, the effect of the internet on lexicographers, the talking drums of Africa (the world's first technology for complex long-distance communication), and how language contributes to the formation of consciousness, all in the first 50 pages?

The middle of the book was rough going for me. I found myself reading about complex math theory well beyond my comprehension. That was I was able to follow this at all is a great credit to Gleick's writing. He is quite brilliant at explaining complex concepts in simple terms.

I followed along much farther than I would have thought, but when quantum physics - whatever that means - intersected with information theory to become quantum information theory, I was completely lost. For me, the last part of the book's second segment was incomprehensible. After that, The Information became understandable, enlightening, and fascinating again.

If you're comfortable with higher theoretical science concepts, you might love the entire book. If you're more interested in the historical, social and personal aspects of our information universe, at some point you'll probably want to skim or skip pages, then resume careful reading with the final chapters. (Portions of this review were originally published here and here, on wmtc.)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks

I have always been a maphead. Every Saturday morning when I was little I would head up the street to the Mississauga Central Library, and spend my time upstairs in the adults' department. I felt like a child genius being allowed onto the second floor. I'd sit with the enormous National Geographic Atlas of the World for hours, poring over all the nations of the world, fascinated by the micronations in particular. I'd look at the pages of islands and of the Pacific Ocean, which looked as if it was scattered with atolls of fingernail clippings. When people ask me how I came to know about the island of Tristan da Cunha, I tell them that I'd known about the island ever since boyhood, by staring at the Tristan archipelago in the National Geographic atlas. Thus when I came upon Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings I felt an eerie suspension of my own consciousness: had Jennings invaded my brain and written this book by reading my own mind? He writes:

"Back then, I could literally look at maps for hours. I was a fast and voracious reader, and keenly aware that a page of hot Roald Dahl or Encyclopedia Brown action would last me only thirty seconds or so. But each page of an atlas was an almost inexhaustible trove of names and shapes and places, and I relished that sense of depth, of comprehensiveness. Travelers will return to a favorite place many times and order the same dish at the same café and watch the sun set from the same vantage point. I could do the same thing as a frequent armchair traveler, enjoying the familiarity of sights I had noticed before while always being surprised by new details."

Jennings kept an atlas at his bedside as a boy, and I asked for an atlas for Christmas when I was eleven. I never let that book out of my sight, and even took it with me on trips. Although much of the political world has changed since 1977, the Webster's Color Atlas of the World (Octopus edition) was my very first atlas, and I still have it. That atlas in particular developed in me a heightened sense of spatial perception. I have been aware for decades of this either uncanny or totally worthless ability to see shapes in puddles, in oil stains, in clouds, in spots on cows (yes, really). These are not just any shapes, but specifically shapes of maps. Whether the map is an exact outline of how it looks on a political map, or a reverse image, or a reverse inverted image, wherever I look I can see the Australian Capital Territory or the Caprivi Strip. When I first started to perspire under my arms I noticed that one sweat stain looked remarkably like Lesotho. Jennings assured me that not only was I not alone in seeing maps in my general sense of perception, but that there was even a name for it:

"It's called 'cartacacoethes': the uncontrollable compulsion to see maps everywhere."

So I have cartacacoethes. But did Jennings provide a pronunciation guide? No. So I'm not telling anyone what my highfalutin "affliction" is just yet.

The best chapter in Maphead was about borders. Jennings and I could likely trade stories about taking road trips and getting excited as our car or bus crossed a land frontier:

"Borders have fascinated me since childhood: I remember staying very alert on family vacations so I could register the exact moment our 1979 Mercury Zephyr crossed the line between, say, Washington and Oregon. To this day, I like to see borders when I travel; many give up secrets in person that you can't see on the map."

To celebrate Jennings's and my passion for those magical red lines we trace on political maps, I have included five photos from some of my border treks:

The Finland-Norway frontier at Nuorgam-Polmak, the northernmost land border crossing in the world.

The German village of Büsingen is completely surrounded by Switzerland. The Rhine is in the background and Switzerland is on the south side of the river.

The extremely steep border between Switzerland and Italy at the enclave Campione d'Italia, which like Büsingen is completely surrounded by Switzerland. I nearly died exploring this border--guess how. In another cliffy area, I was on my back slipping down. There were no tree trunks to break my slide. Had I slid off, I would have been flying off the cliff edge, to land on treetops below. Which country would have claimed my body? 

I am standing in front of a house that straddles the Belgian-Dutch border in Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau. Different number plates flank the door, giving each side of the house its own address (#2 in Belgium; #19 in the Netherlands).

I am approaching the border between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea from the north. Freedom House is on the south side of the DMZ.

I cannot recall any other book that made me want to stop everything and check an atlas to discover a geographical gem that I had not previously known about. Jennings wrote about Weirton [1], West Virginia and I'd have to take a break and hunt down a map of the weirdest-shaped state in the union, West Virginia. Maphead was full of these wondrous examples. Whenever I had to take a pause from reading to check a map, I enjoyed the field trip.

Jennings devoted several chapters to the future of mapping, and I learned about GPS and geocaching and the sometimes obsessive personalities who partake of it. The National Geographic Bee was covered in a delightful chapter about the children who study maps and geography textbooks for a chance at national stardom. Fantasy fiction wouldn't exist as a genre if authors didn't provide maps with their work. Jennings even covered phantom islands and mountain ranges that continued to appear on maps for centuries. I even travelled the American highways with road geeks who monitor traffic signs and the distances (as well as the fonts) displayed on them. Jennings even wrote about the Travelers' Century Club, an exclusive (and somewhat snobbish) group comprised only of those who had visited at least one hundred countries or territories. Maphead was a dream of a read for cartophiles and cartaca-cocoa's alike.

[1] Weirton is the only city in the US that borders two other states on two sides, and its own state on the other two sides.