Thursday, November 30, 2006

This I Believe (Jay Allison and Dan Gediman)

This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women caught my eye on the new book shelf because of three little letters at the bottom of the cover: npr. I love those letters and the many wonderful things in life they bring me, most especially This American Life. (I am very pleased to pass along the news, which was rumored by my dad-in-law and confirmed by Jim, that This American Life is indeed offering free podcasts of their current shows.)

This I Believe was a radio program originally started in the 1950s and revived after 9/11 with the idea that people would state their personal beliefs in a couple hundred words. The book includes selections from both the original series (Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson) and the more-recent one (Bill Gates, Gloria Steinem, Errol Morris), and it also includes nonfamous people, including one woman who wrote an essay for the original series at age 16 and an updated one for the more-recent series.

I started reading this book a couple essays at a time in the evenings before I went to bed. In that way (and at the pace), I found it to be very inspiring and calming. However, because I am now spending this week and the next or so fulfilling my civic duty in jury duty, I went through the bulk of the book in a day, which I'm guessing is not the best way to read it, and that experience left me much less excited about it.

Am I glad I read it? Yes. Do I have enough enthusiasm to recommend it to others? I don't know. But again, that could be situational (see above). I'd say if it crossed your path, you should pick it up, but I'm not sure about searching it out.

Next book up: Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light by Mort Rosenblum

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Ultramarathon Man (Dean Karnazes)

Right from the beginning of Ultramarathon Man, it is very clear that Dean Karnazes is first and foremost a runner, not a writer. The beginning of the book is to the point, barebones writing, and comes off even a bit melodramatic. But then I got sucked into this unbelievable story about Karnazes' life as an ultramarathon runner, and I could care less about the style of writing (and what I felt was melodramatic at the beginning turned out to be very genuine, I realized near the end).

For those unfamiliar with the term, an ultramarathon is any distance past that of a marathon. Apparently for some people, 26.2 is just not enough. Karnazes is one of those people. He was always a runner, but didn't really begin the very-long-distance running until after he turned 30. His first ultramarathon was the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, where participants run up and down the Sierra Mountains and try to finish in 24 hours. (To train for this, among other things, he would run up Hyde Street hill in San Francisco. I personally think "hill" is the wrong term for this street. It's very, very, very steep, even in San Francisco terms.)

Probably the best part of this book is Karnazes' descriptions of what happens both to his body and his mind during these long runs. During the Western States run, he develops night blindness, where he can barely see. (And even though those in the aid tent suggest he quit, he keeps right on racing.) And as if the Western States run wasn't enough, he then enters Badwater, which goes from Death Valley to Mount Whitney, 135 miles, where for the Death Valley part runners have to wear special UV protective desert suits so their skin doesn't scorch, they have to run on the painted white line on the highway to keep their shoes from melting, and Karnazes thinks he hallucinates that a bunch of rattlesnakes are on the road, but it turns out that they are indeed really there.

There are even more astounding runs in the book, including the first ever Antarctic South Pole marathon. This is a short book (took me an afternoon to read) and I think it's worth it to read Karnazes' story. Oh, and wonder what he's doing now? He just completed Endurance 50, 50 marathons in 50 days, and now is in the process of running home from New York (home is San Francisco).

Next book up: This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Blue Latitudes (Tony Horwitz)

Prior to our recent trip to Hawaii, I thought it might be a good idea to get some island-themed books at the library. One I ended up taking with me was Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz. My knowledge of Captain Cook prior to reading this book didn't really go beyond name recognition, and I'd say that would probably be true for all my knowledge of the explorers. Other than learning their names along with a brief career synopsis in 4th grade, Cook (and the others) haven't really come up that much in conversation. Though, thanks to my trusty Lonely Planet guide, I did know about his eventful end on the shores of Hawaii.

Horwitz writes history in my favorite way to read it. He intersperses Cook's voyages (even with excerpts from Cook's journals and journals from others on the ships with him) with his own voyages to these places, where he talks to both experts and everyday people who live with Cook's legacy, in places like Fiji, Tonga, Australia, Hawaii, even in the very remote Unalaska Island in the Bering Sea. One of Horwitz's goal in doing this research and writing this book was to get as close as he could to a balanced account, no only presenting the English side, but also that of the natives of the places Cook visited.

Among Horwitz traveling adventures are many trips at sea, which prove very entertaining as he readily admits it's not his favorite way to travel. During a yacht race in Australia, he says, "I sprawled flat with my face against the desk. This seemed to help, so long as I hugged the mast and kept my eyes firmly shut. Eventually I felt not so much sick as listless and profoundly apathetic, like a polar explorer who announces, 'I'll just lie down in the snow for a while.' Or like the pitiable few in Bligh's longboat who, after being set adrift from the Bounty, became so thirsty and despairing that they drank seawater and died. It was depressing to realize that I was the type who wouldn't have made it."

In Cooktown, Australia, a remote town best known for its rowdiness and drinking, they have an annual "Discovery Festival" celebrating the Endeavour's landing there. When Horwitz takes part he learns, "the reenactment also had a shifting cast. A mainstay of the troup once failed to show up because 'he was on holiday at the Queen's request,' Rob said; in other words, in prison, for possession of drugs. Another lost his part due to 'lead poisoning,' meaning he'd shot himself. Also, since the reenactment came on the last day of the festival, it inevitably suffered from AWOL sailors: men too hung over to show up."

In Horwitz's travels, he encounters almost every possible emotion regarding Cook. Many islanders felt rage at what he had done to their ancestors. Even more it seemed were apathetic about it. And in many places, Horwitz found people trying their best keep the best of Cook alive and honored. He also encounters people living, as he and often they refer to it, on the edge of the world, such as in a small town on the Alaskan Peninsula, where he goes for a walk onshore. "Almost no one else bothered to disembark, and it was easy to see why. The wind blew so hard that I was almost crawling on all fours by the time I reached the end of the long pier. Taking refuge in the first building I came to--the harbor office--I found four men sipping coffee and staring out the window. . . . 'A bit fresh out today,' I said, as a conversation started. One of the men looked at me strangely. 'This is a nice day today,' he said' Last month we clocked the wind at a hundred and thirty-seven miles an hour.'"

This book is interesting both for the stories of the history and those of the present. It's a long book, but worth the read, and entertaining the whole way through.

Next book up: Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner by Dean Karnazes

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball (Molly O'Neil)

I found Mostly True on the new book rack at the library. How could I pass it up? A book that combines food and baseball? What's not to love? Molly O'Neill is the sister of former Major Leaguer Paul O'Neill (he's one of her five brothers). And if you're like me and that name doesn't ring a bell (because you are not a Yankees fan), Jim helpfully reminded me that Paul O'Neill guest-starred as himself in a Seinfeld episode (the one where Kramer makes him promise to hit two home runs in a game for a sick kid in the hospital).

I had not heard of Molly O'Neill before, but I found out she has made quite a name for herself in reviewing restaurants for The New York Times, and while developing her cooking and writing career, she became good friends with such food personalities as Julia Child.

I figured that I had my hopes up too high for this book as it combined two of my favorite things in life, so I was fully prepared for it to be mediocre. I was so wrong. From the very beginning of this book, it was clear that O'Neill writes well and with energy. It's a beautiful book that moves from baseball to cooking seamlessly. I spent a good half-hour on a sunny beach in Hawaii finishing the book before I would get in the water because I didn't want to put it down. It was that good.

Next book up: Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz