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Pippi Longstocking

I remembered reading this when I was a kid, so I read this one to the girls and they loved it. Quirky Swedish girl with stick out ponytails and superhuman strength takes on fun and adventure with her neighbors, her monkey and her horse...

The Worst Hard Time - Timothy Egan

I never knew very much about the dust bowl beyond what I learned by reading the Grapes of Wrath in High School (still have to loop back and read that) and a bit more in A.P. US History. So this book was a real eye opener for me. I never understood just how much humankind was at fault, and how quickly it all happened.

Egan has a great map in the front of the book showing the extent of the dust bowl, involving the states of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. He walks you through the history of this area from the times before the dirty thirties. For thousands of years, a stable grassland ecosystem had thrived in this dry region, with buffalo and antelope thriving on an ocean of plant matter. With the arrival of horses in the late 1600s, the Comanches ruled this plain, thriving on an ocean of buffalo. Then in the mid 1800s, white buffalo hunters came and decimated the buffalo herds and sent the natives to reservations. But white cattle ranchers soon filled the void, replacing the mighty wild herbivores with their domesticated cousins, and the ecosystem at least could function in a similar manner as before. Then came WWI and a huge boom in beef prices, followed by an inevitable crash, leaving behind many financially ruined ranches.

The next void-fillers were farmers. They came from all over the U.S. as well as Europe lured by cheap land (via the Homestead Act) and promises of a better life. While the area was known to be very dry, shaky science (e.g. "water follows the plow") and unscrupulous marketing by various land speculators helped confuse the issue for potential farmers. The combination of a few unusually wet years, Russian wheat with low water needs, and new technology such as the use of windmills to pump water from deep wells that tapped the massive Ogallala Aquifer meant that there actually was enough water to produce great crops. City folk ("suitcase farmers") would come in, buy land, plant it, leave town and come back to harvest, the potential for profit was so great... for a brief time.

Ranchers were dismayed to see so much grassland being plowed under and warned that problems would follow. Then came a drought and a lull in prices. Much of the plowed land was left in dirt. That dirt, which had been held down by grasses since the ice age, was now exposed to the wind. And thus was born the dust bowl.

Most of Egan's book is devoted to the stories of those who lived through the dustbowl, and the horrible conditions they were forced to endure. It is a very personal sort of history, filled with hopes, dreams and love, and despair, sickness, and death. He also chronicles how our government tried to mitigate this catastrophe, and what has happened to the land and the inhabitants of the dust bowl.

This book is a must read.

The Red Pony - John Steinbeck

This book is really four seperate short stories about Jody, a young boy growing up in the Monterey Valley early in the 20th century. He lives on a small ranch with his father, mother, and a ranch hand, Billy Buck. In the first story, Jody is given a red pony by his stern father, Carl Tifflin. Sadly, the pony dies. The rest of the stories explore other themes of family and rural life, and growing up.

It is a beautiful little book which I would highly recommend.

A People's History of the United States of America by Howard Zinn

This is the most comprehensive history book I have ever read, of any kind. Weighing in at almost 700 pages, this book takes you from the landing of Columbus all the way through the War on Terror. But this is American history from a different perspective than usually provided. It is history from the point of view (or at least with a point of concern) of natives, slaves, feminists, workers, soldiers, revolutionaries and malcontents, the poor, sick and huddled masses. It is a history that questions great men, great corporations and great wars instead of exalting them.

Howard Zinn is obviously a true scholar with a deep knowledge of our nation's history. He has an amazing ability to dig up relevant facts and documents and synthesize a cohesive view. This book is incredibly well referenced, with citations, quotations and excerpts from other sources throughout.

However, along with all the facts comes an incredibly strong set of opinions. Almost every achievement of social progress or any other action that our government has made is viewed cynically. In Zinn's view, every good thing that has happened in our history was allowed by the powerful simply to reduce the frustration of the people below a boiling point, or to divide us against ourselves. Desegregated schools are seen simply as ways to continue pitting white against black. Environmental, safety and other public-health regulations are simply a way to lull the public into a feeling of safety and let capitalism take its toll and reap its benefits. The Revolutionary War was simply a way for the upper class of the American colonies to keep more of the natural wealth of this country for themselves. Our involvement in World War II is seen as a way of extending and solidifying a global empire rather than saving the world from fanatical evil. He is most skeptical of Democratic presidents of the 20th century, seeing almost every progressive thing they did as a facade.

He puts up a powerful set of evidence to support this sort of view of history. However, I believe that almost every good action by any person is motivated by a complex network of reasons, some of them cynical and selfish, some of them pure and sincere. I doubt there could be any progress in America or anywhere without compromise and ulterior motives. Zinn seems willing to disregard anything good that America has done unless it was done with the purest of pure intents. Unfortunately, I don't see this being something we can expect out of any government run by human beings.

Still, even with it's loaded point of view, this book should be read by everyone who wants to understand American history more fully. It will definitely teach you facts you don't yet know, and expose you to opinions you have never fully considered.

The Hobbit; Rikki Tikki Tavi

I read the Hobbit to the girls over the last month or two. They really enjoyed it, but one thing I noticed is that towards the end (when they reach lake town) the style of language gets more advanced, more like what you find in the Lord of the Rings. And the battle sequence at the end was not very interesting to my girls... so overall thier attention waned towards the end. But I still loved it through and through.

Then we picked up Rikki Tikki Tavi and read that over a few nights. That is a delightful little story. I love the mongoose family motto "Run and find out!".

The War

I listened to this excellent Ken Burns / Geoffrey Ward documentary on World War II in the car over the last few weeks. It does an excellent job of giving big picture and overarching plot, and diving into personal details and specific stories as well. The narrator has a very solumn and respectful voice but also brings the tension and excitement this story deserves. I am so amazed by the American heroes of WWII.

One of the most amazing anecdotes in this documentary happens during the Battle of the Bulge. A soldier's company's medic dies, and he himself gets shot, and digs the bullet out himself. His captain says "who fixed you up soldier?" and when he says he did it himself, his captain makes him the company medic. Later, this soldier is working on a prisoner, and the prisoner turns around in perfect English and asks him where he is from. The soldier says "the Northeast US", and the prisoner says "where in the northeast?". The soldier says the name of the state, and the prisoner asks what the name of the town is. The soldier names the town and the prisoner asks "is that between (such and so) rivers?". Which was an extremely specific location. The soldier says "how did you know that?". The prisoner explains that he had been training for the administration of the Americas. So, Hitler was so bold that he had his long term eyes on a US takeover! I had never heard that before. It also shows how desperate the Germans were by this time to send such a highly trained person into battle...

Anyway, highly recommended.

Star Trek

I watched this last night. I don't have much time to write about it, but I thought it was fantastic. I watched all the original Star Treks when I was 7 and 8 years old, and many times after that. I think they did a decent job honoring the original concepts and characters (McCoy was spot on) while giving it a fresh spin. They managed to give Kirk's Earth a very near-future feel, not too far out except the space ships and aliens. Though I really wanted to know why Uhura ordered so many drinks (do they come in mini shot glasses in the future?). The Romulan ship was so awesome and the Enterprise got a good update while still being pretty much the same ship.

I was, with everyone, annoyed at the "Siberius" vs. "Tiberius" business, however, perhaps they can fudge this by saying it was the alternate timeline that made the difference. Although "Siberius" is not a real name, and "Tiberius" is... Oh well.

I think they also did a great job engineering an alternate plot line for future movies. Although for all the time traveling in previous shows and movies they always manage to avoid altering their present timeframe, so to have them end up in an alternate future is a change of tradition. I can't wait for the next one in this line, I wonder what they'll call it? I also loved how the end looped back to the series with the original theme music and Spock doing the intro.

Twilight - the Movie

Well, my wife and I had to watch this, being Forks natives. It was about what I expected. First of all, it is a high-school movie, which for the most part I can't stand as a genre (with a few exceptions such as Saved and Mean Girls -- both of which actually have the same plot if you break it down). Second, the town of Forks is fairly poorly represented.

  • The high school isn't that nice
  • The parking lot is not full of Mercedes and Volvos (try Fords and Toyotas, lots of pickups)
  • There are no sleek modern mansions like the Cullen's
  • Our proms are not that fancy
  • Going surfing is not a general pastime. A few do it, mostly tourists, but the ocean is wicked cold there
  • It is a flat city
  • There are no bridges in the middle of town
  • There isn't as much racial diversity
  • Oh yeah, and there are NO VAMPIRES! (Or werewolves)
However, it has brought a lot of tourism to my hometown, so I shouldn't complain!

The Call of the Wild - Jack London

This is a fantastic book.  For whatever reason, I never read it in Junior or High School when it is apparently customary for people to read Jack London.  But I've always wanted to.

I love the way London illuminates Buck's (the protagonist in the story -- a Saint Bernard/Shepard mix) feelings and thoughts.  It is actually impressive the degree to which his descriptions of the dog's state of mind and motivations matches modern concepts of how dogs think (at least, based on my understanding from reading various Puppy training and Dog books).

I retold the story to my 6 and 8 year old over a few nights, and they thoroughly enjoyed it.  I hope to read it to them in a few years.

There are also a few short stories at the end of the Audio Book version I listened too.  "To Build A Fire" is an amazingly done story of a man who freezes to death in the Yukon.

Bedtime Stories; Prince Caspian; Burn After Reading

Bedtime Stories is very good if you watch it with kids.  My girls were smiling the entire time and we got quite a few laughs out of it.

Prince Caspian was pretty well done.  I read these books when I was about twelve so it is hard for me to remember what is different.  Still, the storytelling, acting and action was excellent, and the special effects are great.

Burn After Reading was hilarious and surprising.

Loved all three.

The Greatest Generation - Tom Brokaw

This book was not what I expected but still it was pretty good.  I really do agree with his thesis that these are the greatest generation of Americans.  To pull themselves out of the depression and build an enormous fleet of ships and planes, and train a giant number of men and women, and then take on two fanatic forces bent on taking over the world-- pretty amazing stuff.  And then they went on to build the American infrastructure we still are working with today.  We owe them so much.

I have to say the writing was not the best, and I would have liked more time spent covering the war years.  Still, this is a must read.