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Here I’m providing snapshots of media I’ve consumed lately since there’s too much material for discrete reviews. Note: The Kindle and audiobooks were deals I acquired on the cheap.
Signing Their Rights Away – This book provides absorbing bios for the thirty-nine signers of the Constitution. (A similar work on the Declaration is entitled Signing Their Lives Away.) Each piece gives background on the signer’s family life, his career, his part in the Constitutional Convention, and key life events after the signing. I got this as a Kindle deal for under two dollars, and it has been worth it to awaken my mind to facts surrounding this era. For example, I was under the impression that there were just a handful of upstanding “founding fathers” at the birth of our country. This book corrects that assumption, revealing that there were other astute men on hand helping to hammer out an agreement and promote the Constitution to their home states. I also realize that there was an astonishing amount of wealth in our land even back then; that many of the signers, if not lawyers, were surveyors or merchants; that coming to agreement on the Constitution took weeks of summer meetings in a stifling room; that there were sharp disagreements, especially on how representation in Congress could be fair to both large and small states; and that a number of the wealthy participants also speculated (foolishly) on tracts of land to the west.
The Good Years: From 1900 to the First World War – I was pleased to discover that this decades-old contribution from Walter Lord is a series of nearly self-contained narrative essays of the pre-World War I period. The book captured me from its first chapter about a besieged diplomatic community during the Boxer Rebellion in China. I’d had the vaguest idea that there was a Boxer Rebellion; this story gave a vivid account of a small army of various Marine troops–including Japanese–holding out bravely and ingeniously against their attackers. Lord then takes us to the site of McKinley’s shooting and its aftermath, another incident I had just grazed in my history texts. He goes on to paint for us the partying lifestyle of wealthy socialites, to tell of the time when a big businessman worked night and day to bring the economy back from the brink of failure, and to examine the employment of children in factories. He takes a “warts and all” approach to America, at times getting too contemptuous and sarcastic for my taste. However, he does seem to tip his hat to reformers who, he said, did not seek to tear down our capitalist system but to improve it by addressing wrongs. One of my favorite essays was a close-up view of the Wright brothers–their persistence, genius, eventual success, and attempts to get deserved attention for their flying machine. I even had a satisfying dream based on this chapter, a dream wherein I retrieved a part the brothers needed to make their invention work.
House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East – As appealingly as this book was packaged, I gave up a few pages in. I struggled with the heavy poetic prose that makes the writing not only corny but incoherent to me. Timelines start and stop. The author makes deep observations about inanimate objects, lyrical utterances that mean nothing to this reader. When he started in on Israel and the unjustified destruction she wreaked on the country, I was done. I did, however, follow this reading attempt by spending some time researching the Israel-Lebanon war. So the effort wasn’t all wasted.
How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Tudor Life – With engaging voice so far, the author engrosses the reader in a description and analysis of day-to-day life in Tudor times. My sister said she tried this book and the level of detail became tiresome. But I’m entranced, and marvel at what a resource this would be for a historical fiction writer. Any resulting fictional narrative would be an immersive experience. I am most riveted when the author quotes from primary sources, especially wills giving names and listing bequested items. Also interesting was the discussion of cleanliness and hygiene. The author is willing to test the clothing arrangements of the time, and she insists that the wearing of laundered undergarments, despite the unwashed outer layer, keeps body odor at bay without the need for regular baths. In other words, she believes that despite popular belief, the Tudors did not go around smelling nasty, and that they valued cleanliness–they just found a way to do it without exposing their skin and thus making it vulnerable to, as they thought, illness-causing elements that could enter their pores.
In the Wars – This was a valuable, absorbing account of a young boy who grew up in Afghanistan with the ambition to become a doctor. Despite enduring the disruption of Afghanistan’s various wars, including time spent in refugee camps, the author made it to the UK and met his life’s goal, pushing through barriers to make it happen. He then helped devise a remote consulting program, where doctors in the outposts of Afghanistan and around the world can contact Western doctors for their opinions and support. With Afghanistan back under the clutches of the Taliban, I wonder whether this simple but life-saving system has survived.
Chirp Books Audio – Classic Dog Stories – These are short stories about dogs, collected in an audiobook. Overall, they were a magnificent listen. The narrators were talented enough to bring a whole new dimension to these written works. I must warn the listener, however, to skip the first selection. It is by Mark Twain, and starts out lightly enough, with life told from a dog’s point of view. But then the story descends into a nightmare of animal mistreatment and turns out to be propaganda against vivisection. It’s a traumatizing twist. Despite that bad start, there are stories here that range from mediocre to wonderful, from enigmatic to meaningful. Chekhov gets my vote for the most brilliant (but somewhat dark) story from a dog’s point of view. His simple little narrator can’t really distinguish between a good master and bad one. This and other selections drove me to Google in a quest to understand the tale’s larger meaning. I also appreciated the narration and literary power in the story of the little canine who persisted in following the main character through extreme storms and over icy chasms–would the pair ever return to camp and safety?
Chirp Books Audio – The Man Who Would Be King and Other Stories – I am just coming to appreciate how prolific and versatile Kipling really was. His short stories (and I may be referencing more than one collection) are read by an intense, effective professional voice. The reader makes the most of Kipling passages that are flights of literary brilliance heightened by the depth of the author’s experience and his keen insights. Even this professional narrator, however, is audibly challenged by Kipling’s denser sentences. Kipling wrote ghost stories, tales of the British government, narratives whose real meaning is plain only to himself, and accounts revealing human nature. And almost always, India provides the rich, vivid backdrop for whatever graphic human drama Kipling wants to show us next.
Captain America – For want of agreement on what to watch, my daughter persuaded me to give this movie a try last night. She had set me up for a real snorefest. However, I enjoyed the concept and the moral clarity of the main character. National sovereignty, freedom, commitment, and courage were celebrated. It was just fun to watch, too. Perhaps the first Iron Man is tighter and better-paced. But Captain America is worth watching, too.
To what have you been listening, reading, and watching?Published in