Archive for the 'Books' Category

Dec 16 2011

Christopher Hitchens: 1949-2011

Published by under Books

I was a big fan and now he is dead all too soon at 62. The ciggies and gin will do that to you I guess, but they did nothing but sharpen his mordant feisty wit.

I wrote over a year ago after finishing his memoir – “Hitch-22”:

“Hitchens intelligence and ambitions are unwavering. His mind is obviously astonishing. But it is is dogged refusal to back down from a life-long hatred of totalitarianism, to proudly wear the jingoistic labels of “Trotskyist,” to reject religion and faith and willingly face his attackers that makes this work a true profile in courage. His early calls for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, his proud embrace of American citizenship despite an upbringing as the consummate Englishman, his love of the language and the fun of word play …. in the end it combines into what I have to declare is my favorite literary autobiography ever.”

Buy and read him. He’s worth it.


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Dec 06 2011

And So It Goes: the Vonnegut biography

I just finished Charles Shield’s  biography of Kurt Vonnegut: And So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut:  A Life  largely on the strength of Christopher Buckley’s  review in a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review.

I’ve read most of Vonnegut’s novels, but wouldn’t necessarily put anything other than Slaughterhouse 5 on a list of must-read literature.  Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater: I read them, enjoyed some, didn’t enjoy others, but would not rank Vonnegut among my favorite authors of the late 20th century’s post-modernist school.

I’m not a big fan of literary biographies because they tend to be so predictable  in their accounts of misfit personas, alcohol consumption, failed marriages, alienated children, ambiguous sexual preferences, and the simple bleak fact that most authors go quietly insane over the course of their lifetimes thanks to sitting alone for hours at a time at their typewriters.  Dysfunction sells books. Normalcy does not. Read enough literary biographies and you’ll come to believe that all authors are miserable human beings, and other than some rubbernecking urge to watch them self-destruct, there is little in their lives that is commendable. Any biography of Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hunter S., Jack Kerouac, Hemingway usually is a catalog of misfit urges and terrible behavior.

Vonnegut smoked too much, drank too much, divorced his wife after 30 years of marriage, and was petulant when reviewers trashed his work.  He fooled around, screwed over his agents and publishers, and preened a little in the 1970s as a modern Mark Twain after Slaughterhouse made him rich and famous. He was also fairly prolific, wrote some good novels, was a hero to the counterculture and very much a man of his time. That he died old and unhappy – well, I would argue happy 84-year olds are fewer than ill and unhappy ones.

Although Shields enjoyed “official” status and access to Vonnegut in the writer’s final months, Mark Vonnegut wrote one reviewer to assassinate Shield’s account as a fabrication:

“I’m happy to reassure you that Kurt did not die a bitter man who kept thinking he was a failure.

Charles Shields spent very little time with a much diminished 84 year old who right up to the end showed more flashes of brilliance and warmth than most. There’s a ton of evidence, including his art and writing that he fought hard and largely succeeded to overcome PTSD from WWII and a quirky, but not altogether unloving childhood to have mostly loving and supportive relationships with his siblings and children and even his allegedly distant father. Shields had to ignore most of what I and other people who knew Kurt and most of what he read in the letters to come up with these shocking truths about a beloved writer.
It’s too good a bit to go away, but Kurt had next to no interest in investments or expensive things and never bought Dow stock.

Why don’t people employ a modicum of critical thinking before buying into the truth of a book whose existence is completely and utterly dependent on a picture that Shields would have made up out of whole cloth if he had to. Not a perfect man or father and I’ll grant you two failed marriages.

My best regards to someone whose affection and respect for my father shines on.”

I met Vonnegut in the late 1990s at a big Forbes event. He was quite avuncular and we sp0ke a few minutes about life in Barnstable Village here on Cape Cod in the 50s through the 70s. Vonnegut moved to Osterville in the early 50’s, rented an office over the Osterville Package Store on Wianno Ave., mentions Cotuit Bay as the place where Eliot Rosewater’s mother died in a boating accident (aboard a Cotuit Skiff I like to imagine), and then moved to the northside, to Scudder Lane in Barnstable Village where his wife Jane raised their three children and his late sister’s four.

Vonnegut owned the first Saab dealership in the U.S. — which failed — but when I drove a 900 purchased from Hyannis Saab I always liked to think it had some psychic connection to Kurt.

Vonnegut bailed on Cape Cod in the 70s, shacked up with the photographer Jill Krementz (whom he eventually married), bought a townhouse on West 48th Street, and then a place in the Hamptons — transforming him from a “Cape Cod Writer” (of which there are very few) to a classic New York Literary Luminary. He made some returns to Barnstable, but never called it home again after leaving.

His books were popular with my parents and their friends in the late 60s and 70s, and I recall the excitement whenever a new Vonnegut novel was published. Again, they didn’t do as much for me as Barth, Pynchon, and Heller. All of whom faded when the new realism emerged in the late 70s with Raymond Carver and his ilk.

As for the biography, well, if you want to get a little depressed, then by all means, go right ahead. If you’re a writer looking for some profound life’s lesson, then it comes down to this the guy worked his ass off and found success when he figured out how to tell the story of how he survived the fire bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war. Other than that — it’s petty stuff.


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Nov 28 2011

Readings: Art of Fielding, Solo Faces, Stephen King

Published by under Books,General

It’s been a good stretch book-wise, so I thought I’d weigh in with a trio of recent readings and what is on deck in the Kindle.

First off is The Art of Fielding, one of the best first novels and best baseball novels I’ve ever read. Chad Harbach sets the rise and fall of a shortstop prodigy in a small liberal arts college set in the northern midwest. Immediately I began to compare it to Don DeLillo’s End Zone, a great metaphysical sports novel I first read in the 1970s, but Harbach is far more accessible and compelling, with characters so rich that I began to cast the movie adaptation in my mind. The Art of Fielding is one of the better fictions I’ve read in 2011, and while the baseball theme may put off some non-sporting readers, I can assure you the basis of the novel is far more than a tale of the diamond.  I am most grateful for the reminder of the majesty of Moby Dick, and impressed by Harbach’s affection for The Lee Shore, one of the most powerful piece of 19th century writing in my estimation:

Second in the list of recent good books is James Salter’s Solo Faces.  Given my affection for mountain climbing literature, this is the best piece of climbing fiction I’ve read since Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction. See the previous post for my thoughts on Salter, but this is a gem that lends credence to the claim that Salter is a “writer’s writer.”

And finally, last night I finished Stephen King’s most recent novel, 11/23/63, his great take on the cliche of the time-traveler, only done with far more savoir faire than the usual “butterfly effect” meta-weirdness most sci-fi writers dwell on.  I’d position this alongside James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand as the best Kennedy assassination novel ever written.

I finished this big book in three days of obsessive non-stop reading and would stack it up against The Stand as one of King’s finest. Amazing how he’s destined to go down as one of the great voices in American literature and this book confirms it.

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Nov 20 2011

Heave Short! The Cotuit Novels of Charles Pendexter Durrell

Some of my favorite childhood literature memories were the bookcases filled with pulp novels from the first two decades of the 20th century.  These were the books my grandfather and father read in the years before television. Cheap hardcovers with coarse yellowing paper that smelled like a dusty basement.

The original Tom Swift series was a big favorite, the Thornton Burgess books, and closer to home, three novels written by a family member, Charles Pendexter Durrell, who lived across the street in the 1930s and was my cousin Peter’s great-grandfather. Those three novels were published as The Bluewater Series, by Milton Bradley, the Springfield, Massachusetts game publisher best known for The Game of Life. They featured Sam Hotchkiss, the son of a wealthy Boston businessman who is ordered to the peaceful southside village of Saquoit (a concoction of Santuit, Cotuit, and Waquoit)  by his physician to recover from overwork and bad health. Sam is irked to be exiled to the remote shores of Cape Cod and cops a sulky attitude upon arrival. He’s eventually introduced to Captain Seth Nickerson, an old salt who could be patterned on my Great-great grandfather, Thomas Chatfield, to whom the first book, The Skipper of the Cynthia B. is dedicated:

Captain Seth patiently takes the young boy under his wing and takes him sailing on his trusty catboat, the Cynthia B., named for his devoted wife, and tagged with a “B” because it is considered bad luck to have a boat’s name end with a vowel.

The book describes Sam and Captain Seth’s sailing and fishing adventures, and is interspersed with tales from the Captain’s whaling days in the Arctic and Pacific. There’s a some drama in the plot involving a catboat race, and the book has some wonderful illustrations by the Chatham, Massachusetts illustrator, Harold Brett.

Some of Brett’s painting of the book’s dust jacket covers hung in the house across the street when I was young.  They were beautiful things that are gone now, taken away by the inevitable generational divisions of property. But they were very impressive examples of the Brandywine School of illustration as Brett was a student of Howard Pyle.

The three books in the series are:

They were published in the 20s and 30s, and are, to my knowledge, the only novels set in Cotuit other than Clara Nickerson Boden’s The Cut of Her Jib (another distant relation of mine).

What I know about Charles Pendexter Durrell is that he was born in Maine in the 1880s, lived in Watertown, Massachusetts, and married Chatfield’s daughter Susan granddaughter, Mildred Chatfield Fisher. They had one child, Elizabeth Durrell, who married Fred F. Field and lived across the street and was my grandmother’s best friend. They collected shells together, made beach plum jelly, and carried on like two old Cotuit ladies with a lot of memories would carry on. Elizabeth, or “Betty” as we called her, took care of me one summer because of some family medical dramas, and fed me awesome hamburgers on Wonder bread with yellow mustard. Her grandson Peter Field is my youngest son’s godfather and in some convoluted fashion due to proximity, along with his brother Tom, like a first cousin even though he is probably twice removed or however that works.

Durrell died in the 1950s. His books live on, available used or online in Google Books at the links above.


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Nov 16 2011

James Salter: An Appreciation

Published by under Books

Where has James Salter been hiding my entire literary life? Seriously, the blurb on the book jacket and wikipedia entry laud him as a “writer’s writer.”  I agree — and then some — after reading his  mountain climbing novel, Solo Faces, and recent memoir, Burning The Days.

After mentioning the recent passing of Walter Bonatti, the acclaimed Italian climber to my business partner — a climber and mountaineer himself — he recommended Solo Faces as a great book. It is the spare, economically told story of one of the better fictional heroes in literature: Vernon Rand, a laconic climbing mystic who haunts Chamonix climbing the needles and faces by himself, rescuing lesser climbers when no one else can, a man who prefers mountains to women, though women love him.

Salter wrote the novel for Robert Redford, who commissioned it as a script (and then rejected it.) Redford had starred in a film Salter wrote, Downhill Racer,  a great classic in my opinion. The voice, the language, variously described as “compressed” and “spare” in the Hemingway school of speak-low and slow, is wonderful:

“They were at work on the roof of the church. All day from above, from a sea of light where two white crosses crowned twin domes, voices came floating down as well as occasional pieces of wood, nails, and once, in the dreamlike air, a coin that seemed to flash, disappear, and then shine again for an endless time before it met the ground. Beneath the eucalyptus branches a signboard covered with glass announced the Sunday sermon: Sexuality and God.”

The Paris Review has a great appreciation of Salter and his work here.

Salter’s life, as recounted by him in Burning The Days is remarkable, giving the World’s Most Interesting Man a run for his money.

  • Born James Horowitz, the son of semi-wealthy New York real estate developer, grandson of Polish Jews, rising from the slums to the good life during the Depression, a brilliant time in Manhattan
  • Schoolmate of Jack Kerouac at Horace Mann
  • West Point, 49th in a class of 852
  • Learns to fly in eight hours during World War II. Crashes a plane into a house in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and walks away
  • F-86 jet fighter pilot and ace flying 100 sorties over North Korea and across the Chinese border
  • Literary sensation when he publishes The Hunters  under the pen name James Salter in 1957
  • Expatriate celebrity, writing novels and screenplays in Paris, Rome during La Dolce Vita days. Elbows rubbed with Redford, Redgrave, Fellini, Sophia Lauren
  • East Hampton literary life, habitue of the 1970s Manhattan literary life
In any event, while embarrassed not to have met his work earlier, there it is, highly recommended.

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Nov 07 2011

Ten Things I Learned from the Steve Jobs Biography

Published by under Books

  1. He may not have flushed toilets
  2. He smelled bad
  3. He had serious food issues
  4. What ever the opposite of loyal is, he was
  5. He blamed the post- Restoration commute between Pixar and Apple  for his cancer
  6. He was a serious walker
  7. The Apple store may have been his greatest design
  8. He sort of screwed himself early on by avoiding surgery
  9. He cried a lot in business settings
  10. It really wasn’t about the money

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Aug 01 2011

Some Summer’s Reading

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I read in binges. Get me on a topic or author I like and I can’t shake it. Two are dominating this summer’s reading list: Patrick Leigh Fermor and the Civil War.

Patrick Leigh Fermor was an English travel writer who passed away in June at the age of 96. I’d never heard of Fermor until I read his obituary, but being a fan of the travel genre, especially as embodied by English writers such as Rebecca West, Wilfred Thesiger, Bruce Chatwin and Robert Byron, I ordered hard copies of three of his books and am glad for it. Fermor gained fame in World War II when he kidnapped a  Nazi general on Cyprus and smuggled him away to Egypt, an exploit which was made into a movie. But his travel writing is his legacy, started when he was expelled from an English prep school for holding the hand of a local merchant. In the early 1930s he decided to make an adventure out of his failure and walked across Europe from Holland to Constantinople. The interesting perspective of the two books is that they weren’t written when Fermor was young and fresh from the adventure but fifty years later, when as an old man he had the perspective and erudition to recall the adventure of a younger man who, unaware at the time, was walking through a Europe essentially unchanged from the culture of the Hapsburgs, one soon to be destroyed by the rise of the Nazis he brushed elbows with in German beer halls.

Fermor is the consumate raconteur, a great tippler, scholar, and wit, and any fan of travel writing will be rewarded by seeking out these two books.

A Time of Gifts: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube: the first volume which covers his perambulations from Holland through Austria.

Between the Woods and the Water: the second volume covering his walk (and horseride) through Hungary and Rumania.


In the early 1990s, as my writing/journalism career came to an end and I transitioned into the bureaucratic world of management when I started, my former boss, William Bernard Ziff, Jr. off of Ziff-Davis was retiring and selling his technology publishing company. The editor of Forbes, Jim Michaels, was fascinated that Ziff had amassed a fortune in the personal computer industry without making PCs and assigned me to profile Bill as he exited the publishing business. I negotiated with Greg Jarboe, Ziff’s PR man, to do a story about Ziff’s personal interests as his business interests were off limits because the company was being shopped and there were fears that any disclosures in the press would queer the deal. I spent a day at Ziff’s fantastic estate in Pawling. New York, touring his masterwork, an immense arboretum/garden that mimicked the flora of the Eastern seaboard from Canada to Georgia along its north/south axis. Ziff was a protean polymath — generally regarded as the smartest man in the room — and along with the work of Albert Einstein, gardening (especially naturally occurring plants), and sports, he was a big scholar of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln. We got on the subject of the War Between the States, and I lent him a copy of my great-great-grandfather’s Civil War memoirs.

After the story was published (and the dust settled from the focus on his business interests, not his gardening passions), Bill invited my wife and me back to Pawling for a weekend to talk about the Civil War.  He urged me to read Shelby Foote’s three-volume masterpiece, The Civil War: A Narrative, and now, twenty years later, I am doing so, having nearly completed volume one which spans the origins of the war to the end of 1862 and the terrible autumn of Antietam. I owe Ziff a posthumous debut (he passed away in 2006), as Foote is a lyrical writer, a novelist turned historian who imbues what was a somewhat dry and arid subject into a truly beautiful work. I now rank it as a classic in American literature.




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Feb 22 2011

Mountain Climbing Literature

Published by under Books,General

I definitely am OCD. Once I start down a rat hole I keep digging until I hit bedrock. Case in point: books about mountain climbing. I had, up until last month, about zero interest in mountain climbing. I’m terrified of heights, get tunnel vision and migraines above 8,000 feet, and would no sooner climb a rock or dangle from a piton as I would try to row across the Atlantic alone.

But, an obsession is an obsession, and mountain climbing has been mine for the past month, with at least six books consumed and the same number of documentaries viewed. All because of a book about Bradford Washburn, the Boston Brahmin who founded the Boston Museum of Science, mapped Mount Everest, and led the golden age of American alpinists in the 1920s and 30s.

Most everyone is familiar with Jon Krakauer’s best seller, Into Thin Air, which recounts the Mount Everest tragedy of May, 1996 when eight climbers, Sherpas and guides died near the summit of the world’s highest mountain because of stupidity, inexperience, and really bad weather. Krakauer, who climbed to the summit that day, expanded a feature story in Outside magazine into a great, and controversial book that slammed the chic practice of wealthy, inexperienced climbers getting dragged up a crowded mountain by Sherpas and guides in what was becoming a very crowded traffic jam in the so-called death zone.

I took things a step further. Here is what I’ve been reading, with an emphasis on K2, the second-highest, and far more deadly peak in Pakistan’s Karakoram Mountains:

Starting with Last of His Kind, which introduced me to the “Harvard Five” — the five members of the Harvard Mountaineering Club that went on to define American climbing in the 1930s — I moved onto:

Five Miles High: by Harvard Five members Dr. Charles Houston and Robert Bates about the first American expedition to K2 in 1938. The mountain was unclimbed then, and had only been attempted once before by the Duke of Abruzzi, Luigi Amedeo, in 1909. This is a wonderfully written classic of expedition literature, undertaken at a time when climbing parties had to walk all the way to the base of the peak from Kashmir, accompanied by hundreds of porters carrying loads along treacherous mountain paths and over precarious rope bridges laid over the roaring Indus River. This is a great first book as it about an era in mountaineering before high performance technical equipment — when men climbed wearing wool pants and leather hobnailed boots.

K2: Life and Death of the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain: by Ed Viesturs (first American to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000 meter peaks) and David Roberts, author of the Bradford Washburn biography, Last of His Kind. Viesturs is an icon in mountaineering, and his expert perspective is a sharp contrast to the somewhat sanitized picture of hale-good-fellow rosiness painted in Five Miles High. This book starts off with the 2008 disaster on K2 which wiped out 11 climbers on August 1. Viesturs wraps up the history of failed and successful attempts to summit K2, making this a great omnibus to what seems to be the scariest peak of them all.

One Mountain Thousand Summits: The Untold Story Tragedy and True Heroism on K2: by Freddie Wilkinson. Another story focused on the 2008 disaster on K2, when a serac, or block of ice near the summit wiped out a lot of climbers in a single instant. This has much more perspective from the point of view of the Sherpas, who are usually overlooked in western accounts of climbing in the Karakorams and Himalayas.

Eiger Dreams, by Jon Krakauer. Probably the best known mountaineering author because of his best selling Into Thin Air and other non-fiction works, Krakauer is a serious climber as well. This is a collection of his articles and essays on the world of climbing. My favorite was his solo ascent of Alaska’s Devil’s Thumb, one of the best things I’ve ever read in the entire genre of adventure writing.

No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks: Ed Viesturs. Again, Viesturs is the man when it comes to contemporary American climbers. A veterinarian who studied at the University of Washington, he became a guide on Washington’s Mount Ranier and went on to become the preeminent American climber, one of a handful of people who have climbed all 14 of the world’s mountains over 8,000 meters. The story is a little rambling — as if it was dictated into a tape recorder — but nevertheless its awesome in its first person perspective for the armchair alpinist like me.

K2: The Savage Mountain: by Houston and Bates, author of the 1938 account, Five Miles High, this is about their return to the mountain in 1953 to re-try for the first ascent. The drama in this expedition can’t be understated. Their companion, Art Gilkey, is stricken with thrombosis at high altitude. Where the modern mountaineering ethic seems to be “tough luck” when it comes to helping dying climbers off the hill,  the 1953 expedition tried to descend with Gilkey. A slip sends five roped-together climbers, including the incapacitated Gilkey, sliding helplessly down the slope and over a cliff. Only the heroic belay of one man, Peter Schoening, who arrested the slide and bore the weight of five dangling men single-handedly, saved the day, entering him into the annals of mountaineering mythology with what is known today simply as “The Belay.”  While seeking a route down, the team staked down Gilkey in his sleeping bag and parked him while they explored for a safe path down to basecamp. When they returned he was gone, and some assume Gilkey cut himself free to fall to his death, knowing he was endangering the lives of the others.

Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8,000-Meter Peak, by Maurice Herzog. A classic in the genre about the French expedition to the top of Annapurna in 1950.  This is a nasty mountain. Viesturs climbed it last in his quest for all 14 8,000 meter peaks, and other expeditions had a very rough time climbing its steep flanks (Everest is actually regarded as an easier peak than most because it doesn’t demand the technical climbing skills of Annapurna, or deliver the vicious weather of K2).

Touching the Void, by Joe Simpson. This has been made into a great movie, perhaps one of the best mountaineering flicks (I’ll get into movies and shows in another post), about the amazing fight for survival in the Andes. Quick synopsis. Simpson and buddy Simon Yates set out to a climb Peru’s Siula Grande in 1985. Simpson slips, slides over the edge of a cliff, dangles in the air while Yates, not knowing what is going on with his friend, tries to hang onto him while sitting in a snow bank above. Realizing he can’t hold onto his friend and knowing he will slip and join him in a deadly fall, Yates pulls out a knife, cuts the rope and lets Simpson fall.

Simpson plummets down the face of the mountain and into a deep crevasse in the bergschrund (technical term for the gap between the glacier and the mountain face). Yates gives his friend up for dead, returns to the base camp, and makes preparations to leave. Simpson survives and crawls — with broken leg — out of the crevasse and down the glacier to the basecamp just as Yates is about to depart.

The Boys of Everest: by Clint Willis. An entertaining profile of British legend Sir Christopher Bonington and his merry band of working class hero climbers who marked the entrance of the counterculture into the world of climbing in the 1960s and 70s, replacing the old Oxbridge aristocracy that dominated expedition assault styles of climbing in the 1950s (which led to Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay making the first summit of Mount Everest) with the stripped down, light and fast Alpine style of climbing pioneered in the Alps. This is a raw, lyrical book, with a lot of profound philosophizing about the mountaineering death wish.

So that’s it, I’m about mountained out. The big takeaway from all this reading. First, mountain climbing is probably the hardest, most dangerous thing a person can do short of going to war. Second, you climb a mountain expecting to die. The odds on hills like K2 are pretty much 50/50 you’re not coming back, or if you do, without some fingers or toes. I’ve always been a fan of nautical adventure, and have dabbled in polar stuff, but none of it comes close to mountain writing for great armchair excitement on a cold winter’s night.

Also, the used book function on Amazon is pretty amazing. I was paying an average of $2 per title for some of these books.  Please add suggestions to the comments for other books worth chasing down.

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Jan 17 2011

The Last of His Kind

Published by under Books,General

I just finished reading The Last of His Kind, David Robert’s biography of Bradford Washburn: the esteemed American mountaineer, founder of the Boston Museum of Science, and accomplished alpine photographer and cartographer. While I’m a fan of maritime adventure writing, I do have a passing interest in mountaineering, driven I suppose by Jon Krakauer‘s Into Thin Air, and a couple of other books, but a fear of heights that emerged in 1968 on a Cub Scouts field trip to a firespotter’s tower in Georgetown, Massachusetts has condemned me to a life of sea-level adventures.

Washburn was the last of a certain breed of Bostonian — Harvard-educated, Brahmin to some extent —  part of  the “greatest”  generation of Boston WASPs that included Tom Winship, the esteemed late editor of the Boston Globe; David Ives, the driving force behind WGBH public television, and many other Yankee names who marked the passing of a certain era in Boston. This was a generation that served in World War II, were progressive in their politics, loyal to their institutions, and quietly accomplished without celebrity.

Washburn’s story is fascinating in that he progressed from a childhood spent roaming New Hampshire’s White Mountains, to learning the ropes of classic Alpine climbing in Chamonix as a teenager, then on to media celebrity as a lecturer and author published by GP Putnam, the National Geographic, and Lif e Magazine — all while attending Harvard as an undergraduate in the 1920s. He never climbed an Asian peak like K2 or Everest — preferring to blaze his trails in the wild mountains of southern Alaska and the Canadian Yukon, notching many “firsts” and making the glaciers of North America his specialty.  His photography is his legacy, detailed aerial studies that are art in their own right. His maps of Mount Washington, Everest, and McKinley are works of art in their own right, projects undertaken long after he hung up his crampons and focused his career on transforming the New England Museum of Natural History from a dusty anachronism into the state of the art Boston Museum of Science.

Roberts  was Washburn’s protege,  and follows in the tradition of Harvard Mountain Club climbers. He wrote a fine biography that interestingly — in the paperback version I read —  omits the tragic events involving Washburn’s son and daughter later in his life, events I only became aware of while Googling the subject and uncovering an earlier, different version of the book archived by Google. I won’t go into the details, but I do respect Roberts’ decision to omit the incidents in later editions, but that decision does force the question of how comprehensive a biography needs to be. My sense is that, in the context of Washburn’s long and esteemed life, that omitting details of his personal life and family is the sort of benign protectionism that the press displayed towards say John F. Kennedy’s sexual escapades, or FDR’s polio, as not being germane to the business at hand.  Emphasizing the salacious and sensational is a regrettable by product of our current celebrity-scandal driven media, but still I am curious about how Roberts, as biographer, first made the decision to include the details and then redacted them.

All that aside, The Last of His Kind, piqued my interest in mountain hiking (note I don’t say climbing) that I was introduced to in Switzerland ten years ago when I spent my bachelor weekends traversing some Swiss weg, or walk, up the likes of Mount Tendre in the Jura (5509 feet) and the Hoher Kasten in Appenzeller (5,886 feet). Something in my rower’s legs makes climbing up steep inclines a semi-enjoyable activity, just as long as I stay away from sheer precipices, ropes, and pitons. With some shame I will admit I have never climbed Mount Washington, the third tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River — tallest in the northeast — and thanks to the book  have ordered a copy of Washburn’s famous map of the 6,288 foot peak as well as the Appalachian Mountain Club’s hiking guides. My good friend and former biking buddy, Marta, has done several Presidential Traverses — a marathon effort to hit the peaks of all the mountains named for presidents in the White Mountains in a single day.  This 20 mile effort is usually undertaken on the Summer solstice to get as much daylight as possible on one’s side in completing the effort. I definitely will need to train a lot more than my typical ergometer work to get in shape at my age for the effort, but the story of Washburn’s herculean exploits traversing the glaciers of the Yukon is providing some inspiration.

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Nov 03 2010

What I’m Reading: The Hard Way Around

Published by under Books,General

I just knocked off Geoffrey Wolff’s biography of Captain Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail alone around the world: The Hard Way Around. Wolff wrote a great memoir, The Duke of Deception, and so, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s strong review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review I had to download his latest onto the Kindle.

Slocum wrote about his voyage in Sailing Alone Around the World, a familiar book to most fans of nautical writing and a classic in the circumnavigator genre that includes Pidgeon, Moitessier, Chichester, et al.. Wolff connects the rest of Slocum’s life to his great accomplishment, bringing together a complex portrait of one of the last great mariners from the Age of Sail, a man consumed with wanderlust, who lived from ship to ship most of his life, bringing his wife and family with him as he sailed, traded, and survived a life as a bluewater man.

I wrote a novel in college based on Slocum — it was terrible and an embarrassment that taught me that I would never be a novelist — so it was an interesting experience thirty years after that exercise to read about Slocum from his hardscrabble boyhood on Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy to his disappearance at the age of 64 in the hand-me-down boat that carried him safely through the adventure of a lifetime, the Spray. Slocum was an extraordinary sailor who rose “through the hawse port” to the command of some great clipper ships in the late 19th century. He was also an accomplished ship’s carpenter, building his own boats on several occasions, including a strange canoe-like craft he sailed from Brazil to New York City with his wife and children aboard after being shipwrecked and stranded.

In his 50s, his career in ruins and with no sailing ships left to sail, Slocum was offered an old oyster boat by a whaling captain he had met in the Okhotsk Sea off of Siberia. He found the sloop, built almost 100 years before, in a meadow in Fairhaven’s Poverty Point, and decided to renovate her as his own.

He then sailed the Spray alone around the world at the age of 52. Talk about mid-life crisis.

Great book, quick read, and essential for anyone who has been captivated in the past by Slocum’s story.

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Sep 27 2010

A maritime reading list

Published by under Books

A friend just asked for some maritime reading suggestions following my endorsement of Susan Casey’s The Wave.

Here, in no particular order, are some good ones from my bookshelf.

  • Nigger of the Narcissus, Conrad
  • Two Years Before the Mast, Dana
  • Moby Dick, Melville
  • Typee, Melville
  • Wanderer, Sterling Hayden
  • Voyage, Hayden
  • Looking for a Ship, John McPhee
  • Steaming to Bamboola, Chris Buckley
  • Sailing Alone Around the World, Slocum
  • Around the World Singlehanded, Harry Pidgeon
  • Voyaging Southwards from the Strait of Magellan, Rockwell Kent
  • N by E, Kent
  • The White Dawn, James Houston
  • The Captain, Jan de Hartog
  • The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, Tomalin and Hall
  • anything by Edgar Rowe Snow
  • The Long Way, Bernard Moitessier
  • The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk
  • Ice Brothers, Sloan Wilson
  • A Night to Remember, Walter Lord
  • In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick
  • Down by the Docks, Rory Nugent
  • Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger
  • Heavy Weather Sailing, Adlard Coles
  • The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss, Voss
  • A Fighting Chance, Ridgway and Blyth
  • Crunch and Des, Philip Wylie

I’ll add others as they come to mind. Suggestions appreciated.

7 responses so far

Sep 27 2010

The coming failure of digital periodicals

Published by under Books,Journalism

The best thing that can be said about the dead-tree era of publishing that sustained the world for a few centuries was the relative ease-of-use and standardization in operating the delivery mechanism — the book, newspaper, or magazine. Sentences began on the left, went to the right (in the West), eyes moved from to bottom, and when you finished the page you turned it. Need to remember a place? Dog ear the page or use a bookmark of some sort. Need to annotate? Scribble in the margins. Underline the text. Highlight the sentence.

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The first digital versions of text tried to ape their paper antecedents. Zinio and other early e-mag technologies were basically smarter PDFs of pages, but they were proprietary, and it wasn’t until HTML provided a common framework and page description language that there was some semblance of standardization on how to read pixels.

Now that we are two years into the dedicated e-reader revolution — starting with the Amazon Kindle and now the notion of iPad apps, all hell is going to break loose on readers with very bad consequences. While others have bemoaned the end of the web as it moves off of standard platforms and onto proprietary ones, my beef is purely based on usability.  Today’s culprit is the vaunted New Yorker’s new iPad version, a “free” app that sticks a $4.99 gun in your ribs as soon as you decide you actually want to read something in it.

Jason Schwartzmann’s cute video instructions aside, the New Yorker is an utter failure as an online reading experience for several reasons.

  • Pages are turned by flicking up, not side to side.
  • The table of contents is impossible to find
  • The standard menu has no option to jack up the font size to make the thing elderly eyes compatible
  • It doesn’t remember your place automatically
  • It doesn’t appear to have any annotation capabilities
  • Getting out of the cute animation of how the cover was drawn was nigh impossible

New Yorker editor David Remnick needs to b-tch-slap his designers and start over. I will not buy an iPad version of the magazine again ($4.99 is a rip off what appears, thanks to the missing table of contents, to be a severely truncated version of the real thing). Whomever coded the thing and made their “enhancements” to the reading experience are the beginning of an ugly trend that is only going to get uglier as formats splinter and digital typographic designers decide to innovate the same way they managed to muck up web design over the years. Amazon enforces a modicum of standardization, so for now my allegiances will lie with the iPad’s Kindle app. But magazines and papers better settle on a defacto standard for tablet/reader publishing or we’re all screwed trying to find out where the table of contents is, the font adjuster and the virtual bookmark. I need to get smarter about these new tablet production tools.

3 responses so far

Sep 20 2010

The Wave

Published by under Books,seamanship

I downloaded Susan Casey’s The Wave onto the iPad yesterday after reading a review in the NYT Sunday Book Review. Definitely a decent book and interestingly, a great multimedia experience if read on an iPad (more on that later).

Casey wrote an account of the great white sharks around California’s Farallon Islands, The Devil’s Teeth, but The Wave is a better book, for me at least, in that sharks are lurid enough of a tired topic that I wasn’t particularly enthralled by an account of them (more of the scientists who spend weeks at a time on the forbidding lumps of rock due west of the Golden Gate). The Wave, for the most part, is a good tale of big wave surfing, an act requiring huge skill, massive cojones, and someone to tow the surfer onto the wave with a jetski. It chases, grail-like, the quest for the 100-foot wave, the monster that hasn’t been ridden, butthe  far more interesting yet scant part of the book is about the effects of oceanic rogue waves on shipping. Apparently a ship or two is lost every week in general — primarily tired bulk carriers that are pressed into service too long by greedy owners and driven in conditions by delay-conscious captains when sane seamanship says its time to heave to.

I would have preferred far more on the type of maritime disaster tales related by Adlard Coles in his classic Heavy Weather Sailing than descriptions of the machismo surfer culture that doubtlessly will make the book more popular to the masses. To her credit, Casey does spend a great deal of time along South Africa’s Wild Coast, describing the terrible toll the monster waves there make on shipping. And her description of the 1,700 foot  mega-tsunami of 1958 in Alaska’s Lituya Bay is enough of a superlative to make all other waves mere pond ripples.

The fun part of reading the book on the iPad was the ability to switch over to YouTube and find the actual video clips of specific surfers surviving specific waves Casey writes about in Tahiti, Maui or Half Moon Bay. The true wonder of the world that I did not know about before reading it, was the description of Cortes Bank, 100 miles west of San Diego where the Pacific abruptly shelves up from thousands of feet to a submerged seamount a scant six feet under the surface. That people cruise out there with the intention of surfing in the great void simply astounds me, and as a terrified sailor, the notion of cruising along and seeing a 120-foot comber breaking in the middle of the empty sea would cause me to void into my underwear.

Good book, read it with YouTube nearby, put up with the constant Laird Hamilton surfing stories, suffer through the scientists opining drearily about the end of the world, global warming, and the coming days of chaos, and you will be entertained.

4 responses so far

Jul 04 2010

What I’m reading …

Published by under Books

Sebastian (The Perfect Storm) Junger’s War is destined to become a classic in combat writing. He spent a long time with an infantry company in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley — the nastiest six miles of valley in the world observing some truly amazing acts of perseverance, camaraderie and heroism. Want to put that morass of a nine-year old war into context? Read this book. It may not make you pro-war or anti-war, but it does fill one with complete admiration for those young men who put themselves into harm’s way.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell is the subject of a cover review by Dave Eggers in today’s New York Times Sunday Book Review. A very very very good and erudite novel about Dutch merchants in Japan in 1799.  Mitchell is amazing. This is a great piece of historical fiction.

2 responses so far

Apr 19 2010

Reading and watching – flight to Beijing

Published by under Books,Movies,Personal

I settled in for the 14 hour haul with some massive reading and viewing. I never sleep on long hauls — small naps and moments of narcolepsy aside — and so I need tons of mental stimulation.  It all begins with packing:

Hardcopy: this is paper-based reading for those non-electronic device moments the airlines are so fond of dogmatically imposing. Why a Kindle can’t be used during taxiing is beyond me. But I am not going to argue with the Man.

  • Sunday New York Times. $6 at the Hudson News in Terminal C. I repeat: SIX DOLLARS.
  • Ten back issues of a newsletter from a Club that shall not be named that I am a guest of this summer for a few days
  • Saints and Strangers: Being the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers & Their Families, with Their Friends & Foes; & an Account of Their Posthumous Wanderings in Limbo, Their Final Resurrection & Rise to Glory, & the Strange Pilgrimages of Plymouth Rock, by George Williston, the best account of the Pilgrims I have read yet beyond Bradford, Mourt’s Relation and Nathaniel Philbrick.

Digital: Kindle primarily – working through William Vollman’s excellent World War II novel, Europa; the New Yorker, and a ton of other texts. I downloaded War & Peace for a re-read. Lots of Kindle usage going on in United business class from Chi-to-PEK. Saw one poor soul start off the trip with a new Apple iPad in his hands. He made sure everyone knew he had one. By Siberia the guy had a massive case of arm fatigue and was trying to prop the sucker up against something. I pitied the fool. Spied another iPad in a guy’s dutyfree bag going through immigration at PEK.

Video: loaded up the ThinkPad with some in-flight viewing. The video screens on the plane are super small, but I suffered through a historical costume drama, The Young Victoria then abandoned the in-flight options and went to my own library. Big surprise was The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke’s winner of the Palm D’Or at Cannes in 2009. Amazing, amazing movie set in pre WW-I northern Germany.

After that I started a Kurosawa flick about a bureaucrat with stomach cancer …. but that got old and I dove into the Willison’s excellent history of the Pilgrims, which had my attention all the way into Beijing.

All in all, I love flying only because I can get a ton of reading and viewing in. Sure, out of guilt I do a little work, but for the most part it’s just a lot of reading and watching, about the only such non-interrupted stint I get these days.

2 responses so far

Mar 02 2010

Barry Hannah – Geronimo RIP

Published by under Books,Favorite Things

My father accidentally introduced me to Barry Hannah in the mid-70s when he bought Hannah’s first novel, the Faulkner award winning Geronimo Rex. For some random reason I read it — we never discussed the book, my father never recommended it or even mentioned it, it just appeared on a shelf in the bookcase and I read it.

It is one of a few books which makes me laugh out loud, a book I push on people to read over and over as one of the most wickedly funny examples of Southern American writing ever penned.  A tale of coming of age in 1960s Mississippi, it actually more like Animal House on paper — a very sophomoric story of three misfits rooming together off campus at Ole Miss.

In 1977 I was accepted into a writing class taught by Gordon Lish, fiction editor at Knopf and short story editor at Esquire. He championed the new wave of post-modern writers like Don DeLillo, Raymond Carver, and Hannah. In one of the first classes he handed out copies of Hannah’s amazing short story anthology, Airships and read out loud the extremely short story, “Coming Close to Donna.” I was captivated.

Barry Hannah never broke out as a best selling author, nor did he go on to achieve great things like others of his generation. But he did write beautifully, crafting his sentences with the precision of a Haiku. He was earthy, his humor was located south of his belt, but he was entertaining as could be. I loved his writing.

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Sep 24 2009

Heading into the post-season

Published by under Books,Cape Cod

The past few weeks has seen my world confined to an armchair, a ThinkPad, and a Blackberry.  Blogging has not been a priority when most of the news is personal, medical, and tedious. However, I have tried to keep up my reading, albeit slowly. Television has been banned, so I listen to the Red Sox via the radio stream and keep score on my laptop using a new application called PC Scorebook. Anyway – a limited what-I-am-reading


The other day I did the pathetically maudlin move of walking up to the Elizabeth Lowell ballpark to stare out at the vacant diamond and feel sad that the Kettleers are gone until June.  The Cape Cod Baseball League was a highlight of this past summer and with it gone I fill the hole with the end of the Red Sox’s regular season the nailbiting wonder of the post-season to come.

I ordered a couple actual books — as opposed to Kindle texts — on the CCBL. The first was The Last Best League by Yankee Magazine editor and former college ball player Jim Collins. (there is a Kindle version). Collins spends the season of 2002 with the Chatham A’s — the team featured in the so-so movie about the Cape League: Summer Catch, and gives an amazing look at the transition of a handful of talented college ball players from sophmore prospects to top professional draft picks.

The second book is a lot less polished but more detailed in the overall history of the league — I am picking my way through it now — Beach Chairs and Baseball Bats, by Steve Weissman.

Getting into the college baseball and world of scouts has driven me to actually pay for a subscription to Baseball America, the bible of amateur ball and prospects.  With a nephew down in Florida lighting up the high school circuit with his pitching, I find myself more and more interested in the system that identifies and tracks talent at a young age. Moneyball and Prophet of the Sandlot got me very interested in the scouting and statistical systems that identifies and tracks talent at an early age. Some of the insights from The Last Best League includes the discovery that some professional teams rely on a personality test called the “Caliper” that was developed to predict success in sales people. It sounds somewhat Myers-Brigg’s like, but to see the degree to which professional baseball discovers, measures, and analyzes talent — from MRIs to personality to box-score statistics is interesting, particularly as I just came off of a rigorous internal human resources process at Lenovo that tracks and identifies up and coming talent.

But I digress …

More to come as my vision improves. Big strides since the weekend as the bubble of inert gas has been absorbed and I am now adapting to my “field” of vision. The left eye is similar to looking through an antique pane of glass — distorted, some fun-house mirror effects — and mid to long distance sight is crossed and hard to bring together with the “good” right eye. I am semi-active — no jump-jacks or back-squats — mowing the lawn and walking, and today see the surgeon for the week-three post-op exam and perhaps an indication of when I can fly again and return to Morrisville and Beijing.

2 responses so far

May 17 2009

What I’m reading and watching ….

Published by under Books,Movies


Steven Johnson: The Invention of Air, the story of the Reverend Joseph Priestly.

World War Z: Max Brooks. The zombie wars, told Stud Terkel style. Recommended by my good buddy T. Soon to be a major motion picture.

Thirteen Moons: Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain. Just getting into it. Not sure yet.

J.D. Lasica: Identity in the Age of Cloud Computing. Really good cloud computing primer. I am very into cloud services these days, working on some Amazon Web Services stuff, thinking about business models. Lasica does a great job with a summation of


Old Boy: Highly demented Korean revenge flick. Highly demented. Fight scene with a claw hammer is pretty unforgettable.

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Songs from the Second Floor: Swedish weirdness. Like a two hour television commercial with very pale people

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Star Trek: digging the Spock emphasis, I mean, seriously, when Spock gets the girl, pointy eared paste eaters everywhere got a lift.

Loves of a Blonde: Milos Forman, pretty funny Czech flick about factory workers behind the Iron Curtain looking for men. This bedroom scene was pretty awesome.

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May 11 2009

Chris Buckley: Losing Mum and Pup

Published by under Books

Christopher Buckley’s encomium to his parents, socialite Pat Buckley and intellectual conservative author William F. Buckley, Jr., should be mandatory reading for those of us riding the caboose of the baby boom with aging parents in their twilight years. It is, by and large, a book about death; about the deaths of two parents within one year, and one man’s brave passage through their decline and passing with grief and good humor. While the details of their public lives are interesting, Chris spends more time in the sick rooms, the ICUs, and the funeral homes than he does on memory lane recounting the past glories of two lives lived large.

He’s taken heat for this book – the letters to the editor of the Sunday New York Times Magazine, some reviews at … yet I disagree. This memoir doesn’t leverage the fame of two (to leverage the over-leveraged cliché) larger-than-life personas, but it does reveal some details that others might be uncomfortable sharing in public about their own parents. I see courage where others might see exploitation.

The book made me think, a lot, about the passing of my own father my senior year of college in a car accident, and how that surprise left me beached and bereft of words for nearly a decade. I realize, now, as my eldest son is 22, that I have somehow managed to “outlive” my father, and have surpassed his shortened record by a few years, leaving me — in some strange way — without an old man to model and compare myself to as I roll into my days as a future old man. Chris Buckley, as an only son, wishes at one point that he could turn to an older sister and say, “There, it’s your turn now.” But there is no one but him, and he faithfully puts in his time, coming out of the process with nothing less than the best book about parents and their children, life and death, that I have read.

Disclaimer: I am not a political creature, and admired William F. for his nautical non-fiction, teaching myself how to navigate celestially through the pages of Airborne. I interviewed him once for Forbes on something to do with word processing – he was a geek manqué – and knew Chris from my efforts to put ForbesFYI online. From him I developed the courage to wear pink and green argyle socks and owe him for the introduction to my good friend and former colleague Charles Dubow, now at


One response so far

May 01 2009


Published by under Books,Movies

I read a very interesting essay in the recent New Yorker about the repatriation of the Danilov bells from Harvard’s Lowell House belfry to the Russian monastary where they hung and rang for centuries.  Russian bells have been on my mind since December when I watched Andrei Rublev, the 1966 masterwork of Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. That film has an amazing scene where a young bell-maker is asked to cast a gigantic bell — something he has apprenticed with his late-father, but never done himself. As a depiction of art and craftsmanship, I think it is unequalled.

The New Yorker piece talks about the role of bells in Russian life, the destruction of most of the country’s bells by Stalin, and the preservation of the Danilov bells (a set of 17) by the wealthy benefactor, Charles Crane — the toilet and sink magnate — who was a protean renaissance man with a desire to preserve an amazing collection of bells ranging from 22 pounds to the 26,000 pound “Mother Bell”.

From the Wikipedia entry on Lowell House:

For three-quarters of a century, one of the more distinctive features of Lowell House was the presence of a set of Russian bells in a tower above the House, one of only a handful of complete sets of pre-revolutionary Russian bells left in the world. The set was bought around 1930 by Chicago industrialist Charles R. Crane in order to save the bells from being melted down by Soviet authorities. Crane is reputed to have bought the bells for the price of their bronze content. When Lowell House was built, Crane donated the set of 18 bells to Harvard (only 17 are in the House today; the 18th was thought to be too close in tone to one of the others, and it now hangs in the tower of Harvard Business School‘s Baker Library).

The bells originally came from the Danilov Monastery in Moscow, now the seat of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, and were installed with the help first of Konstantin Konstantinovich Saradzhev and then that of “a Russian émigré who … claimed to have rung the Danilov bells before the Revolution.”[2] They range in weight from 22 pounds (10 kg) to 26,700 pounds (12,100 kg) (the largest bell is known as “Mother Earth”). The bells are consecrated, and are of great significance to the Russian Orthodox Church, where bells are regularly rung as part of the liturgy. At Harvard, the bells are rung every Sunday from 1:00 to 1:15 pm, and on certain special occasions, by an interested group of Lowell residents known as the Klappermeisters. The Bells had been rung for generations of students, for instance, following the Harvard-Yale football game, with Harvard’s score rung on the “Mother Earth Bell” and Yale’s rung on the “Bell of Pestilence, Famine, and Despair.” Visitors are welcome. They can also be heard on the Lowell House Virtual Bell Tower.

With the revival of Christianity in Russia and the reopening of the Danilov Monastery, a request had been made for the return of the bells to Moscow. After prolonged negotiations, they were returned in the summer of 2008 and replaced with replicas; the exchange was made possible by the financial and administrative support of the Russian industrialist Victor Vekselberg.[3]

Here is the bell casting clip from Andrei Rublev. The full scene needs to be seen for full impact.

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