Book Bingo Update Plus Some Bookstore Tourism

I wrote about Book Bingo over at In Another Place related to gamifying reading.

I filled out my card and have been using it to drive my reading. It’s fun to explore different genres including fantasy (The Graveyard Book), science fiction (Ender’s Game) and alternative history (The Man in the High Castle). I took advantage of the analog AND digital library to find a couple books (The Graveyard Book and The Absolute True Diary of a Part-time Indian) and retired one that’s been around for awhile (Spartina).

I did take time off the bingo card to read The Emperor’s Tomb by Steve Berry, my first Overdrive checkout. The app connects to my Amazon account to get to my Kindle and lets me choose the length of the check out time. It’s interesting that not all of the books in the Cotton Malone series are available electronically. But the next one is already on the shelf at my local branch so I’ll head down there this week.

KramerbooksA conference in Washington, DC, got me to a new bookstore. Kramerbooks is in Dupont Circle and packs a lot of books in two pretty small rooms. Walk through the store to a bar and a lovely cafe. I might be willing to move to the city if I could live around the corner from a spot like this. I came away with a nice pile of interesting reads including Education: A Very Short Introduction by Gary Thomas, part of Oxford’s series of short introductions to lots of topics. I’m proud of myself that I only walked away with one. I’ve mostly stopped by fiction in analog since I read them so quickly. Instead, I added a few others to the library including A History of the World in Twelve Maps and On Dupont Circle, which tells the story of the Roosevelts and their progressive friends who shaped the beginning of the 20th century.

It’s harder to find time to read this time of year: the garden is calling. There’s weeding and culling and moving and mulching, and I like to do a couple hours a day, in smaller chunks of 45 minutes or so. After five years of working on these garden beds, adding perennials and shaping edges, they are coming together nicely, and I’m looking forward to seeing them move through the seasons. The biggest challenge now is dealing with some of the large chunks of daylilies and irises we have in various places. I have spots for them but the digging and hauling have deterred me so far.

 

The Importance of Keeping Good Records

NB: This post originally appeared on my professional blog, In Another Place. 

I just finished David McCullough’s story of the Wright Brothers and their contributions to the history of flight. It is a biography of sorts, telling the story of the family but focusing on the years when the brothers were developing and demonstrating the plane. Maybe that is less by design and more because by 1910, McCullough notes that they had really “accomplished all they had set out to do.” (p. 253). Wilbur Wright died young, just a few years after the momentous events of the early 1900s. Orville outlived the rest of the family but spent much of his time in bitter disputes over patents and legacy and had a falling out with his sister who had done so much to support the brothers. A sad ending, really.

The legacy seems to be the most important part and continues to be controversial as there is another claimant to the “first to fly” mantle: Gustave Whitehead. His claim had been largely debunked throughout history–McCullough dismisses it in a few sentences–until Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft published an editorial claiming photographic evidence.  I was not prepared for what I found doing some quick Google searches. This is a big fight amongst the aviation community and several states. Gustave has his own website and prominent supporters.

Meanwhile, aviation historian Carroll F. Gray tends to the anti-Whitehead website devoted to questioning all things Whitehead. In a lesson for all inventors, keeping good records is essential. Gray argues that a major reason to support the Wrights’ claim over Whitehead is that there is just more documentation:

Lost in much of the discussion and debate over who was first to fly is the simple fact that the evidence for Gustave Whitehead is extremely thin to non-existent, while the work of the Wrights is evidenced by volumes of notebooks, numerous diaries, piles of photographs and reams of letters. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that those who believe that Whitehead actually flew sustain themselves on “a hope and a prayer” — faith in that supposed fact — because the absolute proof of that claim is nowhere to be found.

Finally, there’s a humorous political aspect to all this. Based on that one editorial in the aviation magazine, Connecticut legislators decided to declare Connecticut the birth place of aviation and put all their support behind Whitehead. North Carolina and Ohio, states that have often fought over the brothers, now joined forces with both states passing their own resolutions against Connecticut’s claim.

I think this might make an interesting conversation in a history class or makerspace about keeping historical records and how innovation happens. No one can seem to determine if the brothers knew about Whitehead who, even if he didn’t fly, did some inventing and tinkering around planes and the idea of a flying car.

 

Tinkering and Making With the Wright Brothers

NB: This review was originally posted at my professional blog, In Another Place.

Historian David McCullough has discovered the “secret sauce” of writing history for non-historians. He presents history first and foremost as a story of people, often ordinary, who go on to do extraordinary things or live through extraordinary events.

The Wright Brothers is no exception: we learn a bit their childhoods, just enough to let us understand their close knit family and community in Dayton, Ohio. But pretty quickly we are in the workshop and on the beach watching as they create their flying machine.

For schools diving into makerspaces, the story of the Wright brothers is an important one: In a time of amazing innovation, “aerial navigation” was the last untapped frontier with many people, both laymen and leaders, simply believing that man was not meant to fly. Yet, two bicycle makers from Ohio had a vision that played out into a lifelong passion. They understood that there would be failure so did not let it deter them but moved ahead step by step. I like to imagine them wandering the shore line of the Outer Banks where I have spent many summers watching the gulls and gannets but not, as I might, just to admire them, but to consider what lessons they could learn from the birds.

There is a clear lesson for all of us who wish to encourage the habits of thought that lead to the kind of creative and critical thinking exhibited by the Wright Brothers. McCullough writes:

Years later, a friend told Orville that he and his brother would always stand as an example of how far Americans with no special advantages could advance in the world. “But it isn’t true,” Orville responded emphatically, “to say we had no special advantages…the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity” (p. 18).

This grainy video of the record setting flight in 1909 is available from the National Archives and is in the public domain. The plane itself is on display at the National Air and Space Museum and you can learn more about the early flights at their website.

Baking and Books

I’ve been reading…I’ll get to 70 for this year.

And, I’ve been baking: whole wheat bread in various forms, cornbread with cheese and jalapenos, and, tonight, Gingerbread Cupcakes with Cinnamon Icing from King Arthur. They showed it with a ginger cookies and I substituted shortbread. These are ready for the wonderful staff at our local Farm Credit office. They financed us when the regular banks said no.

Gingerbread cupcakes with cinnamon icing and a shortbread cookie

The Accidental Pilgrimage: On Being Aware

Work took me to San Francisco. I was fortunate to have an afternoon off and, at one point in my pre-trip planning, checked the location of possibly the most revered of all United States bookstores: City Lights. I have been there once, in 1987, and can still remember that I bought Mother by Maxim Gorky. I thought I was staying in the Presidio and the store was pretty far away from there so I decided I probably couldn’t make it this trip. Although now that I’ve been to San Francisco, I’ll say that it is very walkable and, while I didn’t use it, there seems to be abundant public transportation so even if I had been staying in the Presidio, I could have gotten to the store without too much trouble.

What I didn’t realize is that my hotel was on Union Square, much closer to the bookstore, just a mile away. But, I never rechecked and planned a walk through Chinatown to the Coit Tower and then lunch at the Ferry Building on the Embarcadaro without thinking about the store.

So, I set out on the planned journey. As I climbed the hill on Grant Avenue and moved further into Chinatown, I came upon a bronze dedication to Jack Kerouac at the entrance to an alley that featured several stunning murals. I took some photos before heading back to Grant Avenue and continuing my journey.

I was tired when I got back to the hotel room but decided to check out my photos. On the edge of a photo of the Vida y sueños de la cañada Perla (Life and Dreams of the Perla River Valley) mural, I noticed a yellow banner that said City Lights Books. I was a bit taken by surprise. In my zeal for photographing the murals and then following the plan, I simply didn’t see the banner.

Mural at City LIghts with Banner

It turns out that I also missed the pavers in the alley with quotes from authors like Kerouac, Felinghetti and Angelou. In fact, I discovered that I had wandered down Jack Kerouac Alley, the brainchild of poet and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It turns out the mural was painted on the wall of the bookstore.

There really was no choice but to go back. Despite having already walked several miles on the city concrete, I knew I would forever regret not making this pilgrimage. So, I trudged up the hill to China Town once again, found the alley and entered the bookstore. It is small, crammed with books, yet inviting with simple wooden chairs where one can ponder the shelves or turn a few pages. The past is very much present as you walk the same creaky floors where the Beat Generation founders read and wrote and talked. This is more than a place to buy books; it is a place where wrestling with the ideas found in books is a sacred act.

I picked up several volumes including two Ivan Doig novels I hadn’t seen before. A few others piqued my interest. But I had sort of decided I would just buy one book, probably one published by City Lights Books.

Then, I walked the stairs to the Poetry Room. I fingered some Kerouac, took a few photos of the Poet’s Chair and then found the Wendell Berry section. I own a lot of Berry, have read some, but would love to spend more time with him. I picked up Farming: A Handbook, a new printing of poems written more than 40 years ago, focusing on Berry’s experience of farming. Right beside it was the real find: a copy of a volume of letters between Berry and Gary Snyder. It was autographed by both authors. The covers shows a laughing Berry with Snyder by his side in front of Grimblefingers Bookstore in Nevada. I knew I had found my purchases and headed downstairs. These just seemed the perfect two books to buy in this special place.

Then, I discovered they would ship books. The box of other choices is on its way. It includes the two Doigs but some other more unusual volumes that I wouldn’t have looked for such as Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society edited by Kevin Evans, Carrie Galbraith and John Law.

I am grateful for whatever higher power may have intervened here to direct my attention. I would have been really upset if I waited to look at my picture until I got home. It is a lesson in being completely aware. I find cities very distracting with all their people and sounds and smells. So many places to look and sense that it is easy to lose track of it all. I focused on murals and missed banners and the ground under my feet.

The Potential Problem with First Person

I seem have to stumbled into a mystery series cycle lately. I read the first two books in the Josiah Reynolds series, set in Lexington, Kentucky. The main character is a middle age beekeeper whose sleuthing begins after a body is found in her beehive. I also read the first book in the Jesse Watson series, set in Stanardsville, Virginia. Jesse is a single 30-something who moves to the mountains with her parents and takes up work with a private investigator.

Both are written in the first person so we hear both the thoughts and the voices of the women. In both cases, we learn a lot about the women, including their past and their relationships with the other characters as both of them are part of ensembles. While the mysteries form the centerpieces of the stories, they are enhanced by these other relationships.

Neither character is all that happy: Josiah’s late husband had had an affair with a younger woman before he died, and she struggles with finances as she tries to keep up her house and farm. Jesse ends up in the mountains because there seems nothing to tie her down in Newport News. No boyfriend and no real work prospects.

Jesse is a bit more dramatic and immature than Josiah that makes her seem younger than 31. She sometimes seems like a middle schooler mooning over boys. But Josiah is also somewhat abrupt and often rude even with those who are her close friends. She only seems happy with her bees.

And, there’s my problem…I just don’t really like these characters. I don’t care which main Jesse ends up with but am mostly just bored with the obsession. And while I identify with Josiah a bit better, I still find myself feeling frustrated with her stubbornness. I’m wondering if this feeling comes from the use of first person…just too much of their presence as part of the mystery and their personal problems since the stories themselves were interesting and kept my attention. In the case of Josiah Reynolds, I immediately bought and read the second book since the first ends with a real cliff hanger that I didn’t see coming.

Meanwhile, I am almost done with Book Eight of the Maisie Dobbs’ series by Jacqueline Winspear and may read the rest of them in a Maisie binge since my library has all of them. The series has some similarities with the other two: a female detective, a small entourage, mystery interwoven with personal. Granted, it has the added interest of being set in England in between the wars so there is an historical aspect that appeals to me. And the main character is much more reflective and serious than the other two. Not much screaming or crying going on.

It also uses third person narration: we are told the story by a narrator rather than hearing from Maisie herself. While the omniscient narrator lets us into her thoughts and we mostly see the world from her perspective, we aren’t hearing her stream of consciousness the way we are with the other two.

Finally, it may just be writing style that influences my opinion here*. There is an elegance to Winspear’s prose that seems to match the elegance of the main character and the world in which she lives. The third person narration helps to add to that elegance. The other two books are less precisely crafted. And, their style matches that of their characters, seemingly always just on the edge of losing control of themselves, their lives and, in the case of the authors, their stories.

*I realize the next mystery on my list dispels this theory. I love Dave Robicheaux  and just dive into the thick language of James Lee Burke with all its slow southern description. And, it’s written in first person.