Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Recent Reads

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

A few thoughts on books that I have recently read:


Alex and Me by Irene M. Pepperberg

The story of one scientist’s obsessive study into the animal cognition of parrots, particularly that of an African Grey named Alex, is surprisingly moving as much as informative. Irene Pepperberg’s work with Alex proves that the intelligence of parrots is not limited to mere mimicking but actual understanding and problem solving. Through her nearly thirty year study of Alex, suddenly halted with the bird’s death in 2007, Irene experienced many highs and low to both her field of study (which was being constantly doubted) and her personal life. Making a lifelong career of studying parrots is not an easy task, and Irene makes many sacrifices along the way to keep her labs open and funded. And despite her best effort to keep her relationship with Alex professional (less a pet, more a working partner), the attempt is futile. Through everything, Alex was the one true constant. His final words to Irene were “You be good. I love you.”

Alex is featured in a fascinating Nova special called How Smart Are Animals?, which I highly recommend viewing if you get the chance. It really made me feel better about not eating meat knowing that animals are far more intelligent than we can even understand. If you want to see Alex in action right now, here is a video from when Alex appeared on Scientific American Frontiers with Alan Alda. And another video with Irene working one on one with Alex. And still another, here is a video of Diane Sawyer’s report of Alex’s passing on Good Morning America.


A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods tells the true story of popular travel writer Bill Bryson and his reckless friend Stephen, both inexperienced and out of shape, as they attempt to take on the famed Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail, or AT as it is referred to those in the know, is one long hiking trail that stretches over 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia. Each year, hundreds attempt a thru-hike of the entire length, though only about 10% actually accomplish the feat. Will Bill and Stephen beat the odds?

Bryson explores a lot of issues within the pages of A Walk in the Woods. As one would probably guess, Bryson attempts to answer the question of what drives those who take on such feats as the AT. But, he also addresses environmental issues that we should all be concerned about. It’s also a historical (even meditative) look on where we as humans have been and our desire to get back there once again. But mostly, it’s hysterical. Bryson and Stephen are a bit like the Odd Couple, and their adventures along the trail are not only memorable but highly comical. I actually found myself laughing out loud many times while reading this one.


The Body by Stephen King

Reread this one for about the 1000th time, and yet it still packs a nice wallop right in the gut. One of four stories in a novel from Stephen King called Different Seasons, “The Body” is famously known as being the basis for the film, Stand By Me. For the few people who haven’t read the novella (which is subtitled Fall from Innocence) or seen the film, the story follows four twelve year old boys who go hiking 50 miles outside their hometown in search of the dead body of a boy hit by a train. Sounds morbid enough for Stephen King, right?

And yet, King’s story is a heartbreaking coming of age tale that resonates just as powerful now as a thirty-three year old reader as it did when I first read it at about the same age as the story’s characters. Makes me recall the time I read Catcher in the Rye when I was a senior in high school. When I finished, my English teacher asked me what I thought of the book, and after giving it a favorable approval, suggested that I reread it in twenty years for a completely different reading experience.

I’m not sure if revisiting “The Body” was that drastic, but it did make some of the material richer. Sad, yet truthful lines such as “friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant,” are not easy to forget. There were a few details I hadn’t recalled such as that the main character Gordie, who is retelling the story as a thirty something adult, was a Vietnam vet. And that Gordie’s friends all die tragically as young adults. Another thing, I actually prefer the climatic ending of the movie version better than King’s original. Go figure.


The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by W.P. Kinsella

So, can a story be too fantastic, too magical? Well, considering The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, I would resoundingly utter “Yes!” followed by a “Oh, come on. Really?”. While I enjoyed Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (the basis for the film, Field of Dreams), I found that this yarn too much to take. Which is a shame since the novel has a wonderful premise. An avid baseball fan obsessively attempts to prove that a game existed between an amateur Iowa baseball club and the 1908 Chicago Cubs (the last year that the Cubbies won the World Series) that lasted over a thousand innings and was played during a flood.

About half way into the book, the main character and his friend go back in time and become participants in the mystical game that no one seemed to remember in their own time. At one point, Teddy Roosevelt makes an appearance and even has an at bat during the game. Okay, that is fun. Cute, even. But when Leonardo da Vinci comes down in a hot air balloon and takes in an inning, I sort of checked out. I mean, I finished the book, but it started to become a chore.


I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

I love Richard Matheson. And yet, I had never read a single word written by the man until this week. Matheson is responsible for penning fourteen episodes for The Twilight Zone, including the classic Nightmare at 20,000 feet. He also wrote the wonderfully suspenseful film Duel, which was Steven Spieldber’s debut feature film. His 1954 novel, I Am Legend, is a classic in the horror genre, and has spawned three feature films based on it, including the Vincent Price flick The Last Man on Earth, the Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man, and, finally, the recent Will Smith blockbuster I am Legend. Even though I haven’t seen the newest version, I doubt that I would enjoy it as much as the Vincent Price one from 1964. The low budget film is quite entertaining and was an obvious influence on George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. After seeing The Last Man on Earth again on television the other night, I was motivated to check out the book from the library. Surprisingly, the `64 film is pretty faithful to the original source.

The story follows Robert Neville, the last man on Earth, as he faces a world that’s seen the human population fall victim to an infectious germ that turns everyone into bloodsucking vampires. For reasons that aren’t clear, Neville is immune to the disease, and thus must go on living, surviving. During the day, Neville drives around town in his station wagon, searching for vampires hiding from the sun. Once he finds them, he destroys them with a wooden stake through the heart (he later discovers that the precise location of the heart isn’t necessary). At night, the vampires surround Neville’s home, beckoning him outside to join them. Much like the characters do in Night of the Living Dead, Neville protects himself by boarding up the house and waiting for daylight. Matheson’s apocalyptic story, which is reminiscent of another book/film favorite of mine The Day of the Triffids, is a quick, action packed read that is worthy of its reputation.