Friday, March 25, 2005

Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest

While doing research for a book I am writing, I visited a bargain book store in Springfield, IL. Naturally, there were many books about Abraham Lincoln. As a native Illinoisan, I have always taken Honest Abe for granted in some respects. I've heard many stories, but I never read an entire book about him. I was drawn to Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest because I thought the outsider's perspective of a Welsh writer might give me a new appreciation for the man.

Author Jan Morris spins an interesting tale, a mixture of biography, travelogue, and historical fiction. While it reads nicely, it has enough errors that I had to double-check the publisher. Expecting a small publishing house, I was shocked to see "Simon & Schuster" on the spine. A few sloppy typos caught my eye, but the author began to lose credibility when I found a glaring error:

...and in 1846 Springfield waved bon voyage to the fated hopefuls of the Donner Pass party, the last of whom were all too soon to eat each other's corpses in a final extremity of starvation in the Rocky Mountains.
I may have a morbid fascination with the Donner Party, but any fact-checker worth his salt should have caught this. The Donner Party was caught by snow in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, not in the Rocky Mountains, which are hundreds of miles to the east. This error is compounded by calling them the "Donner Pass party" (I've never seen "Pass" in the name before). Look up "Donner Pass" in a dictionary, and it will tell you that it is in the Sierra Nevada. Morris may be from another country, but this is not a difficult fact to get right. When I find an error in a book, I wonder how many other errors I do not recognize because the information is entirely new to me. In fact, I found several other events in the book where her version of history didn't match mine.

Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest has a rather awkward ending. After what I consider a balanced assessment of Lincoln throughout the book, Morris declares that Lincoln's presidency fomented America's imperialistic attitudes and policies. She follows with a harsh assessment of American militarism in the twentieth century. This is an interesting idea, something that I never considered before, but it doesn't fit with the rest of the book. In hindsight, I can see parts of the book that might argue for this conclusion, but such an indictment deserves better support. Instead, it comes across as a strong opinion without much corroboration. It is as if she slapped a proposal letter for a different Lincoln book on the end of this one. Indeed, her conclusion merits further exploration, and I might like to read an entire book about that topic.

Overall, this book provides a brief overview of Lincoln embellished by visits to the places he knew. While I enjoyed it, I wouldn't particularly recommend it. Though entertaining, it misses the mark. Someone less familiar with Lincoln might get lost in the author's non-chronological organization. And while Morris hits most of the highlights, there are important things left out or glossed over. Lincoln's vaunted Second Inaugural Address gets sparse mention, and accounts of his political campaigns lack sufficient detail. At the other extreme, a Lincolnologist would find little value here. In other words, it is too scattershot for students and too frivolous for scholars. For those of us in the middle, it is a nice read but not a good history. I think I will have to read another Lincoln book to get a better picture of the man. Any recommendations?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Eek! And A Torn ACL

Today I had to run an errand and the weather was nice, so I wiped the dust off my old Cannondale hybrid bike. It was the first bike I bought when I rediscovered cycling in 2000, but I have a bunch of other bikes now so I haven't ridden it in a couple of years. Although I have installed clipless pedals (which require shoes with special cleats) on my other bikes, my Cannondale still has trusty old toe clips. I have a pair of cleatless cycling shoes that I use with that bike. After a little digging in my basement clothes pile, I found the shoes and slipped them on. Hey! There was something in the heel of my left shoe, and it felt too big to be merely a stone. I yanked it off and emptied it onto the floor. At first I thought the culprit was an old, dry hairball from one of the cats. Then I got a closer look. It was a shriveled mouse! That freaked me out. We've had mice in the house before, but I never found one in my shoe. When I told my wife about it, she recalled that Fred Astaire said he used to hang his shoes so that mice wouldn't get into them. I wish she had told me that before!

My errand was a trip to the veterinarian's office to pick up x-rays of one of our dogs. He has been hopping around without using his left hind leg lately. The x-rays show that he has a torn ACL (knee ligament). Ouch. The vet referred us to another vet to do the surgery, which will cost $1600-$2700. Double ouch! I said he could just walk around on three legs for the rest of his life, but my wife didn't think that was funny. Just the same, I will ask out of curiosity at tomorrow morning's consultation if it would be cheaper to amputate it instead.

Updated 03/17/05: The vet said it would cost about $2500 to amputate, "But we only do that if there's cancer." And she gave me a dirty look when I asked. Oh well, I guess we'll get the knee fixed. He's probably under anesthesia as I write this.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

8-Track Memories - The Boomtown Rats

I always say I was a weird kid. For proof, look no further than this: one of my favorite songs at age nine was "I Don't Like Mondays" by the Boomtown Rats. It was the band's only single to chart in America, peaking at #73 in 1980. While I did not know the exact story that inspired this song, I knew it was about someone who shot some kids at a school and said she did it because she didn't like Mondays. Somehow I doubt that many of my fellow fifth-graders were listening to songs like this.

The Fine Art Of Surfacing was the Boomtown Rats' third album, and it peaked at #103 on the US charts in 1980. Too bad my 8-track is long gone; it might be worth something to collectors since there probably weren't that many sold. The band was huge in the UK at the time, though. By one account, "...only the Police and Blondie were close in terms of stature, but The Rats were seemingly on top."

I gave Surfacing another listen (on vinyl) before writing this, and I still love it. There's a lot going on in this music. The lyrics are a little odd at times, and the breaks can get strange, but it all fits into typical pop rock song structures. Many songs are brilliantly fun and upbeat, even when the subject matter is dark: insomnia, suicide, paranoia, et al.

"Someone's Looking At You" and "When The Night Comes" are great songs, but "I Don't Like Mondays" stands out from the rest. The lovely piano introduction builds suspense, then the melody is suddenly interrupted by a rapid series of hand claps (perhaps evoking gunshots?). In the chorus, others in the band ask, "Tell me why?" and lead singer Bob Geldof responds, "I don't like Mondays." A quarter century and countless school killings later, this song is especially chilling. I listen to the song differently now than when it came out, and not just because I am older. "Tell me why?" echoes the questions asked across America in the late 1990s during the rash of school shootings that climaxed at Columbine High School.

One of my fondest Boomtown Rats memories is from a few years after I had moved on to other music. I was a notorious late sleeper, and one Sunday morning my dad decided he was going to blast me out of bed with my stereo. He popped in the Surfacing 8-track and turned it up LOUD. The joke was on him, though. I hadn't listened to it in a long while, so I stayed in bed as the walls vibrated!

For some reason, I never bought another Boomtown Rats album. I'm sure they made other good music, but I never explored it. When Geldof organized Band Aid and Live Aid to raise money for starving Africans in the mid-eighties, I was one of very few kids at my high school who knew who he was.

Surfacing was just reissued on CD last month in the UK with a few bonus tracks. I'll have to add it to my wishlist.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

And You Thought Battlefield Earth Was Bad...

Okay, I'll confess that I didn't actually see that movie, but since I don't even like a lot of good movies, I can't imagine liking Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000. I just learned that this John Travolta flop was not the first time that celebrity followers of Mr. Hubbard's wacky "religion" tried to interpret his work. The Church of Critical Thinking just reviewed The Road To Freedom, a Hubbard-penned album that makes the worst record you've ever heard suddenly sound a whole lot better.

It's "craptacular" (the Church of CT's word), with convoluted, obfuscatory lyrics sung over music that was dated and cheesy even when it was released in 1986. How bad are Hubbard's lyrics? "Death is only an invention to rid the universe of life. It hasn't and is a failed device" (from "Why Worship Death"). The Church of CT even includes mercifully brief samples of each song for your listening pleasure. Musically, it ranges from uninspired dance to summer camp sing-a-long to bad jazz (even Chick Corea can't rise above the swill). The last song features L. Ron himself, and should not be missed! And yes, Travolta sings on a couple of songs, as do Frank Stallone (Sylvester's brother) and Leif Garrett.

And if that's not enough $cien+ology for you, check out the Church of CT's review of the book Understanding the E-Meter. It gets a lot deeper into the nuts and bolts of the "religion" than The Road To Freedom, making even less sense.

Monday, March 07, 2005


My wife's 1996 Plymouth Neon has been fading over the past year. It would probably be in the junkyard already if I hadn't started renting cars for high-mileage vacations. It has at least 102,000 miles on it now. I say "at least" because the instrument cluster doesn't always work, including the odometer. When I looked into fixing it, the dealer's $500 estimate deterred me. It only happens intermittently, and speed doesn't matter much in the city anyway. It didn't seem to be worth fixing, just like the air conditioning that we didn't fix a few years ago for $700. By that measure, we have saved more money by not doing repairs than the car is worth. I own at least one bicycle worth more than our car, possibly two. If I got rear-ended on my way to a bike ride, I would be more upset about the bike than the car!

Five years ago my brother worked as a mechanic for an unsavory character, the kind who tries to parlay a $15 oil change into a $600 repair bill. He invited me to bring our car in for new tires since that was something he could do alone without the boss he didn't trust. When I went to pick up the car, my brother's boss pointed out that we had a hole in our muffler and ought to replace it. Later that night at Mom & Dad's, my brother said, "You know the muffler is just fine with a little rust hole in it." Yeah, even I knew that.

My brother quit that job soon after in the midst of a moral crisis about his boss' lack of integrity. As the years passed, that muffler became a running joke at family gatherings. My brother would say, "You know, you ought to replace that muffler." It was always good for a laugh.

Yesterday my wife was picking up a friend for breakfast when the exhaust suddenly got really loud. It so happens that this friend is a little snobby, and my wife said she clearly wasn't happy riding around in what I called a "ghetto car" (that's how it sounded). In fact, her friend took the bus home from the restaurant instead! When my wife got home, I went to check it out. It didn't take a master mechanic to see what was wrong--just behind the catalytic converter, the exhaust pipe was hanging down within inches of the ground.

This morning my wife took it to a repair shop. I asked her to call me if it was more than $200, which in retrospect was uncharacteristically optimistic of me. I knew it likely needed a new catalytic converter, and those aren't cheap. When the inevitable call came, the total was $600, even with her police discount on parts. Ouch. The car isn't worth that much anymore, but we couldn't ignore this problem. So now, for the first time in five years, our car has a holeless exhaust. Of course, the speedometer and the A/C still don't work.

The Commonly Confused Words Test

I'm a bit of a language geek, which is probably part of why I became a writer. Maybe you've seen dictionary-like references that describe common pitfalls from A to Z. Well, I'm the sort of person who reads those books from cover to cover (it's sick, I know). Today Eric Zorn's blog alerted me to an interactive quiz called The Commonly Confused Words Test. I'll share my results, but I admit that I probably wouldn't if I didn't do so well:

You scored 100% Beginner, 100% Intermediate, 100% Advanced, and 66% Expert! You have an extremely good understanding of beginner, intermediate, and advanced level commonly confused English words, getting at least 75% of each of these three levels' questions correct. This is an exceptional score. Remember, these are commonly confused English words, which means most people don't use them properly. You got an extremely respectable score.

Compared to people of my age and gender, I scored in the 99% percentile on all four levels. Of course, I'm wondering which of the "expert" questions I missed!