Book Reviews for Summer 2012
Darwen Arkwright and the
A. J. Hartley (GRS’92,’96) Fiction (Penguin Group)
Nothing is as it seems in Hartley’s book for young adult readers. Mirrors reveal more than reflections. Teachers can’t be trusted. And the new kid at school is more unique than his name.
Darwen Arkwright is a seemingly normal 11-year-old boy. At least, he would be in his hometown of Lancashire, England. But living with his aunt, Honoria Vanderstay, in his new home in Atlanta, he couldn’t be any more out of the ordinary. His accent, yellow-gold eyes, and love of cricket and soccer give his new classmates at Hillside Academy reason to bully him.
Early on it becomes clear that there’s another reason for Darwen’s uniqueness. While waiting for his aunt to finish shopping, he spies an odd-shaped bird flying through the mall. No one else seems to notice the not-quite-bird-not-quite-bat zipping toward one store. He follows the creature until it disappears inside a store called Mr. Octavius Peregrine’s Mirrors. The wise shopkeeper notices that the boy harnesses special powers (especially if he could see that Flittercrake) and gives him one of his mirrors.
Darwen hangs his new mirror on the inside of his bedroom closet door. And that’s where the adventure truly begins. Each night, the mirror turns into a “portula” to another world only he can see, where a moonlit forest and a serene, bubbling fountain beckon him to explore. That first night, he passes through the mirror to Silbrica and befriends Moth, a fairy-like creature known as a dellfey, who serves as his tour guide and cultural interpreter. She warns him that her peaceful home is in danger.
With each visit to Silbrica, Darwen meets new gruesome and fearful characters. There are the Scrobblers, with green flesh, tusk-like teeth, and a penchant for catching children in nets, who ride on motorbike-type contraptions, the headless Gnashers, whose mouths are filled with rows of shark-like teeth. And a menacing black Shade that passes swiftly through the forest swallowing every life it touches.
Darwen barely escapes each encounter as he struggles to understand why these horrible creatures are methodically destroying Silbrica and, in turn, the dellfeys’ home. He also has a sneaking suspicion that they are after something on his side of the mirror. He and his new school friends, budding archaeologist Rich and Alex, a talkative performer with a penchant for flamboyant earrings, form a “Peregrine Pact” to solve the mystery.
Hartley spins a heart-pounding page-turner that constantly keeps you wondering what else will emerge from Silbrica’s beautiful and beguiling forest. It might also make you take a long look as you pass a mirror late at night on the chance that something’s staring back. ~Leslie Friday
Argyle Armada: Behind the Scenes of the Pro Cycling Life
By Mark Johnson (GRS’89,’95) Nonfiction (VeloPress)
For those who follow pro cycling, Johnson’s large-format book is a sumptuous banquet of intimate reporting, internationally spiced and lavishly served. For the rest of us it is, at the very least, a feast for the eyes. A writer and photographer who has covered cycling for national and international publications since the 1980s, Johnson was embedded with American cycling Team Garmin-Cervélo for its 2011 season, and he takes us along for the ride in all its grueling ups and downs, from winter training camp in Spain to July’s Tour de France.
Despite its glossy heft, this is not your typical coffee-table book. Johnson doesn’t skimp on the narrative, which follows in sweaty, often technical detail the travails and challenges of the team, its crew, and its director and CEO, Jonathan Vaughters. Introducing a range of personalities, he chronicles a series of races, including the Vuelta a España, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec, and the Tour de France.
The text details the geography, setbacks, and day-to-day logistics of most everyone involved, from the athletes themselves to race organizers, mechanics, cooks, and spectators. Interwoven are photographs reflecting the drama of the races, from aerial panoramas to wheel-level views to the anguished face of a cyclist undergoing physical therapy.
The photos of the courses as they wind through lush valleys, snow-capped mountains, and rolling desert are vibrant and dramatic, and, combined with the thorough written account, the effect of this 200-page volume is to put us right there with the teams, to conjure their physical world to the point where we can almost feel the chill in the mountain air. Lithe and toned in their blue argyle jerseys, the cyclists look like members of some superior species.
But Johnson takes care to humanize them. After winning the U.S. team championship in the 2011 Tour de France, cyclist Christian Vande Velde, with celebratory beer in hand, takes the microphone: “From being the little engine that could to standing the whole effing team on the podium in Paris. It’s been huge. I’m sure it’s been fun to watch for you guys, but this Tour sucked. It’s been hard. It’s been terrifying. But you know, it’s been fruitful, and we’ve been on the giving end, so cheers to everybody. This has been awesome.”
Johnson’s book is likely to find its way to the coffee tables of many pro cyclists. The rest of us can settle back and enjoy the ride. ~Susan Seligson
A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desires
By Sai Gaddam (GRS’09) and Ogi Ogas (GRS’07) Nonfiction (Dutton)
Ogas is a computational neuroscientist and biodefense researcher. Gaddam is a data mining consultant who designs nanoscale processors. Together they have written a book about sexual desire, specifically—very specifically—what turns people on and why. But their meandering scientific romp is the first to rigorously reap the data of what they call the world’s largest experiment on human behavior: the internet.
Although the discipline known as sexology was born in 1886 with the appearance (in a cold shower of Latin) of the landmark tome Psychopathia Sexualis, the origins of desire “remain mysterious and controversial,” the authors write. Despite the efforts of Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, and others, the question of why we like the things we like has never, they say, been adequately answered. Direct observation, on a broad scale, is not an option. Citing a 1973 Swarthmore College study in which 90 percent of students placed anonymously in a dark room ended up touching one another, the authors point out that the internet, with sites for every imaginable (and unimaginable) sexual hunger, preference, fetish, and diversion, is “like a much, much larger version” of that experiment. “Put a billion anonymous people in a virtually darkened room. See what they do when their desires are unleashed.”
From here the authors are off and running through a riveting compendium of kinks, squicks (kinks likely to gross you out), and fantasies running the gamut from girls gone wild, cheating wives, and gay frat boys to horny Amish women—the list, of course, goes on and on. But with nearly 150 pages of footnotes, this readable and often quite funny volume (“The best way to a man’s heart is to saw through his ribs.”) is much more than a Dogpile or Google harvest.
The authors weave their internet observations throughout with insights on the evolutionary nature of desire, the possible roots of fantasies of sexual coercion and sadomasochism, and an examination of reasons why in study after study, men’s brains assert their reptilian side.
What are readers to make of all this? The authors conclude that “our sexual software, originally designed to play the odds, now allows us to play the field, searching for partners who match our unique sexual tastes with unprecedented precision.” They remind us that “the greatest hurdle to sexual harmony” is ignorance of the fact that the opposite sex, and its sexual preferences, are “fundamentally different from ourselves.”
As for the increasingly pervasive human need to forage for sexual adventure online, the authors urge us not to worry—we are in control. “We can accept our fantasies,” they write, “without becoming slaves to them.” ~SS
The Evolution of the Cape Cod House: An Architectural History
By Arthur P. Richmond (SED’65) Nonfiction (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.)
This lavishly illustrated coffee-table book celebrates that most humble of domestic dwellings, the Cape Cod house. Richmond acknowledges that he has no formal training in architecture, but says he did extensive research and drew on numerous historical sources to trace the evolution of the one-and-a-half story homes that are synonymous with such seaside towns as Barnstable, Dennis, Orleans, and Wellfleet. The author of Harbors of Cape Cod & the Islands has an intimate knowledge of the region, a history buff’s love of detail, and an accomplished eye as a photographer. He notes that his book is not just about a specific house style, but “also about history and the people who lived in these homes. It is about the farmer, yeoman, fisherman, mariner, schoolteacher and minister, and other folks that comprised the fabric of the community.”
The book defines the several architectural characteristics that distinguish a Cape house. For starters, these homes tend to be small and rectangular in shape, with the width “being slightly longer than the depth.” Other distinctions include steep gable roofs, large central chimneys (usually opposite the front door), and minimal or complete lack of exterior ornamentation.
The book examines more than 100 historic Cape houses still existing in southeastern Massachusetts. Beautifully photographed by the author, each tells its own unique story. There’s the Elkanah Higgins house in Eastham, which has been in the same family since it was built in 1783; the Sproat-Ward house, c. 1712, built in Lakeville for a Revolutionary War general, whose secret rooms and hidden openings allowed inhabitants to “fire on unfriendlies”; and the Joseph N. Howe house, built in 1830 in Milton—a rare Cape built of granite, not wood.
Richmond’s exterior and interior images of these homes make the reader want to experience them firsthand, which is possible since many are today seasonal museums.
The Lion and the Journalist: The Unlikely Friendship of Theodore Roosevelt and Joseph Bucklin Bishop
By Chip Bishop (COM’67) Nonfiction (Lyons Press)
“I am always wishing I could see you,” Theodore Roosevelt once wrote to the journalist Joseph Bucklin Bishop, demonstrating the personal affection they shared along with their political outlooks. Having friends in high places, especially one who became a force-of-nature president, would benefit Bishop throughout his career, as his great-grandnephew Chip Bishop makes clear in this breezily readable history.
Roosevelt and Bishop’s acquaintance dated to the 1890s and Roosevelt’s tenure as New York City police commissioner. Bishop, then an editor for New York’s Evening Post, befriended him and backed his crusade to wipe out police corruption and cronyism. Later, Bishop had the Rough Rider’s political back as Roosevelt ascended to governor, vice president, and on the assassination of William McKinley, the Oval Office. He co-led Roosevelt’s New York campaign when the president ran for his own term in 1904. Their friendship and political alliance survived a disagreement over Roosevelt’s handling of the 1902 coal miners’ strike, which threatened to freeze many to death. Bishop felt Roosevelt overlooked the mine owners’ pigheadedness, a criticism he made directly to his friend in a letter. Their association also transcended their personality differences—the brash, physical, but patrician bull of a president versus the small, bald, farm-bred journalist from Massachusetts. But they shared a passion for reforming political institutions at home and extending the nation’s reach abroad, notably in TR’s ambition to build the Panama Canal, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. He brought Bishop to Washington at a generous (and controversial) salary as secretary of the Isthmian Canal Commission, where his duties included massaging favorable coverage out of the press for the costly project and recording its official history. Bishop ultimately moved to Panama, becoming “the president’s eyes and ears on the isthmus,” his relative writes.
Roosevelt and his reporter remained close after their public service. The ex-president not only made Bishop his authorized biographer, but also agreed to his suggestion that they publish an edited compilation of letters Roosevelt had written to his children. Published in 1919, after Roosevelt’s death, Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children was a runaway best seller and TR’s gift from the grave to his friend, who would be financially secure for the rest of his life. Chip Bishop, a Cape Cod marketing and communications consultant, keeps his account of these intersecting lives admiring without lapsing into sycophancy; for example, he dutifully records Bishop’s written references to a newspaper owner who’d fired him as “the Jew.”
This enjoyable book carries the imprimatur of noted historian Douglas Brinkley, who wrote the foreword. ~Rich Barlow
99 Nights with the 99 Percent: Dispatches from the First Three Months of the Occupy Revolution
By Chris Faraone (COM’04) Nonfiction (Write to Power)
Faraone spent 99 nights with the Occupy movement so we didn’t have to. A feisty, entertaining correspondent, or in his words, “occu-journalist,” he dedicates the book to “anybody who has ever had to sleep outside a building in which million-dollar condos sit empty.” His decision to crisscross the nation on a shoestring to report for the Boston Phoenix on a “cultural shift” he believed the media was largely ignoring was “a no-brainer.” As Faraone, whose breathless entries spare few, puts it, “Television journalists, their faces dusted with goo and blush, were reluctant to muddy their shoes” in the movement’s camps.
Faraone, who earned a master’s in journalism at BU, doesn’t give a damn if his shoes are muddy or his bed is made of concrete. He hit the road, yielding this collection of Phoenix dispatches and black-and-white photo montages. Despite his stark, unapologetic prose—“I’ve always hated cops”—and bottomless outrage, he reports with an even hand. Reading his spirited account of clashes both internal and external among occupiers from Boston to Seattle has the effect of searing documentary footage. Picture a Medium Cool–style take on Occupy, with cops occasionally given credit for being human.
Sleepless and protein-deprived, Faraone keeps up a dizzying pace, holding forth in blogs, tweets, radio interviews, and news articles on the Occupy front lines. His most colorful reporting emerges from Boston, his home turf, where the district attorney subpoenaed Twitter hashtags as 99 Percent activists fell in with the general cheer of First Night. “Authorities could have found any number of suspicious activities under way,” writes Faraone with characteristic, and endearing, sarcasm. “The peace vigil could have easily been mistaken for a satanic séance, and who knows what was in those holiday brownies?”
But he is poker-faced in his descriptions—for example, a police raid on Occupy Boston in which “the prevalent emerging image was that of a member of the group Veterans for Peace being arrested while his American flag was trampled.”
What is perhaps most commendable about this book is its embrace of dogged advocacy journalism—a craft largely reserved for the young and tenacious, and one that is growing fainter and less rigorous by the day. ~SS