Saturday, February 28, 2009

Book Look Review "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin"

“The Reluctant Mr. Darwin”

Some scientific topics are more readable as an overview. We want the facts but we want them mixed with honey and served on a small spoon. David Quammen has achieved this in his well written half biography of Charles Darwin. He begins after the famous voyages of the HMS Beagle and concentrates on the time period between 1837 when Darwin was age 28, until his death in 1882 from heart failure at age 73.

Darwin’s name stirs up controversy even now, more than one hundred years after his death. Quammen paints a sympathetic picture of a complicated Victorian gentleman who was an amateur naturalist and a reluctant writer. Darwin suffered from a mysterious illness that caused him to vomit and feel dizzy for prolonged periods of time. He tried several “cures” promoted by the quacks of his day, one of which included cold showers and being wrapped in wet towels. For most of his life he was studious and reclusive.

Charles married his cousin Emma, a very religious woman, with whom he enjoyed an affectionate relationship and deep friendship. She oversaw his household and their many children while he spent years studying and writing about something in nature that caught his interest. Curious about earthworms for example, he wrote, “The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits”. Too bad I didn’t read and review that fascinating book.

Of course his famous book is “The Origin of Species”. It is one of the most influential books ever written. Copernicus, Newton and Einstein wrote other great works of science for their fellow scientists, but The Origin was written in everyday language to a public audience. He presented his observations and explained them as a narrator telling amazing tales.

The study of evolution uses observed facts and data more than experimentation. Darwin used the term “natural selection” to describe his observations of species adaptation begun many years earlier as he traveled on the Beagle to remote islands. He wrote: “On the whole, the best fitted live.” Darwin struggled with the contradictions between a law-governed universe and an intervening God. Did physical laws encroach on divine prerogatives? How did God’s designs and his observations of “natural selection” fit together? He admits that he often felt “muddled” by the irresolvable issues.

I had mistakenly thought Darwin wrote the monkey ancestry comment but actually he didn’t put it in The Origin. Among the few people who read it when it was first published was a reviewer who wrote: “If a monkey has become a man – what may not a man become?” It serves as a warning to folks like me who tend to oversimplify as we write reviews.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A River Runs Through It

We visited San Antonio last week for a national principal's convention. I wrote the trip up for the travel column in the newspaper. It's nice to get paid to do something I should write in my journal about for free. Again, I get paid by the word so it's nice and long!

Visiting a new city with Elementary School Principals is a lot of fun. They want to see everything in a short amount of time and enjoy learning historical trivia. It’s like traveling with kids without all the potty breaks. While our spouses diligently attended their convention sessions from 8-4 each day, we were equally conscientious in our shopping and strolling activities. Using our GPS guide named TomTom we were able to navigate the area with only one wrong turn down a one way street – and since that put us in the historic home district of St. Williams we really enjoyed our bad decision.

Our first stop had to be the Alamo. Remember the Alamo? In the center of San Antonio and the first of the missions we visited, it is the most famous because of the historical battle which took place there. We also drove down the mission trail and toured two more sites which are all included in the National Park system. A volunteer at Mission San Jose demonstrated the water-driven flour mill and we admired the determination and ingenuity of the early residents. The limestone churches are in the Spanish colonial Baroque architecture style surrounded by walls that housed the native people. They worked at the mission as tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers or builders and many farmed nearby.

The favorite highlight of our visit was the River Walk Boat tour operated by the city Parks Department. The River Walk is a beautiful area below the street level of the city. Picture leaning over a stone bridge and looking down on a small meandering river lined with Cyprus trees, raised flower beds and curving sidewalks dotted with colorful umbrellas over dining tables. I’m starting to sound like a travel brochure!

Down on the River Walk our boat tour begins at the dock inside the mall. It’s very convenient if you need to pick up a little something at Macy’s or one of the other hundred stores hoping for a share of the tourist dollar. The lagoon area where we board our flat boat named “Ms. Sandra” for Sandra Day O’Connor, has a small stage where a Peruvian band serenades our arrival. I’m not sure if the music sets the proper tone for a Texan boat tour but hey, I’m all for creating a festive atmosphere.

Our pilot wears the official blue shirt and straw hat so we know we are not with pirates or any unauthorized boatman. “If the boat starts to sink I will jump overboard and walk to the sidewalk in two feet of water while you all put on your lifejackets in an orderly fashion.” End of safety instructions. He is a S.A. native and warns us that he will tell us true facts but of course they will be “slightly embellished” because we’re in Texas after all.

As we slowly approach the first stone bridge in our small open boat, he tells us to wave to the pedestrians crossing above us. “It’s a well-know fact that if they’re wavin’ they aren’t thinkin’ about spitting.” We all waved with enthusiasm. The stone statue on the right bank is St. Anthony for which San Antonio is named since the town was established on his Saint Day. “It’s a good thing it wasn’t one week later or we’d be St. Louis, and one week earlier we’d be St. Bernard,” our guide explained. We could tell his particular knowledge of history was going to make this an entertaining tour.

La Villita comes into view with its quaint shops on the site of the Spanish soldiers barracks assigned to the Alamo. The outdoor stage, our guide points out, was where the “Miss Congeniality” movie filmed the swim suit scene. Ahh. He points out the metal work on the famous Rosetta Bridges. Five of only ten in existence are on this river. There are 370 weddings a year held nearby where legend states that your marriage will last forever or at least it will feel like it - more river pilot humor.

San Antonio has many beautiful churches. Our guide points out a limestone edifice built by the early German immigrants. When they arrived church services were in Spanish which they couldn’t understand. They decided it would be easier to spend 27 years building a church than learning a new language – according to our guide.

Around the bend a tall octagonal building comes into view. As we crane our necks upward we learn it is the only one still in use. The gargoyles, thought to be lucky, also function as drainpipes. The Tower Life Building opened in 1929 after being constructed at a cost of 7 million. Unfortunately the gargoyles couldn’t prevent the stock market crash and the building went at a bank sale for $27,000. Part of the movie “Ghost Busters” was filmed at this building.

After the great flood of 1921, flood gates were installed to control the flow and depth of the river through the city. There were some residents that wanted to fill in the river but Emily Edwards and other residents wanted to save the river. Emily was also a teacher and helped influence her student, the architect Robert Hugman to design the River Walk in the late 1920’s. It takes a woman to get things done!

When 7 million visitors came to town for the World’s Fair in 1968 hotels were quickly built or renovated. La Mansion began in 1853 as St. Mary’s Boy School, and ended its education days as a law school. Two enterprising law school graduates turned the river front building into a hotel. Another hotel was built partly off site and rooms were lowered by crane onto the first floors already furnished and ready to occupy as soon as they were cemented into place just a few days before the World’s Fair began.

The tall sniper tree comes into view where Santa Ana perched Mexican soldiers to shoot at the Alamo soldiers as they rode out from the fort. According to our guide the Texan commander inside the Alamo put his snipers up on the nearby Holiday Inn balcony. This is a good example of stretching the truth Texas style.

Now our pilot directs us to yell “Give us the guacamole and no one gets hurt” as we pass one of the many outdoor restaurants along our route.” We yelled, and someone actually sprayed us with their margarita! As we pass Duck Island, nick-named the local duck manufacturing facility he tells us to reach out and touch the foliage. “That’s Texas Poison Ivy folks but I have calamine lotion right here for sale.” At the end of our tour he reminds us not to feed the ducks – feed the boat drivers.

And now the most important decision of every day. Where do we eat? We ate Texas Barbecue at Rudy’s which is next to a gas station just outside of town. Calling Rudy’s a restaurant elevates it way above its culinary category. Kind of like saying sleeping in your car at a rest stop is an overnight stay at the Hilton with easy access to the highway. The meat is served up by the pound and your tray is an old blue plastic Pepsi case which holds your containers of creamed corn and ribs and a couple of slabs of white bread just fine. I did have to go next door to the gas station to pick up the soda I ordered which added to the “who cares about appearances” attitude perfectly. For Tex-Mex on the River Walk we chose Casa Rio and found dinner under the umbrellas to be reasonably priced and delicious. The fresh seafood at Pappadeaux required an hour wait on Friday night but it was worth it for the delicious crawfish, soft shelled crab and stuffed shrimp.

I recommend visiting San Antonio in the late spring. You can cruise the River Walk and visit historic sites with cooler temperatures. And if you take Mr. TomTom along he will guide you to great places to eat and show you the natural and historic wonders of San Antonio in full bloom.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Book Look "Flipped"

Writers of Young Adult fiction often produce books that even Old Adults can enjoy. Like me. Wendelin Van Draanen is the author of “Flipped” which I enjoyed reading aloud to Mr. Gibson’s sixth grade class at Art City Elementary. I have included a couple of their comments, which I think will persuade you to read this book much more effectively than I could. They are a discerning audience with strong opinions about the books they like and don’t like.

Payton wrote: “Flipped is a very good book and it has a very good meaning. The Loskis are a normal family that just moved in and they move in right across the street from the Bakes and they are a little bit different. But in the end they work out their differences.” She understands one of the great messages of the novel. Once you get to know your neighbors things can get worked out.

In the story Bryce Loski moves into Julianna Baker’s neighborhood during the second grade. The entertaining and realistic dialogue switches between chapters to give young readers the view from both main characters. Juli speaks in phrases like: “The first day I met Bryce Loski, I flipped. Honestly, one look at him and I became a lunatic.” Bryce of course doesn’t feel the same way about her. He thinks she is a pest and as the years go by he even calls her weird. The book continues until eighth grade when some things change.

Hannah understands why Bryce would feel this way. She writes: “Juli Baker is stubborn and a show off. She won’t leave Bryce alone.” That is good character description. Short, clear and explains motivation. I think she may be onto something when it comes to attracting young men - heads up mom and dad.

Not everyone in the class enjoyed the first couple of chapters. Dylan didn’t like the book but did appreciate the writing. (I told you they were discerning). “I didn’t really like how the book started. It’s not like a lot of kids would run into a nice new neighbor’s house all
muddy. It’s not a book I would usually read and it doesn’t catch my attention. The book uses ok comparisons like when the author compared fighting against his sister like a fish taking bait.” Dylan may be more into fishing, than reading a relationship book at this stage of his life. I think his parents may be encouraging this attitude.

Brandon crossed out some of his initial thoughts, as every writer must be able to edit. He was able to condense his comments well. “I like the book because it uses good words and it is believable.” Burke is our last selected critic and he recommends reading “Flipped” in one sentence. “It was extremely descriptive and a total page turner.” Burke must read book reviews in his spare time because he has the language down pat. There you have it, in the words of sixth graders, most of them flipped for “Flipped”.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Book Look Review "Manhunt"

“Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer”

It was a tough decision for this week’s book review. Should it be a book about love to celebrate Valentines Day or a book about murder to celebrate Presidents Day? I went with the murder book since it was a much better read. “Manhunt” by James Swanson is an excellent choice to educate and entertain. Hollywood is bound to take this version of events and make it into a blockbuster and I will be lining up at the theater to see it.

On April 14, 1865 John Wilkes Booth shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln. The story of his horrifying deed and incredible escape has intrigued history students for generations. Booth was an accomplished actor from a well-known family. He was handsome, well-to-do and charismatic. He was also convinced that Lincoln was a dangerous leader who must be removed. Booth was able to persuade his associates to join him in a conspiracy to kill not only President Lincoln, but Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. It was a heinous plot that almost succeeded.

The fall of Richmond only months earlier provoked these sons of the South to action. After failing to kidnap Lincoln, Booth plotted the murders with the finesse of a playwright. He convinces friends to become murderers and other minor characters to aid him as he escapes through Confederate territory. It is an American tragedy.

If Booth had not broken his leg during his dramatic leap to flee Ford Theater, he might have escaped with the aid of sympathetic Southerners. As his route brings him to the infamous Dr. Mudd, fate intervenes. Booth and fellow fugitive David Herold are next harbored by Thomas A. Jones, a former Secret Service veteran and Confederate spy. We are almost convinced that they can escape if their luck continues. It doesn’t of course and Booth is shot in a barn near Port Royal, Virginia by Sergeant Boston Corbett. The other conspirators are hung July 7, 1865.

I particularly enjoyed the epilogue which lists the fates of all the characters. Not every one involved reaps their just reward, but it satisfies our curiosity to read the ending for these historical figures. “Manhunt” is a true crime drama providing fascinating details about the12-day chase to capture John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Lincoln. Whether you are a civil war history buff or just read for entertainment, you will really enjoy reading this well-written description of one of the most daring exploits in American history.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Past Due Report on our Everglades Tour

I told Monnina from Ireland that I would write about the post-cruise shore excursion to the everglades. We were gone until today so I am past due on this. Why did we do it? We had 5 hours to kill before our flight home and it included a ride to the airport which would have been about half the price anyway. And it is the best way to beat everyone else off the ship and avoid the horrible lines. Was it worth $69? Hmmm, yes because we got off the ship and... It was more entertaining than sitting in an airport. Would we do it again? Not that one.

We traveled on a nice bus with a friendly tour guide and his side kick driver. When the tour guide introduced himself he tried to introduce the driver (they had this routine down pretty pat) who kept muttering loudly "No Name." They played back and forth like that for the tour. The trip out to the everglades is short - maybe a half hour. Lots of good info though and the "park" is part of the National Park.

Our air boat guide dressed like a renegade park ranger. Somehow the braided rat tail down his back canceled the boyscout colored uniform. He was great. He had a strained raspy voice that sounded like he had to remove some of his vocal chords due to tobacco related cancer surgery. And he had a southern hick drawl that made every comment hysterical. I believed him when he said this was his backyard, especially when I saw the trailers. I didn't believe him when he said to get the big gators to come to the boat I should trail my fingers in the water!

There was an animal show by a guy that does it for schools and although he needed some new clothes and a shave, he did ok. The woman he chose to kiss the toad showed he had lots of experience terrorizing women.

We skipped the "opportunity" to order lunch since it didn't seem like the best roadside venue. Others enjoyed their gator burgers I guess. The tour was short and tacky, but a one time entertaining time-waster. Do it Monnina, just to go home to Ireland with some great pictures and a memory you can laugh about. And to see some Gators with names like "Scarface" and "Tripod".

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Book Look Review " The Venetian Betrayal"

As you can see from my vacation picture this was not one of my favorites. While visiting Gator World in Florida I fed the novel “The Venetian Betrayal” by Steve Berry to the alligators. Our guide told us to trail our fingers in the water to attract the big gators. I used my reading material to sweeten the bait.

It should have been the perfect beach book but it wasn’t. I read the paperback jacket description which included these tantalizing words: “Trekking from Denmark to Venice to Central Asia, Cotton and Cassiopeia are determined to solve an ancient puzzle whose solution could destroy or save millions of people – depending on who finds the lost tomb first.” It sounds like a great adventure book doesn’t it?

The book begins with a bang. An explosion at a Danish museum incinerates everything except Cotton Malone, former Justice Department agent turned rare-book dealer. (That alone is a bit of a stretch). Buildings across Europe are being turned to ash to disguise the theft of rare gold medallions. Since every fire is the same, it is a pretty obvious pattern. The plot bounces back and forth between locations and it is often difficult to track the characters in this rollercoaster thriller.

At first I thought I might like the wicked Irina Zovastina, queen of the bad guys. When she walloped that goat-carcass-bag into the goal passing up all the men on the other team racing her speeding stallion while carrying a whip in her mouth, I kind of liked her as the villain. But then, no, she turned out to be too psychotic that I couldn’t be on her team. She is obsessed with finding the hidden corpse of Alexander the Great. She is also into germ warfare. You can see why she was the queen of the bad guys.

The good guy team is basically Cotton, Cassiopeia and Henrik Thorvaldsen. They are the heroes out to stop the bad guy team and save the world. That’s pretty much it.

All the current popular fiction topics are there. Religion, politics, history, and science are stirred up in a 500 page bestseller. Homosexuality, the cure for aids, environmentalists, corrupt world leaders, and the usual required assortment of James Bond types make this a less than palatable stew. This is why I had to feed it to the alligator at Gator World. I’m just doing my small part to save the world from bad literature.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Looking for Mort and Sally?

I was so happy to see that Mort made a comment on my first cruise post yesterday (Tuesday) but I do not have your email to send more pictures. Also Monnina has some to send you from her computer in The Emerald Isle. Will you send it to Mark's email on the card we gave you? It sounds like we all returned home to cold weather, but we have our memories to keep us warm?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

My Newspaper Story on Cruising the Caribbean

I wrote an advice piece for the travel column this week. I don't usually write for this column but after chatting to the editor about our cruise she asked me to write some advice for 1st timers - like herself. She asked if I was serious when I said there was a new international law forbidding the wearing of the Speedo. I assured her it was true. Remember my rule (not in the column). Gentlemen, if you look down and you can't see your Speedo, you should not be wearing a Speedo.

Cruising the Caribbean

Debbie Balzotti
Staff Writer

My husband and I just returned from a sunny Caribbean cruise. There is something very wrong about waking up the next morning, firing up the snow blower, eating a healthy breakfast you prepared yourself and going to work. People politely ask if we had a good time. Of course we did! We minimize it with a bland comment and gloat on the inside.

We are not in the veteran cruiser category which requires booking back-to-back cruises and a minimum annual count of more than 30. One of the couples at our table qualified in this category. These are some of the most important people to befriend on a cruise since they have lots of good advice. I thought it might be helpful to answer some of the questions people often ask me as they prepare for their first cruise.

What to Pack
When we were getting ready for our first cruise almost 20 years ago, my brother-in-law gave us some advice. Peter told us to pack 2 swimsuits so that you would always have a dry one. And? That was it. I have a bit more advice now on packing. We are carry-on bags only folks so I will explain how that works and the rest of you 10 shoe ladies will just have to pay the airlines for your check-in bag. You will also need to tip the porters at the dock $2 per bag and you do have to use them to load bags so be prepared with small bills and a big smile. You will also not see these bags until 8 at night so don’t leave your swimsuit or dinner outfit in there unless you want to wear your travel clothes to the restaurant.

Some cash is important to take, the credit card you want to put tips and room charges on, your passport, a drivers license and your cruise documents. We also make a copy of everything so if passport or license or docs get lost we have a quick reference.

Start packing a week ahead. Lay it out on the bed in the guest room or a table in the basement or your bedroom floor but start early. It is a proven fact (by me and others) that last minute packing equals taking stuff you won’t use and forgetting stuff you really need. There is only one cruise line that has laundry facilities for guests but we have never used it – doing laundry on vacation? Forget it. And I am certainly not going to iron.

Here is a partial list of suggested items to bring. Gallon size Ziploc baggies and flat pack underwear in them. When your bag is randomly selected for public display of underwear in the airport or cruise port it is a little less embarrassing. Really good sunglasses are important because you will use them daily. I found reading sunglasses at a discount store since I have an age induced fine print reading disability. These helped me maintain my fantasy image of youth and coolness. Cruise ships have libraries to check out books for reading on deck, but bring something to read for fun. Call me if you need suggestions. Choose clothing items than can mix and match. Pack T-shirts and 2 pair of shorts, a long sleeved shirt, 2 non-wrinkle (remember the no iron rule) tropical or jersey long skirts that can be dressed up or down depending on the evening meal dress code and flip flops. High heels do not do well on a rolling and pitching sea vessel so deny the entertainment for your fellow passengers and keep to flat shoes (you can get more in that way too). The ship is generally cool so a nice light sweater for evening is a good item to bring.

One thing you must never, never pack is a Speedo. I am sorry but this is a new international cruising rule that you will not read about anywhere else. Trust me, it is a rule. I will admit that I have taken one check-on bag on cruises so that we can take our snorkel gear- and a few extra shoes for me. Just remember that you can rent snorkel gear on the ship and nice pair of sparkly flip flops qualifies for dress shoes on formal night.

Checking In
You will have completed the online check-in and print luggage tags or they can mail them. The porters have tags available but watch them do it and be sure the information is correct. Imagine lost bags with 4,000 passengers on board! Have the documents ready, the bags tagged and then enjoy standing with a couple of hundred fellow passengers in line. Some lines are like Disneyland, and some are more like the library checkout. If you have a boarding time of 2:00 disregard it and get there about 1:00 or even a little earlier. You will be issued a cabin key card the size of a credit card. It is used for leaving and entering the ship at port, and some purchases on board. Dodge the photographers, scurry up the gangway and head to your room. Good luck finding it if you didn’t check a map ahead of time. A GPS would be helpful but there are people posted so be sure to ask directions. Did you read that gentlemen? This is not a road trip although it will feel like it by the time you find your room. Change into cruise wear and head immediately to the buffet restaurant which will be open and waiting. You will now begin to eat the amount you spent on the ticket to get full value for your cruise. It’s a goal -you can do it!

My husband subscribes to the “You snooze you lose” cruising philosophy. I believe in the “I choose to snooze” vacation. He is up at 7 am and headin’ to the full service breakfast in the dining room while I enjoy sleeping in and taking my time instead of rushing anywhere. Believe me I don’t have any problem grazing at the breakfast buffet upstairs a couple hours later.

We choose our cruise by the ports of call. This year we wanted to see St. Maarten and we also stopped at Puerto Rico and Labadee Haiti. Except for the rainy day at Labadee it was perfect temperatures and beautiful sites. In Puerto Rico the first stop is the old fort which is a National Park and then walking around the quaint old part of town. St. Maarten has beautiful Orient Beach and a nice shopping district, and Labadee is a private beach area owned by the cruise line on the end of Haiti with water toys and games. With Mr. “See Everything” we always head down to be ready to disembark first thing and return as late as possible. This is also why choosing the late seating time is very important. It is also the best choice because you can linger over dessert and enjoy your dinner companions without feeling rushed to leave for the next group of diners. If you are worried about being hungry, head up to the always-open buffet for an appetizer – or an entire plate. Remember your goal of eating the price of your ticket?

The shore excursions are rarely worth it. You will pay a high price to be crammed into a bus so skip it and rent a scooter or a jeep right there at the dock. They are always reasonable and a cheap way to recapture your youth, or if you are already young you can drive a little more crazy than at home. Taxi’s are always available and a good tip is to find another couple to share the taxi and find out ahead of time from a ship’s crew member how much it will cost and the best places to visit. The crew is often a great source of information about the ports. Also do some internet research before sailing to avoid disappointments.

Be sure to get back on the ship in plenty of time. They won’t wait for you and you don’t want to be like the one lady that had to be hoisted up by crane with everyone watching because the gangway was closed. True story.

If you are considering a cruise-do it! The entertainment is great, the music is wonderful, the food is fabulous and you can choose to be alone, take family along or make new friends with fellow passengers. It is a great vacation value if you shop early and choose a cruise to suit your travel tastes. Our Royal Caribbean cruise on Liberty of the Seas was a delicious choice in every way.

Book Look "Indefensible"


This week’s book review is dedicated to Judge Fenstermaker. Some months back I recommended a book that was below her reading level. It was a chapter book, but the words were not very big and the subject was not on her grade level. I felt that I owed her a book review that was up to her high literary standards and tastes. I also hope it will prevent me being sent to the slammer if I get a ticket in Springville. This book review is dedicated to you, Your Honor.

“Indefensible” by David Feige is a well written piece of nonfiction. His narrative on the law is humorous and heartbreaking. We all suspect that the American justice system is flawed but better than anything offered by other countries. If we are going to commit a crime we plan on doing it here in the USA. However, according to Feige, we better stay out of the New York court system where he is a public defender.

It is an account of one long day filled with criminals from the South Bronx, wily lawyers, and eccentric judges. Feige describes his clients: “I’ve represented murderers, rapists, prostitutes, and drug dealers.” We get a brief look inside his life as a big city lawyer. He’s not a lawyer in an expensive suit from an affluent firm, but a tireless public defender fighting for the rights of those we turn away from as we pass them on the streets.

Feige writes detailed stories that keep us interested in the human drama and snappy dialogue that holds our interest in the courtroom drama. It is rare to read about someone motivated by something other than money to fight the good fight. He passionately believes in what he does. Somehow despite the frustration, failure, and exhaustion he remains optimistic. At the end of the day he can say: “I like the cold. On cold nights, people stay off the street corner; less corner traffic means fewer arrests, and fewer arrests mean a lighter arraignment load. All year long, I sleep with the window open, hoping the air drifting in might signal a frost…”