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Books I Didn’t Review

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My vacation is over. But as luck would have it, my first day back is a holiday, so I guess that extends things by one day. Today is Canada’s annual Civic Holiday. I don’t think anyone really knows why this holiday exists except as an excuse to enjoy a day off in what is usually about the best part of the Canadian summer. I’ll actually be working much of the day, catching up on the work and the emails that have been piling up while I’ve been laying low, but I will be taking some time to hang out with my family (and with my mom whose visit is just about over). Normal blogging will resume tomorrow. For now, here’s a rundown on a few of the books I’ve read over the past week or so.

Magnificent Desolation by Buzz Aldrin (with Ken Abraham). This is Aldrin’s second or third stab at an autobiography, but the first I’ve read. I saw it on the New York Times list of bestsellers, timed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the moon landings, and thought I’d have to give it a read. I was rather disappointed. I don’t know that I can say it a whole lot better than this Amazon reviewer did: “At one point in the book, Buzz Aldrin observes: ‘I kind of like David Letterman’s quirky humor, it is like mine’. This pretty much sums up the annoyingly self-centered storytelling of the book. As others have pointed out, the space-program related parts are boilerplate, nothing new or interesting here. The rest, 85% of the book, is self-centered crank, crank, crank, descent into depression and alcoholism, page after page of self-quotations from speeches and pitches of the same old ‘Mars cycler’ or go-to-space-lottery half baked ideas. For a 3-year old to misbehave and throw a tantrum in order to get attention is normal, and most get over it in time. Buzz Aldrin is still stomping his foot, ‘me, me, me’.” Perhaps that is overstating the case a little bit but reading this autobiography, which begins with the countdown to Apollo 11 and carries on to the present day, primarily details life after NASA. The most interesting parts of the book, then, are the in the opening pages. After that the reader is forced to walk with him through the dissolution of his first marriage (and his second and the first twenty years of his third), affairs and girlfriends, drunkenness and clinical depression, and the rise and wane (and rise and wane) of celebrity. It was forty years that Aldrin stepped on the moon and it seems that since then he has been trying to find some return to glory. So far it has not happened. This is a pretty dismal tale and one that is not only quite boring but also poorly-written. I love to read biographies of heroes, but the more I read of Aldrin the more I see that he is no hero. Desolation described the moon, it described much of Aldrin’s life (by his own admission), and it describes this book. You’ll want to take a pass on this one (or at least wait for the paperback).

Fordlandia by Greg Grandin. This is a fantastic book that tells of “The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City.” Author Greg Grandin tells the strange tale of Henry Ford’s obsession with creating a utopian American-style city in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. Built initially to provide rubber to the Ford company, the city, built on a tract of land twice the size of Delaware, became something of an idealistic obsession with Ford. Soon he had a city complete with golf courses, ice cream shops, indoor plumbing and, of course, Model T’s rolling down broad paved streets. Needless to say, Ford’s idealism fought an epic battle with the jungle as the Amazon constantly fought back, obliterating the rubber crop and infecting so many of the people who ventured there. The Brazilian work force came into conflict with Ford’s strict mores. The author aptly shows how Ford sought to export his own brand of American idealism and how badly he failed in the end. It’s just a fascinating tale and one that is well worth the read.

Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad. I bought this book after seeing it make appearances on most of the best-seller lists. This is a “Memoir of Survival” according to the subtitle, and it tells of Ollestad’s survival after a plane crash that took the life of his father and his father’s fiancee. Though that plane crash provides some cohesion to the story and though it was a life-defining event, it was a matter of only a few hours. So the survival in the story is much deeper-rooted in Ollestad’s story of his relationship to his father. His father was a strange, egocentric man who had a very odd relationship to his son, constantly pushing him to do things he had no desire to do. Ollestad both idolized and despised his father. The story is interesting enough, I suppose, but after reading to the end I could think of few reasons that I would want to recommend this to anyone else beyond the usual human interest reasons. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with the book, I also did not find enough right with it that I’d recommend it to others. I wouldn’t bother with it.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann. This is “A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon,” according to the book’s subtitle, and it is a good one. Set in the jungles of the Amazon (that makes two books set in the Amazon, doesn’t it?) this book tells of the famed explorer Percy Fawcett who, in 1925, ventured into the jungle to find the lost and fabled city of El Dorado (which he knew as the city of “Z”). Like so many before and after him, he disappeared and was never seen or heard from again. Almost a century later, David Grann, a man far more at home on the couch than in the jungle, became intrigued by the story and set out to try to find out what happened to Fawcett and whether the mythical civilization he set out to find had even existed. I will not spoil the story by telling what (if anything) he found, but I will tell you that it is a joy to find out. The book is very well-written and very nicely paced. You’ll enjoy the biographical aspect of the story as it shares the life of Percy Fawcett and you’ll equally enjoy Grann’s efforts to track him down. This is not going to be the definitive book on El Dorado and ancient Amazonian civilizations, but it does provide plenty of fascinating information that before this has only been found in dry and scholarly journals. I recommend this one!

Millionaire by Janet Gleeson. John Law was “The Philanderer, Gambler and Duelist Who Invented Modern Finance” and, in Millionaire, Janet Gleeson provides a brief but timely overview of his life. Born in Scotland and, after winning a fatal duel exiled from England, Law ended up in France where he was eventually given the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. In the early eighteenth century he almost single-handedly overhauled a French economy that had been devastated by wars and opulence. He quickly became one of the most famous men in all of Europe. He did all of this by moving France away from the gold standard that had been the foundation of her economy and in place introduced a system of fiat currency. He also founded a New World trading company that promised great riches. The French economy experienced an enormous boom-then-bust cycle that introduced the term “millionaire” but then left many of those former millionaires as little more than paupers. During this time of great financial upheaval we would do well to study the lessons of the past and Law’s story has a great deal to teach us, I am convinced. Millionaire is a great place to start. For a book dealing with a topic that can be as dry as finances, this book moved along well and never bogged down in numbers or in boring detail. Economists would want to read something more in-depth but for the rest of us, this is ideal. I recommend it!

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