Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt

They just don't make presidents like they used to! Harrison Engle's 1986 film makes it easy to suspend your disbelief and get caught up in the enthusiasm of one of the most popular presidents in history. This is a remarkable film of a remarkable man. Watching this DVD is like attending an open air band concert on the mall. Few men can match the variety, notoriety, and successes of his relentless efforts. Even fewer Presidents can compare with his accomplishments. He's even on Mount Rushmore! TR was awarded (posthumously by President Clinton) the Medal of Honor for his heroics in the Spanish American War in 1898. He is our only President to be so distinguished. Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the 1905 peace treaty between Russia and Japan. Something he actually accomplished -- not just promised.

The twenty-sixth President is described by narrator George C. Scott as a man of action who wanted the common man to have a fair chance and a square deal. Distrusted by liberals and feared by conservatives, TR was known more for the results he achieved than for promises, claims, and rhetoric. He personally authored over a dozen books (no ghost writers). He was an outdoorsman, naturalist, conservationist, and of course politician. During his term as President, the number of national parks doubled and he worked hard to get the Grand Canyon recognized as such. His trip to Panama made history as he became the first sitting president to travel outside the country. He is often regarded by historians and critics as one of the five best Presidents along with Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and FDR.

Previously aired on Biography and The History Channel, The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt will be available on DVD April 13, 2010 (from Infinity Entertainment Group). We can enjoy a tour de force documenting the life and times of America's youngest President. Enjoy a romp through history at the brisk pace of a Sousa march, which in fact accounts for much of the soundtrack. The film includes remarkable footage of historical events, still photos, and re-enactments in both black and white and color. The set includes three discs: the feature, an audio CD, Sophisticated Sousa, and a bonus DVD. (I've enjoyed the Sousa CD in my truck on the way to work for several days now.) The bonus disc includes an interview with the director, photo archive, "Teddyisms" (memorable quotes from TR), a biography of John Philip Sousa, and Roosevelt's 1905 inaugural address.

Would I buy The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt? Yes! In a downbeat!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Reading for Survival

In a dangerous world filled with stress, the key to survival was memory. So says the author of The Executioners (later known as "Cape Fear"), John D. MacDonald. In his last published work before he died in 1986, MacDonald set out to inspire us with Reading for Survival. This thirty-one page essay was published in 1987 by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. It was also sponsored by the Florida Center for the Book in Fort Lauderdale. The essay takes the form of a series of conversations between his fictitious protagonist, Travis McGee, and his friend known only as "Meyer", an economist, teacher and lecturer. The opening scene finds the two in a docked houseboat darkened by a thunderstorm. The conversation begins, as does the authors opportunity to share with us his concerns for reading, readers, and non-readers.

Meyer guides us through his version of the evolution of communication beginning with our earliest ancestors' dependency on memory in order to live in the wilderness, recognize signs of nature and the animal kingdom, and then share that knowledge with future generations. Once the amount of information required was too massive for memory alone, we started making marks on pottery, then cave walls, and the next thing you know, Gutenberg got the masses involved with his press. Books became artificial memory before the gigabite arrived. Now we have tons of information and it's available to us at the speed of light. Google found over nine million results for "gutenberg", in 0.28 seconds. What do we do with all this information? Do we need that much? Consider Len Bias.

Len Bias was a talented basketball player at the University of Maryland. He was a senior during the same year that Michael Jordan was enjoying his second year in the NBA.
Bias was the second player drafted that year and went to the Boston Celtics. Two days after the draft, he died of a cocaine overdose. Kenneth Rosenau wrote in
The Palm Beach Post, "That [Bias]..was finishing his fourth year at an academically respected school without a prayer of graduating is also an outrage that should be addressed."And "[He]...was twenty-one credits short of having a degree." Was Bias any better off than the homo erectus who couldn't remember which snake was poisonous? Would his judgement have improved had he been a better student? Meyer asks, "Can one examine his own life without reference to the realities in which he lives?"

What about the non-reader, the person who wants to believe because he isn't well informed and doesn't understand the risks? He's the one "born every minute" that signs up for that variable interest loan with a dubious lender. MacDonald warns us of the teacher who promotes himself as the translator. Beware the translator who interprets the information for you. Think for yourself he suggests. Education, literacy, reading, thinking and remembering are MacDonald's prescription for enduring. He leaves us with a warning from Mark Twain, "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them."

Encourage non-readers to enrich their lives and better comprehend the word around them -- by reading.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Book Review: "Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America" by Jay Parini.

[Similar version was published first at http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-promised-land-thirteen-books/ ]

"You know more than you think you do." So says an Olympic gold medal winner, and so begins a book that over sixty years later still influences the baby boomer generation. A book that espouses a kinder gentler approach to the journey from birth to adolescence. One of the founding myths/stories of our American heritage is the road trip. The story of two characters on a journey to freedom, either real or dreamed, the epitome of which, according to Hemingway, was penned by Mark Twain.

Since the Mayflower arrived in the New World, Americans have been on road trips. Whether it was the great unknown wilderness of Lewis and Clark or the quest for "it" as recounted by Kerouac, we've been searching. We learn from the journey and sometimes feel that when we have reached our destination, it stretches further out before us on the horizon. And we continue on. As individuals we continue the journey begun by our ancestors while seeking goals of our own along the way. Inspiration comes from our accomplishments and is driven by the efforts, desires, and dreams of previous generations passed along to us by oral family histories, diaries, journals, and books (both fiction and non-fiction).

A special collection of those books is celebrated in Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America by Jay Parini. The author teaches college in Vermont and has a long list of credits that add up to "literary scholar". He sees "..poetry as the most important form of writing," and has several collections of poetry, novels and biographies to his credit.
His selection criteria in his own words, "I was looking for books that played a role in shaping the nation's idea of itself or that consolidated and defined a major trend." It is clear that this is not a collection of America's "greatest books". Choosing could only be made less difficult by narrowing the focus; he includes a list of one hundred works that also changed the country with a confession that another hundred could have easily been added.

Parini has chosen his baker's dozen well. Included are significant works from politics, religion, adventure, exploration and philosophy. These books are filled with stories--memorable legends of both fact and fiction that describe our many interconnected journeys and the diverse experiences that make us Americans. He suggests questions to help us ponder the trip. His analysis inspires us to come up with our own questions. How could a country founded on the notion that all men are created equal allow slavery? How can we not be thought to be crazy or depraved when we push the boundaries of acceptable behavior? How can we change someone else's attitude without giving offense or arousing resentment? How could women not be allowed to vote? How much individual freedom are we willing to give up to be able to say we live in a free country?

A chapter is devoted to each book and treats each with the same format. He offers a brief summary of how the book changed the country. Next is a biography of the writer and historical context of the book. If you have not read the book, you will enjoy the third portion, a detailed description of the book. In some cases he details individual chapters. Despite this occasional level of detail, he manages to keep each chapter to approximately twenty pages. A discussion of the books that followed in the wake of the subject work concludes each section. In some cases, books that came before or inspired this particular work are mentioned.

Prior to reading this book I had never considered the importance of "the road trip". It was enlightening to see the diversity in the types of trips, the parallel motives and lessons learned along the way. The most memorable benefit of this book for me was the connections that came to mind while reading. Many of the stories reminded me of other books I've read on my own journey. I can ride on the raft with Huck and Tom, stand on the shore with Eliza, enjoy Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims or ride a chopper with Dennis Hopper. I can participate in my country's grand experiment in self-governing and I can speak with confidence in front of a group. Somehow it's easier to bear my own cross down the road to the promised land because of the journeys of my ancestors and mentors. The books chosen by Parini helped me to see that they, along with many other books I've enjoyed, have not only changed America, they have changed my generation, shaped my thoughts and made me who I am. I read not only to learn, I read to survive.