Thursday, November 27, 2008

Heaven and Hell

Heaven and Hell
Author: Don Felder (with Wendy Holden)
John Wiley & Sons, 2008
332 pages

One day back in 1978 or so, my cousin Gordon was home on leave from the Navy. He had recently bought some new Bose speakers for his stereo that were the size of small refrigerators. I dropped by his house not long after he hooked them up. He tested them with "Hotel California", which he said was the most amazing song ever recorded.

Right then and there, I became a fan of The Eagles, and especially of the person who was responsible for this music. That person was Don Felder, and Heaven and Hell is his book.

Subtitled My Life in The Eagles (1975-2001), this is an autobiography of the man who was always my favorite Eagle. Felder shares tales of his upbringing in Florida as the child of a working class family, his rise to fame and fortune as a member of one of the most well-known bands in the world, and his dismissal and the resulting lawsuit for wrongful termination from the band. As a fan I ate this up. Felder has always been the "enigmatic Eagle" about whom little was known. In this book, he tells all.

I remember when hell froze over and The Eagles got back together in the mid-1990s. Don Felder impressed me so much in the Hell Freezes Over concert video with the acoustic version of "Hotel California" not just with his amazing talent, but also because he seemed so real, and like he was really enjoying himself. He looked like an ordinary kind of guy in his faded jeans and flannel shirt - not like a Rock god at all. And I suppose that is one of the endearing things about Felder. He could be your brother, or cousin, or neighbor down the street. But he is a heck of a guitar player.

He tells some funny stories about growing up in Gainesville, Florida. One in particular that had me chuckling was his explanation of why he didn't become a Baptist. His mother was Baptist, and took him to that church on a regular basis. At some point his mother pressured him to get baptized. He was going to go through with it, until he witnessed the baptism of a rather large woman. It seemed to young Don that the preacher held the woman under water just a little too long - or maybe he couldn't hold her - and she struggled as if she were drowning. Don decided the Methodist church across the street was more to his liking, since immersion baptism was not a requirement there.

Of course, there are some not-so-funny stories, especially those dealing with drugs, sex, and other aspects of rock and roll that those of us who are old enough to remember the 1970s have heard before. Only these have names attached. Felder was no saint, but he takes responsibility for his actions.

I learned a lot about The Eagles, as a band and as individual members. There were actually seven Eagles. The originals were Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner, Glenn Frey, and Don Henley. Felder was asked to join the band while they were recording the On The Border album in 1974. Leadon and Meisner left the band and were replaced by Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmidt.

Random interesting things I learned about Felder from the book: 1) he knew Stephen Stills, Bernie Leadon, and Tom Petty when they were teenagers, 2) he's a licensed airplane pilot, 3) he's very tech savvy, surfs the internet, etc., 4) he's a licensed realtor, and 5) he married his high school sweetheart, and they were together for 29 years. 

If you're at all interested in Felder, The Eagles, rock and roll history, or are just looking for a good autobiography, I recommend this. It took me back in time and I wound up purchasing Hotel California on a fourth format. Previously, I had the album, the 8 track tape, and the CD. Now I have the iTunes version. And it really does sound good on Bose speakers - even the tiny iPod docking station type. :-)

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Secret River

The Secret River
Author: Kate Grenville
Text Publishing, 2005
334 pages

When I was in Sydney last month, I did a search on Amazon.com for books about Australia and came across this book. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (a very important prize for contemporary fiction written by authors from the British Commonwealth and Ireland), this story is about a young Englishman who through a sad series of events ends up on a convict ship sent to Australia back in 1806. William Thornhill is the epitome of survivor, and Grenville's descriptions of his ups and downs leave you feeling like you've ridden on a rollercoaster. Despite his human shortcomings, Thornhill is a likeable fellow, which makes it that much harder to get angry with him when he does stupid things.

His wife, Sarah or "Sal", is one of the most interesting female characters I've encountered this year. She's a saucy gal who grew up wealthy compared to dirt-poor Thornhill, and they fell in love at an early age. Thornhill was an apprentice to her father, who owned a sort of water taxi service in London. Things seem to be looking up when Thornhill gets accepted by the local guild as a true apprentice. But when Sal's father dies unexpectedly, their world falls apart.

Grenville's descriptions of their hunger will leave your stomach growling. It almost seems a relief when Thornhill ends up in jail - until you read about the horrible jail conditions of that time. When Thornhill is sent to Australia as a convict (his death sentence for theft was commuted in exchange for his transport), she becomes his legal "master" for a certain number of years. The humor between them is nothing sort of sweet. They are as close to soul mates as any other fictional characters I've read about, maybe even more than Bella and Edward!

Eventually, their ever-growing family ends up taking a chance homesteading on a hundred-acre plot two hours by boat from the nearest town. Here, they begin eking out a living as farmers, supplemented with Thornhill's boat, which he borrowed money to purchase. Their hard lives are complicated by the local natives (Aboriginal people) whose lifestyles are very different from the Europeans. While the Thornhills are busting it everyday to run the farm, they see the natives just living day to day without much effort. They don't understand this lifestyle any more than the natives understand theirs. Eventually the tensions escalate . . . until one day, Thornhill has to make a decision as to who will survive.

The ending may not be happy (for the natives), but it's based on historical records of similar events that happened at that time. Grenville supposedly got the idea for the book and characters based on her research into her own ancestry.  Given that an estimated 20 million Australians living today descended from convicts, this story or stories like it are probably not all that unusual. 

I came away with an increased appreciation of what my own ancestors went through during times of hardship (which was basically all of history up until, say, my parents' generation). And I'm even more aware now of what a miracle it is that any of us are here.

Rating: 4 stars.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Teach Yourself Thrifty Living

Teach Yourself Thrifty Living
Author: Barty Phillips
Bookpoint (McGraw-Hill), 2007
213 pages

I'm lucky to live in a city that has a very good public library system and my neighborhood has an an awesome library. I like the feature on IMCPL's web site that lets you search and reserve books online.  An email tells me when my books are in, and I just stop by my branch and pick 'em up. But sometimes, I like to take my time and browse the shelves. This is how I found Thrifty Living a few weeks ago.

This is not normally my kind of book, but in these uncertain economic times, hey, anything helps. Thrifty Living has plenty of useful tips. It's written by an author from the United Kingdom and is thus peppered with unusual (to this North American reader) words and phrases. Here are some examples:

Example 1
Don't get hooked on lotteries. If you fancy the odd flutter, decide how much you are willing to spend . . . and don't go over that amount

Example 2
Life insurance only benefits those who come after you but may be mandatory if you have a mortgage. 

Thrifty Living has sections on shopping rights, saving money on food and home energy costs, and the fine art of haggling -- just to name a few. Each section has tips and a test. The test questions are actually quite useful. Samples: (1) How can you prevent moth damage to clothes and household linen?; (2) Name five things you should not put on a compost heap;  (3) Name five items you should avoid buying in supermarkets. And my favorite: (4) What should you do with a bottle of undrunk wine? [My response: Why, drink it, of course!]

I laughed out loud a lot - which is probably what the author intended, since this can be a difficult topic - but I actually did learn several tips. One thing I'm going to do as a result of reading Thrifty Living is buy a wrap for our hot water heater. According to Thrifty Living, if you dress your hot water heater in an insulated jacket you can save quite a bit on your heating bill.

My favorite tip? Borrow books from the library instead of buying them. Sounds good to me . . . that is, until I get the urge to roam Borders or B&N.

Rating: 3.75 stars for the useful information plus laughs and smiles.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Host

The Host
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown and Company, 2008
619 pages

Despite the fact that I'm a big fan of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, I was really skeptical about The Host. Why? First, because it was billed as Meyer's first book for "adults." (It reminded me of when famous children's writer Judy Blume published her first book for adults -- disaster.) But also because of the subject matter: The Host is about a sort of parasitic alien species who invades Earth and forcibly takes over the minds and bodies of humans. Does that sound interesting to you? It didn't to me.

But Stephenie hasn't failed me yet, and once I got past the first couple of chapters and realized what was going on, I got totally into the story.

Melanie is the host - the young human who gets "implanted" with Wanderer, the alien so named because she has lived with other hosts on several other different planets. Usually when the alien enters the host, only the body of the host remains. But Melanie won't go away. She gets into Wanderer's head. Wanderer finds herself unable to resist Melanie's memories, and she is compelled to go off in search of the still-human Jared and Jamie, two of Melanie's loved ones. 

Off they go into the desert. Behind them is a Seeker (the aliens are all known by their professions, and Seekers are kind of like police who look for the remaining humans). This Seeker is really mean, which is unusual because as we are to learn, the aliens are a peace-loving, conflict-avoiding species. Melanie/Wanderer eventually find Jared and Jamie living in a cave system in the middle of nowhere with some thirty other humans. At first, the humans are not happy to see Melanie/Wanderer, and she is imprisoned. Eventually, she will prove herself not harmful. As her relationships improve with the humans, they also improve with Melanie and the two become very close. But will the Seeker find them, and if so, what will happen to them all?

This is a story of the conqueror and the conquered, of survival and human emotions, and of forgiveness and redemption. It's a love story, and a story about love. It's hard to know how else to describe it. Often as I was reading it, I had to put the book aside and just think for a while. There's a lot of philosophy in this book. 

So as weird as the plot may sound, I have to highly recommend this book. Put it on your list.

Rating: 4.5 stars. 

By the way, I bought the paperback version of The Host in Seoul. I also saw the paperback version in Vienna and Sydney. Why does the rest of the world get paperbacks before we do in the USA? Personally I prefer them over hardbacks, and not just for the price.