A President's Reflections

A Summer Recalled

Posted on August 24, 2011

Like most people, I begin every summer with great ambitions, a long list of things to get done, books to be read, and resolutions to be honored.  And as with every summer before, this one is winding down with a number of tasks left undone, the pile of books by my bedside higher than before, and any number of resolutions ignored.  That said, it was a lovely summer. 

The books I did complete include two by one of my favorite writers, Erik Larson.  His new book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin was terrific.  It centers on the lives of William Dodd, the American Ambassador to Germany, and his daughter, Martha, during the early years of Hitler’s rise to power.  As with all Larson’s books, it is history that reads like fiction and as well documented as is 1930s Germany, I felt like I understood the period in ways that straight historical accounts failed to do for me.  It is compelling, full of glamour, intrigue, and horror.  For me, the distressing question has always been how a country that gave us some of the highest expressions of human imagination, that had among the best educated populations in the world (I think Germany had the highest per capita number of PhDs in the world in 1930), could then allow such a monster to come to power.  I don’t want to overstate the case here, but when economic pain and loss of national pride and the convenient availability of some “other” people to blame come together, even noble societies are capable of doing terrible things. 

A terrible recession, a sense of America’s decline, anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiments widespread, and the rise of something called the Tea Party?  Gives Larson’s book a certain kind of troubling resonance.  This was also true for the other Larson read of this summer, his Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History.  Isaac Cline, an enlightened scientist and part of the early US Weather Bureau, is at the heart of this tale and literally at the heart, or eye, of the 1900 hurricane that killed 6000 people and destroyed so much of Galveston that it never really recovered its lost glory and prominence.  As much as the book is about an overwhelming natural disaster, it is also about human folly and stubbornness.  In a post-Katrina world in which climate change is creating more violent meterological events, the book feels timely and yet it was my least favorite of Larson’s books.  The central characters are just not as compelling as those that people his other books.  It’s a worthwile read, but start with his other books if you have not read Larson.

I just finished Howard Mansfield’s Turn and Jump: How Time and Place Fell Apart.   Howard, a delightful NH writer and husband of my revered Sy Montgomery, is a wonderful story teller and this book feels like a loose collection of tales and reflections.  It meanders a bit, but the book is so smart and observant and so human and accessible at the same time, that it is an ideal summer book.  At its core is an exploration of how our sense and understanding of time has become abstract — defined by systems and devices –and untethered to nature, place, and actual experience.  If you feel time passing too fast, life too frenetic and too defined by a schedule, Howard’s book reminds us of why and of times when life was more integrated. 

Movies of the summer?  Typical light summer fare:

The last Harry Potter movie (quite enjoyable; I’m an unapologetic HP fan);

The new Planet of the Apes movie (My favorite overheard line: “I don’t think monkeys can swim.”  On the list of implausible aspects of the movie this would be #187 on my list, but it got one patron’s attention.);

Jane Eyre, a more serious film and infinitely better than the other two.  Mia Wasikowska (of The Kids Are Alright) is absolutely brilliant.

Travel?

I’ve blogged about Port Clyde (and was scolded for letting the secret out, the NY Times stories notwithstanding), Tahoe, and Montana.  I have to admit, we had one unexpected week at home–a stay-cation — and it was surprisingly satisfying.  The only reason I got to that aforementioned task list, things like ordering my messy study, cleaning the garage, and various house projects, was that week.  Pat and I also took long walks (part of Annie’s goal of losing 10 pounds, the challenge of all Labs — and me, now that I come to think of it), saw a lot of good friends and family, and enjoyed the bounty of our garden.

Part of summer’s joy is the way we New Englanders reclaim the outdoors — long hours of daylight and warm temperatures hard earned by living through months of cold, dark winter.  Dinners outside on a warm night, something that barely registers for Californians, feel luxurious to us.   A time for baseball, our only sport not ruled by a clock, and riotous displays of flowers.  Summer invites a reconnection of time and place and if we had this weather for 12 months a year we would become weak, like Californians, and not think great thoughts, again like Californians, and probably a whole lot happier and fitter, yet again like Californians.  So that’s it.  Bring on the autumn — my brain needs to be re-engaged and I am far too happy to be a New Englander.

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