Book Review
Born to Run
Bruce Springsteen

It’s exactly what you’d expect. That’s not to say that there is no new information and no surprises but the sometimes almost poetic writing style is exactly what I expected from a man who has produced some of the most notable English language lyrics of the last four decades. It’s no secret that some of those lyrics were just a bit autobiographical so it’s possible to think of this as sort of a much longer and more detailed version of the story he’s been singing since he first greeted us from Asbury Park.

It’s all intertwined, isn’t it? Central to the story that he tells so compellingly is the fact that he is a compelling story teller. The reason we know the name Bruce Springsteen and the reason we are interested in his biography is that he is a phenomenal performer, talented musician, skilled song writer, masterful band leader, and… compelling story teller.

As a long time fan, I knew the basics so the book really did do a lot of detail filling in for me and most of those details weren’t surprising. They were just additional and better information that fit what I already knew about his family, early bands, management squabbles, and the like. To a lesser degree that’s even true about the battles with depression. There’s no doubt that one of the highest highs in the world is being Bruce Springsteen on stage so it’s not hard to accept that being Bruce Springsteen off stage can sometimes be one of the lowest lows. He writes candidly about it as he does with everything else.

Although not all do, an autobiography, besides being able to include some otherwise unknown details, can include intimate thoughts and attitudes not available to biography writers. I had read almost the entire book before it finally registered with me that this was the case with Born to Run from the very first page. By “almost the entire book” I mean the last sentence of the next to last chapter. In a paragraph that may have been the final one in some not quite finished version of the book, Springsteen tells us that “Discretion and the feelings of others…” have kept certain things out of the book but that the inside of his head isn’t one of them. “But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise: to show the reader his mind. In these pages I’ve tried to do that.”

The book contains plenty of insightful serious glimpses into that mind but a couple of insightful fun ones really registered with me. Both were in the relatively recent past. One shows his unstoppable ambition  and the other his sheer love of rock and roll.

The E Street Band’s 2009 Super Bowl appearance has been cited as the seed for this book. I’d seen the four song performance and kind of assumed it was no big deal to Springsteen. It was and he was extremely nervous in the days and minutes before show time. He had played to plenty of filled stadiums but not to 150 million TV viewers. He still had worlds to concur. “I felt my band remained one of the mightiest in the land and I wanted you to know it.”

In 2012 the Rolling Stones were playing in Bruce’s neighborhood and asked him to join them for “Tumbling Dice”. There’s a video online and in it Bruce never stops grinning. It’s possible he hadn’t stopped grinning since the night before when they rehearsed it — one time! — in a warehouse. “…these are,” as Bruce explains it, “the guys who INVENTED” my job!”

The last chapter, titled “Long Time Coming”, could serve as an epilogue if a labeled epilogue didn’t begin on the next page. It begins with some thoughts about the Springsteen generations immediately before and after his own. Writing this book helped him understand his parents and he has some hope that it will help his kids understand him. The sentence that begins the chapter’s second paragraph is “I work to be an ancestor.” Like so many magic snippets of his lyrics, those half-dozen words say more than most people can say in a full page. Almost everything he’s written about his own ancestors throughout the book and about his own offspring in its most recent chapters is brought into sharp focus with that one sentence.

The epilogue follows and there is even an essentially unnecessary “About the Author” page. The book ends with several pages of photographs that begin with baby Bruce and end with Bruce and wife Patti on horseback leaning together to share a kiss. My guess is he’s going to be a pretty good ancestor.

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Schuster; September 27, 2016, 9.2 x 6.1 inches, 528 pages, ISBN 978-1501141515

Book Review (not really)
A Prayer for Owen Meany
John Irving

apfom_cvrI’m not really going to review this twenty-seven year old book that I’m guessing thousands of professional reviewers have written millions of words about. When I first read it, more than two decades ago, I thought it was one of the best books I had ever encountered.  A recent re-read only reinforced that. The re-read was prompted by plans to attend a performance of a play based on the novel. I’m going to say some things about that performance but this really isn’t a review of it either. In fact, I find myself stumped in trying to explain just exactly what this is. What ever it is, it was triggered by my recent experience with a book and a play.

From the moment I saw that Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park would be presenting A Prayer for Owen Meany I wanted to see it. I knew nothing about the play but recalled how much I loved the book. As is often the case, I recalled my love of the book better than I recalled the details of it and decided that reading it again would be a wise move. I reserved a digital copy at the library but the Playhouse’s announcement had obviously given others the same idea. The waiting list was long and it moved slowly. It became apparent that I might not even receive a copy before I saw the play let alone have time to read it. I turned to Amazon where money solved the problem. A little more money provided a new experience.

When I purchased a Kindle version of the book, I was given the option of adding an audio version from Audible for a few dollars more. I bit, thinking that it might help me get through the book before showtime. It did. The two versions were synchronized so that I could listen as I walked to a nearby restaurant, read while I ate, then listen some more as I walked home with Kindle picking up where Audible left off and vice versa. I don’t think it will become my default method of “reading” but it is a very effective way of using all available minutes to move forward.

So I finished the book and made it to the play. I have no illusions that a play or movie can be a complete replacement for a well written book but I do know that a well done play or movie can sometimes cut through minutia while preserving a theme and making it more easily accessible to more people. This was not, in my opinion, one of those times.

First, in defense of the production, the Playhouse cast and staff did an admirable job in staging and performing a complex script. Second, in defense of the playwright, the novel itself is certainly complex with loads of characters and locations, multiple time periods, and a narrator whose inner thoughts sort of fuel the whole thing. That this is built atop a doubly volatile core of both politics and religion no doubt makes a stage adaptation quite challenging.

I’ve just one knock on the production. The acting was excellent as was the use of space. The flying, however, wasn’t so good. The script (I assume) calls for Owen Meany to go airborne several time in a Mary Martin/Peter Pan sort of way. The problem was that, before each lift-off, actors spent on-stage time connecting the support apparatus to Owen’s body. The audience was left with a more vivid memory of the preparation than of the “flight”.

That aspects of the novel needed to be eliminated in a stage play goes without question. I don’t even question screenwriter Simon Bent’s choices of what to eliminate. Big stuff from the book that didn’t make it to the stage include John Wheelwright’s three cousins, his lengthy comments on the Iran-Contra affair, and the removal of his finger to avoid the draft. The armadillo that soloed on the cover of the first edition didn’t make it to the stage either. Nor did Owen Meany’s time as The Voice or his conflicts with school administration that cost him scholarships and led to his enrollment in ROTC. I recognize the fact that to include these or some of the many other things eliminated might have complicated things beyond reason. Whether or not the simplification made the play accessible and understandable to anyone unfamiliar with the book is not for me to say.

I expect things to be simplified when a book goes the the stage or screen. Not only must things be eliminated but sometimes thing must be simply changed. Changing the armadillo to a ball and glove makes sense. Adding the Lenny Bruce scene as a device to express some inner thoughts is reasonable. But why change the day of Owen’s death? I don’t think it’s particularly important in the book. There it is July 8 and a follow on to Independence Day but is not, as far as I can tell, otherwise significant. If there is a purpose to changing it to March 31 in the play, it’s lost on me. And it’s irritating.

The majority of comments on the Playhouse’s Facebook page are positive. Some are glowing. Only a few are really negative. Some mention language, others the flying apparatus, and some give no reason at all. It would not have surprised me if people who had not read the book found the play hard to follow but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I only spotted a couple of comments suggesting that. More common are comments from people who intend to read the book now that they’ve seen the play. That’s a good thing, I think, because I believe they’ll find that a picture — even a moving picture — isn’t always worth a thousand words.


Added 21-Sep-2016 8:00: A Prayer for Owen Meany begins with the narrator stating “I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” Questioning then embracing faith is the book’s most basic theme. What I’ve personally questioned is my attraction to a book whose message seems so different form what I believe. Skillful writing and the fact that it makes me think must be the reasons. The following quote from John Irving makes me much more comfortable with my admiration for a book that seems almost an endorsement of Christianity.

I’m not religious. In writing “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” I asked myself a fairly straightforward question — namely, what would it take to make a believer out of me? The answer is that I would have to meet someone like Owen Meany. If I’d had Johnny Wheelwright’s experience in that novel, I would probably be a believer too. But I haven’t had that experience — I only imagined it.

 

Book Review
The Jefferson Highway
Lyell D. Henry Jr.

tjh_cvrIn its preface, Lyell D. Henry Jr. suggests that this book is something of a compromise. The reason is that he once set out to write about every detail of the Jefferson Highway and the association behind it. That’s a lot of details and, especially with no known central source for records or maps, a formidable task. Henry says he “…settled on writing a book that would open with a general accounting of JHA’s early pursuit of the entire highway but then narrow its focus to the highway through Iowa.” The Jefferson Highway: Blazing the Way from Winnipeg to New Orleans is indeed a book of two parts. The first four chapters cover the history of the organization responsible for the entire highway; The last three tell the story and describe the route of the road in Iowa. The scale may be less and the focus may be narrower than what Henry once had in mind but, within that narrowed focus, there is certainly no detectable compromising of accuracy or completeness.

The Jefferson Highway was one of the more significant named auto trails of the early twentieth century. The association promoting it was created in November of 1915 and the highway, like all named auto trails, effectively ceased to be when the Numbered US Highways were established in November of 1926. A modern day Jefferson Highway Association formed in 2011.

The featured players in those first four chapters are men at the top of the Jefferson Highway Association. Men like its founder, Edwin T. Meredith, its first General Manager, James D. Clarkson, and a few others. Likewise, the routeing discussions and decisions presented are those affecting the basic overall course of the highway. Particularly with this being the first book written on the Jefferson Highway in many decades, I thought this a sensible approach. Other leaders and other decisions certainly played important roles in specific states or regions and many that affected Iowa are discussed in the last three chapters. Henry writes that he hopes others will undertake similar projects for the other seven Jefferson Highway states in the near future. When they do, the first four chapters of this book could serve as a foundation. As someone without much knowledge of this highway’s history, I saw them as a sort of JH primer.

The second portion of the book is organized as a north to south driving tour with tales of the various routeings and the points of interest beside them woven into the driving directions. There is no denying that one reason Henry writes about Iowa is that it is his home but it is a very reasonable choice for other reasons as well. JHA founder Edwin T. Meredith was an Iowan and the crossing of the Jefferson and Lincoln Highways at Colo, Iowa, gave the state as good a claim as any to being the “Crossroads of America”.

I’ll readily confess that few of the mileage measurements or specific turning instructions really registered with me as I read those last three chapters but I know they will be invaluable when I someday set out to drive the Jefferson Highway. That doesn’t mean those chapters were boring or should be skipped. Descriptions of the many small towns along the way are certainly interesting and Henry provides quite a bit of road and roadside history, too. An example that I particularly enjoyed was learning, for the first time despite driving through it a few times on the Lincoln, just how Iowa’s “Crossroads of America” escaped becoming the “Cloverleaf of America”.

The book is well illustrated with black and white photographs and drawings. Some of the photos are historic but many, particularly in the three “road tour” chapters are quite recent. A majority of these, though far from all, were taken by current JHA treasurer, Scott Berka.

There were hundreds of named auto trails when numbered highway made them all obsolete. Some were little more than a line on a map and some were outright scams. Without question, the JHA was one of what the outfit responsible for those numbers, the American Association of State Highway Officials, called “reputable trail associations”. It’s good to see it getting some twenty-first century literary attention.


Book Review
Remembering Douglas Eugene Dickey, USMC
Terrence W. Barrett, Phd

rded_cvrRemembering Douglas Eugene Dickey is something I’ve done for a long time. We were classmates through twelve years of school. We weren’t super close. Not like the teammates on the football squad that broke a thirty-eight game losing streak and not nearly as close as the four other classmates who enlisted in the Marines with him but we were friends. With something like sixty-five students in our graduating class everybody knew everybody. Yes, I’ve been remembering Doug Dickey for a long time.

I sure learned a lot from this book, though. Some, like details of Doug’s time in the Marines, I expected. Some, like the story of his father’s own time in the Marines, I didn’t. The book paints a very complete picture of Douglas Eugene Dickey’s twenty year long life but it also paints a picture of his family and, to a lesser degree, his country.

Doug died in Viet Nam on Easter Sunday 1967. He died after throwing himself on a grenade to protect those around him. For this he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. His actions were those we naturally connect with the Medal of Honor. They may have basically been the same as others who have covered grenades for their buddies but one of those buddies witnessed something that isn’t often seen. Even though we understand at some level that putting yourself at extreme risk is anything but instinctive, we tend to think of sacrifices like Doug’s as nearly so. I suppose they are to the extent that soldiers often have thought about certain situations and have at least subconsciously considered their own reaction. Doug had no doubt done that but he still had to make a decision in real time. And people saw him make that decision. He saw the grenade, looked at the wounded soldier nearby, then made eye contact with the medic who watched him make that split second decision. Then he dived.

My writing about that dive is hardly a spoiler. If you know anything about the book or about Doug Dickey you know about the Medal of Honor. That dive is the reason this book was written. It takes place on page 656. A few pages describing the remainder of the battle follow. End notes begin on page 737. In between, the story of the medal being approved and presented to Doug’s parents is told and Barrett also covers the funeral, other awards and remembrances, and several reunions of the men with whom Doug served.

Doug and his four classmates enter the Marines on page 330 which means that something on the order of half the book’s content relates to his time in the military. While covering Doug’s activities in some detail, Barrett also provides significant background. I can’t say whether or not his descriptions of some of the events of the 1960s are sufficient to paint a full picture for someone younger than me but I do know they do a good job of reviving tucked away memories. Even before Doug heads to Vietnam, activities there are reported along with his progress stateside. Barrett’s reporting of various battles and other actions is sometimes reminiscent of the body counts that were a feature of the nightly news back in the day. But many of the bodies that Barrett reports have names and most of those names have Ohio addresses. There is an understandable Ohio tilt and even a Darke County tilt to the reporting. Reading about Ohio boys being wounded and dying in Vietnam leaves little doubt about the risks that Doug and his buddies had volunteered for. Doug’s movements and activities “in country” are reported with the same level of detail as his time in training.

So what’s in the other half of the book? Doug’s pre-USMC life is there of course; School days and life on the farm. But the first couple hundred of the book’s pages tell of things from before Douglas Eugene Dickey was even born. Some of the earliest are not even directly connected to him with any certainty. Barrett writes of Dickeys in the military starting with the American Revolution. Peter Dickey, a corporal in the Union Army, was Doug’s great-great-grandfather. Whether or not Peter was a direct descendant of any of fighting Dickeys of earlier generations about whom Barrett writes is not known. I can easily imagine  Barrett discovering stories of those early Dickeys then trying and failing to trace the lineage to Doug. There are valid arguments both for and against including these not-quite-connected stories and I initially questioned them myself. But in the end I agreed with their inclusion. This book is not in any way light reading. It resembles a reference book much more than a shallow novel. For Barrett to leave out anything that his research uncovered would not be right.

Of all the fighting Dickeys appearing in this book, I think Doug’s father, Harold, is the most tragic and even heroic. He was in training when his wife died giving birth to a daughter he wouldn’t see until he returned from the south seas at the end of the Second World War. Living through that then losing a son in Vietnam is beyond my understanding. I met Harold a time or two but I knew nothing of his WWII experiences. This book that is ostensibly about Vietnam has something of The Greatest Generation in it, too.

I attended the dedication of the Garst Museum display described in the book. One speaker in particular used phrases like “gave his life for his country”. That’s a view I don’t quite buy into. I never served but not one veteran I’ve ever talked with about it really buys it either. Some noble sense of patriotism may trigger enlisting but on the ground it’s the men around you who matter. Barrett includes a quote from author James Bradley that says this quite succinctly. “They may have fought for their country, but they died for their friends.”

I recommend Remembering Douglas Eugene Dickey, USMC though not to everyone. I’m having trouble defining just who it is I recommend it to. It’s not a light read or a light carry. It’s two inches thick, weighs two and a half pounds, and contains more than 800 pages. Clearly anyone who know Doug Dickey in any way will want to read it. People working at assembling a picture of the Vietnam era will get a big boost from it as will anyone studying the impact of war on a state, a county, or a family. A lot of research went into this book. Producing it is an impressive accomplishment. Though many orders of magnitude less, reading it is not a small undertaking, either.

Remembering Douglas Eugene Dickey, USMC, Terrence W. Barrett, Phd, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, June 20, 2015, paperback, 9 x 6 inches, 826 pages, ISBN 978-1511431149


It should be noted that Dr. Barrett contacted me as he was bringing this book to completion and he has included a few paragraphs about my website and its mentions of Doug toward the book’s end.


Music Review
Touch and Go
Dirk Hamilton

tagdh_cvrIn my view, the last few weeks have been a truly awesome time for new music. A new Willie Nile CD arrived with a few days left in March then, with April barely a week old, this delightful disk appeared. Dirk and Willie share more than an appreciative fan in Ohio and neighboring CD release dates. Both were touched by fame near the three-quarter mark of the last century and both ran away from the business of music for a few years. But both came back because musicians can’t stay away from music and songwriters can’t keep from writing songs.

Thirteen Dirk Hamilton written songs make up Touch and Go. Most are new but not all. “Build a Submarine” first appeared on 1990’s Too Tired to Sleep.  “The Only Thing that Matters” was on 1995’s Yep!. One of the new songs is something Dirk says he started writing in 1971 and finally finished in 2014. I heard that song, “For the Love of a Lady”, live in October of 2014. In my description of that concert I say that Dirk did three songs for the first time in front of an audience but I couldn’t remember any of the names. This was obviously one. I believe the others were “Head on a Neck” and “Mister Moreno” since I recognize both and both appear for the first time on this album.

Touch and Go owes its existence to a chance meeting with a long time fan. Producer and multi-instrumentalist Rob Laufer introduced himself to Dirk at a California house concert and explained that he had been a fan since the 1970s. One thing led to another and this Laufer produced album is the result.

It seems things started with Dirk recording a couple of songs in Laufer’s studio and Laufer subsequently “producing” “Gladiola” by adding several tracks to Dirk’s voice, guitar, and harmonica. In an interview on KPFA radio (available here) Hamilton says he was initially a little uncomfortable with the process as he is used to doing things live in the studio with the band but eventually decided that he liked the sound. I’m glad he did. Yes, magic can sometimes happen when musicians are recorded as a group with each feeding on the playing of the others and that simply can’t happen here but it’s sometimes only a possibility anyway. Rob Laufer is an excellent player as well as producer and he has constructed some really solid underpinnings for Dirk’s tunes. The organ on “Head on a Neck” and the guitar work on “Gladiola” and “Cheers to the Heart” are particularly nice.

“Cheers to the Heart” is a driving rocker and my current favorite tune on the CD. On my first listen the the album, it was somewhere in the middle of this song that I was struck with the thought that it would be right at home on one of the 1970s albums that made me a Dirk Hamilton fan. With that in mind, subsequent listens revealed that this was true of several other tunes on Touch and Go. The voice has aged but it has done so nicely and there are melodies just as well crafted and lyrics just as meaningful as those earlier offerings. Maybe it helps that Laufer is familiar with and an admirer of those early albums. He makes Dirk sound like Dirk.

What Hamilton calls the most important song on the album closes it. “Mister Moreno” was inspired by the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings and Dirk says performing it can sometimes be a real challenge because of the emotions it brings to the surface. Dirk’s lyrics can sometimes be abstract and sometimes openly playful but they are almost always insightful and thought provoking. Sometimes they are crystal clear as are these lines from “Mister Moreno”:

Politicians talk of peace, dining with gunrunners in the plaza
Sharing photos of their families and the missiles they are selling down in Gaza.

Another thing that has remained constant and is reminiscent of the early days is Hamilton’s caring and concern for this planet. That concern is clearly present in several tracks on Touch and Go but it seems a little more accessible than it has been lately and that just might be because of Laufer’s contributions. Dirk and Rob make a good team. Hope they do it again.

Buy this and other Dirk Hamilton CDs here.

Music Review
World War Willie
Willie Nile

wwwillie_cvrI’ve been a serious Willie Nile fan for barely two years or something like 5% of his career. I feel bad about that. I know I missed a lot and assumed that I’d missed him at his peak. World War Willie makes that assumption laughable.

I’ve told elsewhere how I remembered 1980’s “Vagabond Moon” only after his 2013 road trip anthem, “American Ride”, caught my ear and how I was subsequently blown away seeing him live in February of 2014. I can’t say for certain that Willie, who is just a little over a year younger than me, is as energetic on stage as he once was but it’s possible. Are the shows I’ve seen as good as the ones I’ve missed? How do performances of the most recent two years compare to those that came before? I can’t know that but I do know that they are outstanding and compare most favorably with some great past concerts that I didn’t miss.

While it is impossible to go back to attend those missed shows, it is quite possible to listen to music created in the past and I did that eagerly. There were no disappointments. Earlier Willie Nile albums held up well when compared to American Ride and vice versa.

The first new Willie Nile product to be released following my conversion was 2014’s If I Was a River. It was a delight but different. It was mostly solo and acoustic and maybe the sort of album that fools like me think of an aging rocker doing as he slows down but Willie wasn’t slowing down at all. The piano was his first instrument and he told writer Peter Gerstenzang that he had “…wanted to do an all-piano album for a number of years”.  He also told Gerstenzang that, “I’m gonna make a full-on rockin’ album with my band for the next release.” And so he has.

The new album rocks as hard as Places I Have Never Been or Streets of New York or any of the other previous Willie Nile offerings. As guitarist Poppa Chubby says, in one of the first outside things I read about World War Willie, “There’s not a single down moment on this record.” What there is is eleven new songs and one cover. There is serious stuff like “”Let’s All Come Together” and fun stuff like the title track and “Grandpa Rocks”. And of course there is serious stuff disguised as fun stuff like “Citibank Nile”. The lone cover is Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” which Nile has frequently played live and on which he has put his own stamp.

Great characters populate great songs. Folks in my age bracket might identify with the subject of “Grandpa Rocks” whose “hair what’s left grows down to his socks” and who wears a “‘been there’ grin”. I feel like the line “He ain’t afraid of dyin’ he just likes bein’ alive” fits perfectly. The “Runaway Girl” is “a two-dream girl in a one-horse town”. The album’s most disturbing character appears in what is currently my favorite song in the collection. With “fire in her eyes and a pint between her thighs” the young girl in “Trouble Down in Diamond Town” is clearly set on self destruction. The song’s slightly syncopated three shots mark some of the most efficient and effective use of drumsticks this side of the opening of the Eagles’ “Hotel California”.

Drummer Alex Alexander provides a lot more than three shots. Neither he nor bassist Johnny Pisano are ever intrusive but focusing on either will reveal some truly impressive work that both supports the tunes and drives them forward. One time Eagle Steuart Smith contributes guitar to a couple of tracks including the Levon Helm tribute “When Levon Sings”. However most of the album’s guitar work comes from band regular Matt Hogan and that includes some mighty nice slide playing on the bluesy “Citybank Nile”.

“Grandpa Rocks” ends with the spoken words “Where’s my cane? Who are these people?Get offa my cloud.” It’s natural to think that Grandpa is Willie and that those words come from the real Willie Nile. However just a little thought is all that’s required to see that that simply can’t be true. Everybody’s welcome on Willie’s cloud. Climb aboard and listen up.

Movie Review
National Parks Adventure
MacGillivray Freeman

npa_01 On Thursday I made a nighttime visit to the Cincinnati Museum Center. It wasn’t the first but they’re not at all common. Most of my visits take place in the light of day. A new IMAX film had premiered at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, on Wednesday. On Friday it would open in about forty theaters across the USA. A handful of theaters were permitted to hold screenings on the day in between. Cincinnati’s Robert D. Lindner Family Omnimax Theater was among them and, by accident or an act of kindness, I was invited to be among those attending.

Immediately after seeing National Parks Adventure I sent a Tweet calling it spectacular. “Spectacular” is a word that fits virtually all Omnimax presentations. The screens that wrap around the viewers are huge. Quite often so are the subjects. Mountains, canyons, oceans, and starry skies are popular and fitting. National Parks Adventure is certainly spectacular in the immense-scale grandiose sort of way naturally associated with the word. There are plenty of mountains and canyons but early in the film I was struck with not just the size of the images but of their beauty and technical quality as well. I believe it was a shot of mountains reflected in a lake that first triggered the thought that many of the images I was seeing did not require a five story dome to be spectacular. Printed on flat and comparatively tiny pieces of paper, scenes from the movie could yield a very impressive coffee table book. Even six inch postcards made of images from the film would probably be stunning. I can’t quantify the difference or even prove it exists but I thought the images in National Parks Adventure had sharper focus, more vivid colors, and better composition than those of any of the many Omnimax features I’ve seen.

Stunning visuals are the reason that Omnimax theaters exist but a little story telling never hurts. National Parks Adventure tells a couple that help put things in perspective. Some historical perspective comes from the inclusion of old photos and some well done recreations. Without getting in very deep, the movie offers glimpses into some of the threats to our nation’s natural treasures and into the role of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt in protecting them.

Size perspective is provided by following three friends as they visit several national parks. The trio is not plucked randomly from tourists at a park entrance. Renowned climber Conrad Anker leads the group which includes step-son Max Lowe and family friend Rachel Pohl. Max is a photographer and Rachel is an artist. Both are experienced climbers. As you might expect, the group climbs just about everything from seemingly bare rock faces to vertical sheets of ice. They also go biking, hiking, skiing, and probably do some other things I’ve forgotten. This is, I assume, the “adventure” of the title and it is all captured beautifully by an IMAX camera that is often high above the adventurers.

I could ramble on and on but I’m even less qualified to review movies (This is my first attempt.) than to review books and CDs. Using the universally accepted “a picture is worth a thousand words” exchange rate and assuming 24 frames per second, the movie’s trailer provides the equivalent of 171,360,000 words.

npa_02Cincinnati Museum Center is a founding member of the seven theater Giant Dome Theater Consortium which was a major supporter of the film’s production. Not only did that allow them to be one of the theaters hosting advance screenings, it undoubtedly played a role in having one of the film’s stars, Rachel Pohl, in town during the opening week. Following Thursday’s screening, she was introduced by the museum’s Vice President of Featured Experiences and Customer Services,  Dave Duszynski, and happily — nay, joyfully — answered a number of questions from the audience.

npa_05npa_04npa_03On Friday morning Rachel rappelled down the front of Union Terminal, a.k.a. Cincinnati Museum Center, to draw local attention to the film. It’s pretty obvious that the happy adventurer seen in the film is not an act. Her artistic side gets all the attention at RachelPohlArt.com. On Saturday, Rachel put her recently obtained fine arts degree to use working with even younger artists at the Children’s Museum inside the Cincinnati Museum Center. Sorry I missed it.

omnifilmThe Lindner Family Theater will be temporarily closing this summer as part of a $212 million Museum Center renovation. Older films will be shown as part of the classics series but this is the last new film to be presented before the closing. It is anticipated that when the theater reopens after a couple of years, it will be with a new state of the art digital system. That means that National Parks Adventure is probably the last new film to be shown here ever.

Book Review
History of the Dixie Highway in Allen County, Ohio
Michael G. Buettner

hdhac_cvrI could have called this a pamphlet review. That’s technically what it is. Or, since one definition of pamphlet is “a small book”, I could have called this a small book review. I decided to leave the title be but, in line with the publication’s size, I’ll try to be brief and do a small small book review.

Michael Buettner is a past president of the Ohio Lincoln Highway League. He has written several articles on the Lincoln Highway and other historic roads. This pamphlet, which he wrote for the Allen County Historical Society, draws from his 2006 article In Search of…The Dixie Highway in Ohio but only slightly. In contains details, plus maps and photos, that do not appear in the earlier article. An increased level of detail comes rather natural when the focus is on a county rather than a state.

The first several pages provide some early Dixie Highway history as it relates to the full ten state system, to the state of Ohio, and to the route in Allen County. Instructions for two driving tours follow. Both originate in the county seat of Lima. The first goes north to the county line and the other goes south. Descriptions and photos of points of interest accompany the turn-by-turn instructions.

When the U.S. Numbered Highways came into being in 1926, Allen County’s share of the Dixie Highway was essentially absorbed by US 25. I-75 subsequently absorbed much of US 25 and replaced all of it. A series of maps helps describe this sequence.

History of the Dixie Highway in Allen County, Ohio, Michael G Buettner, Allen County Historical Society, November 2015, 8.5×5.5 inches, 40 pages, available for $6 at the Allen County Museum

Book Review
Fading Ads of Cincinnati
Ronny Salerno

faoc_cvrBuying local is a good thing and so is reading local. I was able to combine the two recently. November 30 was the official release date for a new book about Cincinnati and in the early evening its author made the book and his signature available at a downtown location that appears between its covers. The book was Fading Ads of Cincinnati, the author Ronny Salerno, and the location Igby’s Bar inside a building with a fading “TWINE PAPER” painted on its side. Those two dim words are typical of the fading ads that are the book’s subject.  How could I not?

Although this was my first time meeting Salerno, I knew the name. I first spotted it on some photographs in a small exhibit near downtown Cincinnati a few years back. I wasn’t clever enough to find his wonderful Queen City Discovery blog from that prompt but I did find it eventually and I’ve followed it for some time now. Salerno loves taking photographs and he’s really good at it. He especially loves taking pictures of old abandoned buildings with a story. A third love is also apparent in that blog: the city of Cincinnati. He brings all three loves to Fading Ads of Cincinnati.

The book is the latest in the Fading Ads of… series published by History Press. About the only reference to a publisher I’ve made in past reviews is an identification at the end. Saying a bit more seems appropriate here. Until last year, the USA’s History Press Inc. was part of the UK’s History Press Ltd. It was acquired by Arcadia Publishing in the middle of 2014. All of those entities deal with local and regional topics and often use something of a formula approach. Although it is not all they do, Arcadia is probably best known for their sepia-toned Images of America books. As hinted at by the title, these books are filled with images most of which are historical. The images are selected and described by local experts who typically also provide several pages of introductory text at the book’s beginning. More often than not, these experts are not just knowledgeable but have a personal attachment and attraction to the subject. Saying that most love what they write about would not be wrong. History Press publications tend to be wordier and, although historical images are sometimes used, include plenty of modern color photos. But, just like those Arcadia books, History Press books rely on local experts for their creation and, just like those Arcadia book writers, these experts are often in love with their subjects, too. Kind of sounds like Ronny Salerno, doesn’t it?

Salerno is a good match for the Fading Ads… series. Before reading the book it had actually occurred to me that he might have had every subject identified and many photographed long before he even took on the job. That wasn’t quite the case, however. He was naturally familiar with many of the area’s old signs but not all. He conferred with other “sign hunters” and got tips from friends but he also found his own senses sharpening as he strolled through both unfamiliar and familiar neighborhoods. The result is nearly one hundred new color photos of mostly — but not entirely — old stuff. There are also several historical photos from places like the Library of Congress.

faoc_int1The photos aren’t left to stand alone. Captions describe each of them, of course, and many get multiple paragraphs of attention. Salerno has been successful in digging up many of the signs’ histories with some of the best stories coming from signs identifying local or regional companies that are no longer with us. Names like Shillito’s and Brendamour’s will be recognized by many Cincinnatians and probably some others as well. Out-of-towners might not be familiar with local landmarks like Davis Furniture (“The Friendly Store”) or the Dennison Hotel (“105 Rooms – 60 baths”) but they are exactly what I and some other locals think of when we think of “fading ads” or the more common “ghost signs”.

faoc_int2Salerno brings up the phrase “ghost signs” in the introduction and says people often thought he was writing about the supernatural when he used the term. “Fading advertisements”, he says, doesn’t have that problem. Fair enough but it’s just possible that his position also has something to do with the book’s predetermined title. “Ghost sign” slips into the book a time or two and in the final chapter Salerno more or less acknowledges the validity of both. As for me, I’m comfortable and most familiar with the term “ghost signs” (and “ghost bridges” and “ghost towns”) so I’ll just continue to think of Fading Ads of Cincinnati as a book about ghost signs.

Geography has a lot to do with the book’s organization and the bulk of the photos are in three chapters titled “Downtown”, “Northern Kentucky”, and “The Neighborhoods”. Like any city of any size, Cincinnati has official and unofficial neighborhoods with their own identities. It’s southern boundary is defined by a river that also defines the border of Ohio. In some ways, the Kentucky communities on the south side of the river are quite different from those on the north but the ease with which a cluster of bridges usually allows interstate traffic makes them often seem like Cincinnati suburbs. The prominent “John R. Green Co” sign in Covington, Kentucky, fits in this book as comfortably as the “Little Kings” sign in Cincinnati’s West End.

I mentioned that not everything pictured in the book is old. One chapter in particular shows almost exclusively new unfaded and non-ghostly signs. The photos were taken at the Cincinnati Reds’ home field and include a shot of a huge sign announcing the 2015 All-Star Game which Cincinnati hosted. The “fading ads” connection is solid and arrow straight. Those stadium signs and many more around the area are the work of Holthaus Lackner Signs, a company headed by Kevin Holthaus. Kevin is the grandson of Gus Holthaus who started the company and whose signature appears on many signs in the area including several in Fading Ads of Cincinnati. The only old sign appearing in the “Signature Legacy” chapter is a remnant of a sign possibly painted by Kevin’s great-grandfather, Arnold Holthaus.

A link at the end of this article leads to the book on Amazon. An entry on Salerno’s blog identifies other online outlets and several area stores where it is also available. Another option is to catch the author at a local bar with a faded sign but you’ll have to be both patient and vigilant.

Fading Ads of Cincinnati, Ronny Salerno, The History Press, November 30 2015, 9 x 6 inches, 160 pages, ISBN 978-1467118729

Book Review
Marking the Miles Along the National Road Through Ohio
Cyndie L. Gerken

mtmatnrto_cvrThat’s a pretty long book title. There’s a subtitle, too, which makes the whole thing Marking the Miles Along the National Road Through Ohio: A Survey of Old Stone Mile Markers on Ohio’s National Road. It’s long because it, just like the book it identifies, is accurate and precise. The book accurately and precisely locates the 175 mile markers originally set, as accurately and precisely as early nineteenth century technology and local politicians would allow, beside the Ohio portion of the very first federal highway. With all that accuracy and precision you might think this volume would be completely dry and boring but that’s not the case. Stories about the road, the countryside, and even the markers themselves lighten and soften things considerably. Color photos and maps make the book attractive.

Marking the Miles… opens with the full complement of preface, foreword, and introduction. The preface is written by Dean Ringle who, in addition to contributing much to this book, is a past president of the Ohio National Road Association (ONRA) and the current — and very active — chairman of its Mile Marker Committee. The foreword speaks of the book’s purpose and organization. The introduction is where, as wagon masters may have once said, the hoof meets the road.

The introduction is fifty pages long. It talks about mile markers in general, National Road markers in other states, and the Ohio markers as a group. It talks about differences in engraving styles and it points out some errors made when erasing a mistake might mean chiseling it out of the solid rock to create a clean surface. It provides a “where are they now” summary and discusses recent replacement programs. It tells of the incorporation of actual mile markers in a near future National Road exhibit at a Dayton Museum. And it covers much more in providing a solid background for looking at individual markers.

mtmatnrto_int1Seven of the ten Ohio counties through which the National Road passed are covered in individual chapters following the introduction. No markers were ever placed in the three westernmost counties on the route as federal funding ended near Springfield in Clark County. Each of these chapters begins with an overview of the county that includes a summary of how many original markers there were, how many remain at their original location, how many exist elsewhere, and how many are lost. Each marker is then addressed individually. With few exceptions there is at least one picture. If a given marker survives, a current photo is included and one or more historical photos are usually presented regardless of whether or not the marker is still around. Understandably, markings on many of the older stones are not exactly legible. Not to worry. Appendix B contains crisp drawings of the inscription of every marker. Markers can often be seen, accidentally perhaps, in old postcards and other photos and many of these appear in the book. Each marker’s history is given and stories about the marker or the area around it frequently add a little fun and background. Placed among the individual marker descriptions are sections of US Geological Survey 7.5 minute topographical maps showing the location of the markers three at a time. Other National Road related landmarks are often shown on the maps as well.

When the federal funding and mile marker placement stopped at Springfield, locally financed turnpikes filled the gap to the Indiana border. Known as the Dayton Cutoff, these turnpikes dipped south through Dayton and Eaton while the unimproved straight-line National Road languished. Mile markers on the eastern portion of the Cutoff mimicked those on the National Road to give the impression that the federal route went right through Dayton. Gerken includes a chapter on this and even provides location and other information about the markers.

Hard facts are without question the backbone of this book and numbers representing miles, dates, percentages and the like are plentiful. There are even several tables filled with numbers and bare facts which might justifiably be called dry. Some might also call them boring but not I. And not anyone else with a serious interest in the history of the National Road. At its most basic level, Marking the Miles… is a cataloging of every marker’s inscription, location, and fate. This is invaluable information not available anywhere else. Its usefulness to researchers is obvious but it is also of use to someone wondering about that old stone they drive by each day or the one they used to see near Granddad’s farm but which disappeared sometime in the past. Incidentally, some of those vanished markers are reappearing thanks to a grant program administered by that ONRA Mile Marker Committee I mentioned earlier.

mtmatnrto_int2Bringing all of this information together is clearly a major accomplishment but Gerken, a past ONRA president herself, says the information is only a portion of what she has collected on the National Road in Ohio. A well deserved breather follows wrapping up Marking the Miles Along the National Road Through Ohio. Nothing is currently scheduled or promised but the future could see a Gerken penned treatise on bridges or taverns or toll houses or something else. I certainly hope so. I like accuracy and precision and I also like anecdotes and insight. Marking the Miles… provides a pretty good mix.

Marking the Miles Along the National Road Through Ohio: A Survey of Old Stone Mile Markers on Ohio’s National Road, Cyndie L. Gerken, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, November 4, 2015, 11 x 8.5 inches, 338 pages, ISBN 978-1517317034