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Archive for the ‘history’ Tag

Checking Out a Library Book   Leave a comment

The Library Book

The Library Book might be better titled The Los Angeles Central Library Book. Author Susan Orlean provides an exhaustive history of the downtown LA library. The 1986 fire that destroyed four-hundred- thousand books and other materials including periodical, numerous collections and caused extensive damage to the building is the starting point for her overview.

The fire, how it started and efforts to rebuild are the most engaging aspects. While the Central Library isn’t exactly a phoenix rising from the ashes, it’s close. Arson is suspected and one suspect, since deceased, is profiled in great detail. Harry Peak is a charismatic wanna-be actor. He was also a chronic liar. He lied to friends, family, arson investigators and attorneys.

Orlean incorporates a fun, clever approach to each chapter citing four references that provide context for what will follow. For example, it’s clear from the sources cited that Chapter 11 will be about fund raising.

Where the narrative bogs down is in the history of the library’s various directors. Granted, some were more colorful, more resourceful, less interesting, less impactful than others. These chapters were on the dry side.

The most fascinating aspects, in addition to the learning about the fire itself, were learning about the librarians, their specific job descriptions and their commitments to the library and its patrons.

It’s clear Orlean has a deep respect for the roles libraries serve, but there was too much in her book that is the stuff of trivia competitions, something that doesn’t appeal to me.

The Library Book
3 Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2018
319 pages (including notes)

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Wild Ride   1 comment

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I wasn’t aware of the 1983 Glen Canyon Dam crisis, nor of an effort to achieve the fastest ride through the Grand Canyon until reading The Emerald Mile. Keven Fedarko presents an engrossing, at times lyrical (and occasionally overwhelming) account of the events that led to three men hurtling down the Colorado River in a wooden boat.

Fedarko introduces a cast of characters from John Wesley Powell to park rangers, from boat builders to hydrologists, from river rats to tourists – among others. Historic, meteorological, hydrologic and recreational elements – again, to name a few – are all addressed. Fedarko’s writing is based on thorough research that serves the purpose of illustrating the myriad of components that made the river run possible while addressing aspects that threatened its fulfillment.

The author is a master of the backstory. His writing is much like the river he describes: full of excitement and the unknown, then calm. And, he apparently leaves no stone unturned. Although this is a work of fiction, it has the feel of a mystery: how is Kenton Gura, the man who captained the small, hand-built dory named the Emerald Mile, going to pull off the adventure of a lifetime? This same sense of intrigue is evident in the passages concerning the efforts to thwart a dam failure while dealing with the effects of a massive snow melt: the effect of El Nino.

This work makes me not only want to revisit the Grand Canyon, but also to tour the dams at either end.

The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in history Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon
Four Bookmarks
Scribner, 2013
415 pages (includes notes and index)

Bad Time for a Cruise   Leave a comment

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It takes Erik Larson about 100 pages to finally let the Lusitania set sail from New York City in May 1915. Dead Wake, his account of the doomed luxury liner, is exhaustive in detail and detached in its descriptions of the events leading to its historic sinking. No need for a spoiler alert here; many consider the German sinking of the Lusitania is what ultimately led the United States to join the British and French allies in World War I.

Larson’s research on the subject is thorough (there are more than 50 pages of notes). He addresses everything from the backgrounds of the ships’ captains involved, to the weather leading up to the point the ship left sight of land, to how the dining room was decorated for first class passengers. There’s more: brief bios about passengers, history of submarines, how Cunard came to name its fleet, and even Wilson’s love life as he strove to maintain neutrality for the U.S. even as events continued to escalate in Europe.

While it is heartbreaking to know that a record number of families with children were on board, the concise elements Larson provides about the passengers makes it difficult to have a true sense of their characters. This does not mean the event was less tragic, just that the book offers little except a historic narrative.

As with any tragedy, fingers pointing blame are plentiful; Larson offers numerous what ifs, which, of course, do nothing to change the course of history.

Dead Wake
Not-quite-three Bookmarks
Crown Publishers, 2015
430 pages (including notes and index)

Atomic Reading   Leave a comment

atomicgirls
Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II made me wonder if it would appeal to anyone unfamiliar with Oak Ridge, Tenn. I lived in Oak Ridge for five years after college. It was a beautiful, fascinating place thanks to its population of highly educated people from all over the world and its impressive, albeit once-clandestine, past. Kiernan writes about how, and why, the town came into existence by focusing on the role of the thousands of women (and men) who did their part to help end WWII. Most had no idea what they were doing or why.

In 1943, people from major metropolitan areas and rural communities were recruited to relocate to a town which didn’t even exist on a map. Kiernan conducted interviews with many of the women, now in their 80s and 90s, to recreate the conditions they endured knowing only that their work contributed to the war effort. Friendships formed, romances ensued and construction progressed at a rapid rate. All the while no one could talk about their jobs. Yet, this was an integral part of American history.

Uranium, referred to as Tubealloy, was, in fact, being enriched for its ultimate use in the atomic bomb. Oak Ridgers learned about the secret the same time as the rest of the world when Hiroshima was bombed.

The advantage to knowing Oak Ridge is that it’s easy to envision Kiernan’s descriptions, but the book’s fascination is far-reaching.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2013
371 pages with notes and index

Women of Conviction   Leave a comment

Depending on perspective, the good or bad thing about historical fiction is knowing
how something will end – at least generally. Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers
may have Masada in ancient Israel as its setting, but her novel about four strong,
captivating women is all new. It’s no spoiler to acknowledge that, yes, nearly every-
one dies; nonetheless, Hoffman’s characters are so vibrant and remarkable that
they make their home in our minds and hearts.

Hoffman typically combines the supernatural with the ordinary, but this is the first
time she blends these with history and religion. In her hands, the concepts are not
as incongruous as might be expected. Along with what could be perceived as a little
magic, other attributes shared by the women include survival, desire, love and relig-
ious conviction; these qualities move the fast-paced story toward its inevitable con-
clusion.

Hoffman clearly did her research. Rich with descriptive language of the harsh land,
the brutality of men, and Judaic traditions, Hoffman details the lives of the women
before and after their arrival in Masada. The four, Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah,
fill the pages with joy and heartache. They are of various ages, backgrounds, and
experiences; all are intelligent, sensual, even daring characters. Although each wo-
man shares her narrative, the voices are not that distinctly different.

In some ways reminiscent of The Red Tent for its portrayal of women in a Biblical
context, The Dovekeepers is a gripping representation not just about the existence
of faith but of its necessity.

The Dovekeepers
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Scribner, 2011
501 pages