Archive for ‘American History’

April 22nd, 2011

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

by Gwen


I don’t get all gushy and stalkerish over authors, but if I did, Erik Larson would be first on my list. He nails the idea of narrative non-fiction so well, I find myself so caught up with the story, that I forget that I already know how it ends. He builds that much suspense and his profiles of the people he writes about are so deep that I feel like I know them.

Take Isaac’s Storm, it’s all about the hurricane that slammed into Galveston on September 8, 1900. A simple search let’s us know that it is the deadliest natural disaster to strike the U.S., with an estimated 8,000 souls lost. Larson takes the story to a whole new level by focusing on Isaac Cline, the head of the weather service office in Galveston and many of his neighbors. By doing this, Larson puts a face on the victims. He makes them people you might know, might have had over to dinner, could have served as godparents for their kids. You get to like them or loathe them, but no matter what, you feel their fear, pain, loss…everything.

Two things struck me as I was reading this.

First, the hubris of America in 1900 is dangerously similar to the way we think now. The “experts” on weather then thought that Galveston would never ever be hit by a hurricane. If it did, the water levels would never go up too far, besides, most homes were built on stilts, they had it covered.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to March’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan. On March 10, 2011, the “experts” in Japan thought that their seawalls were high enough and that their nuclear power plants could take whatever nature threw at them. Just like the citizens of Galveston found in September of 1900, the Japanese learned something on March 11th. They were wrong. We were wrong. We still don’t know what we don’t know.

The other thing that struck me was that Larson is a master at letting the story build….and build….and build and he writes in such an approachable tone that I can’t put him down. At one point, I was clenching the book so tightly that my knuckles were white. Silly, when you think about it, but that makes it memorable. It also makes me question my sanity at times because I find myself thinking that with the way he writes, it is like Larson traveled back in time to get the real story. It’s like he was there..freaky.

Word of warning, the beginning of Isaac’s Storm lagged a bit for me. It outlines the history of the weather service bureau and past hurricanes and while it is important to the story, it just didn’t grab me. So stick with it and you shall be rewarded.

I’ll leave you with a passage that broke my heart..

“For other fathers in homes nor far from his the afternoon was playing out in rather different fashion. Suddenly the prospect of watching their children die became very real.

Whom do you save? Did you seek to save one child, or try to save all, at the risk of ultimately of saving none? Did you save a daughter or a son? The youngest or your firstborn? Did you save that sun-kissed child who gave you delight every morning, or the benighted adolescent who made your day a torment-save him, because of piece of you screamed to save the sweet one?

And if you saved none, what then?

How did you go on?”

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1st edition (August 24, 1999)
  • ISBN-10: 9780609602331
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609602331
  • April 20th, 2011

    A Professor, A President, and A Meteor by Cathryn J. Prince

    by Gwen

    With a title like that, I expected a clash of titans. However, the subtitle, The Birth of American Science, is a lot closer to the meat of the book.

    A meteor hit Weston, Connecticut in 1807 and a fledgling American scientific community ran to explain meteors, once and for all. Professor Benjamin Silliman led the charge and did what no man of science in America had yet been able to do. He put America on the map scientifically speaking.

    The history of scientific respectability in the book is interesting and there are insights of Jefferson that I have never come across before. However, there was no clash of titans and more information about meteors than I ever wanted to learn. Now if you like meteors or at least curious about them, this would be a great read.

    It was more of a gradual story of the the growing independence of the United States, how meteors were looked at through the years, the rise of the scientific community’s view of American science, a new view of Jefferson, a fairly brief history of the politics at the time, and a biography of Professor Silliman. That is a lot of information to pack into 254 pages. Somehow it works for Prince; it just didn’t work for me as a reader.

    Maybe this dislike is my fault, I shouldn’t have led myself to expect a shootout of O.K. Corral proportions. Jefferson never came out publically to question Professor Silliman’s findings. There was no struggle between the two really. Jefferson simply sent another man that he personally trusted to check it out. He did what most of us would do when confronted with a whole new scientific theory; he sought the opinion of people that he knew.

    I also should add that while I am a fan of science in my reads, I am not really a fan of anything space related like meteors. I have always felt that there is enough stuff going on down here, on the ground, to study, explain, and in the case of medical science, cure or at least ease suffering.

    This book would have been a lot better for me if I hadn’t had such expectations from the title. The highlight for me was the glimpse of Jefferson as more human, less mythic man of science and American history. If you love meteors, I would highly recommend it. If not, you might want to take a pass.

    A Professor, A President, and A Meteor by Cathryn J. Prince

  • Hardcover: 254 pages
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books (December 7, 2010)
  • ISBN-10: 9781616142247
  • ISBN-13: 978-1616142247
  • I did find a couple of other reviews and commentaries of the book in case you are interested.

    April 13th, 2011

    Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin

    by Gwen

    Flesh & Blood

    Flesh & Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy

    March 25th marked the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in which 146 lives were lost. Marrin has managed to make the story and importance come alive to younger readers in a way that no other writer about the fire has ever been able to do, whether geared toward young or adult readers.

    Leaving the more gory details to others, the book focuses on the important facts. What immigrants came here, why they came here, why they worked the jobs that put them in such danger, what was it like to be an immigrant in the early 1900’s, and most importantly, what changes the fire brought about that effect us to this day.

    The writing is approachable and easy to understand without being condescending to young minds. 34 new pieces of legislation were passed to protect workers in reaction to the fire spurred on, not only by the deaths, but by the women, who didn’t even have the right to vote at the time, that decided that it shouldn’t happen again. One women in particular, Frances Perkins, went on to become the Secretary of Labor under FDR. The first woman to serve on the cabinet.

    The Triangle Fire was important and Flesh & Blood So Cheap is a vital resource in teaching just where we were then and how far we have come since. So many issues come up when talking about those 146 lives lost; immigration, women’s suffrage, worker’s rights & unions, safety and more.

    I can’t stress enough how impressed I was with Marrin’s skill at not talking down or making light of things to coddle the younger set. The flow of the narrative and the glossy pictures made the story jump off of the page. The other book I have read about the fire, Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle, was good but nowhere near as easy to chew & digest.

    Can’t wait to get this in the hands of a certain 12 year-old that I know.

    Flesh & Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin.

  • Reading level: Young Adult
  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (February 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375868895
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375868894
  • March 11th, 2011

    Gated Grief by Leila Levinson

    by Gwen

    Gated Grief

    The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma

    I wish that Levinson could have written this sooner, but I am grateful that I read it now.

    After the death of her father, Dr. Reuben Levinson, Leila and her brother found some horrific pictures in their fathers medical office. They were shots from the concentration camp that her father, as Captain Levinson at the time, liberated in the aftermath of WWII.

    The pictures haunted her and led her on a quest to try to understand what it meant to be a liberator. Pictures don’t do justice to what her father and other GIs faced. She needed to understand how those pictures changed the men that left hopeful and ready to fight for the freedom of all people. What she found brought her closer to her father, closer to understanding the man that told her never to cry and to just move forward, closer to answers to the questions she always wanted to ask; needed to ask, but never did.

    Levinson interviewed many liberators, attended reunions, looked back at past written histories, and finally visited the camp where her father attended victims before having a nervous breakdown in 1945. She wasn’t just searching for how being a liberator changed her father and how it effected other liberators, but what effect that change had on her childhood.

    It has been estimated that a minimum of 300,000 GIs witnessed the camps in one way or another. For the most part, none of these (mostly) men were warned or prepared for what they were going to see, they were just told to go there. What they saw, what they smelled, what they felt, is still something that many can’t talk about. Levinson noticed that many of the people she interviewed switched into third person when they were describing it. They were still trying to distance themselves from it decades later.

    A phrase that Levinson used stuck with me while I was reading and still runs through my mind at odd moments.

    “The liberators became prisoners of the camps they liberated.”

    On coming home, the liberators didn’t talk about what they saw, they seldom shared with their families. A part of them had fractured off, never to be seen again. The trauma of what they saw effected them and their children that might not have even been born yet. Most took the attitude of the time that you just have to forget and move forward. The thing is, they couldn’t forget and while they were moving forward, it was as a vastly different human being than the brightly smiling soldier that they had been when they left for the war.

    This book touched me in a personal way as well and that is why I wish that it had been written sooner. My grandfather fought in the Pacific and never talked about it. While I was always curious and wanted to ask him about his service, it was sort of an unspoken rule that I shouldn’t. When he passed away, we found pictures tucked away in an ammo box that, while not of concentration camps, were frankly, I am embarrassed to say what they depicted in detail. Why had he saved these pictures of mutilated Japanese soldiers? Why had he never talked about his experiences other than the USO dance where he met my grandmother and the time he spent on the base in New Jersey? It was as if there was this whole other person that fought in the war that we never knew.

    I wish that I had had the courage to ask him before his passing. It might have explained a lot about the person that I thought I knew, but obviously, didn’t.

    “The liberators became prisoners of the camps they liberated.”

    Gated Grief is a study of trauma. Trauma that still affects many of us as the children and grandchildren of the veterans of WWII. The book is deep, but not depressing. It left me strangely hopeful. It means that we have finally acknowledged that veterans, of all wars, are left with scars that we can’t always see and that we need to acknowledge those wounds just as we address the obvious ones.

    We have come a long way from the attitude of just putting the horrors of war behind us and moving forward. In the 40’s we weren’t prepared to deal with the psychiatric casualties of war.Then, lobotomies were the norm and around 50,000 veterans underwent the procedure. I can only hope that we are better armed now, but I am still not so sure. Levinson was able to shine a light on her upbringing, but also shined a light on an important subject for all of us.

    Gated Grief by Leila Levinson
    Hardcover: 266 pages
    Publisher: Cable Publishing; 1 edition (January 31, 2011)
    ISBN-10: 1934980544
    ISBN-13: 978-1934980545

    This book was given to my by PR by the Book, but was already on my radar because of my interest in the effects of trauma. The thoughts are my own. I have read a few books on the subject, which I am now realizing that I never reviewed here. (bad Gwen) You can read my short review of Denial: A Memoir of Terror by Jessica Stern at the Sacramento Book Review site.

    September 6th, 2010

    The Associates: Four Capitalist Who Created California by Richard Rayner

    by Gwen

    The Associates by Richard Rayner

    The Associates by Richard Rayner

    Four Capitalists Who Created California

    If you have ever wondered where “The Big Four”, Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins, got the money and fame, The Associates is a brief way to delve into it. Growing up in California, I was raised hearing about Stanford University, Huntington Museum and had a savings account at the now defunct, Crocker Bank. However, I didn’t know much about the men behind them.

    For the most part, all four just found themselves at the right place, at the right time and also had the guts to try and follow through with other people’s ideas. Huntington and Stanford were basically responsible for the west coast portion of the Transcontinental Railroad; they got the government approval and financial backing while Hopkins and Crocker kept things moving in California with the actual construction and the books.

    I mentioned that the book was brief and it really was at 198 pages. Therefore, it was a great way to learn a bit about four men that had a huge part in creating California without getting bored off of my rear like the usual chunksters that are out there. It was also a peek into how the railroad was built (with Irish, but mostly Chinese labor) which led ultimately the Chinese Exclusionary Act. That being said, none of the men came out smelling squeaky clean and it didn’t really leave me wanting to know more about them.

    Description of Huntington

    He expected to live to be a hundred, he would say. For some he was almost the devil incarnate. The railroads- the way there were run and the power they had-were by then regarded as corrupt, cruel, implacable, and fiendish, in stark contrast to the gratitude and excitement with which they’d been greeted thirty years before. Not that Huntington cared. By his own admission he didn’t much mind whether he was honest or not.”

    These men weren’t angels and while they never claimed to be, one of them did spend a good bit of his golden years trying to give something back to the country that gave him so much. We wouldn’t have Stanford University if Leland Stanford hadn’t wanted to build something as a tribute to the son that he lost. Huntington’s nephew is the man we have to thank for the beautiful Museum and Hospital near Pasadena. Would California be the great state that it is today without their backhanded deals complete with bribes, the monopolies they created, and their undying thirst to line their pockets? Probably not so I guess I should thank them.

    Good, quick read about some not so likeable but important men and a real eye opener regarding the politics of what many call the Gilded Age.

    The Associates: Four Capitalists Who Created California by Richard Rayner

    Hardcover: 224 pages

    Publisher: W. W. Norton/Atlas & Company; illustrated edition edition (January 1, 2007)

    Language: English

    ISBN-10: 0393059138

    ISBN-13: 978-0393059137