Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

IsaacsStorm

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

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

    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.