Wednesday, July 27, 2016


I really enjoyed Erik Larson's Devil in the White City.   Larson's dual-track narrative tied together the planning and building of the 1893 Chicago Exposition and the murders H. H. Holmes committed there without feeling forced.  Larson used the same technique in Thunderstruck, with less success.  Thunderstruck ties Guglielmo Marconi's invention of the wireless telegraph with Hawley Crippen's murder of his wife.  The tie is obvious - Crippen, escaping Europe on the SS Montrose with his mistress (who was disguised as a teenage boy) was the first criminal "caught" by the new technology.  Larson writes well, but he's hampered by his material.  Marconi wasn't a particularly compelling character (he was single-minded and jealous - unpleasant on a small, annoying scale), and his work is dryer than the building of the White City.  Crippen is more sympathetic than Holmes, but his murder is more routine (if murder can ever be routine, killing a spouse to end a bad marriage is as close as one can come) and doesn't leave the reader with the creepy feeling that good mystery novels and true crime books evoke.  It may sound like I didn't enjoy Thunderstruck, but I did.  I just pales in comparison with Larson's prior work.

The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America

Sr. Virginia never mentioned cannibalism.  She was a straightforward facts-and-names sort of history teacher, either uninterested in the backstory and motivations of historical figures or someone who though 11th graders didn't need to know such matters.  As I remember it, she taught us that Jamestown survived through hard work, faith, and tobacco, glossing over how close the colony came to failing.

I never went to Jamestown when I lived in Richmond.  Growing up in Philadelphia, I have a bit of a bias towards the Delaware Valley as the most important player in colonial history.  Sure, Jamestown was first, but it's also on a God-foresaken swamp and why would a stressed law student with no cash flow want to go there?  Come to think of it, why did a group of fortune hunters on a mission from God go there?  The land was poor, the people unprepared, and the management incompetent, so it was only through creative (or deceptive) marketing that the colony managed to get a second wave of immigrants.  Seven ships set out in May, 1609, and six found their way to Jamestown where the disease-weakened survivors became burdens to the starving and under-seige colony.  They just weren't prepared - no skills, not enough supplies, and they antagonized the Native Americans with which they attempted to trade for food.  A majority of the colonists died from disease and starvation, even after they resorted to eating the recently dead.  They needed a miracle, and it came in the form of a shipwreck.

The Sea Venture had separated from the rest of the fleet during a hurricane and ran aground on Bermuda.  While both Europeans and native Caribbeans had been to Bermuda, no one had settled there because of the shallow waters inlets and treacherous currents.  Prior visitors had left pigs, though, which now ran wild, providing (along with abundant fish and fruit) needed food to the weakened castaways.  After a few months of recuperation, the Sea Venture passengers and crew repaired their ship and built a second one, finished the voyage to Virginia, and saved the colony.  Healthy bodies (and the expedition members best suited to leadership) stabilized the colony.  It wasn't a success yet, but the stories brought back to England encouraged younger sons to consider Virginia as a place to make their name (and provided a "ripped from the headlines" plot for Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest).

Monday, July 4, 2016

Mortal Causes

The recent Brexit vote may affect the tenuous peace in Northern Ireland.  The country not only voted to stay in the EU (along with Scotland), but it's been propped up by help from the central EU government.  Will 20 years of uneasy discomfort dissolve into renewed violence if/when the economy of Northern Ireland falls without support from Brussels?

Mortal Causes takes place during the final months of escalating violence before the Good Friday Agreement.  Reading a 20-year-old mystery is a bit like stepping into a time machine.  I was an adult, and in law school, when Inspector John Rebus first sees the body, strung up and shot in an underground rehab site.  Billy Cunningham appears to be an IRA victim, but something doesn't seem right to Rebus - is it possible that Cunningham's murder was an attempt to frame the IRA or the act of a splinter group?  Complicating matters, Cunningham just happened to be Big Ger Coffey's son and prison can't stop the gangster from threatening Rebus if he doesn't solve his son's murder.  Rankin's mystery is complex, and I don't want to spoil the mystery for future readers.  Suffice to say that Rankin easily and non-obviously ties the murder, increasing sectarian violence (Rebus lives in a world where religion, even if you're not religious, chooses which soccer team you root for), and council estate gangs into a satisfying mystery.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

When she was a guest on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, Mary Roach listed her topics of interest as "Sex, dead bodies, and poop."  Gulp focuses on the latter, along with farts, drool, smuggling, aptonyms, questionable medical ethics, Elvis, fad diets, and the hazards of sleeping under the covers if you're married to a champion farter who loves brussels sprouts.

Grossness aside, Roach's book is, as usual, informative and entertaining.  I was particularly interested in the chapter on Alexis St. Martin and William Beaumont.  I first encountered the story of a trapper with a hole in his stomach and the doctor who gave 19th Century medicine its first scientific view of digestion in high school biology.  My textbook portrayed Beaumont as a noble scientist who saved St. Martin against all odds.  The reality is messier (as, undoubtedly, were some of the experiments).  Beaumont exploited St. Martin, a trapper from the lowest rung of the social ladder, possibly creating the  gastric window which made Beaumont famous and discussing the man he treated with what at best could be considered condescension.  Sure, St. Martin lived with Beaumont off-and-on for years, but with few skills and a hole in his side, what choice did he have?  

Another fascinating chapter focuses on rectal smuggling.   Roach interviewed a murderer who calmly, pleasantly, described how prisoners conceal weapons, cell phones, cigarettes, and drugs in the place safest from strip searches.  Budget cuts mean that the prison staff are using 1990s computers, but the inmates are watching Netflix on smuggled smart phones, and it's because some prisoners are wiling to (hmm, how to say this gently…) mechanically reverse peristalsis from the terminus and then hold for a few hours.

Roach also encounters an Italian saliva specialist (who's horrified by the culinary traditions of the Netherlands where her lab is located), Elvis's doctor (who suggests that the King had a neural defect which led to a megacolon and ultimately his untimely and embarrassing death), the inventors of Beano and (through documents), some of the more colorful 19th Century dietary "experts."  As usual, she treats everyone with respect while still including enough humor to make the book risky to read in the quiet car.  It's the footnotes that made me giggle the hardest - about a third of them are purely informational, but the rest veer off into wonderful and hilarious observations on and off this not-usually-for-public-consumption topic.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Toujours Provence

I remember the first time I read Toujours Provence, my introduction to Peter Mayle.  It was the summer after I'd graduated from college and was slowly emptying my apartment in Pittsburgh.  I spent a lot of time packing boxes and driving across the state, and even more looking for a job.  That still left a lot of time to spend time with my college friends, and to read.  Nearly 25 years later, Toujours Provence is as enjoyable as I remember it.  While Mayle felt the need to create a loose narrative framework for A Year in Provence, here he provides literary postcards of his life on the edge of the Luberon.  Singing toads, a truffle hunter training a pot-bellied pig, buried treasure, Mayle's then new-found fame - they're all fettered in their own essays, along with a dozen other topics.  And food.  Everything comes back to consumables, whether it's a birthday picnic, two lunches with the local gourmand, or a visit to the local wholesale market.  Sunny and breezily told (I assume like a spring day in Provence), Mayle's second travel collection surpass his first, in part because there's no thread to tie the essays together.   

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

One of my college boyfriends was from Oak Ridge, TN.  His pickup line was "I used a Cray over the summer."  That's not what worked with me (I was impressed that he could recite "Jabberwocky" more quickly than I could), but I thought about him while reading The Girls of Atomic City.  I didn't know much about Oak Ridge back then - I knew there was a nuclear reactor (with the Cray) and it was involved in building the atomic bomb, and not much else.  I had no idea that this major research center had only existed since a few months before my dad was born.

The Manhattan Project built Oak Ridge out of land cheaply acquired through eminent domain and in three years, turned it into a bustling city that was both secret and full of secrets.  The people of nearby Nashville resented the newcomers, with their full wallets and rumors of full store shelves, and confidentiality rules meant that you couldn't tell your roommate, neighbor, or romantic partner anything about your job - in fact, you didn't know anything more than was absolutely necessary to perform your particular step in the process.  It was restrictive, high-pressure, and for the young women who flocked to Oak Ridge, exhilarating.

Denise Kiernan interviewed several of these women, now past 80.  They were secretaries (Celia Szapka and Toni Peters), factory workers (Colleen Rowan, Dot Jones, and Helen Hall), a nurse (Rosemary Maiers) brought in to staff a small clinic that grew to be a small hospital, a statistician (Jane Greer) who'd been barred her alma mater from becoming an engineer despite her grades, a janitor (Kattie Strickland) facing the discrimination baked into the system and missing her children, and a chemist (Virginia Spivey) who earned less than the men she supervised.  They joined the project for adventure, for a good wage, and to end the war (a personal reason for Dot, whose older brother had died at Pearl Harbor).  Their stories alternate with more objective chapters describing the science and politics behind the Manhattan Project - shorter chapters which serve as the bones upon which Kiernan lays the flesh of daily life.  These women worked hard, and under the strain of secrecy.  They also had fun, as you'd expect when thousands of twenty-somethings gather in a boom town.  I envy Kiernan's opportunity to meet these still-vibrant women, and hear them tell stories of dances and parties, sports teams and movie nights, dates and the excitement of a round-the-clock world.  While the interwoven chapter discuss the horrors which the Oak Ridge factories unleashed, the women's memories focus on the thrill of being young, surrounded by young people, and doing important work.

The oral history chapters don't completely gloss over the dark side, though.  Rosemary treated a soldier who had a nervous breakdown under the strain of keeping the secret few others knew, and Helen was recruited to spy on her co-workers.  The clinic poisoned a man injured in a car accident to determine the long-term risk of plutonium and then obscure the records.  And Oak Ridge was segregated, with African Americans living in deplorable conditions.  They lived in shacks, with married couples separated by strict curfews, with sub-standard food.  They could only be janitors, and paid more for their rarer entertainments (and, obviously, were paid less than their white counterparts).  It's galling, even more so when you read the excuses given for allowing people working on such an important project to live in deplorable conditions.  Kiernan does an admirable job of giving the more problematic sides of 1940s Oak Ridge exposure while keeping the tone of the book positive.  It's a difficult task, and she performs it well.