Sunday, July 27, 2014

Book Report, Part 1

The general laxity in my posting updates of my various fascinating thoughts and activities has been unforgivable, though I admire the persistaece (and perspicacity) of the Teeming Dozens who've stayed with me during this dearth of output. Most shocking of all, has been a failure to provide my deathless reviews/summaries of what I've been reading! Fret no more! i'll begin with two longish books, considered together for their similar theme, even if that theme is not apparent at first.
  • The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan, and The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 by David McCullough - Although united by unnecessarily long subtitles, these books have a great thing in common: the satisfying true story of what Americans can do, both individually and as a nation, when called upon to do it to achieve some greater good. The first book uses the words and stories of two dozen women lured or hired to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to perform tasks from nursing to janitorial work, secretarial duties to physics lab tech jobs during the so-called Manhattan Project. At Oak Ridge, a series of massive plants was built to enrich plutonium eventually used in the making of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course, none of them knew it at the time, and it could be argued that the bombings only marginally accelerated V-J Day, but hindsight is 20-20, and it's also easy to argue, besides, that the Bomb nonetheless saved hundreds of thousands of Japanese and American lives.

    This book doesn't much concern itself with that, it is mostly about the wartime lives of the women the author interviewed at some remove--their country called on them, and they responded as best they could. Their stories are dramatic, ordinary, at times comedic, and at times tragic, but make for a great read. For many years, I took my school's seventh graders to Oak Ridge every spring as part of a week-long science trip focused on "Energy". The Museum of Science and Energy had an exhibit about the lives of those who Built the Bomb, but it merely scratched the surface of the story this book plumbs so well.

    David McCullough, who later became one of America's best, and best-known, biographers, wrote the biography, so to speak, of the Panama Canal in the mid-seventies, when it had become newsworthy once again. Like the Manhattan Project, it is about a country's strategic needs and willingness to surmount almost impossible odds to meet them. The country was France. Well, for thirty years or so, until they had ultimately to admit they couldn't do the job. I'm sure we all know the famous palindrome "a man, a plan, a canal, Panama." That man was Ferdinand de Lessop, who had triumphantly engineered the Suez Canal a few years earlier. He took on the Isthmian canal project as a money-making venture for ordinary Frenchmen, who ultimately lost their investments because of poor decision-making and dogged persistence in wrong ideas by de Lessop, his son, and his board.

    What I previously knew about the Panama Canal was mostly wrong--though TR deserves some credit for it, he gets considerably more than he deserves; while American medicos eliminated malaria, they did so by continually fighting their higher-ups, conventional wisdom, and the US Congress, none of whom believed mosquitoes were responsible for its spread; while the US did indeed have a treaty involving the canal territory's return after X number of years, that treaty was with Colombia, who no longer controlled the territory by the time the US actually started to build.

    And that's just for starters. Great book. Well, two great books!
  • J. Edgar Hoover: The man and the Secrets by Kurt Gentry - As far as I can tell, this book is exhaustively researched, and yet does not reveal any of the salacious scuttlebutt I was expecting in such a thick, detailed, and thorough book, about J. Edgar's rumored transvestitism, homosexuality or fetishism. Disappointing as it is, I have to conclude that it turns out not every homophobe is a closeted gay. Still, there are revelations aplenty about this foul man and his iron grip on American law and "morality" for the nearly forty years he ran the FBI until his death in 1972. He personally destroyed the lives of many good men and women, while supporting the worst kinds of cretins and elevating them to rhe hallways of power. And he still impacts American culture in negative ways. For example, even though the American Communist Party was always a tiny, ineffectual group of aesthetes and wannabes, their disproven approach still serves as a rallying point for conservatives to this day. Though his illegal surveillance techniques were eschewed in the seventies and eighties, the dramatic news of programs like Echelon and Prism seem to bore Americans, in part because Hoover's FBI (or rather the revelations about it) has somewhat normalized them.
  • The Hornet's Sting: The Amazing Untold Story of World War II Spy Thomas Sneum by Mark Ryan - Thomas Sneum indeed was an amazing spy; sadly, he was a poor excuse for a human being. He abandoned his wife and daughter, he threatened his biographer with a loaded pistol, he left his brother to freeze to death, he was a misogynist and all-around asshole. However, he wasn't a coward. The key thing abouut him, that makes the other stuff less important, is that he performed several feats of amazing bravery or derring-do to assist materially in the Allied cause during WWII. Sneum was Danish, and got involved in the war effort after his homeland crumbled under Nazi power without even testing itself. Near his home, the Germans installed a new kind of radar; he took pictures of the installation, and unable to provide the photos to the British any other way, he and a buddy rebuilt an old Hornet Moth, filled it with extra fuel cans, and flew it across the north Atlantic, climbing out onto the wing to refuel it along the way. Wow! That was just the beginning of his remarkable tale, which is replete with British spy agency bumbling, double-agent shenanigans, assassination by crossbow, and seducing a mother and her daughter. Long derided as a double agent, Sneum was ultimately exonerated and rewarded with the King's Medal for Courage.
Part 2 of this installment of the book report will have a slightly more sci-fi leaning. Coming soon!

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