Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cannonball Read #5: Manhunt: The Twelve Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson

As I have mentioned before, I have always had a certain fascination with the events surrounding the Lincoln assassination. As a child, I read anything I could get my hands on, and forced my parents to take me to Ford's Theater and the Petersen house (aka The House Where Lincoln Died). Obviously, this meant I came to James L. Swanson's Manhunt: The Twelve Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer with more information than the average reader. Unfortunately, I think this effected how much I enjoyed the book.

The book details the events preceding and following the Lincoln assassination (as well as the attempts on the lives of the Secretary of State and Vice President) and the nationwide hunt for the killer and his accomplices.

There were some parts of the historical record that I didn't know--for example the time between John Wilkes Booth's flight from Washington and his death in the Garrett barn in Virginia had not been fully explored in previous books I'd read, nor had I previously read anything about the efforts the government had made to capture the perpetrators--but a great deal of the book covered things that were common knowledge to me. However, there was enough new information to keep me interested all the way through. Swanson has done his research into all the people and events, so there are a lot of fascinating details. (There is an extensive bibliography/footnote section in the back which is great for those who might wish to do more research on their own).

My main problem with this book was the way it was written. It's done in third person, and although there are interjections in the author's voice, they aren't consistent. It's kind of an uncomfortable compromise between the style of The Killer Angels and Ghosts of Titanic. The Killer Angels is written as a multiple-first person narrative based on (but not directly referencing) original documents, while Ghosts of Titanic is a first-person narrative which directly references original documents and research. Manhunt is written in third-person, with inconsistent instances of direct-research and first-person authorial interjections. Swanson expresses personal opinions on certain events, but in other places merely relates events. He sometimes but not usually notes in the text where his information comes from, but other parts of the narrative are admitted conjecture. For me, this brings to mind high school research projects which were returned with the notes "I know YOUR opinion, but where are your FACTS? Where did you get them? HOW DO YOU KNOW THIS?" Is this book historical fiction or a well-documented historical timeline? Or is it both?

I would say that the book is definitely full of information that someone who is already interested in the subject would enjoy. However, as far as a good read, I'm not sure I'd recommend it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cannonball Read #4: Ghosts of the Titanic by Charles Pellegrino

Ghosts of the Titanic by Charles Pellegrino is another entry into my seemingly death-and-disaster laden Cannonball Read list. I wasn't really familiar with the sinking of the Titanic (no, despite being a teenage girl when it came out, I have never seen James Cameron's Titanic). However, I do remember as a kid reading with great interest an article about the wreckage's discovery in National Geographic. (Once again: morbid, morbid child.) When I saw this book among's "recommendations" for me, I just had to have it.

This book is a combination of first-hand archaeological experience (Pellegrino has participated in numerous ventures to Titanic with a variety of groups including James Cameron--the filmmaker managed to turn his prop investigatory robot into one of the most effective wreck investigators to date) and real witness accounts (from both conversations Pellegrino held with the few remaining survivors and from source documents written at the time by those involved.). The author documents some of the situations that lead to the sinking, the sequence of events that occurred the night the ship went down, some of the aftermath, and also some of of the discoveries that have been made since scientists first began unearthing the debris of the ship.

One of the most interesting things to me are the number of details involved. There are complex diagrams showing the ship's layout and what transpired in relation to the ship itself. Contrary to popular belief, the Titanic did not t-bone itself on an ice berg, dragging a giant gouge in the side. More likely, there were probably a number of small holes--probably totalling not more that 12 meters of open area (roughly the combined size of 2 sidewalk squares)--letting in water. Also, the sinking of the ship was not inevitable--instead a series of unfortunate circumstances and mistakes lead to the disastrous conclusion.

Another thing the book touches on are discoveries that have been made in the modern area with the assistance of the Titanic. Much has been learned about the kind of bacteria and organisms that thrive at the depths of the ocean, including an new organism (dubbed "rustcicles" by the explorers) which may one day lead to advances in medical science and antibiotics. There is much left under the water which scientists and archaeologists have not even begun to investigate. According to the book (which may not be current) much exploring has been delayed or prohibited due to the number of people whose remains were likely trapped in the wreckage. However, it's likely that sometime beyond 2012 (the hundred year mark) more explorations will be undertaken, and it's mind-boggling what might be discovered.

The most fascinating thing (as I find with most history of disaster) is the human factor: how did the people who were there react? When disaster struck, did people rise to the challenge or sink to the lowest depths of their natures? It seems with the Titanic (as in nearly every other situation) there were an equal number on either side, as well as many in the middle who perished without documentation one way or another. It is enough to prove a point for the most pessimistic pessimist or the most optimistic optimist. For every gentleman who sacrificed his space in a life boat in order to leave room for women and children, there is a story of how steerage passengers were locked in below decks in order to "avoid confusion" while the first and second class passengers were led to the life boats (the first class dogs were actually set free of their kennels for a chance at escape before the third class passengers). On the other hand, for every story of cowardice--such as the owner of the White Star Line making sure he got himself in a lifeboat even if it meant leaving women and children behind--there is a story of bravery--the engineers who stayed below decks, sacrificing their lives in order to keep the lights on just a little longer to help with the evacuation. It's all so crazy--the best and worst of humanity shows up in situations like this, and THAT I think is why I love disaster books.

This is a great book, although some of the descriptions of the physical destruction can be a little tough to follow if you're not versed in physics and such. However, the diagrams are a great help, and there is enough going on that you can skim those highly scientific bits a little and not miss too much. I recommend it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cannonball Read #3: A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

I really really wanted to like Christopher Moore's A Dirty Job. Nearly everyone I know has told me I just MUST read Moore...he's so quirky and funny and hilarious and quirky and I will LOVE HIM!

I'm not sure what my friends think of me to try and get me to read this book.

I'm not saying the story of Charlie Asher--a neurotic recent widower and single dad who discovers he is a part of the machinery of death--is bad, or that I didn't enjoy it. I just felt like the author was...trying too hard. I guess I can relate, because--and perhaps this is why my friends thought of me when they read this--when I was writing, I had the very same problem Moore seems to have: a raft of "quirky" side characters who totally overwhelm the relatively dull main character. I liked the side characters, particularly Goth assistant clerk Lily and fellow "Death Merchant" Minty Fresh. Their descriptions were clear and vibrant. I wanted to know more about them and watch them go about their lives. However, I found Charlie himself kind of whiny and annoying. I was rather disappointed when we had to leave some of the other viewpoints and go back to Charlie and his fussing. Plus Moore's constant return to the them of the neurotic, overprotective, ultra-worried "Beta Male" also seemed kind of like a cop-out to explain why Charlie was such a freak.

The plot in itself is not bad. There were many things I like and parts that I found funny. Moore is clearly a writer who knows how to cleverly turn a phrase. However, on the whole I found the book more or less forgettable. In fact, although I just finished it yesterday, it has left no particular dent on my memory--I know I read it, I remember what it was about, but I am left with nothing except the basic knowledge of what happened and a vague feeling of irritation.

I will probably give Moore another shot if only because I am tired of being asked if I have read that one about Biff, Christ's childhood pal yet. As far as recommendations go, I guess it's not bad as something to read on a bus trip or while stranded in an airport, but otherwise, there are probably a lot of better books out there.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Cannonball Read #2: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

As I may have mentioned before, I spent much of my childhood as a history buff. My parents--being the sort of people who prided themselves on limiting my television consumption and seeing that I learned to read before I turned four--were happy to oblige my desire to see everything historical within reasonable driving distance. Since I grew up north-central Pennsylvania, Gettysburg was an obvious destination. It was my first battlefield, and I ran around reading every single monument, trying to take in as much as possible. My interest piqued, I went on to spend three weeks one summer at nerd camp studying the Civil War. Our class took a trip to Gettysburg, where we marched along the route of Pickett's charge, climbed through Devil's Den, and attempted to charge up Little Round Top. The feeling of interacting with such an intensely historic place was dizzying.

Which brings me to The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, a book detailing the events of the Battle of Gettysburg. I expected to enjoy the book for its subject matter alone--I did NOT expect to be totally blown away by the story, the writing, and the detail. I have to say that it may have unexpectedly been vaulted into my "Top 5 Books of All-Time" list, it is so good.

1. The story is told from the perspectives of several of the major players on both sides of the conflict, including Robert E. Lee and Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. There does seem to be more chapters from the Confederate side than the Union side, but that may be only Shaara found more primary sources (letters, diaries, etc.) from the Confederate side. (Shaara based nearly all dialogue and events on those documented by witnesses or the players themselves at the time.) It seems to be a pretty fair depiction of both sides--neither is shown as "right" or "wrong" but simply as opposing. In fact, men on both sides are shown as being conflicted about their motivation--why are they there and what are they hoping to accomplish?

2. The book has a number of page-sized maps to show landscape and troop movements, which was extremely helpful to me. Being able to see exactly where each group was in relation to the others and to the geographic markers made it much easier to see the battle in my head.

3. The characters have very distinct voices and are all separate and interesting. In a book like this, there is the danger of having characters all blend into one another--after all, many of them are career military men, all of a similar age and from similar backgrounds. However, Shaara does a great job of giving each man his own voice, his own internal voice and conflicts. He describes each one in depth, so you can really get a mental picture of what the character looks like, how he interacts with the others. And I found myself feeling deeply for each and every character, whether I agreed with him or not.

4. The descriptions of the battles are amazing. He details the sights, the sounds, the smells, the physical feelings of being in battle. Some of the scenes, particularly the fight for Little Round Top and Pickett's charge left me breathless. Even though I knew the outcome, I couldn't help getting totally drawn in and rooting for everyone to win. Actually, the details of everything were pretty great. The book was a pleasure to read--I never once found myself bogged down in a long description or confused about what was going on.

5. I appreciated the in-depth explanations of what occurred at Gettysburg. I had not realized what a tactical disaster the battle had been for the Confederacy. Nor did I understand why the actions that were taken had occurred until I read this. The book illustrates simply and clearly WHAT HAPPENED AND WHY.

I guess my fascination with Gettysburg is that feeling of HISTORY, of being in a place where something devastating and ferocious and important occurred. When I went to Europe, you pretty much couldn't spit without hitting something 500 years old and stuffed with history. In the USA, we don't have all that. We have the Revolution and the Civil War and that's pretty much it on our own soil. Even now, in my current home of Boston (which has quite a bit of its own historical significance) I don't get that same guttural connection to the past. With Gettysburg, I looked out across that field knowing that 15,000 men, stretched out into lines nearly a mile wide, had marched--many without shoes--into the face of nearly certain death. Or on Little Round Top, thinking of Chamberlain and his men out at the far flank, running out of ammo, with wave after wave of Confederates climbing up to try and break the line. It's a connection that strikes me deep-down somewhere--someone did something important here...and now here I am and I am part of it. It is an awesome feeling (in the original sense of the word awesome.)

This book made me remember those feelings, besides being a good read.

I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in US history, but it's also great on its own as a book about a battle.

P.S. This is the book that the film Gettysburg was based on. I also highly recommend that film--the performances are dazzling, the fight scenes incredible, and it was all shot on location.