Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Great Quake by Henry Fountain

Why I Read It: Amazon Vine pick, plus my natural curiosity about geology dragged me in.

Summary: The 1964 Alaska earthquake and what we learned from it.

My Thoughts: When I was a kid in the 1970s, attending college in the late '80's and early '90's, there was no doubt that plate tectonics explained the make-up of the earth's crust and the cause of earthquakes. It was in the textbooks. It was fact. Yet, it was only seven years prior to my birth that the theory started to come together, as a result of the 1964 Alaskan quake. I guess I had believed that like other theories, it had roots much deeper in the past, even if just the late 1800s. In a way, I guess it had, when we consider the role that the theory of seafloor spreading had on the development of the theory of plate tectonics.

The author focuses on several different groups of people in the books, including the residents of the towns of Chenega and Valdez, and the geologists called in to research changes in the landscape following the quake. He tells the story of the quake with a fast-paced series of short, destruction-filled sentences that attempt to describe the eternity the quake felt like during its five horrendous minutes. I don't think anything ever written will be able to do so, but the author gives it a valiant, convincing effort. He fills us in on the backstory beforehand, introducing us to the characters the quake kills off wantonly and indiscriminately. He tracks the survivors from his 1964 narrative up to the present day. And he tracks the damage and the effects of the quake all over the Pacific Rim.

The star of the story is George Plafker, a geologist who, already familiar with the region after years of field work, joined the team researching the quake's aftermath. His work - driven by the rising and falling of the land, sometimes measurable by, of all things, barnacles, led to the theory of plate tectonics, which, incidentally, is still being tweaked even today.

The story reminds us, too, of the relative unpredictability of earthquakes. But it brings a question to mind. Since we now have ground-penetrating radar, are we far from technology that will allow us to identify those places along fault lines where stresses are building? And from that point, can we develop technologies that will allow us to alleviate those stresses before they release themselves? Or is this like trying to drop atomic bombs into the center of hurricanes, a nice idea but relatively ineffective, even if they represent the ultimate efforts capable by man against nature?

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Once Upon a Town by Bob Greene

Why I read it: Impulse buy. I saw it as yet another story in the biggest story of them all, World War II.

Summary: A small town train station is turned into a place of joy for America's military men as they cross the country on troop trains in World War II.

My Thoughts: So, what happened in North Platte, Nebraska, in World War II? Meet just about any veteran you meet (sadly, they are almost all gone), and he will tell you.

As a stop on the east-west rail line across the country, the North Platte station suddenly became a place that just about every serviceman knew. He had a precious few minutes to get to know it, but the locals were ready.

They set up the train station as a canteen, and stocked it with whatever they could make: coffee, pleasant sandwiches, cake,s pies and more. The local communities took turns manning - or womanning, technically - the canteen, making sure that every train, sometimes as many as 32 per day, was met, with smiles, positive vibes and home style nourishment for young men with the most uncertain of futures.

Bob Greene went to find it, and found it was gone. But the people were there, and the spirit lived on. He let them tell their own story, in this partial oral history of the North Platte Canteen, and sought the men who went through and made it home to tell the story of the miracle they witnessed in Nebraska.

If you have read and are a fan of The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim Defede, you will love this book. It's as feel-good as it gets.

Playboys and Mayfair Men by Angus McLaren

Why I read it: It was an Amazon Vine opportunity, plus the interwar period has always interested me.

Summary: "Crime, Class, Masculinity, and Fascism in 1930s London" as studied through the lens of the Mayfair Men diamond theft case.

My Thoughts: So, the basic story is that four young men, from well-bred stock (as defined by the social structures of interwar England) stage a robbery, are caught, tried and punished. From these simple, straightforward moments spring innumerable storylines.

Who were they, and why did they do what they did? Were they typical of men of their generation, or were they just four wayward souls who sank to the lowest of the low? As the subtitle, quoted above, states, there was a lot more to it, mostly driven by the sensational coverage by the newspapers of the day. The perpetrators' pasts were paraded across the front pages, their failed relationships, their speeding tickets, their soured business dealings. From these details the concept of a "Mayfair Man" hardened: a lover of speed, a self-made adventurer, a risk-taker.

But there was more. Despite the carefully constructed "butch" facade, the typical Mayfair Man, was a little effeminate by the day's standard. The men in the robbery was described as such by the hotel staff that encountered them before and after the act. But were they trendsetters, or followers of fashion trends sent forward by men like Noel Coward and Fred Astaire?

The discussion, too, focused on politics, with each side, liberal and conservative, blaming the other for the rise of the Mayfair Man.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the story pertains to the punishment for the crime. Two of the men were sentenced to flogging. The should-we-or-shouldn't-we debate raged. Should capital punishment be allowed? Was it really a deterrent? And should the sons of England's socially superior families be subjected to it? Their masculinity would be on trial when the cat-o'-nine-tails struck, too, especially when watched by the generation who came before them, those who fought in World War I, and gave up friends, limbs and more for their country.

My thought on the topic was that I was surprised that it was even an issue. For centuries, death had been a spectator sport in Great Britain, with public executions, in many gruesome, gory variations, always attracting crowds. These punishments were not public, beyond the results published in the newspapers (which varied from paper to paper). But England was in the throes of growing its conscience, at least questioning whether or not physical punishment - from flogging to execution - should even be alternatives any more.

The author presents us with much more than just the case, as he offers us the life histories of other "Mayfair Men" who fit the mold, rich, young men who wanted more and were not averse to taking it.