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Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

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If I can refer to reading about the tragic situation of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane as “enjoyable” without seeming like an A-hole then I will. Larson – later author of the excellent book about the Columbian Exposition and the lunatic hotelier a few blocks away – can certainly reconstruct a story. In this case he utilizes memoirs and other documents of a select few survivors as well as Weather Bureau archives and the history of scientific inquiry into hurricanes to recreate the days surrounding this monstrous occurrence. His attention to detail (and educated speculation) renders the experience of inhabiting Galveston at that time – the exciting milieu of a burgeoning, cosmopolitan city abruptly transformed into a horrendous, putrefactive zone of disaster – quite powerfully. Secondary, but important themes include both the Industrial Age arrogance of man’s apparent dominance over nature, and the equally arrogant disregard by the fledgling US Weather Bureau of the forecasts of the more expert Cuban meteorologists (they were seemingly “backward islanders” who resorted to “hunches” and “psychoanalytical approaches” that, nonetheless typically proved more accurate than the “scientific” data produced by our US counterparts).My primary critique is that, by utilizing the stories of just a handful of survivors, there’s something like a sensationalist gloss added to the story. I certainly don’t wish to downplay the sheer destructive magnitude of this event and the apparent loss of 19% or so of the inhabitants, but reading the events as apparently experienced by these select few, one would assume 80% to 90% of the population must have perished. He's writing about the vantage point of someone who's a sole-survivor of eight, floating on an upturned roof, scanning their neighborhood mid-storm, no one’s around and there’s like one building left – and then it inevitably breaks into pieces! The map in the front and the brief mention of death toll by neighborhood near the conclusion (10 to 21 percent) seem to contrast wildly with the narrative. But I’m sure that’s how it happened in the most vulnerable sections of town, and a more comprehensive presentation might have dragged on. This is certainly an engaging quick read.And, at the very least, Larson feeds my constant desire for useless randomness with the fact that, because of much controversy, Arkansas had to finally pass a bill legislating the pronunciation of “Arkansaw” around 1882. Did y’all know that?
The Eye of Heaven

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Startling and engaging, Krakauer convincingly links contemporary, newsworthy Mormon antics with the various doctrines of the original, peripatetic Nineteenth Century “Prophets.” That is, this is not about what one might call today’s normal LDS Saints – essentially those that dropped the polygamy thing and some of their rifles a century-plus back – but rather the sundry splinter groups that assume the “Fundamentalist” mantle, marry whatever freshly-minted fourteen year old girls happen to live next door (or more disturbingly, within their own home) and occasionally murder others on order from God or Moroni or whomever. It’s quite fascinating and I think, despite the obvious insanity of all of this, the author presents a very objective reading. Kudos!If I fess to not being anywhere near the most average devotee of organized religion, I have had the pleasure of knowing a number of mainstream Mormonites and, with an exception or five, found them to be terrific people. Certainly they don’t contribute their fair share to our various alcohol taxes but, after a beer-soaked Saturday with numerous friends, I have no doubt that we Gentiles – all of us non-Moroni believers that are certainly doomed to a fiery river/valley/hole/cave/Bugs Bunny-like pot of stew when we’re done here – have that tax burden more than covered. If an outsider can get past the three-ring gold tablet top hat thing, then the standard LDS folk are pretty normal. South Park even sort-of let them off the hook a few years back – perhaps the most shocking of their episodes. Because Krakauer, in covering what must be the most egregiously outlandish fundamentalist jerk-offs, is so successful in linking their distorted outlook to that of Smith, Young, and the others who came up with all of this, it does seem odd that the Mormons I’ve known share the same basic belief system. Dropping the polygamy thing - the social/political compromise the mainstream Saints undertook in order to legally coexist with the Gentiles - was clearly the watershed moment. Those that don’t do math too good maintain that God’s intent is for one man, dozens of broads whereas the rest of the majority were able to conclude that putting up with more than one wife is pure bunk anyway and paying taxes and not shooting at government officials might result in decent roads. It’s a coming of age tale though one with a few retard zealots still reproducing like those Florida pythons.Of course, as the author eloquently points out, this is such a relatively new religion – the one from upstate New York’s “Burned-over district” that actually made it – and therefore its whole materialization is well documented and scrutinized from somewhat modern perspectives. Obviously Christians of more established denominations have to acknowledge some of the zany Biblical stuff that could only have been concocted by sand-blasted dudes with six sheep, a couple goats, and thousands of square miles of empty desert. One might speculate that if Martin Luther’s Hitler-esque purges in Worms or any given murderous Crusader had a lot of coeval New York Times coverage, the face of contemporary Protestantism or Catholicism might be a tad different (I’ll refrain from the priest thing but you know I’m thinking it). This is a page-turner and something of a good reverse guidebook for a few innocent-sounding towns to stay far, far away from.
Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong

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I’ll bet the United Daughters of the Confederacy didn’t love this book. I will say that I didn’t love it either – though certainly not for the same reasons. As something of a follow up to his investigation into the dismal state of public school US History textbooks, Loewen sets his sights on the questionable state of monuments, markers, and historical plaques scattered throughout the US. It’s a valiant effort, and certainly makes for a clear thesis about how misinterpretations and misinformation dominates the landscape’s “official” history. Two primary – or oft repeated – false narratives emerge. First (and influencing Loewen’s West-to-East chapter counter-structure) there is the strong, Eurocentric (or WASP-centric) thinking dominates our selective story about how whites “settled” the US starting in Massachusetts and transitioned throughout the “wild” west over the ensuing centuries. This obviously ignores the millions of Native Americans already firmly settled – most were not nomadic – everywhere and even the Spaniards who had already plundered (and thus “settled”) the whole southern strip of what is now the US. Ironically the South doesn’t emerge in the official tale until after Reconstruction, when suddenly the Confederate States of America was no longer about maintaining slavery but now a valiant effort to maintain states rights and “Southern Culture” and – if the markers/memorials portray slavery at all – it wasn’t so bad as evidenced by “The Good Darky” statues and other stories about how satisfied southern blacks obviously were under such a sensible structure.Loewen unearths other erroneous examples (a few examples from the Spanish…um…that is…The Philippines-American War) and even explores some museums and exhibits to highlight how the omission of part of a story, or some cautious wording can turn a murderous tragedy into a celebration of the murderer. I found it all very interesting but, as there were so many individual examples, it came off a bit choppy compared to his Lies My Teacher Told Me. This read more like a guide book – which, I suppose, was an intentional reader option – but it somehow felt simultaneously less diverse yet also less focused than his previous book. The two narratives dominate and other examples of incredulity show up once or get much less attention. Whatever, I’ve never even visited a number of these states – and the individual examples are well selected – so Four Stars! But if you have time for only one Loewen book, I recommend his previous effort.
The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America

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If you’re interested in such stuff, I highly recommend this thick book presenting the history of the inventions and innovations that gave us steam power and commercial electricity which, ultimately, enables Access Hollywood to invade my living room and cause my eyes to gloss over. Basically broken into two parts – the development of steam engines and the mostly subsequent history of innovation and distribution of electrical power – Klein covers all these guys who make my day-to-day societal contributions seem lame and undisciplined. A few of the gents are household names, most now obscure, all a bit off-kilter… not inventor-of-the-Flowbee off-kilter, but idiosyncratic enough (and the Flowbee’s, Supercuts-be-damned magic would be rendered useless without the AC 177 volts eventually developed by these guys).Despite the author’s superb skill at rendering the complex into dumbed-down morsels for us laypersons, my mechanical ineptitude caused my mind to frequently wander into the realm of burritos and dismay at how startlingly awful that new Courtney Cox show is. Fortunately there’s Ned. He’s the fictional, aw-shucks, World-Fair-visiting Iowa dude that Stein introduces to segue into the two main subjects as well as conclude the book (visiting the 1939 New York event where steam and electrical systems are no longer the exhibit but merely the invisible power source for highly vaunted vacuum cleaners, toasters and other such future-detritus that will be distributed freely throughout Robert Moses freeway networks). I would normally criticize such a fictional inclusion in a well-researched book as something like using carton characters to sell smokes or preach about the many perils faced by Guatemalan children, but it really works here. The Fairs (1876 Philly, !893 Chicago, and the aforementioned New York) are selected as the appropriate gauge with which to trace the trajectory of power source development within one lengthy lifetime. The author’s atmospheric description of what one would have experienced is as well crafted as the rest of the book and adds a certain element of human normality to a story about so many genius types.
Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the World

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Initially Brugmann seems to offer a thesis about how the logical outcome of combining an ever-increasing urban majority worldwide with globalized technologies, information networks, and commerce will result in a comprehensive “Citysystem.” “The City” is no longer that place with the Empire State Building, hot dog vendors, and a large Christmas tree, but the place with the Empire State Building, Gherkin, Petronas Towers, and contorted CCTV tower. It also includes Dharavi, Chicago’s Uptown, and whatever hutongs remain after CCTV. Basically the future of The City must interweave the issues and energy found in emergent slums as well as the more pedigreed power-structure represented by governments, corporations, and the elite. We should hope for a workable fusion of bottom-up and top-down strategies in pursuit of an integrated world city.As much as one is willing to believe the US currently sports a Bos-Wash, or San Franjuana or whatever, this sort of seems like a reasonable, if not creepily idealistic prophesy. As the narrative unfolds, however, Brugmann delves into specific examples and never really returns to the big idea. He discusses some examples of faltering urbanisms – Detroit as the obvious red-headed poster child - and some middling cities (those that have much going for them yet lack a comprehensive, even-keeled organizational structure) like his hometown of Toronto. Then he praises the recent success stories of Curitiba, Barcelona, and Chicago as exemplars of a consciously pluralist approach to building a powerful urban realm. It’s all very interesting yet all very specific. Whereas the strategies and organizational networks developed in these cities (as well as such hyper-shanties like Dharavhi) can inform the way other cities might successfully develop or regenerate themselves, it’s all still rooted in individual places within the last few decades. “You have to keep sucking water up from your own roots,” he quotes the ex-Mayor of Toronto just at the point where I assumed he would return to his master-narrative. He does make a few concluding global references but it seems that he’s satisfied with the earlier inclusions of such worldly things as the internet, the global spread of SARS, and international crime organizations to impel the reader to understand Delhi and Seattle as mere antipodal neighborhoods of the [same] City. Needless to say, I’m not particularly convinced.This is all predicated on the well-documented influx of rural migrants to urban locales. Obviously this has been a trend for many centuries, with a startling uptick recently in the developing world. One wonders, however, if there might possibly be a reversal. It’s an inquiry that I can’t dive into here, but it never seems to cross Brugmann’s mind as a possibility despite the fact that Detroit, and Ancient Rome for that matter, might serve as precedents for such a potentiality in some distant or near future. At the very least one could begin to question urban population trends. Obviously Mumbai, Guangzhou, Sao Paolo et. al. have grown tremendously over the last few decades, but I don’t know that forecasts for 2030 or beyond can be deduced from such recent population explosions. Not everyone is going to leave the farm and I’m certain another historical trend is that families in urban milieus tend to have fewer offspring than their rural counterparts. Most Chinese apparently abide by the one-kid-per-couple mandate so how much larger could that nation really grow? A century ago experts were absolutely certain that New Haven, Connecticut would house over a million people by something like 1950. So who knows.Conversely there’s this nagging statistical problem within the US that, while perhaps not overly-germane to this book, is also not addressed clearly. For instance, where the author can easily speak of tumbleweed-strewn Detroit’s alarming loss of a million inhabitants, one can look at the “Statistical Metropolitan Area” of Detroit in 2000, and find there are well over four million Detroiters! The MSA counts obviously include extremely generous territorial boundaries for each city and I suspect the author wouldn’t intend to present Detroit in this manner as zones of farmland and rural whatnot inevitably get mixed in. However when he points out that over seventy percent of the US is “urban” that’s exactly what that means! Some Connecticut farmer that lives 57 miles outside of Queens is “urban” by this tally.Lest I lead whomever might have read this far to believe that I’m irritated by Brugmann’s effort, I’m absolutely not. My response is more a generally fatigued, information-era/post-grad school critique of the rather hyperbolic statistical logic that seems to plague every discussion of …everything! If Constantine got a Dell and enlisted some Statistical Institute of Rome to work up a forecast, I’m certain that the calculations would definitively show that the Roman Empire circa. 2009 would be populated by around 6.5 billion people. As to the book generally, I found this to be very readable and quite engaging. I definitely recommend to anyone interested in urban conditions and globalism.
Gimme Shelter

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It seems that the best way for me to add my increasingly devalued two cents for this one is in the form of a brief response to Lexi’s recent review. Lame certainly, but I’m tired and my mother’s the only one who claims to read these things anyway.On the one hand I completely agree with Lexi’s opinion that the lengthy title promises more than is delivered. Beyond some cursory post-bubble statistics at the book’s conclusion, topics such as sub prime loans hardly get attention beyond what the broker/agent/bank/whomever told them during a phone conversation. This is simply an autobiographical account of William’s trials and tribulations incurred by looking for a New York condo or townhouse on a tight budget.Which leads to the core of Lexi’s review – that this is nothing more than the whining of the privileged. If the desire to simply own one’s home is an issue solely for the rich and famous, then she has a point. Living in Boston, I’m not disillusioned enough to think I can afford to purchase anything beyond an uncovered parking spot. Nonetheless, I definitely don’t think that trying to raise a family with sub-$100,000 household income in “The City” qualifies as “privileged.” If they were in a similar situation in, say, Houston, then they would find themselves exploring housing options with something like a $35,000 budget. Hardly extravagant.I would give this 4 stars except I think the exclusion of any real information – as the cover implies – is a significant problem. Thus this teeters on the edge of being nothing more important than your run-of-the-mill family blog. However it is often humorous, very well written, and there’s no stories nor pictures describing fluffy house cats in Bill Cosbyesque sweaters… so 3 ½ stars!
Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There

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In a nutshell, Brooks does two things here. He presents a well-considered thesis about how, since the 1980s, the various positions – political, religious, economic, polemical – and general societal outlook of the educated classes have shifted to the middle. As a special supplement, he delves into hilarious anecdotes about how this manifests itself as regards the BOBO’s professional, material, and leisure choices. His description of a visit to REI left me rolling in my subway seat! (or I would have been had I been able to procure a seat). I mean they supposedly sell “outdoor” crap yet not a baseball anywhere!Anyway, one might charge that Brooks grossly stereotypes his group. He frequently acknowledges the obvious exceptions within this demographic and certainly it’s not as absurd as some of the generalizations about “Millennials” that get espoused in corporate seminars, NPR interviews, and by jack-ass Today Show “experts” (read, busy-body housefraus). Perhaps not balanced, this is definitely funny and mostly palatable.An obvious, contemporary parallel would be the “white people” as defined by Christian Lander. In fact it seems that half of his blog/book is a less well-written rip off of this BOBO exposé. The remainder simply plugging in updates such as white folk’s preoccupation with (or disdain towards) Mad Men, Ed Hardy, and girls with bangs. Where, I silently ask myself, do hipsters (of whom my wife commented, “They seem nice enough but they all dress like shit.” after a recent visit to Williamsburg, Brooklyn) fit into the Brooks-Lander Whitey matrix?
City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism

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Krane delivers a great synopsis of Dubai’s startling emergence (at least I think so, having never been there). This is an exemplary example of neutrality, positioning Dubai presumably as it is without any other apparent agenda on the author’s behalf. Roughly speaking, the first half traces the city’s transformation from sand to Singapore in fewer than 50 years (or, in many ways, fewer than 15 years). Obviously an amazing – even inspiring – story, I damn near began thinking a hereditary monarchy might just be the way to go. This is the shining example of progress and religious/social tolerance smack dab in the middle of a region not necessarily known for these traits. Of course there’s a dark underside to all of this – exploited underclass of immigrants, outrageous ecological footprint, questionable business ethos, lack of cultural development and even an identity crisis amongst bona-fide Emirates, an increasingly vast minority – and the latter half clearly articulates these issues despite an overall non-critical disposition. This is a definite must-read for those interested in this peculiar City of Gold.
The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World's Most Powerful Company Really Works--and How It's Transforming the American Economy

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This is, as the title promises, Fishman’s effort to mine the depths of Wal-Mart’s business model and explain how, over the course of 44 years, this model has transformed the world’s manufacturing, delivery, and retailing structure. I feel the author admirably delivers this narrative without the vitriolic hyperbole of Bill Quinn (who’s book on the subject I also enjoyed). Additionally, this effort seems quite comprehensive despite working around the veil of secrecy obscuring the Bentonville beast’s operations. In a nutshell, Fishman positions the seemingly positive trait of providing the customer with the lowest price possible Always (or, from my intentionally limited experience, often) as the zero-sum game of closing US factories, annihilating product quality, exploiting labor here and abroad, killing “mom and pop” competition, absorbing taxpayer subsidies, all in addition the disquieting experience of shopping in one of their stores. Of course these are the oft-mentioned results of Wal-Mart’s “effect.” Importantly, Fishman readily acknowledges that there is a conspicuous dearth of real research analyzing these aspects. Shockingly, even the government’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) ignores Wal-Mart in its tabulations! That’s a bit absurd as this is the largest retailer in any number of merchandise designations – including groceries. This oblivion is aided by, if not substantially caused by, Wal-Mart’s resistance to releasing information – in one request, even the date of store openings. So we get what seems to be a reasonable estimate in the book (because the numbers are explained) of what Wal-Mart saved the average US family in 2004 - $270 – pitted against Wal-Mart’s latest commercial which gloats that, no matter where they shop, the average US family saves $3,100 a year? Well that’s a bit of discrepancy. Yes there’s a four year difference, but one might argue that 2004 lacked the shitty economy of 2008 where the decision to impulse purchase yet another microwave Makin Bacon ™ device might be critically evaluated. Let’s run some numbers shall we? So the US Census says the average family size in 2008 was 3.09 persons, the total population over 293 million. Therefore Wal-Mart had to have saved US families more than $310 billion last year (much more because many of us presumably got screwed by only shopping at Stop-n-Shop and Tarjay in 2008)! As Wal-Mart’s total sales…WORLDWIDE was under $375 billion, then they’re utilizing some fuzzy math. Perhaps they’re dividing by last names instead of actual families? Perhaps they assume a family is 30+ persons because that’s the only way to make rent on Wal-Mart wages? Beats me.But I digress. I would argue that this is a fairly written book. I wonder if Fishman visited a HomeGoods store like I did last week. Talk about a place that reeks of Third World sweatshop labor producing useless, garish crap that shouldn’t be produced! Ever seen a 12” tall ceramic bobble-chicken? Ceramic Tweety Bird vendors at the Tijuana border would cringe! At least Wal-Mart sells batteries and Doritos ™.
New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan

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Lepore offers a well-researched reconstruction of the alleged conspiracy of the 1741 arsons in New York. Is this an important book? I imagine so. Is it a “good read”? Not necessarily. Her narrative and style of writing is commendable – having to sift through, quote from, and reinterpret the Ye Olde cruddy English syntax of the day. Necessarily relying on the printed Journal produced by Daniel Horsmanden – a lawyer in charge of the trials – she, and thus we, get exposure to such run-on gems as, ”lopping off from them, what, in print, he thought would be a superflouous Formality, such as The Deponent further saith, and such like, which he thought would have been a needless Incumbrance to the Book.” Wow. At least Lepore’s writing is much more lucid and some of the non-lawyerly quotes are translatable. Perhaps if you’re English it’s less bothersome? I read this in The Independent just the other day: “ The Prince of Wales, accused of similar interference over the Chelsea Barracks development, must be dunking his Duchy Highland All Butter Shortbread into the steaming Assam with unusual pleasure.” Makes a little more sense I suppose, especially if one knows what any of the food references are.The two areas of the book I found most interesting were the appendicies and the reconstruction of New York’s mid-eighteenth century environment. The former documents how she and her assistants approached the research of this era and the process of reconstructing the “city” circa 1741 using scarce census records, maps, and other data. This reconstruction evidenced just how small and provincial New York was at that time. Other than a fairly diverse populace and fledgling port this was something like the 37th largest town in Arkansas today. As the fires were still smoldering, the leaders called forth the emergency action of inspecting every individual house and place of business to round up any potential strangers or non-residents that needed accounting for…to no avail. Yeah, nobody happened to be visiting “The City” that day. Trippy. Seems more like an episode of The Smurfs than a piece of New York’s history. It’s an evocative aspect of the book but unfortunately most of the text revolves around the trials (obviously the intent), which gets quite cumbersome for those not specifically interested in that era’s contorted legal machinations.One thing I found a bit problematic was the sub-theme about political parties. Early on she broaches the subject by mentioning the emergence of the Country Party as a potential rival to the established political leadership of the Court Party – perhaps the first such threat in the Colonies. Much later she exhumes the speculation by considering the purported plotting of slaves might be seen – or was by Horsemanden – as the equivalent of another rival party (in addition to, I suppose, a force hell-bent on total extirpation of white New Yorkers in general). Then this theory reemerges with one or two paragraphs at the book’s conclusion; the institution of slavery is an equivalent to the suppression of “Party Flames,” therefore slave conspiracies and later abolitionist sentiment had a correlation with political opposition. Perhaps this is a great insight? I can certainly buy it. Nonetheless it’s a mostly dormant thesis throughout the text and seems tacked on out of fear that the main story needed some additional academic juice. Overall I would rate this as a sophisticated construct resulting from important research that is not going to hold the interest of most.
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