BUNKER HILL- A FIGHT FOR LIBERTY BECOMES A WAR FOR INDEPENDENCE

Nathaniel Philbrick’s new non-fiction work  BUNKER HILL, A CITY, A SIEGE, A REVOLUTION is a rewarding  history of the early stages of the American Revolution including the battles of Lexington and Concord,  Breeds Hill/Bunker Hill and the siege and eventual evacuation of Boston by the  British.  Philbrick, as was his style in his previous books Mayflower and  The Last Stand,  Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Little Big Horn ( see review at gordonsgoodreads.com ) , is focused. His  historical research is precise  and the development of the characters of the  historical figures adds new dimension to this period of American History.

16158546

Set in 1775 and 1776, Philbrick explores the passions and the conflicts between Patriots , Loyalists and the multitude of  views  of those suspended in the middle. Many Patriots remained loyal to King George but simultaneously reviled against the British Parliament, clearly defining the difference between a call for “Liberty”  and the pursuit of  “Independence.”   In the ensuing American Revolutionary War, liberty and independence became synonymous.

Readers will meet a key revolutionary who stands unique among the better-known  Sam Adams , John Adams, John Hancock and Paul Revere.  Thirty three-year-old physician Joseph Warren cobbled together a group of independent thinking community leaders  and often unmanageable  farmers turned militiamen  into what would become the Continental Army.  Warren was  a self-styled political and military leader.  If it were not for Warren’s  death at the Battle of Bunker Hill,  Philbrick  speculates that relatively obscure George Washington may never have been called  upon to assume  leadership  of the Patriot  forces, which  of course ultimately lead to Washington becoming the nation’s first president. Thus , Bunker Hill gains even greater historical importance.

The Battle of Bunker Hill  ( June 17, 1775) , which came two  months after  Concord and Lexington  ( April 19, 1775  “The Shot Heard Round the World” ) , is considered the actual beginning of the Revolutionary War.  Concord and Lexington are referred to as ” skirmishes.”  British loses were so great at Bunker Hill, despite a technical victory, General Howe concluded that the British had in fact lost the battle for Boston, and was later forced to withdraw to Halifax, Nova Scotia following  a winter long siege of the city .

I greatly appreciate well researched non-fiction  like BUNKER HILL that focuses on specific events and the individuals  that played a vital role in the larger story.   Another example is David McCullough’s  biography  John Adams , critical to understanding  the American Revolution, the  drafting of the Declaration  of Independence and the Constitution.  An enlightening part of the puzzle pertaining to  George Washington and the Revolutionary War  is David Clary’s book Washington Lafayette, and the Friendship That Saved the Revolution. The book details the relationship between  the childless George Washington and a glory seeking teenage French Aristocrat,  Marquis de Lafayette. They become unlikely comrades-in-arms , forming  an unbreakable trust with great impact on  the war’s outcome and the forming of a new nation.  

BUNKER HILL, A CITY, A SIEGE, A REVOLUTION is worthy of your time and your library.

DAN BROWN’S INFERNO

The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol and now  Dan Brown’s Inferno, another thrilling novel that will surely fly off the shelves and dominate downloads in the days and weeks ahead.

images

Inferno is art, history, science and a travelogue through Florence and  Venice worthy of being transplanted to the pages of a Fodors Guide.   For fans of Dan Brown, Inferno is so fast paced that the book is a three or four session read, thrilled to follow the familiar exploits of Harvard University professor of symbology  Robert Langdon.

Brown’s multiple short chapter writing style  keeps the reader connected  despite the speed with which the plot evolves.   Fair warning, assume nothing and expect to be deceived again and again as this thriller develops.  Typical of Brown you will never know who is friend or foe until the very conclusion. Paging ahead is forbidden!  You will learn more about Dante Alighieri’s  The Inferno, and the seven rings of Hell than previously imagined and be exposed to Italy’s art and architectural treasures that are alive in the narrative.  Those who have traveled to Florence ,Venice  and Istanbul will be transplanted, imagining the  tale with even greater intensity.

Beyond the expected suspense and surprises, Inferno adds a Transhumanist dimension of  cutting edge scientific technologies that are unimaginable,  calling into question enormous moral and ethical issues in facing  threats to the world’s population. ” You know that nature has always found a way to keep the human population in check–plagues, famines, floods. But let me ask you this–isn’t it possible that nature found a different way this time?”

With the  popularity of The Da Vinci Code , The Lost Symbol, Angels and Demons,   and now Inferno  do not overlook an earlier great Brown novel, Digital Fortress.  Familiar themes and an ever-present ” mystery container” that can wreak havoc on the world. Brown also wrote Deception Point, which I have not read.

When I return to Venice I am convinced I will see Robert Langdon in St. Marks Square and just perhaps,  as the violins play, he will be holding Sienna’s hand.  I hope so!  You will understand.

Another Anya Seton Classic

British historical novelist Philippa Gregory in her foreword to Anya Seton’s Katherine  is correct in identifying Seton among those writers who  ” Dominated historical fiction  following World War II.”   In the opinion of Gordon’s Good Reads,  Seton’s historical novel  Katherine , a huge best seller in the 1950s ,  is perhaps her very best.  Katherine is without doubt a love story, a romantic novel indeed, but the attention to the detailed setting in  Medieval  England in the 1300s , gives this book high marks as a classic historical novel. Just as she did with Winthrop Women, Seton traveled to the novel’s setting and has marvelously recreated a world that only a novelist of her calibre could bring to life.

images-1

Katherine , from rags to riches , Knights in shining armor ( John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster), serfs, England’s feudal system, bastard children, the Black Death,  kept woman, love triumphs!  All of the elements of a great romantic novel are here but with page after page the reader is placed in a time and place of Fourteenth Century squalor, chivalry and treachery amid riches , castles and jeweled crowns beyond imagination.    Arranged marriages enthroned Kings an Queens  including  12-year-old King Richard, while the lower classes begin an epoch march to freedom, long before Cromwell and Henry the Eighth dashed all hopes of equality.  Seton gets the history right and delivers the lesson  within the framework of a wonderful love story well outside the confining lines of a text-book. Add to this novel the poetry and presence of Geoffrey Chaucer!

Put Katherine on your reading list. Anya Seton ( 1906-1990), through all of the years will, never disappoint.  See my previous reviews here at gordonsgoodreads of Seton’s Winthrop  Women and Dragonwick.  Also by Anya Seton:  Avalon, Devil Water, Foxfire, Green Darkness and My. Theodosia.

COOLIDGE, REVISIONIST OR ACCURATE PORTRAIT OF THE PRESIDENT?

Amity Shlaes new biography COOLIDGE  has received its share of controversial reviews including  charges of  a “white-washed” Coolidge presidency. There is little doubt that Shlaes places  ” silent Cal” in a favorable light. However, that is not at all unusual as historians review a presidency in a perspective from a hundred years distance.  Perhaps the best example of the retrospective is David McCullough’s  reincarnation  of John Adams.  I am not suggesting that the two books or presidencies are comparable but the passage of time allows authors the opportunity to look through a different prism.  Be assured that Shales portrait of Calvin Coolidge does not attempt to elevate him to John Adams status, however, she clearly establishes the image of a strong, independent thinking president capable of making unpopular decisions that he deemed correct for the country.

images

Coolidge served as president, during the roaring 20s, from 1923 to 1929.  He remains famous for small government, balanced budgets and ” the business of America is business.”   Unlike some reviews, I do not think Coolidge is a whitewash of the administration, but rather an overview of the thinking in America following the First World War and the national desire to return to ” normalcy.”  Ironically, Coolidge came into his political career as an acolyte of Teddy Roosevelt  progressivism and acted accordingly during his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts.  Coolidge was a reluctant recruit as Warren Harding’s Vice-President, he disliked the position, but his New England work ethic underscored his making a best effort to support Harding’s policies.  The two were exact opposites, Harding the gregarious politician telling the electorate what they wanted to hear,  Coolidge, quiet and reserved.

Shlaes does an excellent job in depicting Coolidge’s transition to the presidency following Harding’s unexpected death.  He moves into the oval office with no great fanfare and picks up the reins of governing turning quickly to his zeal for a balanced budget, eliminating the war-time bureaucracy and establishing the concept of reducing taxes to stimulate the economy out of a post war recession.  Shlaes makes a case that Coolidge handed off a strong economy to Herbert Hoover after Coolidge kept his commitment that he would not run  for a second term.  However, Shlaes  book makes no mention of the rampant speculation on Wall Street that occurred during the later years of the Coolidge Administration which lead to the crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression.  Does Coolidge share the blame or does it all fall at the feet of  Herbert Hoover?

A most interesting part of the book is that once again we go back over 100 years to discover recurring themes facing today’s American economy:  The fairness of the tax policy, protective tariffs, balanced federal budget, government spending, the deficits of war-time spending, and the overriding argument of  big government versus small government.

COOLIDGE is well written and for lovers of history it is a look back at a presidency almost forgotten.  COOLIDGE  offers a  glimpse at the expectations of life in America following  World War I , the “War to end all wars. ”  It was the period of the first automobiles produced on the Ford assembly line, electrification,  the birth of the aviation industry, Lindbergh and the  passage of the Kellogg-Briand international treaty, the successor to the failed  Woodrow Wilson League of Nations.

You will learn much about Coolidge the family man, his wife Grace and the tragedy of the death of his son  Calvin, Jr. while Coolidge was in office.  The journey— from his birth in  Plymouth Notch, Vermont  to Amherst College, small town attorney in Northampton, Massachusetts, Massachusetts Senate, Massachusetts Governor,  Vice-President and President of the United States–a remarkable life.

 

 

GRAND CENTRAL-THE BOOK-A DESTINATION UNTO ITSELF

It is fitting that my son who has just begun a daily commute to Grand Central gave me a copy of Sam Roberts  book Grand Central, How A Train Station Transformed America.

images

During the better part of four decades , I commuted through Grand Central during periods of its greatest decay and glorious rebirth.  For me, and millions of others, the book is personal and the FOREWORD by Pete Hamill gives the work a New York City imprimatur that only Hamill could provide. Hamill: ” It was a week before Christmas in 1945.  Wait my mother said. I want to show you something. And she led me into the largest space I had ever seen. There were people moving across shiny marble floors in many directions, a gigantic clock, and a large board with numbers and the names of cities. A deep voice kept speaking from somewhere, the voice echoing off gleaming walls. We were in a place called Grand Central Station.”

The name is technically not Grand Central Station but rather Grand Central Terminal although few have ever called it anything but the former. The short-lived original named Grand Central Station, located nearby on 42nd Street,  was demolished  when the brilliant New York Central Railroad Chief Engineer William Wilgus convinced Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt’s son, William, that the future  of railroading was electric locomotives that would allow the Park Avenue rail lines to be placed underground leading to a new two tiered Grand Central Terminal.

Roberts brings the detail of the construction of the terminal into a readable and understandable epic, with a coupling of wonderful photography.  The magic and glamour of long distance train travel abounded in Grand Central long before it became a commuter hub. Track 34, today a common departure point for the Harlem Line, was where nightly they rolled out the celebrity red carpet for the 20th Century Limited to Chicago. The train with speeds up to 123 miles per hour made the trip in 20 hours, therefore the name.  The 20th Century made its inaugural trip on June 17, 1902 and its last on December 2, 1967. By that time the once glorious Grand Central along with long-distance train travel had fallen into disrepair and neglect and the terminal was  only a  shadow of the wonder in Pete Hamill’s youthful eyes back in 1945.

Robert’s history of  Grand Central is complete,  but the excitement surrounding  the terminal’s renewal,  in  many ways, lays the foundation of the renewal of New York City itself,  and the indomitable spirit of  New Yorker’s following the city-wide declines during the 1970s. This spirit, prevalent  today, harkens back to the introduction of a popular radio program in the 1940s on NBC titled Grand Central Station. See if you don’t agree that even though the 20th Century Limited and Empire Express are distant memories,  the preamble to each radio show remains real  as you walk through Grand Central today.

As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, heart of the nations greatest city. Drawn by the magnetic force of the fantastic metropolis, day and night great trains rush toward the Hudson River, sweep down its eastern bank for 140 miles, flash briefly by the long red row of tenement houses south of 125th Street, dive with a roar into the two-and-one-haf-mile tunnel which burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue, and then…Grand Central Station! Crossroads of a million private lives! Gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily. 

Sam Roberts has given anyone who has ever paced the marble floors of Grand Central a great gift.  Beyond rails, renovation, railroad barons , conductors, porters and engineers, this is the story of how for over 100 years a building   has played such a huge role in defining New York City.  For those of us for whom Grand Central has been part of our lives we owe Sam Roberts a special debt of gratitude. Grand Central celebrates a victory for a city we love.

Sam Roberts has covered New York City for the Daily News and the New York Times for over 40 years. He has written seven books of non-fiction including The Changing Face of America in the 21st Century.

THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY/ EVIDENCE OF THINGS UNSEEN

The title of this posting  incorporates  two books, a work of non fiction and a novel. Both detail the secrets of the U.S. government’s  World War II  Oak Ridge Tennessee Laboratory from its creation in 1943 to the end of the Second World War in 1945.

images

Denise Kiernan’s book The Girls of Atomic City, The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II , tells the incredible story of the overnight construction of  a  secret huge industrial complex ( Site X)  in Oak Ridge Tennessee, the sole purpose of which was to convert uranium into enriched nuclear fuel for the construction of the first atomic bomb under the stealth Manhattan Project. Within a year, Oak Ridge Tennessee grew to a community of 75,000 inhabitants and into one of the largest industrial complexes in the world!

Kiernan details  how thousands of young women were recruited to Oak Ridge from throughout the country  with the promise of good paying  jobs that would ,” Help Win The War.”   These young recruits , mostly in their early 20s ,  boarded buses and trains without knowing exactly where they were going and  not having any idea of the position they were about to assume.  Adding to this remarkable story is that for the duration  of their stay, none of the workers at Oak Ridge  ever knew the true nature of the work.  Only after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was the nature of their work revealed to them.

The Girls of Atomic City  tells the Oak Ridge story from the standpoint of the sociological  interaction of the thousands of young men and women living together in camp-like accommodations, finding a way to establish a social life while at the same time working on a top-secret project that even talking about to friends was forbidden.  Additionally, the book translates into layman’s language  the scientific process of creating the fuel ( enriched uranium)  for  ( The  Gadget )  which was to become the atomic bomb.

images-1

What Kiernan does not develop  is the story of the enormous health hazards that these young women  and everyone at Oak Ridge were exposed to every day.  Marianne Wiggins’  novel  Evidence of Things Unseen,  accomplishes that in a beautiful love story that winds its way from Tennessee to the  eastern shore of North Carolina and the  back to the Oak Ridge Laboratory  to uncover the horror of the impact of radiation sickness upon unknowing workers.  In an odd twist, Wiggins’ novel completes Kiernan’s  work of non-fiction.

Denise Kiernan is also the author of Signing Their Lives Away and Signing Their Rights Away, the fame and mis-fortune of the men who signed The Declaration  of Independence.   Her work has appeared in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. 

NO PULITZER FOR FICTION -DON’T DESPAIR-SONS AND LOVERS PREDATED THE HONOR

Surely there was great disappointment when no winner was chosen for this year’s Pulitzer for fiction. However, considered by many one of the greatest novels written in the 20th Century, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers never received one either! Published in 1913, it pre-dated the establishment of the awards in 1917 by four years! It would be interesting if the Pulitzer Board created a retroactive category.  In a sense, the Modern Library has done just that by ranking Sons and Lovers the 9th greatest novel of the 20th century. Quite right, quite right indeed!

Though technically a novel, Sons and Lovers is without doubt auto-biographical. D.H. Lawrence  is clearly writing of the struggles of growing up in a dysfunctional family in a poor mining community in England. The mother had married below her class to a husband that turned out to be not much beyond the daily retreat to the local pub with his co-workers.  In the novel, the mother is left with only her son to whom to direct all of her affection and emotion.  She would not let go of  what she perceived as all that remained important in her life.

I opened my Modern Library paperback version of Sons and Lovers and by chance the following paragraph unfolded. You will understand quickly why this great novel, once read, may erase any disappointment over their being no 2012 Pulitzer for fiction.

“Paul and Miriam stood close together, silent and watched…Paul looked into Miriam’s eyes…She was pale and expectant with wonder, her lips were parted, and her dark eyes lay open to him…Lets go, he said…Something made him feel anxious and imprisoned…The two walked in silence…Till Sunday he said quietly and left her and she walked home slowly feeling her soul satisfied with the holiness of the night…Always when he went with Miriam his mother was fretting and getting angry with him…when he walked into the house his mother had been sitting thinking…She could feel Paul being drawn by this girl and she did not care for Miriam…That there was any love growing between him and Mariam, neither of them would have acknowledged…She is one of those who will want to suck a man’s soul out til he has none of his own left.”

This magnificent novel rises to new heights on each page. If you have not read Sons and Lovers I commend it to you now. At 99 years of age it is contemporary and worthy of every accolade and honor that has been bestowed upon the book and its author.  Lawrence’s other better known novels are The Rainbow, Women in Love and of course Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  His last novel was The Virgin and the Gypsy written in 1930.

A footnote. In 1920, the year that Women In Love was published no Pulitzer was given for fiction! Also published in that same year was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and Sinclair Lewis’  Main Street.  Good company!