Monday, August 29, 2016

2 More by David McCullough an older one, 1776 and the newest, The Wright Brothers

2004 photo of David McCullough
I have finished two more by a favorite author,  1776,  published in 2005 but one which I  had not yet read and his newest,  The Wright Brothers, published in 2015.  As the title suggests, 1776 is  about that era of this country's history and those who served fighting for our freedom with George Washington.  It does have massive insight into the darkest hours of that war and the hearts of the men who valiantly proceeded against all odds.   I found it one of the least interesting books by McCullough until I was halfway  into it, the staging for the  battles and military strategies did not interest me as much as the personalities .  It is interesting to read about  the attitudes of the war for our independence and to reflect on today's similarities. 

Our Army was indeed a rag tag collection of volunteers from all walks of lives, teachers, shoe makers, farmers, no-accounts, shop keepers and every shape, size, and age, some "mere boys turned into soldiers." Pgs 32-33, The American militia in reality "looked more like farmers in from the fields than soldiers.  That so many were filthy, dirty was perfectly
understandable, as so many, when not drilling, spent their days digging trenches, hauling rock and throwing up great mounds of earth for defense.  ...It was dirty hard labor and there was little chance or the means ever to bathe or enjoy such luxury as a change of clothes.  Few of the men had what would pass for a uniform.  ..Not only were most men unwashed, and often unshaven, they were clad in a bewildering variety of this and that, largely whatever they had been able to throw together before they trudged off to war.  They wore heavy homespun cloth coats and shirts, often in tatters...The arms they bore were as various as their costumes, mainly muskets,"  A far different picture than the tricorner hats and breeches worn by strutting men  playing fife and drum that we have seen in musicals and movies.  There are many fine photographs of portraits again documenting the massive research efforts.

 I was amused to learn of one of George Washington's favorite quotes from Cato, by the English author Joseph Addison, the most popular play of that time.  One line, he frequently referenced as commander in chief, facing head on the realities of the situation, Pg.47, "'Tis not in mortals to command success, but we'll do more, Sempronius, we'll deserve it."   

I was struck by  page 226, a lesson from history that we seem to have fully ignored or declared no longer fitting to our times,is that George Washington fully realized that a full time Army was a necessity that a part time Army does not work.  Yet, today that seems to be what politicians and  Americans demand.  "..war is no work of a day, he warned and must be carried on systematically.  ..Good officers were mandatory and the only means to obtain good officers was to establish the army on a permanent footing.  There must be an end to short term enlistments.  Officers must be better paid, better trained.  Soldiers must be offered a good bounty, adequate clothing and blankets, plus the promise of free land."  

1776 also covers the  British and their attitudes, particularly British commander William Howe.   The narrative begins in London , October 26, 1775 when King George goes to Parliament to gain consent to crush the American resistance.  I learned lots of tidbits seldom  reported in history thanks to the author's massive research  in both American and British archives. Pg 291, quote written a century later by Sir George Otto Trevelyan, in a classic study of the American Revolution, "It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world."" I did not realize this book was written as a companion to McCullough's masterpiece biography about John Adams.  It is 294 pages of narrative, followed by acknowledgements and copious reference notes. I read this book in October and November 2015, but  just now am posting it here, as you know I have been a negligent blogger. It was an overall 3 star rating, average, middle  to the 5 stars I use, 5 being the best. ***

June and July I read The Wright Brothers, 262 pages, followed by extensive reference notes and including many photographs and the most famous of the Kitty Hawk in flight. .  It is as the title  reveals the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright, two brothers, bicycle mechanics from Dayton Ohio who founded American and indeed world wide aviation after a wintry day in 1903 on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  I savored this book, the history of aviation, the character study of the brothers and their sister, Katherine, their father Bishop Wright. One other brother, Lorin, the oldest lost patience with Wilbur in his early years,". "What does Will do" he wrote Katherine from Kansas where he had gone to seek his fortune.  "He ought to be doing something, is he still cook and chambermaid.?". 

There is fascinating detail about their ability, courage, intellect, curiosity and  true grit, determination.  Their absolute devotion to flying was the exclusion of any other aspects of life, the brothers would remain life long bachelors.  I did not know that after their successes, the French government  was the first to want to invest in flilght,  building on their success with gliders in France.  The US government  was a bit disdainful if not skeptical of the use of aviatn in the future.  The first chapter of this book is aptly titled, "Beginnings."  and the  first lines quote Wilbur Wright, "If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother and begin life in Ohio."   It begins in 1909 when Wilbur is 42 and Orville 38 years old but goes back into the family history and the effect of the 1884 railroad and National Cash Register Company in the development of the Dayton area. 

There is a great deal of information about wind and velocities (Pg. 40),  equilibrium (pg.38) that I found educating and fascinating scientific reading. ( Pg. 48 As time would show, caution and close attention to all advance preparations were to be the rule for the brothers.  They would take risks when necessary, but they were no daredevils out to perform stunts and the never would be."  Pg. 49, "Wind would be all important and contrary to the old Irish wish--'May the wind be ever at your back'--a good wind had to be head on.  As would be said, for the Wrights the winds were never the enemy."  Chapter 4, titled, Unyielding Resolve, "Pg 65, "We had to go ahead and discover everything ourselves." Orville Wright.  Pg. 70 "The work was unlike anything the brothers had ever undertaken and the most demanding of their time and powers of concentration.  They were often at it past midnight.   As said later in the Aeronautical Journal fo the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, "Never in the history of the world had men studied the problem with such scientific skill nor with such undaunted courage."   

 The one colleague the brothers  would have and would depend on was Charlie Taylor, a man they hired to keep their bicycle shop going while they were in North Carolina.  It was not easy going for the brothers, when they began to solicit  the manufacture of a light engine for flight  from American automobile engine  manufacturers, only one responded and that with a far too heavy motor, so  the brothers with no experience building engines had more work to do themselves. Pg 86, In time to come the brothers would b widely portrayed as a couple of clever, hometown bicycle mechanics who manged to succeed where so many others had failed because of their good old fashioned American knack for solving seemingly impossible mechanical problems.  This was true only in part."   Pgs 86 and 87 discuss Charlie Taylor's contribution early on, although distrusted by Katherine who disliked his know it all attitude, His only prior experience with a gas engine had been to try to fix one in an auto a few years previously. " But that January working in the back shop with the same metal lathe and drill press used for building bicycles, he went to work and 6 weeks later had it finished."  I was intrigued to learn  he built the engine block from cast aluminum provided b "the up and coing Aluminum Company of America, based in Pittsburgh."  The Alcoa company was a major  employer in my hometown in PA.

Pg 236, "A machine was like a horse, Wilbur said, 'If it's new you have to get used to it before it will do just as you want it to.  You have to learn its peculiarities."

This is another 5 star read by David McCullough, I found it engrossing. *****

Often I cut reviews from other sources or copy links.  I thought it worth sharing this one on The Wright Brothers here by Tom Beer in Newsday , if the link does not work I have scanned the article and will attach it below as well. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Land Remembers by Ben Logan

I read this lyrical book last year and from time to time I read one of its stories again, so it has been sitting alongside my upstairs reading chair.  It's that kind of book, one with stories that  to be re-read, savored and one to keep on my full book shelves.   It was first published in hardback by Viking Press in 1975 and a mass market paperback edition by Avon Books in 1976.  In 1992 a collector's edition was published by NorthWord Press and in 2000 a 25th anniversary edition.  My copy 286 pages, is the eighth edition, first printing, 2006, by Itchy Cat Press in Blue Mounds, WI.  I picked up this treasure at a local book sale and was amazed that I had never heard of it living in the area where the author writes about his farm life just down the road along the Mississippi River, up the hills on the Wisconsin side.  The stories are about life on the farm, his three brothers, mother and father and hired hand Lyle,  the people of the area, the "hilltop world in 1930's in southwestern Wisconsin."  The family farm was on a ridge top, 260 acres is  called "Seldom Seen" and the author traveled as a merchant seaman and worked as a novelist, producer and writer for film and television, living forty miles north of New York City.  But his roots remained in the southwest Wisconsin hillsides, in the mid 1980's he returned to the farm and lives there.  

Back flap
I smiled and was drawn to keep turning pages from the very introductory page, " Laurence, Lee and Lyle, the only ones left who shared that hilltop world with me, told me when we met that I didn't get all my facts straight.  We argued some about that, but mostly I just reminded them of what a neighbor used to say--"when you're trying to tell somebody who ain't been there just how hot it is in a hayfield with the temperature at a hundred degrees int he shade, it's not lying if you make it a hundred and ten."    Now only my brother Lee and I are left."  It's that kind of book, true, life,  comical, sad, whimsy, just a very enjoyable read, and beautifully written.  

Page 3, "There is no neat and easy way to tell the story of a farm.  A farm is a process where everything is related, everything happening at once.  It is a circle of life and there is no logical place to begin a perfect circle.  This is an unsolved paradox for me.  Part of the folly of our time is the idea that we can see the whole of something by looking at the pieces, one at a time."  I am a city girl you could say, but  Jerry grew up in these parts and spent his young years on his grandparents' farm, so I thought he might enjoy this book as well, he has read several of the stories too and each time, says, "this is a good book."  He enjoyed the Chapter about Haying, "Such days were agony, but there was a glory in them.  It was as though in proving ourselves equal to the harsh demands of the land, we glimpsed some hint of immortality."  

Page 13,  Chapter 3, The Awakening Land, Spring was a contradiction.  It was both creeping change and explosion.  Because the soil was frozen solid, four or five feet deep most years, and covered with snow, it held the cold.  The air warmed ahead of the soil in a false feel of spring that was only of the air---not of the entire land." Page 15, "But no one ever talked about a year without a spring.  It was as unthinkable as trying to convince someone that they had never been born."   

I have included quotes to give the flavor of how well written and why I describe it as lyrical.  It is difficult for me to choose one story that I liked better than any of the others, because they are all different, but if I were to limit to only one it would be in the winter section, Chapter 36, The Year the Corn Shredder Stayed All Winter, I have read this about 6 times, it always brings out the grins.  It begins, "Lyle claimed the old men in Petersburg could start swapping stories some morning, changing things as they went along, and go on for three days before they realized they were telling each other the same story."  This is the story of a man named Nubbin,  who works his tractor and corn shredder through the farms.  "The tractor, corn shredder, and Nubbin, the owner were all getting old.  Things kept going wrong on each job and it was early December before the rig came chugging and smoking up to the barnyard gate.  I'd been hearing about Nubbin.  I expected a giant but he was short, about the size of Lyle, had a bright red nose, big bushy eyebrows, and a scraggly beard.  The story was that he was superstitious--never shaved on a week that had a Friday in it."  See what I mean about lyrical, comical,  just reading paints the scene and the characters.

There is a new Afterword in my edition and the very last chapter, The Circle of Life describes a feeling I have shared as I try to piece together ancestry of my family, though I have no affinity for a farm or land.    Page 177, "As the changing seasons carry me forward in time, a stubborn part of me keeps reaching back to preserve, unbroken my linkage with the land. Partly I reach back to find myself at some age of innocence when the land was my whole world.  Partly I try to recapture those taken-for-granted persons I called Father and Mother."   He closes with some sense of tribute to the land, back to ice age, forward to fur trappers,  Indians, old tales.

A 5 star read *****