Compelling stories of discovery and destruction

551.46, The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, Rogue Waves, and Our Quest to Predict Disasters, by Bruce Parker (2010)

The power of the sea, indeed!  This book, written by a prominent oceanographer, is about the history of humanity’s attempts to understand and predict ocean phenomena.  Parker does an excellent job of explaining everything from tides to wave prediction to the generation of tsunamis.  The descriptions are clear and understandable, but detailed enough to require some focused attention; it’s a vastly enlightening book, but one to be absorbed slowly rather than skimmed hurriedly.  I especially enjoyed it when I ran across terms (always carefully explained)  from fluid mechanics, which were tossed about during dinner conversations during my childhood (and still to this day, come to think of it, thanks to my dad’s abiding interest in fluids).

There’s another side to this book, though, beyond the history of science and the state of oceanographic knowledge: it is also a detailed, fascinating compendium of ocean-related disasters.  A blurb on the back of the book compares it to a kind of “Believe It or Not of aquatic destruction,” which turns out to be a pretty accurate take.  The destruction includes rogue waves that split giant container ships in half, tides that race in and overwhelm armies, and the storm surge that flooded New Orleans.  My favorite tidbit (if such language is permissible regarding tragedies) was the story of the Eddystone Light, a lighthouse in the English Channel.  Built in 1698 at a height of 80 feet, it was hit often by high waves that washed over the entire structure.  The owner, one Henry Winstanley, rebuilt it to 120 feet with a special stone-reinforced base that he thought would be impervious to the waves.  Winstanley is reported to have been “so confident of its strength that nothing would please him more than to be in his lighthouse during a great storm.  Four years later, he unfortunately got his wish” (p.109) when a massive storm swept away him, five others, and the lighthouse itself.

And then there are the tsuanamis.  Parker opens Chapter 7 thusly: “The morning of November 1, 1755, in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon was as beautiful and tranquil as one could hope for at the beginning of winter– sunny, blue sky, no wind, and unseasonably warm.  There were barely even ripples on the surface of the Tagus River…”  By the time you’ve reached Chapter 7, you already know that this sunny picture won’t end well and, in fact, it’s little more than a paragraph later that an earthquake shakes the earth and creates the three massive waves that killed thousands of people and destroyed large swaths of the city.  From Lisbon, Parker moves on to describe major tsunamis in 1854, 1883, 1946, 1952, 1960, 1964, and, in great detail, the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean (the book must have been in press during the tragic tsunami in Japan).

This litany of destruction is almost too much– and in fact it would be too much, too prurient (is that the right word? a kind of disgusting prying into tragedy?), if it weren’t for Parker’s ongoing narrative about how people struggled to understand what had happened.  This neatly intersperses the tragic scenes with surprisingly compelling stories of scientific discovery.  The end result is both hopeful (yes, death and destruction, but now we know more and can avoid the same problem in the future) and depressing (how many times must tsunamis hit before people learn the lessons of the past?).

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At home in the 720s

When I started browsing the 720s, I found that I’d already read a bunch of the books in this decade.  Then, when I looked more closely, I realized that almost everything I’d read was in a single digit: the 728s (residential and related buildings).  Still, there were a few in there that I hadn’t read yet, so I gathered them up and brought them home.  These are my choices:

728.0971  A History of Domestic Space: Privacy and the Canadian Home, by Peter Ward (1999).

728.09713  The Complete House Detective: An Ontario House and Its History, by Donalda Badone (1988)

728.09713  Old Ontario Houses: Traditions in Local Architecture, by Tom Cruickshank (2009).

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A rambling and very pleasant adventure

977 The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas, by Jerry Dennis (2003).

As a child, I loved the north shore of Lake Superior.  Driving north to go canoeing in the Boundary Waters with my dad, we’d pick our way up the shore, passing familiar landmarks that always felt, to me, like coming home: Duluth, where the air would cool suddenly; Two Harbors, which always felt like the first true northern town; Gooseberry Falls, with great scrambling on the rocks; Lutsen, where we stayed overnight and I always tried to wade in the lake but was driven out by the frigid waters.  My concept of the Great Lakes basically began and ended with this one shore of Lake Superior.

When I moved to Ontario as an adult, I had to relearn all of the lakes.  My vantage point shifted from Lake Superior= north to Great Lakes= south, west, southwest.  Sometimes I still mutter the mnemonic “Super Man Helps Every One” when I’m trying to remember which one is Huron and which is Erie.  Plus, there’s that enormous Georgian Bay, which would be a lake in its own right anywhere else.

When I saw The Living Great Lakes, I was immediately drawn to it.  The core of the book is the six-week journey of the Malabar, a schooner that Dennis helps to crew from Lake Superior to its new owner on the East Coast. He learns the ship’s routine and gets to know the captain and crew (which seemed surprisingly small to me– just 3-4 people), all the while mixing in stories relevant to each lake, or each location.  Many of the tales are of shipwrecks and heavy weather; some are of environmental disaster and a few of heartening environmental recovery.  There are close calls when the Malabar is run aground, doses of French explorers, and fascinating boat-centered accounts of Detroit (it’s so easy to forget that it even has a waterfront).

I quite enjoyed the book, though it does have two distinct flaws.  The first is that it centers mostly on Lake Michigan, and especially on the area of the northwest Michigan coast where the author lives– fair enough, but I wish he’d had more on all of the Great Lakes.  The second flaw is a point of style.  The book reads like a loose collection of anecdotes, without any real coherent central thread, despite the idea of using the Malabar‘s journey as the link.  The best example of this is a chapter where he tells a truly moving story from his childhood of watching fishermen capsize and drown within sight of shore, unable to make it through the pounding waves to safety.  It’s the best piece of writing in the book and is, not coincidentally, rewritten from a previously published standalone magazine piece.

All of the stories, anecdotes, and tidbits are interesting, though, and they make for an enjoyable read if you’re willing to just take them as they come.  I suppose it’s rather like any rambling trip across or around the Great Lakes: best undertaken with only a loose agenda and plenty of time for diversions along the way.

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129 Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach (2005).

Mary Roach is one quirky writer.  I read her book Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, a few years back and found it fascinating, irreverent, and just plain weird– the subject matter, that is, not the writing.  When I saw Spook, I knew that would be my choice in the 120s.

Spook is surprisingly diverse in time and place, even though the subject sometimes seemed a bit repetitive.  We travel to India with Roach to examine claims of reincarnation, join in classes to teach people who want to become mediums, and hover over an operating table (along with an experimental computer setup)  to try to capture proof of the existence of the light at the end of the tunnel, or some other variation of an end of life experience.  There’s lots of history of science as well, which can be tedious in the wrong hands but in Roach’s writing hums along merrily through a litany of curious ideas and strange performances: the search for homunculi in sperm, the astonishing physical feats of mediums producing ectoplasm during seances, the curious court case of a will revealed by a ghost….

My favorite section was about Duncan MacDougall, the early 20th c. doctor who used a large and very precise scale to try to determine the weight of the soul.  His idea was to place a dying man on the scale and observe carefully to see how the weight dropped at the moment of death– that is, the moment that the soul left the body.  Roach paints a  macabre but surprisingly amusingly picture of the hovering doctor, trying to predict which tuberculosis patient will be the next to die and practically wringing his hands over the decision of when to wheel them from their rooms to the final death watch on the scale itself.  (No word on whether the patients were alert enough to consent.)  This grimly dark humor is Roach’s specialty and is strangely appealing.

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Everyone’s struggle?

155.444 One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular, by Abigail Pogrebin (2009).

I’m a twin.  When I was growing up, that fact sometimes made me feel different, and therefore special, and sometimes annoyed.  The annoyances were small things, like knowing that if my brother was assigned to a favorite teacher for fourth grade, I’d automatically be put in the other class with a different teacher.  I also got asked, a lot, what it was like to be a twin. I remember being baffled at the question; it just meant that one of my brothers was my age.

At first, we had joint birthday parties and shared a cake, decorated by my dad.  My brother and I each chose what we wanted and then my dad combined them together.  One memorable cake combined Snoopy (both of us) on a bulldozer (him) with a rainbow (me) (or was there one with a unicorn and a tank?).   In about second or third grade, we started to have our own cakes, separate parties, and different friends.  We had different interests and different strengths, too.  We were in some high school classes together, but honestly don’t remember it as either positive or negative; that’s just how things were.  And as we got older, our paths diverged in more obvious ways; we moved away to different colleges and then he hit a lot of life landmarks (a job, marriage, kids) while I stayed in school for a very long time.  Eventually, I got a job, too, and bought a house and we’ve settled into a comfortable relationship of adult siblings.

I explain all of this not because it’s terribly insightful or even necessarily interesting, but because I’m still a bit baffled at the disconnect between my own experiences and those dissected in this book.  The gist of the matter is that the author, Abigail Pogrebin, has been struggling all of her life to make sense of herself as one (an individual) and the same (half of the Pogrebin twins).  She proposes that identical twins provide an intense, and therefore insightful, example of how children gain a sense of self and grow to understand their place in the broader group.

Pogrebin writes about many sets of twins, with examples from elderly twins who never married and rely on each other for comfort and companionship to middle-aged twins who fight to establish their own lives independent of each other.  She also writes, in a fair bit of detail, about the pain and confusion caused when she and her sister did not want the same level of closeness as adults.  In doing so, she describes twins whose twinship is universally the center point of their lives.  In fact, she readily implies that ALL twins are fundamentally forged by their twinship in ways that, for better or worse, drive and determine every other aspect of their lives and senses of self.

When I read this book, I felt somewhat sorry for Pogrebin and her sister, who seem to feel their twinship deeply and to have some trouble navigating that bond in adulthood.  That sounds quite uncomfortable, and I can see why Abigail would write a book like this as a way of trying to understand her relationship with her sister.  The problem is that I, as a twin, simply don’t see myself reflected in these pages.  I felt like I was told a lot, but shown very little.

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Watery 970s

Given a wide choice of local, regional, and national history, I seem to have been drawn to books on water.  (Maybe it’s time for a camping trip?)

My choices:

971.315 A Respectable Ditch: A History of the Trent-Severn Waterway, 1833-1920, by James T. Angus (1988).  [How can you resist a title like that?]

971.699 A Dune Adrift: The Strange Origins and Curious History of Sable Island, by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle (2004).

977 The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas, by Jerry Dennis (2003).

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The big picture in the 550s

I am usually drawn to the particular, the specific details that make a person or place or thing unique, and therefore interesting.  Still, these are all big-picture books– the major forces of the sea, the sweeping changes of global temperature change over time, the efforts to piece together broad swaths of geologic time through local observations– and yet they’re all quite intriguing.  It will be difficult to choose just one.

550.92, The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, by Simon Winchester (2001).

551.46, The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, Rogue Waves, and Our Quest to Predict Disasters, by Bruce Parker (2010)

551.694, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850, by Brian Fagan (2000).

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