These are the five best books I read in the past year (which has nothing to do with when they were written or published). They are presented in no particular order. Since I had surgery that laid me up for a few weeks this year, I had an unusually large number to pick from. Maybe this will become an annual feature of offtheleash.net.
The Radium Girls, Kate Moore
A brilliant book about a very dark chapter in the history of industrialization in America. Hundreds of working class teenagers and young women were poisoned by an industrial process that would eventually lead to an excruciating debilitation ending in death.
The radium girls were dial painters. They painted numbers on watch dials with an illuminessent paint that contained radium. At the start of the 20th century, radium was thought to be some kind of wonder substance which was given credit for everything from curing cancer to immortality. But in fact it ate through anything that came in its path and attached itself to human bones. The dial painting process involved “pointing” the brush with the girls’ lips. Before long some of them would be lifting their jawbones out of their toothless mouths.
It happened in New Jersey, in Connecticut and in Illinois. A few different radium corporations were involved and they all acted the same way. They denied there was any link to the girls conditions and their employment and when they found evidence to the contrary, they hid it. They hired doctors to lie about what they found when they examined the girls. And they hired lawyers to keep them from having to compensate their victims.
The story has many heroes. There’s the Chicago lawyer who agreed to represent some of the Illinois girls even knowing they had no way to pay. And there was the New Jersey doctor who identified the radium poisoning and where it came from and who went public with his findings, knowing the corporations and their hired experts would try to impugn his reputation.
But the biggest heroes were some of the women themselves who fought for recompense and justice, pretty much against all odds. One, who weighed no more than 70 pounds because of the poisoning, had to be carried to the witness stand but stood tall when the bullying corporate lawyer tried to undermine her credibility. Their legal battles played a role in changing industrial workplace rules and in increasing the world’s understanding of the dangers of radioactivity.
Kate Moore is a great writer who could not have told this story in a more interesting and compelling manner. Five stars is not enough for this book.
The Earth Gazers, Christopher Potter
A fascinating book. Couldn’t be more interesting. Potter’s story begins with Charles Lindbergh in Cape Kennedy watching the launch of Apollo 8. That scene describes the range of the book, from Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic to the Apollo missions to the moon.
The Lindbergh story alone makes the read worthwhile. Most of us know about the Spirit of St. Louis, the kidnapping and murder of his son and the World War II era speech that forever after tagged him as a anti-Semite. But I knew little else about him. In later life he devoted himself to saving endangered species. He became something of a recluse, although that didn’t stop him from visiting Europe to see the two or three families he had produced with German mistresses.
Rocketry and space exploration needed war to advance. The rockets that would launch both American and Russian spaceships were derived from advances made by the Nazis during World War II. While the scientists responsible may have had visions of visiting the Moon or Mars, the Nazis paying the bills were looking for weapons to knock out England. After the war, the German scientists were divided up between the U.S.and Russia like the spoils of war. One, Wernher Von Braun, was to the become the engineering rockstar of the U.S. space program.
Many of these scientists were an important part of the two countries space advancements. The Cold War fueled the space race and was the reason that the U.S. and Russia made billions of dollars available to their programs. Von Braun for one knew who to play this game, dredging up the frightening prospect of being behind Russia whenever approval or funding was needed. And as Cold War fever cooled in the late 60’s and 70’s, so did government interest in space programs.
Potter goes beyond the dates and accomplishments of the various noteworthy and record-breaking flights and focuses on the experience of the pilots, astronauts and cosmonauts. For example, Lindbergh, toward the tail end of his trans-Atlantic flight, described feeling that the fuselage behind him was filled with ghostly beings “vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane.”
True to the title of the book many of these astronauts put into words what it was like to see the earth from a perspective that only a few dozen have ever had. Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman, a member of the first space crew to leave earth’s gravitational pull, said, “We were the first human beings to see the world in its majestic totality. This must be what God sees.’” Gemini astronaut Mike Collins described his sighting of his home planet as follows: ”The little planet is so small out there in the vastness that at first I couldn’t even locate it. And when I did a tingling of awe spread over me. There it was shining like a jewel in a black sky.”
For some it was a religious experience. Many returned home and became environmentalists. I doubt that few if any of these explorers of the heavens would buy into Trumpian climate change denial. They came back to earth feeling the need to protect it and in spite of the nationalism that often surrounded the space program the experience left them with a more global view.
NASA was a micromanaging sort of organization and one of the aspects of this story that I enjoyed was the stories of the astronauts who as a group were not that keen on being told what to do. When John Glenn heard that NASA didn’t want their astronauts taking “tourist photos” from space, he went out and bought a $20 camera to sneak on board with him. Another of the astronauts hid a corned beef sandwich in his space suit to better enjoy the flight.
As a baby boomer who came of age during the space race, I always sort of figured that NASA had everything under control before they zapped a man or two up into the cosmos. Wrong. There were a frightening number of failed tests and problems associated with many of these flights. When Frank Borman’s wife Susan was advised by a NASA official that he had a 50/50 chance of returning safely she actually began planning his memorial service.
This is not my usual reading fare. I doubt that I ever would have found my way to the shelf where this book is placed in most book stores. I got it as an unexpected premium after making a donation to a listener-sponsored radio station (thank you WFMU). Sure glad I did. Potter tells the story brilliantly and has crammed in as many interesting facts and anecdotes as you could possibly fit onto 400 pages. It may seem weird to describe a book about aviation history as a page-turner, but trust me on this one.
News of the World, Paulette Jiles
A 71-year-old veteran of two wars makes his way through post Civil War Texas armed with…newspapers. Captain Cody, bankrupted by the Civil War after being forced to invest in Confederate bonds, makes his living traveling from town to town, booking the local meeting hall and reading selected stories from newspapers from around the country and around the world. He charges ten cents a head.
This is a tale of humanity. Cody is accompanied on his weeks long journey from Wichita Falls to San Antonio by a 10 year old girl. The girl is the daughter of German immigrants, kidnapped by Native Americans after her parents were killed. She grew up in the Native American culture with a Native American mother but was sold back in return for a few blankets. Cody has been engaged to return her to her closest living relatives. She not only cannot speak English but has no interest in coming to grips with things like wearing shoes and eating with a fork
There are a good number of adventures along the way but the compelling part of this story is how two people with nothing in common and seemingly incompatible cultural norms influence and move each other. News of the World is a period piece about Texas after the Civil War. It is lawless and chaotic. It is bitterly divided and the economy is in shambles. Folks are suffering.
Giles has written a moving story. It is historical fiction but with clear connections to the bitterness and hatefulness in 21st century America. Both suspenseful and thoughtful, it is a quick and engaging read.
Heroes of the Frontier, Dave Eggers
The leader of this band of heroes is a 40-year-old dentist named Josie. The troop includes her 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. The frontier is Alaska. Josie is fleeing Ohio, a place she describes as “birthplace of most of the country’s presidents, now home to most of its assholes.”
More importantly she is escaping from three people. There is the husband who abandoned her and whose most distinguishing characteristic seems to be that he shits six times a day. There is the old woman and former patient whose lawsuit brought down Josie’s dental practice. And there is the memory of a teenager who was killed in Afghanistan and whose enlistment Josie had encouraged.
So she finds herself running away with her kids in a beat-to-crap old camper, drifting through Alaska with no particular destination nor much knowledge of where she is. Along the way she gets caught squatting in some angry dude’s cabin, she gets caught by her son riding the proprietor of an RV park and gets caught up in wildfires drifting across Alaska. Josie greets each situation alternately with horror and euphoria.
Eggers tells the tale with his usual combination of human insight and a touch of humor. I’ve yet to read one of his books that I didn’t enjoy, fiction or non-fiction. This one is a tale of escaping from ordinary suburban life. And more important than the geography, what this band of “heroes” escape from is concern about tomorrow.
Nomadland, Jessica Bruder
It is one of the foundational precepts of the American narrative that if you work hard you can make a living, raise a family, own a house. If you work harder you can get more. And conversely if you can’t make ends meet, it’s probably your own fault.
Twenty years ago Barbara Ehrenreich wrote what would become a classic book that blew a hole in that myth. In “Nickel and Dimed” she set out to discover first hand whether you could make a go of it by working full time as a house cleaner or a waitress or a Walmart “associate.” She traveled the country taking these jobs then trying to find the cheapest available housing. The subtitle of her book “On (Not) Getting By in America” tells you what she found.
Now in the 2010’s, another journalist author, Jessica Bruder, set out to discover Nomadland. She spent three years living with these “houseless” as opposed to “homeless” folks. For part of the time she lived in a van and took on jobs at the sugar beet harvest and as part of the “Camperforce” at an Amazon warehouse.
The inhabitants of Nomadland are living in vans, campers, trailers. Most of them are far from new. They are not druggies or alcoholics, nor are they societal dropouts. Most are in their 60’s if not older. They were laid low by the 2008 financial crisis, some by divorce settlements, others were bankrupted by medical bills. Some had pretty good careers but were then aged out of the workforce and found the only jobs available to them were minimum wage, seasonal or temporary gigs. The only way they can get by is by eliminating the cost of housing.
One of the people Bruder meets had a 45-year career at McDonalds, an executive who at one time was their director of product development. He and his wife lost all of their savings during the Wall Street crisis, had their home foreclosed and are now living in a 1996 National Seabreeze motorcoach.
Bruder befriends Linda May, a woman in her 60’s, who is living in a tin can of a trailer hitched to the back of her car. In the summer she goes to the forests in California where she works as a camp host, doing everything from registering guests to scrubbing out the outhouses. Then for the Christmas season she enrolls in the Amazon Camperforce brigade where she is pushed to work 10 hours a day like a robot on steroids. The pay is minimal, but they get a parking spot.
One of the people she meets says of her fellow vandwellers “After a lifetime of chasing the American dream, they have come to the conclusion it was nothing but a big con.” What is remarkable about the inhabitants of Nomadland is that they don’t spend their time whining and complaining. They are a personable lot, anxious to help each other and looking for ways to improve their ‘homes.’ Many head to the desert in Arizona each year for a gathering called the Rubber Tramp Rendevous. One offers a seminar demonstrating how he tripped out his Prius as a home on wheels.
But in the end, as Bruder says, “Wages and housing costs have diverged so dramatically that, for a growing number of Americans, the dream of a middle-class life has gone from difficult to impossible.” Pretty hard to take a look at the future for these folks.