Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

102B1280-1D11-4621-BBAA-F47CE042B218Summary: the gripping interwoven tales of an architect and a murderer in 1890s Chicago

The largely now forgotten World Fair in Chicago in 1892 changed the world. Amongst other things it gave us the first large scale testing of electric lighting from alternating current, a vision of how beautiful cities could be instead of the squalid, dirty things they often were, and the Ferris wheel. 

Devil in the White City is a compelling account of how the Head of Works for the Fair, Frank Burnham, a Chicago architect, marshalled the resources of the city to overcome an overwhelming set of organisational, technical and bureaucratic obstacles to deliver this world changing event.

If the book were only about Burnham and the World Fair it would be a compelling, though perhaps niche interest, work. Everyone who was anyone, except Mark Twain, seems to have been involved somehow with the Fair: President Grover Cleveland opened it. Buffalo Bill Cody put on a show there attended by Susan B Anthony; Theodore Dreiser escorted a party of schoolteachers who had won their trip from his newspaper. And amidst the crush of new visitors to Chicago, a doctor and pharmacist by the name of Herman Webster Mudgett, murdered and robbed dozens of innocent men, women and children, unbeknownst to the Chicago Police Department.

Devil in the White City is a combination of social and architectural history interwoven with a tragic and horrific story of a murderer and his desperately sad, trusting victims.  It is an extraordinary work quite unlike anything else I have ever read. 

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Apollo 8: the mission that change everything, by Martin W Sandler

Summary: up close to the raggedy edge of human exploration

In 1968 a rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Its crew were tasked with testing if Jack Kennedy’s ambition of putting a human on the moon before the end of the decade was at all feasible. So untried was the technology they were using and so enormous was the task they had been set, no one was quite sure if everyone on board was going to come back alive.

Human beings at the cutting edge of exploration is a recurrent theme of Marty Sandler’s work, and Apollo 8 is a gripping addition to his oeuvre. It tells the story of the first humans to break the ties of Earth and travel to the orbit of another planet. It is, as one might imagine, filled with incredible drama. But it is also, as Sandler very convincingly argues, a journey which changed the course of human history.

For many space programmes, such as Apollo, seem extravagant wastes of money given the challenges of hunger and poverty that face so many on Earth. Jack Kennedy’s own brother Edward made this very observation in the early 1970s. But, as they orbited the moon the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, became the first humans in history to witness the Earth rising over the horizon of the moon. The photos they took of this captured the public imagination and conveyed in a way that words could not, the fragility of human existence in the vastness of the universe. Consequently it became an impetus for the environmental movement.

Apollo 8 tells the whole story of this extraordinary journey and its implications in Sandler snappy prose style. And the photographs that accompany the text are glorious.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

Summary: a profoundly moving American meditation on the war in Vietnam, rightly regarded as a classic

The Things They Carried is an extraordinary book. An exquisitely written, deeply moving, sometimes extremely funny, sometimes simply horrifying, collection of linked short stories revolving around the soldiers in “Alpha Company”, including one called Tim O’Brien, who after the war becomes the author of this book.

The Vietnamese are generally only minor characters in this book. But while the book is a tender portrait of American troops in Vietnam, it does nothing to glorify the US engagement in that war, which is clearly seen as pointless and immoral. O’Brien’s first encounter with a dead Vietnamese is with an old man killed by an indiscriminate air bomardment of a village called in reprisal for a brief and ineffective sniper attack on O’Brien’s own platoon.

The terrorism that the Americans practice upon the Vietnamese is so routinised that it is almost unremarked upon, frequently considered by the troops as little more than youthful hi-jinks. O’Brien reminds the reader that those doing this, the American GIs, are just kids, mostly conscripts barely out of high school, unleashed from the bounds of civilisation and morality, desperate just to survive and unconcerned about those who die in order to ensure their survival.

But of course not all survive. Vietnamese action repeatedly bleeds the Americans, and vice versa. In one chapter O’Brien meditates on the humanity of a dead Vietnamese soldier, killed in his ambush, and, like his killers, someone who probably wished he was somewhere else, living his own young life rather than being involved in ending the young lives of others.

The Things They Carried, since its publication, has come to be regarded as a classic of American literature and O’Brien as one of the finest writers of his generation. The accolades are deserved.

Turbulence, by Giles Fodden

Summary: Weather as a metaphor for war as a metaphor for weather

It’s 1944 and the Allies are preparing for the largest amphibious assault ever mounted to retake Europe from Nazi tyranny. What might thwart their cunning plans though, even more than the Germans, is the weather. A sufficient period of decent weather is essential to land all the troops and equipment necessary to establish a robust beachhead on the coast of North-Western France. Hence inordinate pressure falls upon the weather forecasters to provide the necessary information to the generals to make a decision upon which the lives of untold thousands and the future of Europe itself depends.

Giles Fodden’s novel follows, in flashback, a brief portion of the career of its fictional protagonist, Henry Meadows. Meadows a physicist turned metrologist in wartime service, is sent to Scotland to try to extract the secret to a more accurate forecasting method from a brilliant reclusive, and pacifist, metrologist, opposed to giving any assistance to the war effort.

Meadows, an intellectually brilliant but socially naïve character, is our guide through both the complexities of the science and the chaos of the war. It’s an engaging read, even though some of the discussions of weather forecasting can be confusing. It conveys the awful weight that the planners of the D-Day landings had to bear and how in brutal ways the randomness of war echoes the randomness of the weather.