The story of the Wright Brothers, as told by biographer and historian David McCullough, is so improbable that it seems like fiction. Their father was born in a log cabin and their mother died young. Wilbur and Orville grew up in Dayton, Ohio along with their older brothers and younger sister Katherine in a house with no running water. They had only high school educations. Yet, after spending less then one thousand dollars of their own money, the Wright brothers were the first men to really fly, and were later visited at flying demonstrations in Europe by three European kings. Katherine was the first woman to fly as a passenger three times; their father, a minister, was the first elderly passenger. I found McCullough’s thoroughly researched book to be fascinating, once I could tell Wilbur and Orville apart. Wilbur was brilliant, a fine writer and public speaker. Orville, the younger, was mechanically gifted and given to occasional moody spells. After much research and experimentation, including constructing a wind tunnel above the shop where they made, sold, and repaired bicycles, they were ready to fly. Picking the location for its constant winds and sandy terrain, they traveled to Kitty Hawk on the remote, unimproved Outer Banks to practice flying an unpowered glider in 1900. They returned each year, and in late 1903 made the first four powered flights in a single day, the last one, by Wilbur, lasted 59 seconds. The brothers credited a large family library with furthering their own education, and many others would mention their wide ranging interests and work ethic in their amazing success story. Thousands of family letters helped McCullough bring the brothers’ story to life. This book will be published May 5.
I knew that the Lusitania was torpedoed during World War I, and that some Americans died, but I knew none of the details of the tragedy. The inevitability of the torpedo heading for the side of the Lusitania drives the reader anxiously through Erik Larson’s book, in which events that took place in 1915 feel like they just happened. The passengers come to life through letters, diaries, and artifacts. I learned what they wore, who they dined with, why they were traveling, and could almost see the children jumping rope on the deck. Most remarkably, Walther Schwieger, the commander of submarine U-22, is a memorable character, with his daunting task of patrolling British waters, avoiding mines and destroyers, trying to see without being seen. Will there be enough power in the batteries to surface when it’s safe, or enough diesel fuel to return safely to Germany? Will the torpedoes even fire?
Larson did a tremendous amount of research on the Lusitania, but allows none of it to slow the intensifying pace of the story. Three years after the Titanic struck an iceberg, the world knows that passenger liners are not indestructible. Warnings that Germany would not hesitate to attack British passenger ships appeared in New York newspapers on May 1, 1915, but the Lusitania still left New York that day, although delayed to accept passengers from another ship commandeered by the British navy. Some of the passengers were surprised that the “Lucy” wasn’t traveling as fast as it could; the war dictated saving coal by running only 3 out of 4 boilers. Captain Turner did receive some telegrams during the voyage, but they had conflicting advice on what to expect when he reached the war zone of Irish and British waters. What did the British Admiralty, headed by Winston Churchill, know about the movements of the U-22, and how was the war going without the help of the still-neutral United States, led by President Woodrow Wilson, then courting Edith Galt? And what happened when the fog cleared as the Lusitania neared Ireland, and why was a fast British cruiser called back to port? Readers will turn the pages faster and faster to find out, and also to learn who lived and died, and what happened later because the Lusitania sank.
How to Be a Victorian: a Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman
A very readable, often entertaining look at daily life in England in Victorian times. Ruth Goodman, a historian, has spent considerable time immersed in Victorian life for British television series, including Victorian Farm. Goodman’s experiences provide added interest, although there were things she didn’t experience, such as the London smog. Several families are described at different points in the Victorian era, which lasted 63 years, and the reader learns about their typical diets, working and living conditions, and even different modes of transportation. The hardest part to read is about the lives of children, including the lack of modern medicine and knowledge of nutrition, opium tonics for babies and long hours of work for children as young as six. Conditions and education for children did improve over time, and the section on education is quite interesting. The format, taking people through a typical day from dawn to bedtime, works well. On a chilly day like today, I’m happy to live with central heating and hot running water, the things Goodman missed most while re-enacting Victorian life, but she does succeed in making the idea of a visit to the Victorian era sound appealing.
Lives in Ruins : Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson
This is an engaging look at the lives of archaeologists, a combination of armchair travel, popular science, and history. I enjoyed reading it very much, especially the author’s travels to visit archaeological sites and interview archaeologists in the Caribbean, Peru, a tiny island in the eastern Mediterranean, South Dakota, Fishkill and Fort Drum in New York, and the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island. The author audits classes, goes to field school before volunteering at a dig site, attends conferences, and visits museums. Other than the weather and working conditions, it sounds like fun. As a group, archaeologists are highly educated, passionate about their work, and grossly underpaid, if they’re even employed. They eat sandwiches, swat mosquitoes, work under hot sun or in the rain, often with a developer’s bulldozer looming, drive old vehicles, and tell great stories and drink beer at the end of a long day.
The reader learns about the discovery of an unknown Revolutionary War cemetery in New York, and how a civilian archaeologist working for the Department of Defense is helping soldiers learn to protect sites of cultural and historical importance with decks of playing cards. Many sites have been lost to development, while others are waiting for funding, such as the search for explorer James Cook’s Endeavour in the Newport harbor. This is a November Library Reads pick.
Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon
Book eight in the Outlander series is over 800 pages long. I didn’t really mind, because it’s been five years since the previous book, Echo in the Bone, was published, and I needed a while to catch up on the storylines and characters. Much of the book is set in and around Philadelphia in 1778. No one wants to be in the war, but Jamie Fraser is asked by George Washington to be a colonel. Lord John Grey might lose the sight in one eye after Jamie punches him, or he might be arrested as a spy. Jamie’s wife Claire, a time traveler from the mid 20th century, is practicing medicine with 18th century supplies. Jamie’s nephew Ian, part Scot and part Mohawk, is in love with Quaker Rachel, whose brother, a physician, loves John Grey’s niece. Jamie and Claire’s daughter Brianna is in Scotland with her family in 1980, until son Jem goes missing and her husband Roger MacKenzie travels back in time and meets Jamie’s father, and his own. Another family connection, William, rescues Jane and her little sister Fanny from a brothel. Most of the storylines end up with Jamie and family back in North Carolina, rebuilding their family home. At least one more book is planned. Adventure, romance, history, and time travel continue to enliven this series, which began with Outlander, soon to be a television series.
A hot summer day is the perfect time to read about this journey of polar exploration. 135 years ago, the North Pole was the great unknown. A popular theory was that a ring of ice surrounded an open polar sea. After a voyage to Greenland, George De Long became fascinated by the Arctic. Eccentric newspaper owner James Gordon Bennett agreed to fund a polar expedition for the U.S. Navy, and Lt. Commander De Long and a crew of 32 took the USS Jeannette through the Bering Sea between Alaska and Siberia. The Jeannette had been reinforced for the ice, and they took plenty of provisions, two scientists, and a doctor. Their goal was to explore Wrangel Island and the polar sea. They did discover three uncharted islands far north of Siberia, but were trapped in the ice, drifting for almost two years. Three other ships were sent in search, while the crew of Jeannette finally had to take to the ice, towing three boats in search of open water and then Siberia. Their adventures make for compelling reading. This book will be published in August, and will also be available as an audiobook.
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore
Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and is still famous today. He was a printer, an inventor, a diplomat, and signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. This book is about his little sister Jane, born in Boston in 1712. She is obscure, and would be unknown today except for her brother. Benny and Jenny were very close, and exchanged letters for over 60 years. They outlived their 15 brothers and sisters, and 11 of Jane’s 12 children. Many of Jane Franklin Mecom’s letters have been lost, but Jill LePore, Professor of American History at Harvard University, has used Benjamin’s letters to fill in the gaps and tell the story of Jane’s long, eventful life. The Franklin family was poor; their father made soap and candles. Benjamin was the only son sent to school for a while. He probably taught Jane to read and write, a little. She never learned to spell. No schools in Boston taught girls at that time. Marrying a saddler, Jane continued to make soap for her brother most of her life, and also made bonnets and caps. She also helped raise some of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Jane loved to read, anything she could, especially her brother’s writings. She loved news and gossip, religion and politics. Her letters show a woman with wide interests, frank and witty. In 1771, Benjamin Franklin sent Jane a box of 13 spectacles from England, with instructions on how to find a pair that worked for her. I think that must have been a wonderful present; she could keep reading and writing to her brother, and they stayed connected until his death. I found this book fascinating and a great way to learn more about life in 18th century America.