The Shipwreck Hunter by David Mearns
A fascinating real life adventure, sure to appeal to fans of The Pirate Hunters. Mearns describes the research, fundraising, and dramatic searches needed to find historical shipwrecks. His teams have searched for a 15th century ship connected to Vasco de Gama, an Australian World War II hospital ship, and the freighter Lucona, which sank in the Indian Ocean in 1977 after an explosion in the cargo hold. This book is quite the page turner; I wanted to see if his team could find yet another long missing ship, and possibly discover why it sank. Equipment failures, conflicting eyewitness accounts, and rough weather make searches even more challenging.
Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson
A compelling, engaging read of the amazing challenge NASA accepted in the summer of 1968 to send astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders to orbit the Moon in late December on Apollo 8. While the stories of Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 are well known, the less familiar story of Apollo 8 makes for fascinating reading. Even though I knew that Apollo 8 was successful, Kurson still makes the mission suspenseful. The author met and interviewed Borman, Lovell, Anders and their families for this book, and his portrayal of the men and their wives turn them from remote historical figures into real, approachable people. Readers learn how and why the men became astronauts, and how their families coped with their dangerous jobs as test pilots and astronauts. Until NASA learned that the Soviet Union planned a flyby of the moon in 1968, they weren’t planning to send astronauts to the moon until Apollo 9 in 1969. In four months, they planned their boldest mission, which was vital in preparing for the moon landing of Apollo 11 and best remembered for photographs of the Earth and the live television broadcast on Christmas Eve. After a very turbulent and violent year, Borman, Lovell, and Anders helped end 1968 on a hopeful, triumphant note. Apollo 8, by Jeffrey Kruger is another recent book about the mission. For more from Robert Kurson, read Shadow Divers, Crashing Through, or Pirate Hunters, which will be discussed here on July 17.
The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North American Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain
I found this book about the Great Alaskan Quake of 1964 to be both informative and very readable, without being overly dramatic. Young teacher Kris Madsen was above her hilltop schoolhouse collecting water for an evening movie on Friday, March 27, when she felt the quake. From southern California, she wasn’t worried until the trees kept swaying and the water disappeared from the harbor of the tiny village of Chenega. Only the schoolhouse was unaffected by the tidal waves, and the surviving villagers climbed the hill and camped above the schoolhouse. The next day, three scientists including geologist George Plafker were already flying over Alaska to survey the damage. The only working seismograph in Alaska was overwhelmed by the quake and initial estimates were between 8.4 and 8.6 on the Richter scale. Later estimates put the quake at 9.2. You may not have heard much about the quake before, because the earthquake zone was sparsely populated. Most of the deaths were from tidal waves, now called tsunamis, which struck as far away as Oregon and California. The town of Valdez on Prince William Sound was also hit hard, along with parts of Anchorage. Working for the U.S. Geological Survey, Plafker and others studied the quake area, measuring the uplift and subsidence of land, surprised by the lack of a huge visible fault. The observations and analysis of geologists, especially George Pflafker, helped change scientific opinion to accept the theory of plate tectonics. I enjoyed reading about Plafker’s life, education, and career, and appreciated that the author, a writer and editor with the New York Times, only shared the backstories of Plafker and teacher Kris Madsen. I was also interested to learn what happened to the villages of Valdez and Chenega after they were damaged so badly by the quake.
The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, by Douglas Preston
In this action-packed adventure story, thriller writer and reporter Douglas Preston joins documentary filmmaker Steve Elkins in searching for a lost city in Central America, first with lidar scans and later with archaeologists. The lidar, in which a small plane flies back and forth over the tree-tops firing laser pulses at the ground, has the team focusing on a few sites in the remote area of Mosquitia, Honduras, looking for the remains of pre-Colombian settlements. For centuries, there have been rumors of a Ciudad Blanca, or White City, although the author says that at least one earlier explorer, Theodore Morde, was panning for gold instead of searching for ruins. The site Elkin’s team travels to by helicopter is deep in the jungle, and they encounter spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and poisonous snakes before they even get to the archaeological site. Torrential rains mildew their clothes in just a few days, and they are wading through rivers and up slippery hillsides. They do find evidence of a large settlement, and hundreds of stone sculptures, possibly left when the city was abandoned. The story of the expedition makes for fascinating reading. The following chapter about the spread of disease in the early 1500s that all but wiped out many areas of Central America and the Caribbean is not such easy reading, but is followed by a contemporary medical mystery. Half of Elkin’s team come down with a hard-to-treat tropical disease, including Preston. Finally, Preston travels back to T1, where the president of Honduras is making an official visit. An incredible story that makes for exciting reading.
The Glass Universe, by Dava Sobel
An absorbing history of women in astronomy and stellar photography, for readers of Hidden Figures. I enjoyed reading about the women computers and astronomers who worked at the Harvard College Observatory from 1877 through the 1930s, examining glass photographic plates of stars, and analyzing the data, working at half the pay of men. The observatory has a library of these photographs going back more than a hundred years, which is being digitized. These photographs led to several advances in astronomy, as did photographs of stellar spectra. Annie Draper, wanting to see her late husband’s work continue, funded much of the observatory’s work for years. Edward Pickering was the director for many years, followed by Harlow Shapley, and they oversaw new telescopes, expansion of the buildings, grants for women doing graduate work in astronomy, and new mountain observatories in Peru and South Africa. Sobel, known for her witty books on the history of science, such as Longitude, used information found in letters, memoirs, diaries, and notes of astronomy conferences to bring the women, including Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne, vividly to life.
The Not-Quite States of America, by Doug Mack
This is an entertaining and informative tour of our far-flung territories and commonwealths, some nearly forgotten. Travel writer Doug Mack visits St. Thomas & St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico. While these islands are all part of the United States, their residents don’t have the same rights as residents of the fifty states, and these vary from territory to territory. Tourism and the U.S. military are major employers. From native islanders, Danes, and Japanese, Mack learns about each area’s history and listens to the debates about their futures, all while enjoying good company and some excellent food. An enjoyable and thought-provoking tour of some overlooked parts of America.
Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova
This short history of butter and butter making is a delicious read. Khosrova traveled around the world to watch butter being made and used, from sculpting butter cows in Iowa, to watching yaks being milked in Bhutan and discovering that yak butter tea made with fresh butter can be delicious. Butter has been made from the milk of camels, water buffaloes, goats, and sheep, as well as cows, for many thousands of years. Religious rituals using butter, superstitions about butter making, and a variety of churns are all described. The history of commercial butter making is included, along with butter’s possible health benefits and the mid-century battle of butter and margarine. Sadly, I grew up on margarine, but I don’t bake with it. I had no idea that butter has become trendy, tending to buy whatever brand of unsalted butter is on sale. I have recently sampled three premium butters: a sweet cream European style butter and cultured salted butters from Brittany and Wales. During a recent visit to a local chain supermarket, I found at least six more premium butters, including a two pound roll of Amish butter. A big box retailer has two selections, and a national chain of small grocery stores currently offers butter made from water buffalo milk with Himalayan sea salt. The butters I tried were all delicious, especially on bread. I will still use basic butter most of the time, but where butter is featured in a recipe, like shortbread cookies or puff pastry, I’m looking forward to using a richer tasting, lower moisture premium butter. Recipes from simple to sophisticated are included, including two methods for making your own butter. The author trained as a pastry chef, has worked as a food writer for a test kitchen, and edits a magazine about cheese. A long list of recommended butters is included. This is one of the most enjoyable microhistories I have read.
Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky
A long, leisurely read about the history of making and using paper, as well as papyrus and parchment. Wall screens, lanterns and lamp shades, kites, balloons, gun cartridges, and even clothing have been made from paper. One of the first uses of paper was to wrap food, and it’s long been used in prayer flags and to burn at religious ceremonies. The history of printing is also described, and the rise and fall of newspapers. Paper making involves a reliable supply of cold, running water, a large supply of linen or cotton rags or other plants, and skilled paper makers. With their arms constantly in cold water manipulating heavy frames, paper making was arduous work, but skilled workers could travel to another area to find work at another paper mill, or start a new mill. Over the centuries there has been a rising demand for paper, and also the plants or used cloth needed to make it. Surprisingly, paper wasn’t made from wood pulp until around 1850. The use of paper doesn’t seem to have declined in this century, and there is a renewed interest in handmade and other specialty papers for writing, painting, and drawing, and paper is still being made from a variety of materials. An interesting and informative microhistory, but not a page turner.