Monday, February 27, 2017

Pompeii, A Book Review

Robert Harris, Pompeii, (2003, New York: Random House Paperbacks, 2005), 279 pages, one map. 

Since I was a child, I have been fascinated with the story of Pompeii, but I was a bit reluctant about reading a historical fiction account of the events of 79 AD, when the town was covered by a volcanic eruption.   After all, I knew the ending.  Several towns east of Vesuvius was buried by the eruption.  However, my men's book club group decided that we needed a break from the serious history we'd been reading and decided on this book.  I'm glad that we did.  This is a fascinating story that centers on Attilius, the "aquarius" or engineer overseeing the "Aqua Augusta," an aqueduct providing water to the towns along the Bay of Neapolitan (now Naples). Attilius is a young man, but a fourth generation engineer, who has been assigned to this particular aqueduct following the disappearance of the previous aquarius. 

Strange things are happening around the Bay of Neapolitan in the days leading up to the eruption.  Almost all of the cities (except for Pompeii) have lost water, or have received water that was so rank with sulfur that it is unfit for drinking and bathing.  Attilius' job is to find out why and to correct the problem.  At the city of Misenum a fleet of the Roman navy is anchored.  Pliny, the Roman philosopher, has recently been made Admiral of the fleet, which is relaxed as the empire is at peace.  Attilius obtains Pliny's support, which is critical and carries the weight of the emperor.  The cities are also in the midst of a religious holiday.  No one is interested in helping until they learn of the power behind Attilius' task.  As he puts together a team of men, oxen and supplies for the journey up the mountain to the aqueduct, the reader is provided with a view of Roman world. Those with power and money enjoy the finest things such as 200 year old wine (which has to be mixed with more recent wine as it is not very tasty).  There are brothels, of which Pompeii is especially known.  And then there are slaves.  One of the slaves, responsible for his master's tanks of eels, is sentenced to die for letting the eels die (which happened because of the sulfur in the water).  He is sliced so that blood is flowing and thrown in another tank where he's eaten by eels.  His mother, also a slave, naturally goes berserk.  Attilius who is presented as an honest and compassionate man, finds such behavior offensive and tries to care for the mother, but doesn't get too involved.  He stays focused on his task of fixing the aqueduct.

As a reader, we know that Vesuvius is a ticking time bomb.  The story starts two days before the eruption and ends the day afterwards.  But those living in the pleasant towns along the coastline have no idea of their fate.  The mountain has always been dormant.  Twenty years earlier there was a great earthquake (which destroyed and created a real estate opportunity in Pompeii, but no one had connected the earthquake to the volcano.  Pliny and Attilius are both men interested in observing nature.  As the story unfolds, they both began to have their suspicions as to what's happening.  To help the reader understand what is occurring inside the volcano, Harris begins each chapter with a quote from scientific studies of volcanoes. 

There is a surprise ending to the book and I won't spoil it.  As I got more into the story, I couldn’t put the book down, but had to keep reading.  The author was able to hold my attention with a compelling story while providing information about the Roman world, the geology of the volcano, and the engineering of the water systems (which survived the eruption (they were on the opposite side of the mountain and were in use for another 400 years).  And he's also able to weave a love story into the pages of the book.  I highly recommend this book. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Photos from the Okefenokee

Early this January, I spent three days paddling and camping inside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.  This was my fourth trip into the swamp.  Joining me for the journey was my father.  I was going to write a longer article on the trip, but never got around to it, so I'll just post photos and some comments.  The first day was lovely.  We camped at Roundtop platform in the middle of Chase Prairie, which was beautiful (and my favorite spot so far for camping in the swamp as you had views in all directions).  That night around 4 AM, a storm came through and the lightning (which I wasn't able to capture by camera) was incredible.  It rained on and off most of the second day.  We camped the second night on a platform in Mizell Prairie.  On the third day, we paddled back to where we started.  Click on any of the smaller photos to enlarge
paddling the canal into the swamp

a nice gator (we saw 100s)

My father (this was 5 days after his 80th birthday)

The swamp was lower than my other trips.
There was lot of weeds, pollen and algae blocking the canal
paddling through muck

leaving the canal for Chase Prairie
(see the gator on sentry duty?)

The prairies were filled with pitcher plants from last summer

An ibis.  There were lots of large birds in the prairies!
(sandhill cranes, great blue herons, a couple wood storks, egrets)

Roundtop camping platform (outhouse on the end) 

Evening light

setting sun

morning rain

a temporary clearing (it would rain again and again)

Camping on a platform

After glow (it was amazing and I have dozens of shots)
I decided to enlarge it for your pleasure

Sunrise on our last morning
a nice size gator

back where we started

Friday, February 10, 2017

January 25, 2017, Washington DC

January 25, 2017, Washington DC

Coming out of Union Station
The Silver Meteor pulls into Washington DC at 6:30 AM, nearly thirty minutes early.  It’s dark outside, so I stop and eat breakfast in Union Station before heading out to explore the city.  The place is still decorated for Trump’s inauguration which was five days earlier.  There are huge flags hanging from the front of Union Station.  The capitol’s dome, in early morning light, can be seen from the great hall. 

Capitol in Early Morning Light
I leave the station at 7:15 A.M.  I have nearly the whole day, but unfortunately the museums won’t open until 10 AM.  I don’t have to be back at Union Station till 3:30 PM to catch my next train.  I zip up my jacket as it is cool, yet unseasonably warm for January in Washington, and head to the capitol which is bathe in the rays of sun as it rises over the horizon.  I walk around the north side of the capitol and kick myself for not bringing a better camera (I have my iPhone).  I click photo after photo as I walk around the capitol.  On the south side, the stage and platforms for the inauguration are still up.   I head down toward the Washington Monument.  The grassy area in the middle of the mall had been covered with two inch thick plastic flooring to protect it from the crowds who’d gathered at the inauguration.  Along the side of the mall, media companies are breaking down their equipment.  When I reach the monument, I take a break, looking out toward the White House.  It’s only a little after 8, yet the city is busy with helicopters coming and going and flights from Reagan National taking over every few minutes. 
Plastic Flooring used to protect the Mall's grass
There is a large orange construction crane a block or so behind the White House, the kind that is a couple hundred feet tall and a boom sticking out that’s almost as long as the structure is tall.  My sarcastic side takes over and I think to myself that maybe they are installing an orange canopy over the White House to mimic Trump’s hair.  As I continue walking toward the Lincoln Memorial, I notice a couple of very serious photographers set up at the base of the Washington Monument, their cameras mounted on tripods with massive lens pointed toward the White House.  I think that maybe they’re trying to catch Trump as he comes and goes in a helicopter. 
A small section of the WW2 Memorial

I first come to the World War II memorial, which is so massive (I had always through the monument of the Marines raising the flag was the memorial for this war, but now there is a massive memorial in the middle of the mall, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial).  I walk through it, with pillars for each state.  It is so big that it is impossible to catch with one photo and the sun’s angle makes it hard to capture the “Pacific Theater” side of the monument.  

Bronze Soldiers looking at Wall
"Pieta" in bad light
Next is the Vietnam War Memorial, which I’ve seen a few times (including at night and I recommend seeing it then).  While I have seen this one before, I have not seen the memorial to the women members of the Armed Forces who served in Vietnam.  I am moved by this small memorial.  There are three women, one is a nurse who his holding a wounded soldier in a fashion that reminds me of the Pieta (Michelangelo’s statue of Mary holding Jesus after he was removed from the cross).  Unfortunately, the sun is behind this section of the memorial and without a strobe, I am unable to capture a decent photo of it.  After a few minutes, I head on toward the Lincoln Memorial.
Lincoln Memorial

Korean War Memorial
After walking around the Lincoln Memorial, I head for the Korean War Memorial.  This is another new monument that I’ve not seen and it is incredible.  If you are in the Washington, check it out.  The memorial is haunting as there are bronze soldiers on patrol that are reflected by a wall behind them.  I’m impressed.  After spending some time at the memorial, I head back up toward the Washington Monument.  The museums are now open!  

Greenpeace's "Resist" Banner

As I walk, I notice the photographers have packed up their cameras and as I get closer I see what they were aiming to shoot.  On the crane I’d noticed before, that’s just behind the White House, flies a huge banner reading “RESIST!”  I take photos and, upon posting one on Facebook, learn from a friend that six members of Greenpeace took over the crane and unfurled the banner.  I stop and have a snack and remove my jacket and store it in my bag.  It’s really warm for January!  While I watch the banner wave, I wonder how long it will fly and if Trump has been tweeting about it.  I now have to decide which museum I want to visit.  I would really like to see the Holocaust and the African American Museums, as I’ve not been to either, but they are way too far from the train station (and I’m going to also have to eat lunch).  I decide to go to the American History Museum (which I was last in when I was probably 15) and save the others for a longer trip in DC.  So I walk back toward the capitol and stop in the museum. 
Leaving DC

The National History Museum is enjoyable as I really like GM’s exhibit of American transportation (especially the part about maritime history).  After a few hours, I have lunch in their cafeteria and then head back to the train station.  I arrive at 3 PM, allowing me enough time to duck into the Postal Museum that is adjacent to Union Station (which has an incredible stamp collection along with some interesting exhibits of the RPO (Railway Post Office) and the Pony Express.  At 3:45 PM, I’m at the station.  When the call for my train comes, I show my ticket to the conductor and he directs me to the car with my sleeper compartment.  After dinner in the diner and a toast of Dewar’s in honor of Robert Burns (today is the birthday of the Scottish poet) I fall asleep as the train rocks it way through the Allegheny Mountains.  In in the morning, I’ll be in South Bend, Indiana.  

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Wait Till Next Year (A Review)

I have been traveling again (by train to South Bend, Indiana and then by rental car to a conference at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI) and rather absent from the blogworld.  Hopefully I will get around sharing some of those stories, but until then, here is a review of a book I read this past month.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 261 pages, some photos.

Goodwin, a renowned historian and author of presidential biographies, recalls her childhood fascination with the Brooklyn Dodgers in this delightful memoir.  The Dodgers were referred to as bums, as it seemed they would never win a World Series.  In the forties and fifties, they were a National League powerhouse, often winning the pennant, but losing in the Series.  They were "always the bridesmaid, never the bride.”  Against this backdrop is a young girl whose father taught her how to keep score.  As she became better at scoring, she would listen to the afternoon game and then retell the events of the game to her father when he came home from his job as a bank examiner.  She credits baseball with making her a historian and storyteller as she learns to build suspense in recalling the events of the game.   

As Goodwin recalls each season in which the Dodgers disappoint them again, she shares memories of growing up in her Brooklyn neighborhood as well as events happening in the country and around the world.  She lives by two calendars: one from church and the other from baseball.  She tells many humorous stories such as making her confession before her first communion.  It has been impressed upon her how serious this is and to think hard about her sins.  She realizes she has been wishing bad things upon others, such as wanting a certain Yankee player to break an arm or a Phillies ball player to experience some other kind of misfortune.  As she confesses, the priest’s giggles and admits that he too is a Dodger fan.  Then, he uses the occasion to teach a lesson, asking her how she'd feel if the only way the Dodgers win the Series is that all the other players are injured.  Another story involved Old Mary, who lived in a dilapidated house.  The neighborhood children were sure she was a witch and set out spying on her.  When Goodwin's mother learns of how they have been treating Mary, she takes her daughter down to meet the old woman who was from the Ukraine and had learned only broken English.  A few months after learning she was a nice old and lonely woman, Old Mary dies.

Goodwin enjoyed school, especially literature and geography.  She even had a teacher who required them to learn the principle towns along the Trans-Siberian along with the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian railroads along with the Baikula-Amur line. However, I'm not so sure about the Baikula-Amur line, a Siberian railway that runs north of Lake Baikal, as most of the work on it was twenty-plus years after Goodwin had finished elementary school.

In addition to what was happening locally, Goodwin reflects on the national events.  The fifties were the waning years of segregation and she pays attention to the events at Little Rock.  She ponders over the Rosenbergs children after their execution and worries over the Soviet's exploding an atomic bomb. She goes out and searches for the first satellite launched by the Soviets.  All this is recalled as Goodwin recaps each season.  The book comes to a climax in 1956, when the Dodger's beats the Yankees for their first World Series win. She and her parents celebrated in downtown Brooklyn.  But with the win comes losses.  Goodwin's childhood friend moves away, a trend that will happen over and over again with the affluence of the 50s.  She becomes interested in boys.  Then her mother dies and her father, who is heartbroken, decides to sell the only house she's really ever known.  Then the final straw breaks in 1957, as the Brooklyn Dodgers (along with the hated Giants) announce they will relocate to the West Coast.  The magic of childhood has passed her by. 

In the Epilogue, Goodwin tells about how she again fell in love with baseball as a graduate student at Harvard.  This time it was with the Boston Red Sox, a team who (at the time of the writing of her memoir) was a lot like the old Dodgers.  Although they often had good teams, they were unable to win the Series.  Goodwin, like her father before her, has the pleasure to introduce her children to the magic of the game. 

I enjoyed reading this book.  Goodwin is a wonderful storyteller and has an eye for history (with perhaps the exception of Russian railroads).  I recommend this book!