Resources for a Fruitful Life

Friday, February 12, 2010

Books as Train Wrecks

I just finished reading the book Honolulu, by Alan Brennert.  It was good.  Fun, sort of light, interesting tie-ins to factual historical events, and shed some light upon Korean culture-both in Korea and in Hawaii, during the 1920s and 30s.  Last year I read Brennert's book Molokai, about the people with Hansen's Disease, also known as Leprosy.  I liked Molokai better, if only because of one, dark secret about my reading preferences:

I like train-wreck books.

Huh?  You know, books about subjects that make you squirm.  Books about things people would rather not know about.  Books that expose facts and secrets that public figures have tried to sweep under the rug.  Books about things that happened that nobody's proud of.

I have no idea when this started, but after I finished reading Honolulu, I thought "Well, that was good, but not totally interesting. His first book was better. Why?  Oh.  YEAH! I should write a blog about the train wrecks I've read in the last year or so."  Here goes.

The Swamp

This book, by Michael Grunwald, tells the story of the rape and pillage of the state of Florida.  It starts by explaining how the 2000 recount/ election Supreme Court decision might have been the nail in the coffin for any hope of eventual environmental reclamation in Florida.  Then, it goes all the way back, like a Michener novel, to the ecological formation of Florida and works its way forward. 

I wrote my major graduate paper for landscape history class on Florida.  I love Florida.  I have since I was a little girl, and skinned my knees getting off the bus on my first trip to Disney World.  I'm part of the problem, though.  My ambivalent feelings bubble to the surface every time I visit my parents, in their place in Ft. Myers.  Their house backs up to the Six Mile Cypress Slough.  You can see the Slough from the air when you fly into the RSW airport.  It is one of the only natural features left.

Most people don't really know that Florida, south of Lake Okeechobee is naturally one big swamp.  A "River of Grass," as author Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote. The Swamp takes you through Florida's history, from the removal of the native Seminoles, to Big Sugar, to the post World War Two real estate boom, the arrival of "The Mouse," and into the present day.  I wonder if Grunwald will put out a new edition with an appendix of the great housing bust of the late 2000s.  It would be fitting.

The Colony

I don't remember if I read Molokai first or The Colony first, but they're both fascinating.  The Colony is a detailed nonfiction account of the Leprosy colony on an isolated strip of one of the least-visited Hawaiian Islands.  I picked it up in the airport one time, because I needed something to hold my attention for a long plane flight.  I gravitated toward the Train Wreck.  The story of Father Damien, the Catholic Priest who risked his life, and eventually succumbed to leprosy, to help the captives of Molokai, interwoven with technical information about the disease, and the cruelty with which the Molokai colony was treated is both interesting and embarrassing.

The Imperial Cruise

My Dad and I listened to this book on CD while driving to Florida a couple of weeks ago. Talk about embarrassing.  I tweeted, not long after finishing it, "I just listened to this book that makes me think that Teddy Roosevelt was a crook!"  That definitely sparked a conversation, one which was nearly impossible to carry on via the 140 character per tweet limit.  For a summary of the book, I'd recommend reading the excellent book review in the New York Times, found here.

The title of the review is "The Queasy Side of Theodore Roosevelt's Diplomatic Voyage."  The reviewer ISN'T KIDDING.  Suffice to say, I've never heard/read so much talk about racial views of a particular time period or people, including anything about the Third Reich, as I have in this book.  Some would say that the perspectives presented should be given some slack, due to the time period.  Others say that the Author's perspective colors the narrative, too much.  The New York Times book review gives a thoughtful opinion about that, and some more information about the facts presented.  Example:  that the US was waterboarding Filipinos way back when, same as in recent times.  There was even, horror of horrors, a "patriotic song" about it.  The NYT reviewer reminds us that, while many of the facts presented in the book aren't common knowledge, they have seen the light of day before this book.  Perhaps this book will make the shocking facts "common knowledge" so that we can learn from them, once and for all. We'll see.

I say, the book is an eerie look back at how history keeps repeating itself, over and over and over again.  My verdict, after reading the book:  "Diplomatic" policy in the US, 1895-1905, yeah, TRAIN WRECK. Again, an enlightening and completely embarrassing book.

The Last Town on Earth

Another joyful book,The Last Town on Earth, by Thomas Mullen, is about the Flu epidemic of 1918, as it affects a fictional small town (based on actual small towns) in a remote mill town of the Pacific Northwest.  The town barricades itself in a quarantine against all outside interaction.  That means nobody can leave for booze, food, or "other comforts." 

Drama ensues when a sick, starving person tries to get through the barricade.  The town is then forced to take action, and the resulting twists and turns are heartbreaking and surprising.  Let's just say that the flu that eventually ravages the town doesn't come from where you think it comes from.

I like to read happy books, too.  But the train wrecks really hold my attention.  What are your favorite "train wreck" books?  Books that make you squirm, but that you can't put down?

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