September 18th, 2011

_Dark Tide_, Stephen Puleo

Subtitled: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

Not that there was ever another one, mind you. Published 2003 by Beacon Press, which is "a department of the Unitarian Universalist Association", according to wikipedia. I got this from the library in Mayberry (<-- not its real name), where I go to the adult book group as often as I can. The meeting is tomorrow night and I may update this review after to reflect how that discussion affects my thinking.

It's a good, readable book with a strong moral core (wondering why a religious/academic press would publish this? Wonder no more). Puleo uses a chronological structure to organize the book, so there's a bunch of could-be-irritatingly-foreshadowy bits before the disaster, then the disaster, then the recovery of victims/bodies, and finally the long, drawn out sort-of court case(s) and ultimately the settlement, because USIA decided a jury trial was not going to improve things for them. Puleo (distinctly unlike Larson in _Devil in the White City_) manages to make the pre-disaster bits NOT annoying, mostly by just telling you what this person will be doing later in the story (rather than by not telling you Ferris' name while describing in detail the Big Wheel, say).

Puleo has some specific themes and points to make; a reader accustomed to subtlety might find some of what he does a bit heavy handed. But he's a journalist with a master's in history and he is competent at both tasks which is always amazing. He particularly develops the theme of the place of Italians in American society at the time (the Galleanists, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Wall Street bombing, earlier mail bombs, etc.), and the predominately Italian neighborhood surrounding the unsafe tank. He describes in some detail the intersection of USIA wanting to build a tank near rail and the water, and needing to find a neighborhood that couldn't slow them down through NIMBY (<-- anachronistic terminology is mine, not Puleo's), and why a Boston Italian neighborhood worked well for that purpose.

This is really cool. It's easy enough to _observe_ what USIA did; it's trickier to tell the _story_ of why that neighborhood was in no way able to do anything about a dangerous industrial project in its midst.

Puleo also does a good job of explaining why molasses (and why not molasses later), and the implications of molasses trade throughout Boston's history (he doesn't expend a ton of paragraphs on it; he is succinct). It is not easy to explain changes in technology that have implications for commodity inputs.

Really, it's kind of hard to imagine how any reasonable person could criticize this book. It's seems clear there is an analogy to be found between these events and our recent history, but Puleo doesn't go after it explicitly. This isn't an academic work in tone or in sourcing, but history doesn't have to be academic to be well done and valuable. In some ways, it is weirdly like a Law & Order episode, where the first half is the crime and the criminals being tracked down and apprehended, and the second half is in court. Like Law & Order, it's not likely to be anyone's Favorite Favorite of All Time -- but a lot of us are happy to get more just like it whenever possible.

Absolutely worth your time and money. I think that's the most pleasant learning experience I've had in years (the descriptions of the disaster itself are somewhat heartrending).

ETA: I have one of Puleo's other books, _A City So Grand_, that I picked up remaindered at Willow Books maybe a year ago. Perhaps I will read that next.

_Waiting on a Train_, James McCommons (kindle)

I got this in December 2009 (thank you Amazon for remembering for me) and tried to read it. I failed hard, because it turns out I really cannot stand Kunstler and he wrote the introduction. If you like Kunstler, you're good to go, but if you don't like Kunstler, skip the intro and give the book a try anyway.

Starting just before everything went to sh*t, McCommons started riding trains and talking to train people in order to write this book. The book, as a result, is three books in one.

(1) A description of "train" culture, complete with terminology like "foamers". McCommons -- and many of the people he interviews -- recognize that while people in general like trains, they are often kind of weirded out by people who are very enthusiastic about trains. McCommons only breaks out the autism diagnosis once (and in a fully supported way), but a fan of Baron-Cohen's autism test could have some serious fun with some of the stories in this book.

(2) A description of the railroad network, who owns what, who runs what, how it got to be the way it is, and which groups are pushing to modify it and how.

(3) What it's like to actually take various Amtrak trains, including Amtrak trains that are supported by state DOTs (like the Sounder). While there is occasional mention of light rail now (street car and interurban Back in the Day), it is very ancillary to the main thread(s) of the book.

McCommons is the protagonist: he's the guy doing the interviews, taking the trains, dealing with the too-hot cars and the dining cars that are out of food and figuring out how to get a cab from the train station to his hotel. Sometimes he has one or more members of his family with him, but often he's on his own and a lot of that time he's getting to know other people on the train and conveying their reasons for taking the train and their opinions and feelings about that experience.

McCommons is not nostalgic, at least not in the rose-colored-glasses sense. And at least intellectually he understands that for the next decade(s), whatever growth there is in passenger service in the US is going to be along corridors, not long-haul. He reflexively argues for the importance of long-hauls for connectivity, but I'm not sure he believes it. In some ways, I feel like it would be a much better book if McCommons' conception of politics could find value and idealism in survival and compromise -- in the "art of the possible". I don't think that is a star he is prepared to follow.

But it's a straightforward and interesting read. Because I read it now, rather than back when I bought it, and that's _after_ reading all that other train stuff, I can't be certain this is a good introduction, or if it would be confusing as hell to anyone who didn't already have a pretty good idea about what McCommons is writing about. If you decide to read it without a bunch of train background, I'd love to hear your opinion.

Reading it is yet another reminder that (a) gas is really expensive. Again. and (b) somehow gas being this expensive is much less news-worthy than it was a very few years ago.