Archive for 2003

Book recommendations: The Histories of Stephen E. Ambrose

10 September 2003
Categories: From the armchair
coverCitizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany by Stephen E. Ambrose

One of Ambrose’s strongest popular works, in part because he allows his sources to tell their stories in their own voices. The result is about as close as one can get to the actual experience of the infantry in the European Theatre, even though that still leaves it worlds away from having been there.

Ambrose takes us from D-Day through to the Bulge, then takes a lengthy interlude of several chapters that focus on specific aspects of the war. Most, especially the chapter on medics, nurses, and the aid station system, are excellent. One chapter, on the air war, is somewhat redundant to his later work The Wild Blue, but is also fairly short. Finally, he returns to the chronology and takes us across the Rhine into Germany.

Structurally and informationally, the book is quite solid. My only real complaint is that the ETO maps that lead off many chapters are not particularly helpful. They usually show the big picture but do not show the smaller towns and villages in which the events of the accompanying chapter take place, leaving the events in a sort of geographical limbo. Also, all are two-page maps, and so the central front line, where the maps have their greatest detail, almost always winds up buried in the depths of the spine. Overall, this book would be my first recommendation for those interested in getting started with WW2 history as seen through the pen of Stephen Ambrose.

coverBand of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose

The basis for HBO’s extraordinarily-well-rendered 10-part miniseries. After about episode 5, I found myself wishing 1) I had been better able to place names with the faces on the screen, as it was becoming quite obvious that nearly every character was an actual, real-life person, and not some dramatic-license amalgam as in, say, The Tuskegee Airmen (a notable flaw of that otherwise excellent HBO production); and 2) I had a better knowledge of the various battles in which these men fought, and a more detailed understanding of what they went through. Ambrose’s book provides all that and more. It’s based—often directly, with long quoted passages—on numerous lengthy interviews with many of the soliders of Easy Company, including Dick Winters, Carwood Lipton, and many others. Best of all, the book allows one to see how one company could fight in the D-Day invasion in France, Operation Market-Garden in Holland, and the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and manage to wind up in Austria by the end of the war.

coverThe Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany by Stephen E. Ambrose

The story of the Fifteenth Air Force as told through the eyes of one pilot, his crew, and a squadron of the 455th Bomb Group stationed in Cerignola, Italy during 1944–45. The pilot is George McGovern, a South Dakota native who flew 35 missions over Germany and Austria, later to become a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate. McGovern’s tale is neither typical nor atypical, and is told with candor and a scholar’s eye for detail. Overall, this is a well-written and interesting book, but at times the book is hampered by a feeling of disjunction, as if various chapters did not know of the existence of others. For example, Chapter Nine describes the emergency use of parachutes tied to the waist gun mounts to slow an aircraft with its brakes shot out. Two chapters later, McGovern uses this technique, which is explained to us anew, as if for the first time. Also, many of the chapters bog down at their ends because Ambrose resorts to reciting mission statistics for the time period covered in the chapter. This is useful information, but might have been better served by a table in an appendix, with the body of the book reserved for more analysis than merely the raw numbers of missions flown, aircraft deployed, bomb tonnage, and losses of crew and aircraft.

coverNothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863–1869 by Stephen E. Ambrose

This time Ambrose has moved away from military history and writes about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, though he does often refer to the crews, populated by Civil War veterans, as being similar to a fighting force as they pushed the line forward. (He even works in a few half-sequiturs regarding World War II soldiers.) The book alternates chapters between the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, a decent way to structure the tale even though it’s forced to chronologically backtrack to cover the same year from the other railroad’s perspective. (This disconnect is more pronounced as the lines near each other, and their surveyors and graders cross paths.) The book includes some good maps, following the lines on a state-by-state basis, with the only drawbacks being that the the maps are insufficiently detailed to show all the towns along the lines that are mentioned in the text, and the California map (the start of the CP) is inexplicably placed near the very end of the book.

Overall, this is a typical Ambrose book in that it’s an enjoyable read, densely researched (if not perfectly notated), mildly repetitive but otherwise written with élan. During his research, Ambrose was invited to ride on the UP’s gigantic steam locomotive № 844, where he saw first-hand the enthusiasm of railfans for the old beast. Reading this book, it’s apparent that much of that enthusiasm rubbed off on old Stephen.

Footnote: The fact that I managed to be in Sacramento while reading this book, and saw the actual Gov. Stanford, the CP’s first locomotive, in the California State Railroad Museum there, helped to bring this book to life for me. Maybe someday I’ll take a long drive down Interstate 80, much of which follows the old Transcontinental grade, for a full-immersion history trip.

The Chicago River: An Illustrated History and Guide to the River and its Waterways by David M. Solzman

29 May 2003
Categories: From the armchair

coverDavid M. Solzman has written a terrific book on the Chicago River. It’s chock full of all sorts of details and historic background. Though I tend to be fastidious in the care of my library, this is one book I can see getting dog-eared and ratty from frequent use. I suspect that sooner or later it will even wind up in a zippered plastic bag travelling very close to the surface of said river, because the book has genuinely whetted my appetite for a whole series of canoe trips throughout its branches.

For anyone interested in history, Chicago, or rivers in general, this book is a satisfying read. Unfortunately, due to the high frequency of typos and grammatical errors, it must also be placed on the Shut List. In addition, I must share two items, one a minor quibble, the other a major qualm.

The quibble has to do with the number of times the author mentions, not in passing but as if telling us for the first time, the fact that the river has had its direction of flow reversed. In a quick re-scan I counted eight times. Yes, the Sanitary and Ship Canal that reversed the Main and South Branches of the river in 1900 remains one of the greatest feats of civil engineering this country has ever seen. Yes, more earth was moved in the creation of this canal than in the more famous one down in Panama a decade later. Yes, the reversal of the Chicago River was easily the most momentous hydrological change in this region since the Ice Age. I’m just not sure how many times the point has to be hammered home: our drinking water comes from Lake Michigan, our effluent (to put it nicely) goes to St. Louis.

Solzman has done a nice job of organizing the book in terms of a riverboat tour, and for this reason it would make a handy companion on any canoe or tourboat trip. First he starts at the northernmost reaches of the North Branch and follows it south to the Forks at Wolf Point, downtown near the Merchandise Mart. Next he backtracks a little to describe the North Shore channel. Then he takes us on what he calls the “Great Circle Tour,” a circumnavigation of the Loop and the southern portion of the city that starts at the Michigan Avenue Bridge, exits the river via the Chicago Locks to Lake Michigan, heads south along the shoreline to enter at Calumet Harbor, passes through the Little Calumet River and Cal-Sag Channel (like the Chicago River, these flow from the lake toward the west), through the O’Brien Locks, and finally up the Sanitary Canal and the South Branch of the Chicago River back toward downtown.

It is when we reach the Sanitary Canal that the biggest problem with Solzman’s book reveals itself. The problem is one of river terminology. Repeatedly he points out sites along the way in terms of being on the “left bank” or “right bank,” using them relative to the hypothetical boat in which we are riding. However, the banks of a river are properly named relative to the direction of flow of the river. In other words, the “left bank” is to the left when facing downstream. After all, Paris’ “Rive Gauche” does not become the “Rive Droite” the moment le bateau turns around. Solzman could have used “to the left” or “on the north (or west) bank” to describe something on that side of the Canal and South Branch as we move upstream, and frequently does, but he just as often misuses the terms “left bank” and “right bank.” Obviously, this is only an issue on this stretch of the tour, since at all other times we are moving downstream with the flow. But for someone with as much knowledge of river systems as the author appears to have, I am very surprised to see him make this mistake not once, but frequently and casually.

Thus, between the typos and the inaccurate terminology, my copy is now beginning to fill with pencil notations and corrections, and The Chicago River has been sluiced into the Shut List. But I do this only with regret. I have met the author and he is a scholar and a nice guy, and his book will long be an important reference work in my collection.