Blogging for a Good Book
Readers looking for a writer who can smoothly blend together interesting characters and hard facts will enjoy the writings of Richard Rhodes. Like yesterday’s author, John McPhee, Rhodes is known for both the quality of his research into the subjects about which he is writing and for an ability to make complex topics understandable.
This ability is most evident in Rhodes’s trilogy on atomic weapons, beginning with The Making of the Atomic Bomb. In these books and his other works, Rhodes brings a sense of scale to the broader story by relating the lives of those people involved. In the case of his works on nuclear warfare, soldiers, scientists, and politicians all have their say, and the stories of their lives ground the science in humanity.
Like McPhee though, Rhodes can also write perceptively about the natural world, and his biography of John James Audubon, one of America’s first naturalists, is an excellent introduction to Rhodes’s writings. Here, Rhodes deftly captures the a sense of the possibilities that the undeveloped expanses of North America raised for naturalists in the early days of the country. Through the story of the life of Haitian-born Audubon’s early years in France, his emigration to America, and his struggles to support his family, Rhodes also tells the story of the early days of the Republic.
Audubon’s entrepreneurial spirit and drive to succeed make him an excellent choice to model the spirit of the young America. Rhodes does an excellent job at conveying both the details of Audubon’s life and of the broader canvas on which Audubon lived and worked without overwhelming the reader in either case. Readers interested in the early days of ornithology, in the development of the American republic, or in the development of an artist will find much to enjoy here.
Check the WRL catalog for Audubon: The Making of an American
I have written about John McPhee before, but in looking back at my reading list, I came across this book of McPhee’s that I had just re-read. I enjoyed it immensely. McPhee’s interests are truly catholic, and he has written about everything from oranges to Scotland to geology, and he has profiled characters as diverse as Bill Bradley (in his college basketball playing days) and environmentalist David Brower. There is however a common thread that runs through all of his writings. McPhee always connects his stories to people. McPhee’s classic work The Pine Barrens examines not only the unique ecology of this remnant of the great eastern forests, but also the lives of the people who have chosen to live in this remote place.
In Looking for a Ship, McPhee profiles Andy Chase, a merchant mariner who is “looking for a ship,” as well as examining the state of the U.S. Merchant Marine at the end of the 1980s. He does this by joining Chase on the S.S. Stella Lykes, a carrier ship that takes on Chase as Second Mate. As in any McPhee book, we learn a lot about the workings of the ship, from the engine room to the bridge, and we get thoughtful and clearly drawn portraits of the crew from the captain on down. They are a fascinating bunch, if a bit idiosyncratic.
Looking for a Ship shows McPhee’s strengths in many areas. He is a nature writer without peer, his delight in the ocean and the smaller waterways is evident. McPhee also has an eye for both details and for the larger picture, and his descriptions of the Stella Lykes echo the issues in the larger Merchant Marine. McPhee also has a clear curiosity for how things work and how individuals do their jobs. He seemingly effortlessly conveys this enthusiasm to readers leaving them equally fascinated.
With appealing characters, writing that is both detailed and crisp, McPhee can be read and enjoyed by a broad audience. Looking for a Ship is a great starting point.
Check the WRL catalog for Looking for a Ship
Although I have been lax this past year in keeping a reading list, I have more or less kept track of all the things I have read since 1984 or so. It is nothing complex, just a title and author list to help jog the memory when I need it. This week’s posts are mostly ones from that list — older titles that I think warrant a second look, or, if you are not familiar with these authors or books, a first look. These are, in many cases, the titles that I go back to when I am looking for something familiar to read. I think that these titles are ones that have retained their currency.
I am always interested in well-researched historical mysteries, as readers of this blog know. One that I have particularly enjoyed is Wilder Perkins’ Bartholomew Hoare series. Set in early 19th century England, Perkins’ books follow the career of former naval captain Bartholomew Hoare. Hoare’s promising naval career is cut short by a throat wound that renders him unable to speak above a whisper, preventing him from assuming command of a ship. Instead, Hoare is assigned to investigate a variety of crimes that involve both civilians and the navy. Here, we find Hoare in command of a motley crew of spies serving King George III. When two prominent navy officers are found decapitated in Dorchester, Hoare and his crew have to figure out if this is a ritual murder of some sort, or part of a more sinister plot by Bonapartists to overthrow the royal family.
With lots of detail of both civilian and naval life and its mix of espionage and mystery, this story should appeal to fans of Bruce Alexander’s Sir John Fielding series as well as to those who enjoy Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series, but really, any fan of historical crime fiction should give Perkins a read.
Check the WRL catalog for Hoare and the Headless Captains