It sounds like the plot to a far-fetched disaster movie. Five men are more than nine miles into a tunnel that dead ends. All they have for light is whIt sounds like the plot to a far-fetched disaster movie. Five men are more than nine miles into a tunnel that dead ends. All they have for light is what they brought. They're connected umbilical like to a breathing system because otherwise they'd lose consciousness and die from lack of oxygen. Suddenly, the breathing system fails. And, by the way, the tunnel they're in is some 400 feet under (yes, under) Boston Harbor.
But as Neil Swidey explains in the plainly told but engrossing Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness, that is just what happened in July 1999. He looks at almost every aspect of what led to the men being in that situation, the variety of people involved and the ramifications. In doing so, he looks at almost every aspect of the event, often through the eyes and thoughts of one of the trapped men, D.J. Gillis. And while some of the contributing factors are rather complex, the reporter for The Bowston Globe Magazine renders it all in coherent detail.
The background may be as outside the norm as the event itself. For decades, Boston Harbor had been the end point for human waste from Boston and nearly 50 other cities and towns. Half a billion gallons of sewer water and some 140,000 pounds of lightly treated sludge were being discharged into the Harbor daily. By the 1980s, the sludge had decayed and settled to the ocean floor, creating a disgusting mud known as "black mayonnaise." A lawsuit led to a multi-billion dollar project was planned to try to clean up the harbor, including a massive sewage treatment plant on Deer Island that would be "the destination for every toilet flush in the eastern half of Massachusetts." The project, overseen throughout by a federal judge, also included the world's longest dead-end tunnel. Extending nearly 10 miles under Boston Harbor, it would carry treated sewer water away from Boston Harbor to discharge it deep into Massachusetts Bay.
Akin to another Boston megaproject, the Big Dig, the tunnel alone took twice as long as planned, almost a decade, and cost the general millions of additional dollars. One last step remained for the tunnel to be complete, removing 65-pound plugs that had been placed in each of 55 30-inch wide pipes leading from the side of the tunnel to risers that would actually discharge the water to protect the miners. Not only were the plugs in an area where the tunnel itself was only five feet high, they were to be removed only after taking out the extensive ventilation, electrical and transportation systems used by the miners. That meant the area also would not have enough oxygen to breathe. The solution? Use commercial deep sea divers, although they would not be able to wear the equipment they normally use.
A reader is struck not only by how jerry-rigged the solution was but how relatively harebrained it seemed. An untested breathing system designed for this task by an engineer with a small Spokane, Wash., commercial diving firm would be placed in one of two Humvees. The Humvees were connected back to back because the tunnel was too small for them to turn around, requiring one to be pointed into the tunnel and the other out. Hoses would extend from the breathing system to allow the men to walk to the side tunnels and crawl into them to remove the plugs.
Swidey takes the interesting approach of placing the moment of disaster in the book's prologue. From that point, he traces the stories of the men and companies involved, how the plug problem arose and this particular solution was chosen, and takes the reader inside the disaster and ensuing investigation and aftermath. Thus, Trapped Under the Sea tells not only the personal aspects of the story but the institutional ones, including how not wanting to take ownership of the problem or its solution seems to have led inexorably to disaster. He makes both interesting.
The book shows the payoff of Swidey's hundreds of hours of interviews with those involved and years of study of the project. It allows us to understand both the men and the processes. It also provides some unique insight into the men involved. In fact, weeks after reading the book I am still struck by the incident that, despite all the horror, sticks in the mind of one of the survivors, one that involves a 2½ inch strip of skin.
Given how extraordinary the event was, many readers may wonder why they never seem to have heard of it. It seems to have been swallowed up by the "important" news dominating local and national media -- the effort to recover the body of John F. Kennedy, Jr., after the plane he was piloting crashed in the Atlantic Ocean off Martha's Vineyard. As Swidey observes in his extensive notes, six columns of the front page of the next day's Boston Globe dealt with Kennedy. The story of death and nail-biting survival involving five men trapped 400 feet under Boston Harbor was relegated to an item in the local news section.
Peace is a popular term this time of year. You know, "Peace on Earth" and the like. But what does peace mean? Even dictionary definitions show it hasPeace is a popular term this time of year. You know, "Peace on Earth" and the like. But what does peace mean? Even dictionary definitions show it has varying meaning. Perspective is important. Do we view things externally as in there being no armed conflict, as an internal state of mind, or must both exist for there truly to be peace?
Because each of us likely has our own definition and perspective, in early 2009 John Noltner began interviewing people about what peace meant to them. His goal was to create a collection of thoughts on peace from a wide variety of people and use it to foster a larger public conversation about the topic. A freelance photographer based in Minneapolis, Noltner also took black and white portrait photographs of his subjects. In addition to creating a traveling exhibit, another result of his efforts is his book, A Peace of My Mind, Exploring the Meaning of Peace One Story At a Time, which contains excerpts of about 50 interviews and the subjects' portraits. (Many of the full interviews are available on the book's web site as podcasts.)
A significant number of those interviewed, particularly those with a religious orientation, tend to look toward an internal peace as a first and essential step. They believe that the personal effort of finding an inner peace contributes to and builds peace in the world as a whole. Others tend to view it as an absence of war. Yet there hasn't been much of that, notes Luyen Phan, an international student advisor. He believes peace can arise by building on cultural awareness and exchanges so that what happens elsewhere in the world has more meaning to us.
Economic and personal security also play a role in some visions of peace. Some express the concept that "nobody gets seconds until everyone gets firsts" or that the measure of success isn't monetary but the intangible values that prompt people to strive to help others. There is also a sense in some interviews that personal safety or the knowledge that a person has food and shelter are key components.
Some views are striking because of the individual's background. Jamal Hashi was in elementary school when war broke out in his native Somalia. Now a restaurant owner, his observations have a somewhat unique religious backdrop and perspective.
The core of the message [in the Bible and Qur'an] is: achieve peace, give peace, and live by peace. But what do we fight about? The difference of who was the messenger. It's like killing the mailman because he wasn't the same mailman last week. Did you get the mail? That's all that matters.
Others are more lyrical. Take for example, Melvin Carter Jr., a retired St.Paul police officer, who considers peace it "living symphonically" with each other. "[Y]ou know, in the symphony you've got all kinds of stuff happening -- rhythmically and melodically and harmoniously -- at the same time. [Yet the instruments work] together in such a way that doesn't clash."
One thing that is clear is that regardless of how people view or strive for peace, it is not a state we should consider only during particular times of the year. Thus, A Peace of My Mind would be one of those Christmas gifts that has the propensity to long outlast the event.
We all think about running away at times. We imagine leaving the stresses and obligations of daily life and embarking on a life enhancing adventure. IWe all think about running away at times. We imagine leaving the stresses and obligations of daily life and embarking on a life enhancing adventure. It's doubtful, though, that Croatia tops the list of escapes for most people. Yet Jennifer Wilson, along with her husband and their two young children, left the comforts of home in Des Moines, Iowa, to take up temporary residence in Mrkopalj (MER-ko-pie), the mountain village in northwestern Croatia from which her maternal great-grandparents emigrated.
Running Away to Home takes readers inside Mrkopalj and its environs. Wilson gives firsthand accounts of her and her family's experiences. Although Wilson was the one in search of where she came from, her husband and children (six and almost four at the time) adapted more rapidly to village life and the cultural differences. One thing all of them learned is that life operates differently in a small mountain village. For example, the family agreed to rent the to-be-renovated second floor of the house of Robert Starcevic, who ran one of the town's "bistros." When they arrived, the remodeling had barely begun. Despite promises from Robert that it would be done in a day, a couple days, a week or two, the Wilsons never ended up living in the space they intended. Rather, they took over the smaller third floor of the house, which housed Robert's daughters' rooms. This was due in part to Robert often preferring to spend his days indulging in local libations and watching the world, a not uncommon activity in the village.
It may have been that approach that made a 21st Century American mother take the longest to acclimate. Rather than the constant motion of work and family activities back home, the 800 or so residents of Mrkopalj lived a slower pace. This doesn't mean no one worked hard. To the contrary, Wilson found that life in the village could be "bone-hard." There was no industry to speak of and many supported themselves by what they and their neighbors could grow, often on their own small plots. They would rise early to manually tend to their plots and livestock or to perform household chores. They would cut trees in the forest to gather firewood for the coming winter. Much of their work was done without the labor-saving conveniences most Americans would expect to use.
One major failing of the book, though, is that it contains no pictures, despite the fact Wilson's web site contains 128 photos in a gallery called "Life in the Village." Wilson says that was a conscious decision. She wants readers to come up with their own images of the village and its people in their minds. Yet virtually all readers have never taken such a step in location and daily life. Not sharing photographs in the book deprives them of actually seeing the people and sites that feature so prominently in it.
Although Wilson did not feel immediately accepted, she did catch up with her family in adjusting to and feeling the fabric of life in the village. Her search for her ancestors seemed less imperative and Wilson noted that she learned more about what their lives may have been like than about them personally. And, for her, that was perhaps the real lesson of their four months living in the village. Among other things, history and a sense of place seemed woven into the fabric of life. Croatia was far from immune from the political, nationalist and ethnic disputes that affected southeastern Europe and the Balkans. Yet while these fractures still lurked beneath the surface, they seemed far less important than the deep sense of community. This meant "they all lived together in messy harmony in Mrkopalj. In addition, for all our American advantages -- jobs, industry, good malls -- they felt sorry for me. No one in Mrkopalj could fathom what it must have been like to not even know my great-grandparents."
Graced by an ability to increasingly turn a humorous eye at their acclimation process, Running Away to Home shows how the Wilsons seem to find themselves amidst a world much different than they knew. "Mrkopalj showed us that it didn't matter what we had," Wilson says. Instead, experiencing the small things that contributed to the life and culture of Mrkopalj stood in sharp contrast to and often felt more congruous than life in America, "a place where people had everything and appreciated so little."
As Wilson and her family discover, even when you leave home it doesn't mean you can't find a niche and fellowship in other places, and in ways you might least expect.
Those of us who live on the Great Plains can tend to think we are removed from the nation's ongoing debate over illegal immigration. That couldn't beThose of us who live on the Great Plains can tend to think we are removed from the nation's ongoing debate over illegal immigration. That couldn't be further from the truth. Just last year, Fremont, a town of some 25,000 in northeastern Nebraska, drew national attention when voters approved a law fining landlords and employers who house or hire illegal immigrants. (The law was suspended a month later pending a challenge to it in federal court.). In May 2008, authorities executed the largest immigration raid in the nation's history and made 400 arrests at a meatpacking plan in Postville, a town of maybe 2,500 in northeastern Iowa. And less than six years before, northwestern Iowa was where an immigrant smuggling tragedy was discovered.
On October 16, 2002, an employee of a now-defunct grain elevator in Denison, Iowa, (population 7,500 at the time) was checking the bays on grain hopper rail cars in preparation for loading. In one, he spotted what appeared to be two skulls. They were the first indication that the remains of 11 Central American and Mexican immigrants were in the hopper car, their bodies so badly decomposed they were in states of skeletonization and mummification. The story of what happened to those immigrants and how is the focus of a documentary and a book, Train To Nowhere: Inside an Immigrant Death Investigation.
The underlying story is almost as simple as it is sad. The 11 individuals, mostly from Central America, crossed into the United States in the hopes of finding jobs, some assisted by "coyotes" (smugglers). On June 15, 2002, they were among 26 illegal immigrants loaded into the bays of two grain hopper cars in Harlingen, Tex. The opening to the slope-floored bay in which these 11 ended up was locked from the outside. Although 15 immigrants in the other hopper were caught that night during a Border Patrol inspection, officials somehow missed this particular hopper. The train continued north. Trapped inside what one person described as essentially a humidor, the 11 died of dehydration and hyperthermia. The rail car sat in a facility near Oklahoma City for four months before being sent to Denison on October 15. The bodies were identified only through DNA tests.
Colleen Bradford Krantz, who wrote and co-produced the documentary, uses her journalistic background to take readers inside the tragedy. In her capable hands, Train to Nowhere explores not only the how and why of what happened but introduces the reader to some of the people who died and their families, details what must have happened in the rail car, follows the difficulty in the months-long effort to identify the victims, and examines the complexities of illegal immigration. This means the reader encounters and learns from the legal resident older brother of a young Guatemalan who died in the hopper car, a railroad conductor who sold information to one of the coyote networks, and the investigators on the case.
Using material gathered in creating the documentary, Krantz's book, published by Ice Cube Press in Iowa, adheres to standards she acquired as a reporter for daily newspapers in St. Louis, Milwaukee and Des Moines. Unlike much so-called creative nonfiction today, Krantz is careful in documenting conversations. If she was not present and is relying on someone's recollection of a conversation, any quotations appear in italics instead of quotation marks. This approach does not detract from the narrative or the flow. If anything, it may subtly enhance the book's verisimilitude.
In examining the various aspects of this tragedy, Krantz shows both the personal toll and both sides of the immigration debate. Unfortunately, actually preventing or resolving these problems is beyond the scope of this or any book.
Elements of our lives undoubtedly impact not only what we read but how we read it. Growing up during the Gemini and Apollo programs left me with a conElements of our lives undoubtedly impact not only what we read but how we read it. Growing up during the Gemini and Apollo programs left me with a continued interest in space-related topics. Later training in a "just the facts ma'am" approach to journalism tends to leave me feeling terms like "creative nonfiction" have more than a hint of oxymoron. What happens when the two collide, as they do in Ben Mezrich's Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History?
The book is a highly readable account of a seemingly impossible and wholly unparalleled crime, the theft of moon rocks from NASA. Mezrich shows us how Thad Roberts overcame the odds to have a promising science career and the chance of accomplishing his dream of being an astronaut and how he threw it all away in an unimaginable and foolhardy fashion. As with his prior books, though, Mezrich makes the story captivating by utilizing a novel-like approach to telling the story.
Despite being disowned by his strict Mormon family as a teen, Roberts pursued degrees in geology, geophysics and physics at the University of Utah, hoping to become an astronaut. Happily married, Roberts was devoted to his studies and even formed a student astronomical society and volunteered at the Utah Museum of Natural History. It was there, though, that a character flaw that would doom him revealed itself. When Roberts realized some fossils in the museum's collection would forever sit unnoticed in closed containers, he decided to bring some home and make them his own.
Roberts was fortunate enough to be accepted into NASA's Cooperative Education Program at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Leaving his wife in Utah, Roberts remade himself and became a leader among the other "co-ops," viewed as an adventurer and risk-taker. While fascinated by what the co-op program allowed him to do, Roberts was particularly intrigued when one of his mentors told them that the lunar material in his safe was considered "trash" by NASA because they had been used for experiments and outside the agency. He began pondering how it might be possible to steal some of the moon rocks, among NASA's most highly protected materials. The idea became an obsession. At first, it was to come up with money to fund his education and perhaps even his own laboratory. (At his eventual trial, the 101.5 grams of lunar material he stole was appraised at $5 million, a figure some considered low.) By his third year in the co-op program, though, Roberts met and fell in love with a younger intern, "Rebecca," and decided to give her the moon, literally.
Before the theft, Roberts posted on-line notices on the sites of various mineral collector groups as "Orb Robinson." He eventually reached an agreement with a Belgian mineral collector so in July 2002, working with Rebecca and a younger intern, "Sandra," the three made off with a 600-pound safe containing not only rocks from each Apollo moon landing but a bit of the meteorite NASA scientists believed provided evidence of life on Mars. What Roberts didn't know and his amateurish approach toward selling the moon material made easier, the collector was working with the FBI on a sting operation. Mezrich unfolds the tale, from conception through arrest, in a flowing and engaging fashion, taking readers inside not only Johnson Space Center but the growth of the idea to steal the "trash" rocks and the sting operation.
A reader, though, likely will encounter two problems with the book. First, apparently because Roberts was his primary source, Mezrich admits the story is told largely from his perspective. We are never quite sure of the extent to which Roberts' version of events fit with objective reality. For example, were Rebecca and Sandra the willing adventurers Mezrich portrays or was Roberts able to exert some sort of Svengali-like influence on them? The second issue is more important and one that arose with each of Mezrich's prior nonfiction works. The book's readability comes from an amplified form of "creative nonfiction" or "literary journalism". As Mezrich says in an author's note that opens the book, Sex on the Moon contains dialogue that has been "re-created and compressed" and certain names, characterizations and physical descriptions "have been altered to protect privacy."
Here, even Rebecca and Sandra aren't the real names of the women involved and, as far as I can determine, Mezrich changes their physical descriptions and the age of at least one of them. This is despite the fact Rebecca (actually Tiffany Fowler) and Sandra (actually Shae Saur) pleaded guilty in federal court and their names are a matter of public record. Combined with "re-created dialogue" and descriptions that feel novelistic, at what point do such changes push a work from nonfiction to a novelization or "based on a true story" status? (The latter may become even more fitting in the future as Sony Pictures optioned the film rights to the book this past January.)
Undoubtedly, Sex on the Moon is an entertaining and enjoyable read. From the perspective of a space-age reader, I found it quite intriguing. Ultimately, though, the question confronting each reader is the extent to which the entertainment value undercuts trust in the author and, hence, the story.
There are reasons certain sayings persist. Take, for example, the overused and abused saw, "A picture is worth a thousand words." It survives becauseThere are reasons certain sayings persist. Take, for example, the overused and abused saw, "A picture is worth a thousand words." It survives because it is true. Some things words just cannot adequately describe: Van Gogh's "Starry Night" or a tropical island. Even describing the effect such sights have on us is woefully insufficient.
Applying the adage to Zachary Michael Jack's Let There Be Pebble: A Middle-Handicapper's Year in America's Garden of Golf, you can estimate the book is missing 10,000 to 20,000 words. To explore the mystique and allure of Pebble Beach Golf Links, Jack, a self-described "Pebble Beach virgin," immersed himself in the culture of the course and neighboring Carmel, California, for a year. Despite reveling in the course and the coastline upon which it is located, the book has an inexplicable flaw: aside from the cover it contains no pictures, maps or even drawings of the golf course or Carmel.
Although the book is part personal journey into a golf mecca and part homage to a father who built a greens-less pasture golf course on their Iowa farmstead, it also is aimed at trying to describe the course and how it is viewed by golf professionals, area residents and others. Yet if you are going to detail the course and changes on it over the years, shouldn't you at least have even a scorecard-like drawing of the layout? Likewise, quoting someone that "the eighth [hole], tee shot at the tenth, the fourteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth are holes that cannot be equaled anywhere," loses a lot without seeing the holes. The same is true for the repeated references to the necessary second shot over a ravine on the eighth hole. And discussions of the Carmel gate to the golf course and various streets and locations in the town mean less without a small map showing their spatial relationship.
Maybe these were thought unnecessary as the market for Let There Be Pebble are those at least somewhat familiar with the course from personal visits or television. I have had the pleasure of playing Pebble Beach twice in my life (before the advent of $500 green fees) and spent three weeks living a mile or so south of Carmel. Yet even with that familiarity, pictures or maps would have enhanced the book for me. Thus, they would seem almost crucial for someone who hasn't actually trod that ground.
Granted, this criticism doesn't go to Jack's efforts or the substantive content. Once we get past a few too many of the kinds of metaphors that tend to haunt sportswriting, Let There Be Pebble immerses the reader in the history, myths and legends of Pebble Beach. Jack lets us hear firsthand from golfers, local historians, employees and former local reporters -- even those with contrarian views -- while blending in the written history. (The history includes the following oath taken by golfers on the course's opening day on Washington's birthday weekend in February 1919: ""We Pledge Ourselves by Our Faith in the Cherry Tree to Turn In Honest Score Cards.") In embarking on his total immersion approach, Jack takes two unique, almost surprising, approaches.
First, Jack doesn't repeatedly play Pebble Beach and regale us with stories of his trials, tribulations and successes. To the contrary, we accompany him only once playing Pebble Beach and as he plays with members of The Shivas Irons Society on nearby Pacific Grove Golf Links. Most of the book is built around Jack, on a sabbatical from the college at which he teaches English, working as a reporter for several tournaments at Pebble Beach, including the 2010 U.S. Open, and living in neighboring Carmel.
The latter gives readers a closer look at Carmel than one might expect in a book about Pebble Beach. Although Clint Eastwood and his wife, Dina, may too often serve as a prism, Jack takes us house hunting and inside city politics and the history of the town and area. As such, this is more complete view of Pebble Beach as archetype and destination than Pebble Beach the golf course. With such an approach, Jack may be treading a fine line between those readers who care only about the course and those who want the broader view of the life and culture of the course and its setting. Still, he should be commended for taking a more expansive perspective -- even if he left out the pictures.