Read All Over: Summer Reading Picks
Summertime is the best time to catch up on some good literature.
Published: June 19, 2013
— M. Jackman
The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People
By Neil Shubin; Pantheon, $25.95 (hardcover), 240 pp.
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM SAYS that, even though we’re a part of the cosmos, that the cosmos is something very far away. The sun, for instance, is roughly 93 million miles away from us. The next nearest star is about 25 trillion miles away. To discuss the galaxy, or the distances between galaxies, we must throw away planetary measurements altogether to express the vast distances involved. It’s enough to make you feel very, very small.
But here’s an interesting way to turn that on its head: The cosmos are inside us. In fact, human biology as we know it would be impossible without all the complex matter produced in stellar furnaces, ejaculated across the universe by exploding supernovae, only to become vital elements of our physical makeup. As Carl Sagan once said, “The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
And, in many ways, author and geologist Neil Shubin picks up where Sagan left off. Chapter by chapter, Shubin traces the histories of scientific hypotheses that explain the development of the universe, the solar system, the planet, life, mammals and, of course, humans. This is pop science of the highest order, taking some of the big ideas that explain our world and shaving them down into histories of the key researchers instrumental in their discovery. Once you look at all the happy accidents that made the planet suitable for human life — from continental drift to billions of years of stellar explosions — you come away with a sense of how precious a thing it is to be alive and sentient at all. It’s all here, in easily digestible chapters, perfect for quick bits of reading that help explain, for instance, how the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau started filtering carbon from the air 40 million years ago. And that’s excellent; it isn’t easy to translate hard science into something accessible the way Sagan did.
But Sagan did so much more. More than just wanting to excite your sense of wonder, Sagan recognized that science itself was a human institution, linked to the rise and fall of empires, subject to suppression by mystics or support from merchants, which forced him to analyze the political science of, say, Greece of the sixth century B.C. For today’s readers, however, political agnosticism is probably a small complaint.
Besides, you kind of have to be a big old hippie to say something like, “We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon. …”
— M. Jackman
1861: The Civil War Awakening
By Adam Goodheart; Knopf, $16 (paperback), 496 pp.
IT'S AN UNUSUAL CONCEIT: Writing a Civil War book about the least eventful year of the war, 1861. Instead of the battles of Gettysburg or Appomattox, or the Emancipation Proclamation, or many of major events of the war, we get a view of the waning months of the lame duck Buchanan administration, follow the slow journey east of a newly elected Abraham Lincoln, and witness a country gradually awakening to the reality of war.
In this age, when wars are produced like television programs, with timetables, deadlines and instantaneous destruction, it’s unusual to look at 1861 in detail. Before use of the telegraph was widespread, communication was much slower, and mustering armies across the vast distances was an arduous process. Key events were acted out by ordinary citizens, who took the initiative to seize stockpiles of weapons or trick their opponents with diversionary tactics. Low-level officers made pivotal decisions on whether to shelter defecting slaves or return them as property. Meanwhile, out-of-touch elders in the upper echelons of government still grasped at prolonging the uneasy peace even as it fell apart.
What becomes clear in the end is that Goodheart’s story is about a new generation of men who were coming into their own in the Union. Among them were German immigrants, barnstorming Midwestern politicians, smartly attired Zouave drillmasters and even humbler sorts. This new generation of men would be manlier, whiskered, determined to settle the arguments the past generation hadn’t.
The generals who’d win the war were still civilians: William Tecumseh Sherman was running a streetcar company in St. Louis, and Ulysses S. Grant was partner in a leather goods shop in Galena, Ill. Future hero Lincoln was still a cipher to be made fun of in newspaper cartoons.
All in all, it’s remarkable how Goodheart makes his slender premise work so well, painting 1861 so richly as not just a warm-up period for the main event, but as a time when the actors of a new age were throwing off the hypocrisies of the old order and winning converts for the battles to come.
— M. Jackman
The Detroit True Crime Chronicles: Tales of Murder and Mayhem in the Motor City
By Scott M. Burnstein et al.; Camino Books, $17.95 (paperback), 240 pp.
FOR THE METRO DETROITER who’s a fan of the true crime genre, Scott M. Burnstein’s book offers a survey of 20th century crime in our fair city, and it’s a rich history. The book’s jacket proclaims, perhaps a bit too proudly, “No other American city can boast such a cavalcade of remarkable criminal characters.” Well, it’s true: Detroit has punched above its weight, crime-wise, and the grisly record gangsters and murderers have left written in blood makes for an entertaining read.
Burnstein and company cover many of the more notable gangs, including the Purple Gang, Young Boys Inc., the crack empire of the Chambers brothers, such biker gangs as the Highwaymen and the Outlaws, as well as Detroit’s established Italian crime families. The older tales are told using research and historical reporting, whereas many of the more recent stories employ sources from law enforcement. While the bulk of the chapters are about organized crime, there are a few outliers, such as the Oakland County child killer of the 1970s, or the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.
The book isn’t perfect. There are rookie misspellings (Kercheval Street is rendered “Kerchival,” for instance), and it’s written with enough hard-boiled clichés to make Bogie blush. Some chapters are better than others when it comes to taking the admittedly vast array of facts and shaping them into a page-turning story that gels. But most readers won’t complain, given an appetite for this kind of material. What’s more, the author’s access to police doesn’t mean it’s a one-sided portrayal of crime. Not only does the reader get a sense of many of the criminals’ acumen and intelligence, some of the “good guys” don’t come off looking so great, giving it all the ring of truth.
— M. Jackman
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