Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

On a date with my husband 33 years ago we went cross country skiing at a challenging and hilly course. He had skied the Birkebeiner in Wisconsin and was on the cross country ski team in high school. On one steep, icy hill my ski went out of the track into the opposite one for oncoming ski traffic going up the hill. Straddling both tracks and yelling I had a spectacular crash at the bottom that released my skis like javelins in all directions. He skied down the hill like he was on ice skates, swished both skis together to a full stop and extended a hand to help me up. My cross country skis have a high or stiff camber that allow me to fly down hills completely out of control at high speeds. Great fun. Orville and Wilbur had problems with camber in the second design of their plane as experiments up to that point had a camber ratio that affected stability and caused the plane to crash. Their patented wing warping design had them experimenting with the camber to discover the ideal ratio for their gliders. The camber issue made me think of all my skiing fiascos.

One strength of this book is showing how the Wright brothers experimented, tested, improved, and did not give up in their pursuit of flight. They represent the engineering design process that educators teach to students in elementary school and up. And the author mixes in the human side of the Wright family with their aeronautical achievements to make a highly readable, educational, and entertaining book. As public figures, Orville and Wilbur did not seek nor celebrate fame, but were true to their sole purpose of learning to fly. Their sister Katharine was high-tempered ("wrathy"), opinionated, loyal, and caring. She was the spitfire of the three and added color to the the brothers' story. Wilbur was brilliant and Orville a mechanical genius. The family had arguments but was mainly close and supportive over the years.

The Wright brothers had a successful bicycle business for many years before the idea of flight consumed much of their time. They built a glider and tested it at Kitty Hawk, a rugged island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina where the wind always blew. Living out of a tent they refined and tested their planes eventually succeeding at flying one. They added an engine later in the designs. Katharine helped manage the bicycle business while teaching at a nearby hospital and Charlie Taylor ran the shop while they were at Kitty Hawk as well as being critical in building the engine the Wrights' used on one of their gliders.

Once they had accomplished successful flights, the Wrights had problems with legitimizing their claims of success with the U.S. government. Part of this was their way of going about business. The brothers were afraid of others stealing their ideas and were waiting for a patent so they would not fly for anyone unless the interested party signed a contract before their demonstration. The U.S. government was not interested in their proposition, but France was and Wilbur went there for demonstrations and a contract. The publicity made the U.S. take interest. Later the U.S. army offered a contract and Orville provided demonstrations. After a serious crash, Orville was nursed back to health by Katharine while Wilbur continued with demonstrations in Europe. Orville and Katharine joined Wilbur in Paris and they met with kings from different countries and other influential people. They were a sensation and enjoyed the fame while their father, a Bishop, continually reminded them to stay grounded.

The Wright brothers were self-educated and persevered no matter what the set back. Their educated father had an extensive personal library that allowed for the children to read the likes of "Dickens, Washington Irving, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, a complete set of the works of Sir Walter Scott, the poems of Virgil, Plutarch's 'Lives,' Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' Boswell's 'Life of Johnson,' Gibbons' 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,' and Thucydides. There were books on natural history, a six-volume history of France, travel, 'The Instructive Speller,' Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species,' plus two full sets of encyclopedias." Once back in the U.S. the brothers, particularly Wilbur, spent many years on patent lawsuits that David McCullough skims over. This is a fairly short book and is not highly technical. This may appeal to some and to others they might want less camber. The pacing and mix of technical and human side of the Wrights was just right for me. See if it's Wright for you.

5 Smileys

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Killer Angels (The Civil War Trilogy, #2) by Michael Shaara

Michael Shaara brilliantly mixes historical facts with fictional elements to create complex characters set during the Battle of Gettysburg. Most of the story is through three characters' point of view: General Robert E. Lee who commanded the Rebel army, Lieutenant-General James Longstreet who commanded a corps, and  Colonel Joshua Chamberlain who commanded a Union regiment. The complexities of the men are captured by Shaara who shows their inner conflicts over loyalty, friends, and professionalism.

The individual characters show broader themes on the effects of leadership in military, conflicting values, and desire for honor, to name a few. Robert E. Lee was revered by the troops and willing to die for him. Even Longstreet, who disagreed to the core with Lee's strategic decision, would not forsake his post nor go against Lee's commands. General Lee reflected an old way of life that had its roots in England where gentleman, honor, and chivalry prevailed in a ruling elite or aristocracy. The North had its money in cities where any individual could become wealthy without the stronger class distinctions of the South. While the war is known as being fought to free the slaves, it was more complex in terms of an old way of life being threatened by a new way. Some of the minor characters such as Stuart and Fremantle enforce this notion while also adding some comic relief.

Longstreet did not fight for a cause and Lee chastised him over it. The two reflect the professionalism they felt toward each other as soldiers and while he was loyal to Lee, he did not fight for a Cause, but fought to win. He was a complex man that wanted to fit in with his soldiers but he was a frontiersman and not an aristocrat; thus, feeling separate from those around him. One wonders at Longstreet's lack of commitment and inability to communicate with Lee regarding statistical numbers of climbing the hill. He was brilliant with military tactics and far ahead of the times, but couldn't seem to be heard by Lee or other leaders. Yet the two relied on each other and cared deeply for each other's well-being. While other aristocratic leaders like Pickett were enthusiastic about leading the charge of the Gettysburg hill, he later blamed Lee for the death of over half his men. Longstreet knew that the chance of winning was statistically low, but hoped the loyalty of the soldiers toward Lee would produce a miracle. Instead, the Rebel army never recovered from the Battle losing many of their commanding officers and proving Longstreet right.

The Union soldier Joshua Chamberlain, who was a professor at Bowdain before enlisting, shows the only character that was actually in the battle. Lee and Longstreet observed from a distance while Chamberlain led a regiment. He had respect for the enemy and admires their courage. His leadership when the Union soldiers repelled the Rebels from flanking the army showed bravery and wit that made a big difference in the Battle of Gettysburg. He led his soldiers by following three tenants: be courageous, be decisive, and care about his soldiers. He also has a brother in his regiment and shows the difficulty of relying on him and wanting to protect him at the same time.

Chamberlain shows that he does have a Cause: "He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God. This was the land where no man had to bow. In this place at last a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. ...Here we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was. Here you can be something. Here's a place to build a home. It isn't the land - there's always more land. It's the idea that we all value, you and me, we're worth something more than dirt. ...What we're all fighting for, in the end, is each other." He was fighting for freedom not only for blacks but from the old way of life or traditions carried specifically by the English.

While Lee and Longstreet are a look into generalship, Chamberlain reveals what it is like to be in the midst of battle. Studying the complexities of the characters gives a microscopic look into what reflects the bigger issues in military leadership and fundamentals of combat. I didn't realize that this is book 2 in a trilogy. It is not necessary to read book one. I was able to follow the story and characters, although I read it on an eReader and could not see the maps detailing the battle. That was a bit frustrating. A fascinating read that is incredibly well-written about the Civil War.

5 Smileys

All Our Yesterdays (All Our Yesterdays #1) by Cristin Terrill

This had potential but the focus on the romantic subplot over the time travel weakened it and made for some slow reading, particularly in the beginning. Marina is sixteen and comes from a rich family where the dad works all the time and the mom is unhappy with her inability to be successful as an artist. Marina makes friends with James, the neighbor, a couple of years older than her, whose parents died and is being raised by Nate, his Congressman brother. James has a 168 IQ and is working on his Ph.D. He struggles with relationships except with Marina and Finn, a friend from school. When a tragedy happens, Marina and Finn are there for James as they try to unravel the mystery.

I would have liked more focus on the mystery or time travel than the romance. There are too many gaps in it and the end rushes the answers rather than slowly unveiling them throughout the plot. The beginning pacing with Em was good but it went from clues into the romantic subplot. Marina has a girl crush on James but by the end it is supposed to be deeper, only it doesn't make sense after all he's done to her. In the beginning Marina's storyline as a young and shallow person is weak compared to Em's that is full of tension. I thought the tension got lost during the romantic subplot and some of the plot twists obvious. Except the ending. That was confusing and poorly done with flashbacks. Finn's background relationship with James isn't really explained. James is out of school but the two met in school? Except he's a new friend. Perhaps I missed something.

There are some stereotypes that left me uncomfortable. Marina's parents are one dimensional self-centered people, while Luz is the motherly type in Marina's life. This is not developed. Marina wears dorky pajamas Luz gave her over to James house that shows actually how much she loves Luz. There are more instances but they are few and far between. Also, the author tells the reader how Marina feels more than shows and it works against creating a complex character. The first person point of view also works against giving rounded characters. James becomes a one dimensional character and Finn isn't developed enough to understand his motives except being in love with Em. Time travel books and movies are found in abundance and when done well can be very interesting, but this one misses the mark for me.

3 Smileys