Eruption : the untold story of Mount St. Helens by Steve Olson

EruptionWhen visiting the Pacific Northwest three years ago, one of the most unsettling sites I saw while driving down Highway 5 was a rather large mountain in the distance with a chunk off the top.  It took a minute to recognize it as Mount St. Helens, the aftermath of the big catastrophic event which took place thirty-three years previously.

Eruption covers the terrifying time when this mountain blew up on May 18, 1980.  57 deaths were accounted for, and it could have have been worse, as the eruption came on a Sunday morning and not during a workweek, when logging operations in the area would have been occurring.  The lava and ash flows destroyed vast stretches of forest; the mud flow made it all the way to Highway 5.

Up to the time of Mount St. Helens eruption, it seemed inconceivable that the contiguous United States would have a real live volcano.  Earthquakes?  Sure.  Tornadoes and other weather happenings?  Of course.  Volcanoes?  Leave those to more exotic locales – until 1980.  Of course, after it happened, the local populace certainly became more aware of the geologic uncertainties of the Cascade Range and the Pacific Coast region in general.

The author also delves extensively into the historical background of the area surrounding Mount St. Helens, when the logging industry ran full tilt, specifically the Weyerhaeuser company and their role in the local economy.  At one time, the company owned a significant part of the woodlands closest to the mountain, and were logging it up until the time of the eruption.

The book is a detailed but fascinating story of this area of the Pacific Northwest, and gives the reader plenty of room for thought for the possibilities of natural catastrophes and how we can better act on them when they happen.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



Wesley the Owl : The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacy O’Brien

Stacy, a young biologist, brought home a baby barn owl with an injured wing, since he wesley the owlcould not survive in the wild.  Little Wesley became strongly attached to Stacy, who quickly became devoted to her pet.

Recent scientific research is disproving the traditional idea that birds are stupid, and the story of Wesley confirms these new discoveries.  Wesley’s ability to communicate with Stacy was amazing.  She described his walking behind her, apparently telling her about the events of his day by making the sounds that accompanied his various activities, such as eating mice.  When he came to a place in the house where someone he disliked had been, he’d hiss!

Since Stacy’s education and work with other owls gave her a far greater understanding of Wesley than the usual pet owner would have, readers will learn a lot about these intelligent, affectionate birds.  One interesting fact is that barn owls are so well adapted to eating mice that they don’t require any other food or liquid; if fed meat without the bones and other parts of the mice, they will not flourish.  Another is that barn owls, which mate for life, usually die soon after the death of the mate.

If the thought of a barn owl “hugging” his owner with his wings and the opportunity to learn more about these fascinating creatures appeal to you, then read this book!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

road to little dribblingIf you are a fan of Bill Bryson’s and read Notes from a Small Island years ago, you’ll know he has a bemused affection for his adopted Great Britain.  The Road to Little Dribbling is a sequel of sorts to Notes…, except that Bryson has a more determined destination to cover, but… if you know his writing style, you’ll know that diversion will play a major part in his explorations.

Great Britain comes deliciously alive with Bryson’s observations, which are funny and snarky, and very opinionated.  He will quite willingly poke fun at or say something scathing about places or people he encounters, and then just as quickly make a jab at himself for his own shortcomings.

Even though Bryson casts a critical eye on practically everything, there’s still much that he expounds on about his adopted homeland – everyday customs, the scenery, etc. – that will make the most jaded of readers want to eventually visit Great Britain.

So go visit Bognor Regis and find out a previous monarch’s disdain for the place.  Go see some coastal villages on the North Sea and have a history lesson of Britain’s fishing industry, Bryson-style.  Have a pint or two (or more) at whichever pub is available.  And finally, set foot on Cape Wrath at the extreme north of the island and pray you have a rain jacket and some proper boots.

I have been to the British Isles twice, and now want to go back – and I don’t even like rain.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower

residenceIf you liked the movie “The Butler,” this book will probably fascinate you.  It is the story of the many people, including butlers, maids, and chefs, who’ve worked in the White House during the last fifty years.  Brower’s book, based on interviews with many of these employees and with members of the presidents’ families, shares these staffers’ observations of the Kennedys, Johnsons, Nixons, Reagans, Fords, Carters, Clintons, Bushes, and Obamas.

Discretion is such an important part of a White House staffer’s job that Kennedy’s philandering, well known to White House workers, remained a secret from the public for years after his death.  However, retired staff members feel freer to reminisce.  The book includes information about the Kennedy assassination, Lyndon Johnson’s incessant demands for a hotter, more forceful shower, Nixon’s resignation, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, staffers’ fleeing the White House on 9/11, fearing that it might be the terrorists’ next target, the Obamas dancing to Mary J. Blige’s songs on their first night in the White House, and many other significant, humorous, or heartwarming anecdotes.

One fact that surprised me is that staffers protect presidents from possible poisoning by destroying gifts of food.  When Gorbachev sent fine caviar for the president, a staff member refused to throw it away and took it home, declaring that he would gladly risk death to enjoy this special treat!

While all staff members have enjoyed a unique opportunity to see the intimate lives of presidential families, working in the White House sometimes leads to a close friendship with a president.  Especially, the elder President Bush and Barbara Bush treated the staff like members of their family.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Hector Tobar

In 2010 a mine in the desert region of Chile collapsed, trapping 33 miners for 39 long days.deep down dark  Why?  In order to make the mine profitable, its owners had neglected safety precautions.  Although the miners, at least to some extent, realized the risks, they chose to work there because the relatively high salaries made it possible for them to have middle-class lifestyles.

Tobar, who bases his story on extensive interviews, helps the reader to know the individual miners.  These were ordinary men, varying greatly in age and personality.  They did not think of themselves as heroes.  Often they worked together well as a team, but sometimes they argued among themselves or acted against the best interests of the group.  In their daily prayer meetings, they confessed to a variety of sins.  Yet somehow they found the strength to survive with almost no food, usually sharing the morsels fairly, enduring almost unbearable heat and humidity.  For seventeen days, they had no contact with the outside world and did not know if anyone would ever reach them.

The chapters alternate among the miners, their rescuers, and the miners’ loved ones – wives, mistresses, ex-wives, parents, siblings, and children.  These people camped outside the mine, pushing the rescuers not to give up and hoping against hope that the miners could return home alive.

When the rescuers made contact with the miners, the ordeal was far from over.  The rescue effort was long and difficult.  Even after the rescuers supplied food and met some of the miners’ needs, the men continued to suffer psychologically.  Then, amid the joy of return to their loved ones, they faced the totally new – and often disturbing – experience of being celebrities.

If you enjoy stories about ordinary people surviving against all odds, you’ll want to read Deep Down Dark.

Helen Snow, retired from Information Services

Lingo : Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren

Dorren discusses, with great humor, the plethora of languages spoken in Europe and their lingoidiosyncrasies.  All of the big guns are here (English, French, German, etc.) as well as a good batch of the obscure.  Have you ever heard of Sorbian?  How about Romansh?  The author talks about these, the distinctions between Indo-European and the much-smaller Finno-Urgic group of tongues, and the complexities of the modern Celtic languages (he takes a particularly hard stab at Welsh and its unique spellings.)

There are very few European languages, in fact, that are excluded.  Dorren even includes a chapter on Basque, a complete anomaly of a tongue in that it isn’t related to any other languages in Europe.

Lingo will go down much better with the readers who love languages for their own sake.  Some chapters require some sense of linguistics to grasp.  Others are just funny, and all are informative.  As the book is written in these brief chapters, Lingo is definitely a “read as you choose” type of experience.

Each chapter usually ends with a loan word that has made it into English from the discussed language, and another word that is unique to that language.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Mayflower : a story of courage, community, and war by Nathaniel Philbrick

mayflowerI expected this well-researched history to be worthy of my time, but rather boring.  Instead, I found the book so interesting that I read it like a novel!

The book goes far beyond the familiar story of the Pilgrims and Indians at the First Thanksgiving.  Did you know these interesting facts?

  • Many of the Mayflower’s passengers weren’t Pilgrims.  However, they were an important part of the community at Plymouth.
  • Before the arrival of the Mayflower, up to 90% of the local Indians had died from a plague brought by explorers.
  • The Englishmen got off to a bad start with the Indians by stealing some of their stored corn but the two groups later formed an alliance that worked well for years.
  • Early writers marveled at the height of the Indians and spoke highly of their intelligence but didn’t seem to notice their color.
  • The Indians didn’t dress like those in the pictures of the First Thanksgiving – in fact, they often wore no clothes at all!

Fifty years after the successful alliance between the Plymouth colony and the local Indian leaders, the story changed.  King Philip’s War broke out between the white men and Indians, “King” Philip being an Indian leader who considered himself the equal of King Charles II of England.  This war, which many of us never even heard of, ended in the deaths of almost 8% of the men of the Plymouth colony, making it much bloodier than the Civil War.  Southern New England lost 60 to 80% of its Indian population, including the Indians whom the English colonists shipped out of the country as slaves.  Sadly, the English colonists all too often considered all Indians as enemies, ignoring the fact that many Indians wanted to remain neutral.  Finally, the colonists recruited “friend Indians,” whose assistance was very important to their victory.

If you have any interest in early American history, read this book; you’ll be glad you did!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)