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

In August 2010, a 100-year-old Chilean mine collapsed and trapped 33 miners for 69 days. This amazing story is of their struggles – both 2,000 below the surface, and back on top.

The miners grew close, grew apart, squabbled and had their faith – in God and each other – tested in an amazing story.

 

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When I think of a mine collapse, I think of what you see in movies or on TV: A few rocks and debris covering an entryway, and it’s going to take a few hours to dig out. But the collapse and the San Jose mine was huge.

For hours, there were warnings. Cracking rock that sounded like thunder, rolling but not stopping, like it usually would. To some, it sounded like blasting was taking place without warning, but even that would usually end. This didn’t. Then, cracks appeared, and were growing. Finally, debris that looked like smoke would appear, but that too would go away after a minute. But it didn’t this time.

A shift of 34 workers was down deep, and even the manager was afraid enough to leave. By happenstance, one worker was in a truck on the way up the spiral path to the surface. The collapse just missed him, and he was the only one known to have survived at first.

A solid sheet of stone, hundreds of feet all the way around, weighing as much as two Empire State Buildings, trapped the 33. And they weren’t sure if anybody would bother to attempt a rescue.

At first, the gravity of the situation drove the men together, figuring out responsibilities, gathering in prayer, determined to stick together and get out.

And, oddly, when the rescuers first reached them, the unity broke down, as the men were courted by journalists, companies looking for endorsements, movie deals – even while they were still inside. It took a month from the point they were reached to finally get out.

And when the men made it out, they were faced with new challenges, of family and fame and money.

This is an uplifting and depressing book at the same time, of how we can rally together in tough times and how that breaks down when we think we’re past them. I’m reminded of the national response to 9/11. Whatever happened to that unity?

This is a brisk read, hard to put down.

Recommended.

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The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History

The flu season the U.S. has just gone through (in 2018) doesn’t hold a candle to the great Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918, and “The Great Influenza” is a stunning account of that scary season.

Millions of deaths worldwide, a generation lost, all comes down to one Army camp in Kansas. How and why it happened is postulated throughout, as well as the sad stories of some victims, and authorities who failed to act.

A lot of this book focuses on the medical men and women who fought the disease. So much so that the entire first section of the book is pretty much a history of American health care. It helps set the stage for the rest of the book, but it felt overly long to me.

The meat of the book is how the epidemic spread and the enormous damage it caused. Anecdote after anecdote leveled me. Sad story after sad story was a lot to take, but it fell in line with how devastating this epidemic was.

Also sad was the flat-footedness of medicine, doctors and science in general. To some extent, they didn’t know what they had, and when they did know, they didn’t believe it. The persistent belief in “miasmas” as opposed to viruses slowed the responses. And, of course, more died.

Eventually, the 1918 part of the book wraps up and we’re left shaking our heads … and then the book continues for another section, on what happened to the medical personnel introduced in the first section of the book.

In other words, the book could lose the front and back sections and still be a brisk history. I kind of tired out at the end.

All in all, a great piece of history, almost perfect.

The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour

Seventy years ago, the first front of the Cold War opened up in Berlin, and if not for tireless work by American pilots, the entire European continent could have fallen to the Soviet Union.

“The Candy Bombers” is an amazing story about an amazing victory of intrepid pilots and stalwart Berliners in a tinderbox that almost was lit. That the Soviets never advanced an inch westward after trying to starve out the western half of the city is a testament to victory.

As the American army drew down after World War II and hundreds of thousands of men went home, the Soviet Union pressed their advantage and took several Eastern European nations. America drew back into itself and was not eager to get involved.

That all had to change after the Soviets attempted to force the U.S., Britain and France out of their sector of occupied Berlin. Stuck in the middle of the Soviet zone, it looked like they’d succeed, until President Truman decided not to let it happen.

Half the military men around him wanted to send troops to break the blockade, and half wanted him to abandon the city altogether. In the background loomed the very real possibility of nuclear war.

But Truman found the middle ground, approving the greatest, most successful airlift in history.

And, in the middle of it, American pilot “Hal” Halverson dropped candy to the young kids of Berlin, showing some humanity in the middle of this inhuman situation.

It’s hard to believe that at the end of the war, both Germans and Americans were still filled with uncertainty and hate, and so didn’t trust each other. This blockade and the candy drops helped melt that ice.

Also interesting is that the late Franklin Roosevelt and his partisans wanted to throw the UK overboard in favor of befriending the Soviets. Had FDR not made a last-minute decision to switch vice presidents, socialist Henry Wallace would have been president. He certainly would have stood aside and let the Soviets do as they pleased.

This is a great story of near misses and valor, and also of hatred and uncertainty, ending with the West German people unbowed, the U.S. taking its place in the postwar world, and the Soviets stymied but still dangerous.

I recommend this book.

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson

Dig deep into the mind and motivations of one of the most famous killers in history, Charles Manson, in this fascinating book.

“Charlie” represents the dark underside of the ’60s, the antithesis of Peace and Love – but as this excellent book points out, the light and dark weren’t so far apart in these tumultuous times.

This book starts at the beginning – actually, before the beginning, with Manson’s mother’s family, her own law struggles and her unexpected pregnancy that begat “Charlie” – which is what they always called him.

Unlike Manson’s telling of the tale later (he was a notorious liar, this is clear), she wasn’t a prostitute and he wasn’t abandoned. But she was a party girl who left her little boy with a series of babysitters, from family to strangers. So, in a sense, maybe Charlie was abandoned.

He himself ends up in reform school, then jail, then prison, again and again. With little real schooling and a manipulative personality, and an overinflated sense of his own musical ability, Charlie sets out to become a famous rock star. And he collects girls to make his plan come true.

Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys is part of the story, of course, as is Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, one of the biggest record producers in LA at the time. That part of the story is well-worn, and many other books go over this ground, including “Helter Skelter.”

The most interesting thing about this book is the development of Manson’s methods – a jailhouse mélange of pimp schooling, Scientology and Dale Carnegie – and the slow buildup of events that lead to the famous murders. The impending doom carries some weight as we head into the Tate-LaBianca killings.

The trials follow, and although amusing and infuriating, the dread of the previous chapters is gone by this time. But the book really wouldn’t have been complete without them.

Reading this soon after Manson’s death, this book gave me a fresh look at a strange time in history, one that becomes increasingly dark the further away we are from it. Manson’s murders weren’t the worst or the most, but they seem to have taken the lid off decades of hell that have followed.

If you can take it, this book is recommended.

 

The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York

The U.S. wasn’t yet a nation of newspaper readers, and the newspapers that did exist didn’t cater to the ordinary citizen. That all changed with the New York Sun and its tantalizing story about a moon teeming with life – a fake story, designed to grab circulation.

The Sun opened up shop as a penny paper, cheaper than the usual six-cent broadsheets, and looked to make a splash. That it did with a series of stories in 1835 purporting to share details of new scientific discoveries of life on the moon ­– including unicorns, bipedal beavers and man-bats. In reality, writer Richard Adams Locke crafted the fake story and changed the face of journalism.

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The book involves some publishers of the day and even wraps in two unexpected figures: Edgar Allan Poe and P.T. Barnum.

What follows is a rollicking tour through the writing and literature of the day, and the exploits of Poe, Barnum and the writers.

The “Moon Hoax of 1835” caught the imagination of the public, and was a success on many levels, even when the hoax was found out. Poe was at once jealous of and impressed with the story – he had written a moon story months before and thought Locke stole parts of it. Barnum, soon to be a noted hoaxer himself, learned a few lessons.

A couple of complaints – the book didn’t proceed linearly, so the jumps back and forth were confusing at times. Also, the author of this book allowed himself to take more than a few swipes at religion in general and Christianity in particular. It seemed like an odd addition to the story, until you come upon the author’s own, new conclusion:

The “Moon Hoax” was actually a Moon Satire, he says. It was intended as a critique of religious faith and thought. How he arrived at this is murky, and Locke never seemed to have said that himself. But this conclusion doesn’t hold if he doesn’t attack religion in the first place, so that explains it.

I don’t know if I buy the conclusion, but this otherwise is a good book, a celebration of maybe one of the first “fake news” successes, showing just how far some media will go to line their pockets.

A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949

This is an intriguing account of two nations on the precipice: China and the United States.

It’s 1949 and China, ruled by Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, is losing ground to Mao Zedong and the Communists. And Truman weighs his options.

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The United States’ response, or lack of it, goes a long way to establishing the future of the Asian continent, China’s relationship with the Soviet Union, future Communist uprisings in Southeast Asia and the eventual mires of Korea and Vietnam.

It’s story of an administration missing its moment and paying dearly for it.

Among the most interesting parts of this book are the interpersonal relationships, none more intriguing than between Madame Chiang and the U.S. public. She was an exotic, well-spoken, glamourous character, pleading her case for American help, while sending notes back home to the Generalissimo, attempting to keep him in line and his spirits up.

The legacy of this time continues to be felt, and in this is a cautionary tale of what happens when an administration is unprepared for the changing world.

I received this book from Blogging For Books.

Christmas: A Biography

This is a fun look at the history of the celebration of Christmas, and the way people have wrestled with it, both as sacred observance and secular festival, since it became a holiday.

There are many books like this out there, going item by item, how Christmas trees came about, or Christmas cards, etc. But this book presents this information as a developing chronological story, which makes it more interesting and real than just a book of lists.

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The first recorded Christmases were in the 300s, and it wasn’t long before there was head-shaking at how secular it had become, and how it was better in “the old days.” Those seem to be the constants in Christmas: the semi-permanent “war on Christmas” and the misty-eyed remembrances of bygone celebrations.

This book also knocks down some myths, such as the Dutch origin of Santa Claus (he seems to have been a Swiss concoction, actually) and that Coca-Cola didn’t imagine his current look (that was the creation, of course, of political cartoonist Thomas Nast). Also in the story are popular books, music and movies ­– special emphasis on “It’s A Wonderful Life” as the first modern Christmas fairy tale, after “A Christmas Carol.”

The development of Christmas from a public to a private celebration, from elite to the masses, from adult to child, is detailed, along with fun bits of knowledge.