Archive for January 21st, 2008

Book Review: The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

This is the review for my January 2008 entry to the Book A Month Challenge:

The Worst Hard Time (2005) by Timothy Egan tells “The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” Rooted in oral history, the book reads like an epic novel although it is all true no matter how unearthly it may sound (and when I say unearthly I don’t mean it as a bad pun). There is grit in Egan’s writing style that reflects the grit of the dust storms and the grit of the people determined to remain on the land that betrayed them.

Or did they betray the land, as many outsiders portray the over-farming that preceded the Dust Bowl as the root cause of this environmental disaster. Pioneers in America’s last frontier managed to make the largest wheat crop in history from the dry land, although they saw no benefit from it as the price of wheat plummeted and the grains rotted at train depots and in the fields. In the ensuing years parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado would turn into vast oceans of shifting dust.

There is a lot of repetition in The Worst Hard Time although this too is an effective writing device. The repetition reflects the horror of the dust storms returning day after day, month after month, and year after year. Some storms even carried the dust of the Plains to the big cities on the East Coast and out to sea. The people of the Dust Bowl also dealt with static electricity that could knock a man over, searing heat, and biblical plagues of biting insects, grasshoppers (who generally ate whatever crop they might grow), and rabbits (who became the subject of Sunday clubbings).

Egan introduces the reader to a fascinating cross-section of characters. The old cowboy attached to the land. The doctor who moved to the Plains for his health and ends up having to provide free care to all the people suffering in the unhealthiest environment on Earth. The mother who loses her baby to dust pneumonia. The cornhusker who keeps a diary of short but poignant entries that document the Apocalypse.

This excellent historical work is an early candidate for my favorite books read in 2008.

Related Links:

NPR: Dust Bowl Stories from ‘The Worst Hard Time’

The American Experience

The Library of Congress: American Memory

The full film The Plow that Broke the Plains:

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 2: Dublin/Glendalough

On 21 January 1998, I took St. Kevin’s Bus on a round trip to Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin. For a nervous traveler out on his own the day proved inspirational, both in the beauty of the monastic ruins and their natural setting, but also because I successfully managed to get myself there and back! I also had my first real conversation since leaving the States with the museum guide who was managing the site for the day. I told him that since I worked for a museum the only time I could travel was during the off-season and we swapped stories of what it’s like during the high season when tour coaches start lining up at 9 am and never let up.

Back in Dublin, I had my first (and second) pint of Guinness of the holiday at Oliver St. John Gogarty’s pub in Temple Bar. I learned two things over my pints: 1) that Irish people smoke like factories and 2) that my sense of smell is really bad because I didn’t even notice how smoky the darkened pub was until my eyes started watering.

The pictures of Glendalough below I previously posted when I wrote about Saint Kevin who called Glendalough home.

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Movie Review: Pretty in Pink

I grew up in the 1980’s yet somehow I never managed to see Pretty in Pink (1986) during that decade or in the 18 ensuing years.  I saw pretty much every other John Hughes movie including the other two with Molly Ringwald – Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club – in the theaters and multiple times on cable, so this is even stranger.   Thanks to Susan and Netflix we’ve addressed this void.
The verdict: it’s a pretty good flick.  Molly Ringwald plays poor girl Andie in love with rich boy Blane (Andrew McCarthy). Their star-crossed romance is challenged by the prejudices and expectations of their friends.  The movie avoids the cliches and shows some real emotional depth, although it is also fluffy fun.

As an extra bonus, Pretty in Pink has a kickass soundtrack with New Wave tracks by New Order, O.M.D., and The Psychedelic Furs, stuff I still listen to on my iPod (when my son is old enough he’ll probably tell me that this is old fogey music).  It also includes James Spader before he became the go-to guy for creepy sexual deviant roles, here playing the blonde, feather-haired rich kid villain.  Kate Vernon makes an appearance as Spader’s girlfriend long before playing Ellen Tigh on Battlestar Galactica.  And Annie Potts has a nice supporting role as Andie’s eccentric mentor/mother figure.  I never liked her much in Ghostbusters so it was nice to see another side of her acting ability.

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