Monday, May 26, 2014

My Boys and Girls Are in There: The 1937 New London School Explosion by Ron Rozelle (2012)

My Debbie Downer book club picked a hell of a sad title this time around. My Boys and Girls Are in There: The 1937 New London School Explosion by Ron Rozelle (2012) tells the story of the 1937 explosion of the junior high / high school in New London, Texas -- still the largest death toll of any school disaster in the United States.

New London is in East Texas, near Tyler, about halfway between Dallas and Shreveport. In 1937, the depression was hitting the country hard, but the oil fields near New London made it a very prosperous part of the country. Single men and families moved there for work and they used some of that oil money to build one of the nicest new school buildings in the country.

Like many businesses and private residences in the area, the school decided to tap into the natural gas lines from the near-by oil wells to get free gas for the school. The oil companies used a little bit of the gas to run the wells, but most of it was just burned off and tapping into the lines was one of the benefits of living in an oil town. Towards the end of the day on March 18, 1937, gas from a leak built up in the large crawl space under the school and the building exploded when the industrial arts teacher turned on some equipment in the storage space. Over 295 people died, most of them children.

Rozelle's book starts with the feeling of a novel, giving us a look at the lives of the families, students, and teachers during the day before the explosion. While this technique doesn't always work for me, in this case I found it to be really effective and moving. As the narrative gets closer and closer to the explosion and its aftermath, I found myself having to put the book down to take a break and grab a kleenex.

The book goes on to give a more traditional historical view of the disaster and then moves us to present day New London to introduce some of the survivors who have collected material, created a museum with an archival collection, and raised a monument to a tragedy that for years was not spoken of by the people in the town who wanted to forget that day.

Living as an archivist involved with the history of Texas, I can't believe I'd never heard of this before. The book is a quick read and I'd recommend it to all Texans and anyone out there with an interest in history or crying.

You can read more about the disaster here and watch a fascinating contemporary newsreel of the event (which inflates the death toll) here.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Top 10: Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp, & Ghent by Anthony Mason (2014)

I got this copy of the DK Eyewitness Travel guide, Top 10: Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp, & Ghent by Anthony Mason (2014) in anticipation of a trip to Belgium (specifically Ghent) later this fall.

I've looked at DK travel guides before, and this one follows the same pattern (which is what one wants a travel series to do): surfacey, but relatively broad, small nuggets of information, lots of pictures. The size of this guide could make it a nice travel companion and it includes several types of maps, including a laminated pull-out map of the centers of all four cities that can be removed from the book.

I'm hoping to see a bunch of Belgium, but since our trip will be focused on Ghent, I was hoping for more detail on that city, which, perhaps because of its size or academic nature, is the least covered of the four. Still, this gave me a good overview of what is out there in lovely Belgium along with a portable size that will come in handy later!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard (1984)

"And as I went on running I thought: I'll write something at once, no matter what -- I'll write about this artistic dinner in the Gentzgasse at once, now. Now, I thought -- at once, I told myself over and over again as I ran through the Inner City -- at once, I told myself, now -- at once, at once, before it's too late."

My latest read from Harold Bloom's western canon list is the Austrian novel Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard (1984). Our unnamed narrator has recently returned to Vienna after nearly 30 years of living as an expatriate in London. After learning that a former friend, Joana, has killed herself, he goes walking on a familiar street from his youth and runs into the Auersbergers, a couple that he was uncomforably close with in the 1950s and who he now vehemently hates. Yet, when they tell him about Joana's death he pretends he hadn't heard, and when they invite him to an artistic dinner at their house, he accepts, even though it's the last thing he wants to do.  And then, to his professed surprise, he actually shows up.

Our story starts there at the artistic dinner while the narrator and the other dinner guests wait interminably for the guest of honor, an actor from the Burgtheater, to arrive. The narrator's thoughts bounce back and forth between his current horrible predicament, the scene at Joana's funeral earlier that day, and his memories of his days as a young artist in Vienna and his history with the Auersbergers, Joana, and the rest of them.

The book is often funny, always acerbic, and occasionally, when the narrator gives us some unexpected awareness of his own flaws and faults, a little sad. The book is written in one continuous paragraph which gives the already racing and circular thoughts of the author a manic quality (and, incidentally, makes the book really hard to put down since there isn't anywhere to stop). After a session with this book I found myself sometimes exhausted and sometimes exhilarated, but never bored. Highly recommended. Especially if you enjoy poking fun at the Burgtheater and/or love mentioning wing chairs.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel (2009)

When I saw a trailer for George Clooney's recent movie version of the story told in The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel (2009), I was intrigued. This was a part of World War II that I didn't know much about, and the focus on cultural history and some non-traditional soldiers (plus George's dreamy eyes) made it seem rather appealing.

Shortly after I watched the trailer, a friend from college who has edited our alumni magazine for several years contacted me about writing an archives-related article for the magazine. It happened that Jesse Boell, a fellow alum of Nebraska Wesleyan University (class of 1925), was also a Monuments Man during and just after WWII, AND was also an influential archivist in Wisconsin. This piece was right up my alley, and I had lots of fun researching Boell's life, watching the Clooney movie and ordering a copy of Edsel's book.

Life being what it is, I didn't get a chance to read the book until after the deadline for the article, but it made a nice follow-up to all my research and a good cap to this project. The Monuments Men were a group of cultural professionals who were enlisted to document, protect, and preserve buildings, artwork, archives, and libraries that were being put at risk during the war. In the larger picture of battles, destruction, and a growing awareness of the victims of the Holocaust, resources for the scattered Monuments Men were few, but the soldiers did a lot with what they had and ultimately saved and returned innumerable works of art, personal libraries, and archival collections (including collections of Nazi archives used to persecute war criminals and to locate and return private property). Edsel focuses his story on a handful of the earliest and most charismatic of what would grow to be about 350 Monuments Men (and women), and centers his story on the work done in France and Germany during and just after the war.

As many people know, Hitler was a frustrated artist and he put a high importance on confiscating large collections of Europe's art and bringing it together under his control in Germany. Oddly enough, many works of art may have ultimately been saved from destruction by bombing or looting because Hitler's troops packed them up and hid them in isolated castles and deep mines. Still, the haste with which the treasures were stolen, the disregard for their well-being, and the ultimate urge to destroy everything as defeat crept closer undercuts the unintended altruism of the Nazi's actions.

Edsel (writing together with Bret Witter) is an engaging writer and goes to great lengths to make this history read like a novel. In some cases he is successful and his literary turns enhance the historical documentation, but more often than not he veers a little off course and distracts the reader who is interested in history with made-up dialogue and conjecture. The archivist in me really liked the inclusion of transcripts of complete letters from the soldiers home to their families, as well as orders from both the U.S. and German forces. An unexpected bonus was a look into the professionalization of conservation and the influence of the experiences these men had on their later work at prominent museums and other collections back in the states.

Not a perfect book, but an engaging read and worth exploring if you are interested in art history or World War II.

[If you are interested in my article, you can check it out here!]