The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan. W.W. Norton, 2017.

The five Great Lakes – Erie, Ontario, Huron, Michigan, and Superior – and various attached bodies of water – contain 20% of the world’s supply of surface fresh water. Their “path to the sea”, the Atlantic Ocean, is interrupted by the dramatic difference in elevation between lakes Erie and Ontario, hence Niagara Falls. As some would have it, the Great Lakes constitute a fourth coast, making inland cities such as Cleveland and Chicago ports.

In the last century the Great Lakes were connected to the Mississippi River basin by the dredging of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the reversal of the Chicago River’s flow out of Lake Michigan rather than into it. Chicago found this solution to its untreated wastewater at the time being dumped into Lake Michigan and fouling the City’s waterfront. Dan Egan points out that this restructuring was a breach of what he calls a “sub-continental divide,” a range of hills in Illinois and Indiana that had separated the Great Lakes watershed from the huge area drained by the Mississippi.

The Erie Canal between Albany and Buffalo, which opened in 1825, was an early effort to use the water resources of the Great Lakes for transportation. The canal never lived up to expectations; the railroads came soon after the Canal’s opening paralleling the waterway and providing it with unbeatable competition.

More recently the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a joint Canadian-US project, allows ocean-going freighters to transport goods to ports on the Great Lakes. Opened in 1959, the Seaway has been widened several times in order to accommodate the increasing size of the freighters. (The St. Lawrence Seaway does, however, have an ice problem in the winter months.)

For years the heavy industry of the Midwestern States used the Lakes as a dumping ground for their wastes, augmenting the Great Lakes’ transportation function. The Clean Water Act has been a major force in cleaning up much of this industrial waste, but the ships that transport cargoes to and from this “Fourth Coast” to the Atlantic continue to pollute the Great Lakes.

These ships frequently dump their ballast tanks in the less turbulent waters of the Great Lakes after their Atlantic crossing. This ballast contains saltwater mussels that can survive in freshwater and have no predators in the Great Lakes. Predators have been introduced to “manage” these mussel populations, but that hasn’t solved another problem: the various species that hitch-hike into the Lakes on ships’ hulls. Egan proposes that many of the troubles that the Great Lakes are facing could be partially solved by railroad transport. The ships with cargo for the US Midwest could be downloaded at the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia and sent across country by railroad.

Much of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is about their unique flora and fauna and how to create a fish population that isn’t overwhelmed by both the pollution problem and potential predators. The Lakes will have to be managed but for whom? Probably commercial fisheries will never survive, and the management of the Great Lakes will benefit sports fishers or “anglers” as Egan calls them. Whatever the choice made, the fish populations will originate in hatcheries.

On to other threats to the Lakes. Phosphorus has become a menace to all bodies of water in the US and Canada. Applied to fields of corn and soy beans to boost production, it also promotes algae production which can blanket huge areas of the Great Lakes, harming “native” plant and animal species.

If a lake’s water is used within the lake’s watershed, it cycles back to the lake and hence is not diminishing the resource. But users outside the watershed are looking to grab a drink. Pipelines carry off water that never gets returned to the watershed. That has been the fate of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and, closer to home, the Ogallala Aquifer underlying the Great Plains. Large-scale extracting of their water for agricultural uses outside the watershed has depleted this fresh water source. And it is beginning to happen to the Great Lakes. Fresh water, not oil, will be our future most precious resource, Egan argues.

Proper management could be at least a partial answer. But part of the problem with the “management” response is that there are two provinces – Ontario and Quebe -, and six states – Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and New York – whose policies have to be coordinated. Plus a number of major municipalities. Good luck at getting any coherent, joint policy out of this diversity, especially when they are dividing up a scarce resource.

Dan Egan’s book was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.



Five Came Back; A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris. Penguin, 2015, paper.

 Many professional actors and film makers working in the Hollywood industry volunteered or were drafted to serve in World War II. They were recruited into units that made documentary films for the War Department. Mark Harris tells the stories of John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra. They were all film directors with a reputation, all in their late 30s or 40s.

Most of the films that Hollywood produced during the War were training films. Some, like the “Why We Fight” series, were, however, efforts to explain the War to recruits and draftees. Eventually Hollywood also produced films intended for an American theater audience. They were part history and part propaganda but always intended to gain support for all-out warfare and final victory.

These directors wanted their productions to be interesting, adding plot, characters, and humor where possible. One element missing was romance, for which Hollywood films were famous. Shouldn’t remind soldiers of what they were missing.

The five biggest studios in the decade of the 1930s and into the 1940s: Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox, RKO, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and Paramount. Along with three smaller companies: Columbia, Universal, and United Artists, they dominated the industry. They had the major directors and actors under contract, plus production facilities and thousands of employees. They also controlled theater distribution. So they brought considerable organization to the task of producing movies for an America at war. The film industry was willing to do their share in supporting the war effort. Yet little planning, Harris contends, went into how the War Department would partner with the film industry.

This wartime partnership began with an adversarial relationship between the film industry and American political elites – Hollywood and Washington. While the Japanese were planning their attack on Hawaii, a House committee was holding hearings to discover levels of corruption in the industry, but moving on to the undue influence of foreigners, and particularly European Jews. Hollywood was leftist, even “proto-communist.” Un-American, the House committee thought.

Rivalry? In 1940 sixty million people, more than half the adult population, went to a movie at least once a week. Nowhere in the American political system could you find such enthusiasm.

The theater experience began with Fox Movietone News or a competing newsreel, followed by a cartoon for the kids, then a series of “shorts” from five to twenty minutes long, followed by the “main feature.” Much of the industry’s wartime production was aimed at creating these newsreels and shorts.

One dilemma discussed throughout Harris’s book was the use of actual combat footage shot by a Field Photo Unit, versus reenactments. Frowned on by all film directors, reenactments were often necessary to convey the full story. On the other hand, live coverage of the battlefield had to be carefully planned to have the right filming equipment and personnel in the right place at the right time. Not easily accomplished on a battlefield. Of course, the narrative voice and the sound tracks were always added in the studio.

Many of the films in production in December 1941 seemed trivial at best and at worst a betrayal of our fighting men and the American public, now turning their backs and minds to war production. But we still needed Hollywood to entertain us. One solution was to place Hollywood preoccupations – romance, adventure, family – in a war setting. “Mrs. Miniver” (MGM 1942) involved a Britain struggling to deal with the erosion of traditional class barriers set in the first months of World War II.  

The Roosevelt Administration had created an “ABC” of regulatory agencies to deal with the Great Depression. It regulated the flow of war information by the creation of yet another agency. The Bureau of Motion Pictures had to approve a film before it was released for theater distribution. According to Harris the Bureau was more cautious than Hollywood thought it ought to be.

John Ford enlisted in early 1942 and was put in charge of film production for the Office of Strategic Services, our intelligence agency during the war. Harris notes the rightward drift of Ford’s politics, and that made a difference in how Hollywood covered the war, particularly Russia’s role. George Stevens was part of the U.S. Army film unit that photographed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in 1945, later used as evidence against Nazi bigwigs at the Nuremberg trials.

Perhaps the three best wartime films were released as the war ended. “Best Years of Our Lives” (Warner Brothers 1946) directed by William Wyler, was about the problems of returning veterans. It followed three soldiers and their ordeals of adjusting to civilian life while suffering from battle fatigue (PTSD). Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” was also about the difficulties faced by a returning navy pilot (Liberty Films 1946). “They Were Expendable” by John Ford (MGM late 1945) was about a torpedo boat squadron defending the Philippines against the Japanese invasion in 1941-1942. The Battle of the Philippines was a major military defeat for the Allied forces stationed there. Their commander, Douglas MacArthur, decamped to Australia.

John Huston’s “Battle of San Pietro” (1945), critical of American intelligence during the Italian campaign, was thought too revealing for a wartime audience, and only premiered at the end of the war. Much of the documentary footage produced during the war by Huston and his colleagues only became available after the war. A ten-year-old boy growing up in Garwin, Iowa, going to movie, and watching early television saw lots of it.

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part D.

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part D.



Louis Armstrong; The Master of Modernism by Thomas Brothers. W.W. Norton, 2015 paper. A discussion mostly of Armstrong’s music, rooted in African music and the blues.  Pulitzer Prize.


Stalin; Volume l: Paradoxes of Power, 1878 to 1928 by Stephen Kotkin. Penguin Press, 2014. From where did Stalin’s power come? Kotkin looks at the Bolshevik regime’s inner geography for the answer. Pulitzer Prize


No Good Men Among the Living; America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal. Picador, 2015 paper. A devastating critique of our intervention of the Afghani civil war against the Taliban. Pulitzer Prize.


Age of Ambition; Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015 paper. Hope and despair, idealism and crassness, mass social action and chaotic individual scheming: China’s gilded age. Pulitzer Prize.


Just Mercy; A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Spiegel & Grau, 2015 paper. The tragic character of incarceration in this country, both of the guilty and the innocent, most of them poor.  National Book Critics Award.


Thirteen Days in September; The Dramatic Story of the Struggle for Peace by Lawrence  Wright. Vintage, 2015 paper. In September 1978 Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, and President Jimmy Carter came up with an agreement that has become the basis of a shaky but enduring truce.


Becoming Ottomans; Sephardic Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era by Julia Cohen. Oxford University Press, 2014. An account of the Jewish political integration into this modern Islamic state beginning with Jewish emancipation, a series of reforms between 1839 and 1876.  National Jewish Book Award.


Coming to Pass; Florida’s Coastal Islands in a Gulf of Change by Susan Cerulean. University of Georgia Press, 2105. The genesis of Florida’s Gulf Coast islands and their genesis, which is tied to the Apalachicola River. Florida Book Awards.  


George Merrick; Son of the South Wind; Visionary Creator of Coral Gables by Arva Parks. University of Florida Press, 2015. Merrik transformed his family’s citrus grove outside Miami into a planned community in the ‘Mediterranean Style’ using local stone and investing in substantial infrastructure. Florida Book Awards.


Defining Duty in the Civil War; Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front by J. Matthew Gallman. University of North Carolina Press, 2015. How the North understood the meaning of duty and citizenship in a long civil war. Florida Book Awards.


Factory Man; How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy. Back Bay, 2015 paper. The Bassett Furniture Company, once the world’s biggest wood furniture manufacturer and the center of work in Bassett, Virginia, finally lost its battle with Asian imports. Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part C

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part C



Doomed to Succeed; The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama by Dennis Ross. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.  An active participant, he sees no usefullness in the distance that the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Obama Administrations kept  from our Isareli allies. National Jewish Book Awards.

Killing a King; The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel by Dan Ephron. W.W. Norton, 2015. The killing of Rabin by a Jewish fanatic helped destroy the Middle Eastern peace process; Israelis and Palestinians have never again been so close to an agreement. National Jewish Book Awards.

The Crime and the Silence; Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne by Anna Bikont & Alissaq Valles, trans. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, paper. This slaughter in a small Polish town of its Jews was revealed only after the end of the Cold War. Here is an account of the public debate generated in Poland since 1989. National Jewish Book Awards.

KL; A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nickolaus Wachsmann. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, paper. An account of the German camp system from its inception in 1933 to its collapse in the spring of 1945. National Jewish Book Awards.

What’s Divine about Divine Law? Early Perspectives by Christine Hayes. Princeton University Press, 2015. The first century debate on divine law, untangling the classical and biblical roots of the Western idea that included early Christians but also Hellenistic Jewish writers. National Jewish Book Awards.

The Burdens of Brotherhood; Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France by Ethan Katz. Harvard University Press, 2015. Jewish/Muslim relations in Franc-a-phone France from WWI to the present. National Jewish Book Awards.

Somewhere There is Still a Sun; A Memoir of the Holocaust by Michael Gruenbaum with Todd Hasak-Lowy. A young boy’s growin up in the Jewish ghetto in Prague. For young readers. Hasak-Lowy is a former Gainesvillian.  Aladdin, 2016, paper. National Jewish Book Awards.

Empire of Cotton; A Global History by Sven Beckert. Vintage, 2015, paper. The cotton and cotton textile trade in Europe was instrumental in the emergence of capitalism and also slavery in the Americas and Africa. Bancroft Prize.


The Empire of Necessity; Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World by Greg Grandin. Picador Press, 2105 paper. An experienced seaman comes upon an apparently a ship in distress carrying a cargo of West African slaves. It was discovered that they had seized the ship and killed most of its crew and passengers.  Bancroft Prize


Encounters at the Heart of the World; A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth Fenn. Hill & Wang, 2015 paper. Their teeming, busy towns on the upper Missouri were a vital part of the economy of the western plains. Louis and Clark spent a winter with them.  Pulitzer Prize


The Pope & Mussolini; The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David Kertzer. Random House, 2015 paper. Both came to power in 1922; how their interactions shaped fascist Italy. Pius’s death in 1939 may have removed an ultimate opponent. Pulitzer Prize. National Book Award.


The Sixth Extinction; An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert Picador, 2015 paper. Pulitzer Prize. National Book Critics Circle. By burning fossil fuels, humans are changing the atmosphere, the oceans, and the climate causing massive extinctions. This sixth extinction is of a much different character than that of the first five.


Empire on the Edge; How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker.  Vintage, 2015 paper. Money, it turns out that money or lack of drove what turned out to be a limited interest in colonial Britain on the part of the public. Imperial Britain had no plan or guiding vision. Pulitzer Prize.

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part B.

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part B.


The Transformation of the African-American Intelligentsia, 1880 to 2012 by Martin Kilson. Harvard University Press, 2014. A modern African-American intelligentsia evolved in the face of institutionalized racism. The contrasting approaches of W.E.B. Du

Bois and Booker T. Washington to black intellectual leadership. American Book Award


This Changes Everything; Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein. Simon & Schuster, 2015, paper. Not just another issue brought to our attention by well-meaning environmentalists, climate change is effecting an array of issues confronting late capitalism – widening inequalities, vast amounts of money entering the system of democratic election, and faltering local economies among others. American Book Award


The Universal Tone; Bringing My Story to Light by Carlos Santana, with Ashley Kahn & Hal Miller. Back Bay Press, 2015, paper. The journey of Santana from his teens playing in Tijuana through his appearance at Woodstock and an illustrious career that followed. American Book Award


Southside Buddhist by Ira Sukrungruang. University of Tampa Press, 2014, paper. Personal essays about his growing up on Chicago streets that contemplate the complexities of the Thai immigrant life. American Book Award


The People’s Platform; Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor. Picador Press, 2015, paper. Hailed as a democratizing force, the Internet amplifies the real-world inequalities as much as it ameliorates them. A handful of giant companies, recently made fabulously rich, remain our gatekeepers. American Book Award


Negroland; A Memoir by Margo Jefferson. Pantheon Press. Mostly upper-class black ways of being and performing. A warning: she wants nothing from the reader but their attention: you don’t have to like what you read. National Book Critics Circle.


Romantic Outlaws; The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelly by Charlotte Gordon .A dual biography of this mother-daughter pair responsible for A Vindication of the Rights of Women. National Book Critics Circle.


Dreamland; The True Talk of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones. Bloomsbury, 2016, paper. The spread of OxyContin addiction has been compared to the crack cocaine phenomenon of the 1980s but the difference is that it arose from the prescription pad and the marketing machine of its maker.

Roads Taken; The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way by Hasia Diner. Yale University Press, paper. 2016. They entered the homes of our great-grandparents to convince them of their need for possessions; they knew their customers well. National Jewish Book Awards


Young Lions; How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel by Leah Garrett. Northwestern University Press, 2015, paper. A tour of this literary terrain so familiar and yet gone unnoticed is its chapter in American Jewish cultural participation. National Jewish Book Awards.


Lincoln and the Jews; A History by Jonathan Sarna & Benjamin Shapell. Thomas Dunne Books. By the 1860s Jews from central Europe were finding new lives in eastern cities, and Lincoln embraced they as refugees but also valuable citizens. National Jewish Book Awards.

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part A

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part A

Rain; A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett. Crown, 2015. Gainesville’s Cynthia Barnett begins four billion years ago and marches us through our always tenuous relationship with this natural phenomenon. National Book Award. Florida Book Award.

Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Spiegel & Grau, 2015. Letters to a teenaged son who grew up in a tough Baltimore neighborhood, from there to Howard
University, then New York and Paris. National Book Award.

Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes. Yale University Press, 2015. His death and the deep national mourning that followed was complicated by the end of the Civil War and the possibility of Southern complicity. National Book Award.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery. Easy enough to observe the intelligence of crows, dogs, and chimpanzees, but Octopi. National Book Award.

Love and Other Ways of Dying by Michael Paterni. Dial Press, 2015. Essays about interesting people he meets from Ukraine to Dodge City, Kansas. National Book Award.

Paradise in the Pacific; Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015. Many arrivals from the early Polynesians to the flotsam of Europe. National Book Award.

If the Oceans Were Ink; An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Powers. Holt, 2015 paper. Friendship with a Moslem helped her confront stereotypes and misperceptions that too often inform attitudes toward their communities. National Book Award.

Ordinary Light: a Memoir by Tracy Smith. Knopf, 2015. Coming of age in a world of uncertainties. National Book Award.

Travels in Vermeer; A Memoir by Michael White. Persea Books, 2015.Decides to drown his miseries by a pilgrimage to six world cities to see a Vermeer painting. National Book Award.

Hold Still; A Memoir by Sally Mann. Little, Brown, 2015. When sorting through family papers, you can sometimes find more than you bargained for, and that is particularly true if the family is Southern. National Book Award.

Rebel Music; Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture by Hirham Aidi. Vintage, 2015, paper. The musical subcultures that have emerged among Muslim youth around the world and over the last decade: hip-hop, reggae, and rock, among others. American Book Award

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Beacon Press, 2015 paper. Euro-Americans have convinced themselves that we have been divinely chosen to impose free-market capitalism on the rest of the world, dumping the detritus of that industrial cultural on the land they once cared for. American Book Award

Forbidden City, USA; Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936 to 1970 by Arthur Dong. Deep Focus Productions, 2014, paper. Asian-American performers who defied racial and cultural barriers to reveal a sassy, daring and vibrant popular culture in the nightclub scene in San Francisco. American Book Award.