By Nora Krug
Sunday, April 13, 2008
CONQUERING GOTHAM Building Penn Station and Its Tunnels By Jill Jonnes | Penguin. 368 pp. $16
Urban planners at the end of the 19 century faced a "vexing" problem, writes Jill Jonnes: "how to connect the wealthy and influential island of Manhattan to the mainland and the rest of America." In Conquering Gotham, Jonnes chronicles the effort to make this connection, at least architecturally, with the construction of Pennsylvania Station and its tunnels. Jonnes ably recounts the technical challenges posed by a pioneering venture of such proportions, offering a refresher course in New York history along the way. But at its heart the book is an admiring biography of the "cultured, steely engineer" behind the plan: Alexander Cassatt (brother of artist Mary), whose efforts were stymied by politics, real estate battles, the limits of engineering -- and the fact that he was not from New York.
With the completion in 1910 of "Charles McKim's Roman temple to transportation," the Pennsylvania Railroad may have "conquered Gotham," Jonnes observes with characteristic grandiosity. But with that first building's demolition 53 years later and plans to refurbish the new Penn Station foundering today, this is a conquest that may never have a victor.THE BOX How the Shipping Container Made The World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger By Marc Levinson | Princeton Univ. 376 pp. $14.95
The shipping container "has all the romance of a tin can," admits Marc Levinson, but in The Box he demonstrates how this "soulless" object roughly the size of an 18-wheeler's tractor helped transform the global economy. By simplifying and drastically reducing the cost of sending goods overseas, he explains, the shipping container was "critical in opening the way to what we now call globalization." Levinson is an economist, but he is also a journalist with an accessible writing style. He skillfully traces the slow and fitful development of container shipping from the mid 1950s onward, showing how its effects on the economic landscape -- for example, precipitating the loss of longshoremen jobs and remaking port cities -- had a human side, too.
At the center of the story is Malcom McLean, the owner of a North Carolina trucking company, who began with a basic but radical question: "Why not just put truck trailers on ships that could ferry them up and down the coast?" He ended up at the forefront of an industry that "would open the way to vast changes in where and how goods are manufactured." The history of containerization, Levinson concludes, "is humbling."
From Our Previous Reviews:
· Set in her native Colombia, Laura Restrepo's novel Delirium (Vintage, $13.95) weaves together multiple narratives and "is as much about family as corrupt government or (dis)organized crime," wrote Carolyn See.
· The villain -- and star -- of Steven Hall's "rousingly inventive" novel, The Raw Shark Texts (Canongate, $14), is "not just any shark," explained Tyler Knox, but one that "swims in a current of words and ideas and feeds on memory and sense of self."
· Linda Lear's "thorough" biography of Beatrix Potter (St. Martin's Griffin, $19.95) depicts the prolific children's writer as "a stout pragmatist . . . sensibly shod as she pursues hedgehogs and mice across the English countryside," wrote Elizabeth Hand.
· The Echoing Green (Vintage, $15.95), Joshua Prager's fresh look at the myth and mystery surrounding baseball players Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson and the "shot heard round the world," offers "the perfect rebuttal," Elliott Vanskike remarked, "to those who would argue that a home run, even the most famous home run ever hit, doesn't signify in the way that grand historical events do."
· In Nixon and Mao (Random House, $17), Margaret Macmillan applies her "impressive powers of research and storytelling" to the momentous 1972 meeting between Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong, giving it a "you are there" feel that few other historians have achieved, Orville Schell commented.
Nora Krug is a regular contributor to Book World.