This thorough, overdue, rambling history reaches for special significance but fails to grasp it.

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GOWANUS

BROOKLYN'S CURIOUS CANAL

The history of a Brooklyn neighborhood and its fetid canal.

The Gowanus Canal was created in the mid-1800s by enlarging an existing creek, creating a passageway nearly 2 miles long from the Upper Bay into Brooklyn for commercial shipping. Because the city has always tried to handle drainage of the surrounding marshy areas and local sewage disposal on the cheap, it has also been an open sewer for more than 150 years. In this debut history, Time Out New York associate editor Alexiou claims, "the Gowanus is a microcosm—a lens through which to view the passage of history, and in particular the growth of Brooklyn and its unique identity in relation to its environs." He accordingly recounts the entire history of the creek, canal, and neighborhood from its earliest settlement by the Dutch to the present day, including the development of the canal and industrial Brooklyn in the 19th century and the neighborhood's decline in the postindustrial second half of the 20th century. The canal was designated a Superfund site in 2010, and the neighborhood is enjoying a renaissance of small-scale development and gentrification. Alexiou's narrative is well-researched and moves along in a confident and lively manner, but it suffers from a lack of focus. The author presents an unusually well-defined case history of the interaction of the private and public sectors generating growth and prosperity through a unique piece of urban infrastructure at a terrible environmental cost that still has not been fully addressed. However, Alexiou makes room for extensive sections on the Battle of Brooklyn in the Revolutionary War, the personal struggles of developer Edwin Litchfield with the city, amateur baseball, and organized crime wars in Brooklyn, all colorful and legitimate topics for a local history but distractions from a central theme that the author leaves largely implicit.

This thorough, overdue, rambling history reaches for special significance but fails to grasp it.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4798-9294-5

Page Count: 400

Publisher: New York Univ.

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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EDISON

One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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