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A reader's notes

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War, peace, and Pittsburgh

Inspired by an awareness that alumni are now publishing books at a great rate, BCM here begins a new department that will offer comments on selections from among books published by members of the Boston College community. This inaugural column was written by editor Ben Birnbaum. Additionally, a list of recently published books by alumni, students, and faculty has been posted on the BCM website at bcm.bc.edu/readerslist, and will be maintained there. Publishing houses and authors are invited to send books or book announcements to the editors.


Step by step

The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City, by Bob Regan '62, MS'67, with photographs by Tim Fabian (Local History Company, 2004)

The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City, by Bob Regan '62, MS'67, with photographs by Tim Fabian (Local History Company, 2004)

A work of eccentric devotion, this paperback by a 65-year-old geology consultant chronicles in maps, survey tables, lore, 100 photos, and five detailed and lung-challenging walking tours, the 712 flights of steps (a collective 24,090 vertical feet, compared to Everest's 29,035) that allow Pittsburgh to perch at the junction of three rivers and still work. Least necessary photograph: the concrete stairs on which the writer Annie Dillard is said to have once played. Most necessary photograph: "A working class section of Pittsburgh, 1941." Taken from the top of a long set of wooden steps on what appears to be a late winter afternoon that has been rolled in ashes, the black-and-white image captures a neighborhood of nearly empty residential streets that tilt steeply downward for three blocks before they pile into a sward of stout brick mills sitting beneath a low sky of smoke and haze. Up on the hill, weeds poke through thin snow in treeless yards, while a man in a fedora, a white collared shirt, and a long woolen coat, and with the broad prosperous back of an undertaker or a mob hit man (there's got to be a white silk scarf under that coat), descends the steps below us, heading somewhere to do something we'll never know about.


Steppe by steppe

Solovki: The Story of Russia Told Through Its Most Remarkable Islands, by Roy R. Robson Ph.D.'92 (Yale, 2004)

Solovki: The Story of Russia Told Through Its Most Remarkable Islands, by Roy R. Robson Ph.D.'92 (Yale, 2004)

Robson, on the faculty at Philadelphia's University of the Sciences, uses a few remote Russian islands that lie 90 miles south of the Arctic Circle as a stage on which to dramatize Russian history from the 15th century through the 20th. This being Russian history, the plot is replete with devout hermits, long and obscure (to an American ear) wars, bloody religious schism, the most celebrated library in Eastern Europe, a full range of tsarist cruelties, miles of permafrost, and the construction of Lenin's first concentration camp ("the mother of the Gulag system," in Solzhenitsyn's phrase) on the site of what had been the world's northernmost monastery. The New Yorker found Solovki to be "an epic drama of spiritualism and savagery." The United Nations declared the islands a natural and cultural preserve of global significance in 1974.


Loves and redemptions

Love in the Asylum, a novel by Lisa Carey '92 (William Morrow, 2004); and Prince of Thieves, a novel by Chuck Hogan '89 (Scribner, 2004)

Love in the Asylum, a novel by Lisa Carey '92 (William Morrow, 2004); and Prince of Thieves, a novel by Chuck Hogan '89 (Scribner, 2004)

After the redoubtable romanticist Barbara Delinsky MA'69, Carey and Hogan are probably the two most commercially successful writers of fiction among alumni. Carey's third novel tells the kind of story that reviewers tend to characterize as "a tale of love and redemption" because that's what it is. At the core is a wary romance between Alba Elliot, a children's book writer and longtime manic-depressive, and Oscar Jameson, a drug addict, who find each other while confined to a posh New England mental asylum. The plot is also thickened by a discovered set of never-mailed letters written by a former inmate in the 1930s, and the tragic fate of the Abenaki Indians, for whom the asylum is named. Carey is a romantic as a writer—her world feels safe in spite of the gargoyles—but she's not quite a softy: "When asked why she set her house on fire, [Alba] answers, 'Because I was tired.' 'Tired of what?' the doctors ask. 'Tired of trying to remember all of the things I would have to save if the house caught on fire.'"

Hogan, who was swept away from his job in a video store by the success of his first novel (The Standoff), works in the crime thriller genre, and this is his third novel as well. It is the story of a career thief (Doug MacRay) from Boston's Charlestown neighborhood, his charming gang of expressively nicknamed Irish boyos, a resolute FBI agent, and a bank branch manager named Claire Keesey, for whom both MacRay and the G-man fall—MacRay while viewing her through a mask he wears as he robs her bank and briefly holds her hostage. The book concludes with a daring robbery at Fenway Park (Bucky Dent is not involved). Stephen King blurbs the novel as "a rich narrative of friendship, young love and mounting suspense." Ed McBain liked it too. Law & Order producer Dick Wolf bought the film option.


War cry

"Fear Was Not in Him"—The Civil War Letters of Major General Francis C. Barlow, U.S.A., edited by Christian G. Samito (Fordham, 2004)

"Fear Was Not in Him"—The Civil War Letters of Major General Francis C. Barlow, U.S.A., edited by Christian G. Samito (Fordham, 2004)

Samito is a doctoral student in history at BC at the same time that he is a trial lawyer at a Boston law firm. Remarkably, he's also found the time to edit and annotate this book of Civil War letters—his second such venture—written by a Harvard-educated New York City lawyer who was twice wounded (Antietam and Gettysburg) and whose dispatches to his family up North are mostly matter-of-fact accounts of maneuvers, battlefield horrors, and harsh gossip, all conveyed with a remarkably unappetizing sense of entitlement, snobbery, and arrogance ("I am utterly disgusted with the craven spirit of our people. I wish the enemy had burned Baltimore + Washington"). When Harvard graduates met after the war to commemorate fellow veterans in the stained glass of Memorial Hall, they chose Barlow's visage as the model for Godefroy, a crusader who conquered Jerusalem in 1099. Reading this book, one can see why. Samito's introduction is smart and sprightly, and so are his occasional interpolations. Someday he'll get to write his own book, I hope.

Ben Birnbaum

 

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