Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What I've Been Reading

I seem to be back in the history-mystery rut. Many of the books I read are older ones because I love book sales so much. My poor husband must feel like a pack animal when he accompanies me to a sale, but actually I think he enjoys watching me act like a child on Christmas morning. I need to get some of the to-be-read piles down because next month comes the annual Putnam's warehouse sale. I missed it last year since I had just had a knee replacement, but I'm raring to go this year.

Anyway I recently read CONQUERING GOTHAM subtitled "A Gilded Age Epic: The construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels," by Jill Jonnes. We take modern transportation for granted so it's startling to realize that 100 years ago the only way to get to Manhattan from New Jersey was by ferry. No bridge, no tunnels, just a port crowded with passengers and cargo and then a river full of ferries. The river crossing was terribly dangerous of course, and in the winter sometimes impossible.

Meanwhile, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Alexander Cassatt, was frustrated because his trains could only take people as far as the Jersey side of the river. Manhattan was growing fast; already many people were commuting from Jersey to Manhattan for jobs. A plan to build a bridge had fallen through. Then someone suggested that Cassatt should look at the huge metro station in Paris. There he saw electric train cars smoothly traveling in and out of tunnels. The idea that became Penn Station and the tunnels connecting both New Jersey and Long Island to Manhattan was born.

Penn Station opened in 1910 after years of planning, horrible accidents in the tunnels, fights with Tammany Hall for permits (without paying bribes), and financial overruns. The station itself required buying up all the property in a two-square mile area which was called the Tenderloin because so many houses of ill-repute were located there. The whole story is fascinating, enough so that although this isn't great literature you stick with it. I enjoyed it very much.

Then for a change I read a Marcia Muller mystery novel, BOTH ENDS OF THE NIGHT, one of her Sharon McCone books. This one is about flying and the people in the world of private planes. McCone and her boyfriend Hy both fly and love planes. When McCone's former flight instructor comes to her because her own boyfriend has disappeared leaving his young son behind, McCone butts up against the secret world of the Witness Protection Program. There have been changes in McCone's personal world as well that readers of the other stories in the series will appreciate, but this would also be enjoyable as a stand-alone. It's just plain a good story.

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