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Best Books of 2017 – Chapter 3

Following immediately on the footsteps of my previous BookBub bargain, I chanced upon another one. I was only vaguely familiar with the story of the building of the aqueduct to provide water to Los Angeles so when I came across Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles, by Les Standiford, my long-standing interest in reading books about things being built prompted my instant purchase of this one. My desire in reading this story was furthered by the fact that my youngest son at one point lived in L.A. and my daughter lived not far away in Pasadena.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it was around the turn of the 20th century that William “Chief” Mulholland took on the task of building an aqueduct from Owens Valley 235 miles away down the mountains and valleys to Los Angeles. The chief was quite prescient in his thought that a huge increase in water was the only way for the city to grow. And so it was in 1905, after several years of researching the possibilities, that he undertook an eight-year mission to do just that.

I found the technical aspects of the undertaking of interest to me as the construction involved a series of lined, open ditches, covered concrete culverts, tunnels, steel pipes and siphons necessary to gravity feed the water down to LA. Managing 15 different construction zones simultaneously, the chief encountered numerous challenges to complete what was referred to at the time as the greatest civil engineering feat second only to the building of the Panama Canal. But as with any large public project, it was not completed without controversy.

It is interesting to note that over 100 years later, the controversy still exists about what this project meant to the largely agricultural residents who no longer had access to the water their farms needed. But new learning for me was once it was built that multiple acts of what we would label today, “domestic terrorist acts” attempted to destroy the system and return the water to its original owners. But dispute and these destructive acts aside, it was a more natural disaster that forever tarnished the project and ultimately led to the chief’s resignation following an exemplary half-century career.

It is no doubt that the growth of L.A. could not have occurred without the addition of this water supply. But in an interesting side note to the story, I learned that some of the real life events were actually featured in the 1974 movie Chinatown, although the perspective portrayed is one of the more sinister accusations that could never be proven. So thanks to this book, not only do I have a much better understanding of this history, but also I have a scenic drive to follow next time I am in L.A. (Mulholland Drive) and a movie to watch as well.

I well remember January 15, 2009 when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger piloted his plane to a successful water landing on the Hudson River. It was an incredible feat and a huge news story. I vividly recall seeing the video footage of the landing captured by security cameras that were played over and over. So when a dear friend of mine told me she had been to the movie Sully and highly recommended it to me, I watched for it to show up on DVD so I could get it from Netflix.

I can confirm the movie was great, with one of my favorite actors, Tom Hanks playing the part of Sully. But as usual after watching a movie, I wanted to know more details, ones for which there is seldom time to include in a two hour movie. So while the movie credits were rolling and the real life Sully and passengers were speaking at their reunion, I explored what book the movie might be based on rather than waiting for the end of the credits. I was surprised to learn that actually several books had been published about the incident. But the one I selected, the one it turns out was the basis for the movie was Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters written by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger with Jeffrey Zaslow.

This is not an autobiography that traces Sully’s life from birth to his presence on the Hudson. Rather, each chapter in the book highlights a different aspect of Sully’s personal life and professional experience that helped him react to and handle the unprecedented incident in the cockpit that cold January day. After laying out the backstory, many of these chapters then dovetail into a certain aspect that Sully felt played an important part in the actions he took. A little over half way through the book when the storyline turned exclusively to the events of that day, I could feel my heart rate accelerate as Sully relayed the actions he and the copilot took. From the time of “bird strike” to the landing in the water was about three and a half minutes. But the story unfolds over many pages alternating between Sully’s thoughts and cockpit voice recordings that will keep you rapidly turning page after page.

I was not familiar with this book, The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child but it was highly recommended to me by my oldest sister. Given that it was also highlighted as one of the 100 best thrillers ever by NPR, a book review source I confidently trust, I figured I couldn’t go wrong. Boy was I in for a thrill ride.

This book introduced me to a character, Special FBI Agent Pendergast that has been featured in a total of 16 Preston & Child books. This novel is number three in the series and is set in modern day New York City. The book opens with the gruesome discovery at a construction site of what may be the largest and previously unknown serial killer in US history, dating back to the late 1800s. What is particularly grisly about these skeletal remains is the manner in which each met their demise.

Agent Pendergast enlists the assistance of a female archeologist on staff at the American Museum of Natural History to uncover the truth behind these ancient crimes. And once “copycat” murders begin to occur during their investigation, the plot becomes even more intense with a bit of science thrown in as well. To avoid saying more and it being a spoiler, I will just say be ready for multiple surprises at the end.

There were times when I could not put this book down and as the climax was approached, I found my heart racing. By the end, I had become enamored with Pendergast and his deductive and somewhat mystical abilities for solving crimes. And it made me want to explore other Pendergast books, which I will do likely starting at the beginning of the series as there were several references in this book to events in the earlier two books.

To be continued…

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