Books In Brief

Local Interests

June 29, 2008|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,special to the sun

In his classic book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser claimed that people and places were the twin pillars on which all good nonfiction is built. These three books - all with a local connection - prove that point. Their subjects qualify them as textbooks. Yet they are written so engagingly that any one of them could be beach reading. The secret lies in the authors' attention to detail, story line, character and setting.

The Universe in a Mirror By Robert Zimmerman Princeton University Press / 287 pages / $29.95

From bureaucratic bungling, technical delays and budget deficits to heated battles among scientists, the Hubble Space Telescope has had more than its share of misfortune. In his new book, The Universe in a Mirror, Robert Zimmerman contends that the flawed design of its mirror, evident shortly after launch, was just the tip of the iceberg. Zimmerman tells the story of the trials, tribulations and triumphs besetting the Hubble in this engagingly written, though heavy-duty, account.

It is no surprise, as Zimmerman describes it, that the Hubble saga had its roots in the frustration of astronomers like John Herschel, who in 1837, after noting Eta Carinae's annual arrival in the December evening sky, saw the star grow three times brighter. What happened? Herschel couldn't tell because the Earth's atmosphere blurs objects in space.

It wasn't until 1946 that Lyman Spitzer, a professor at Princeton University and, in Zimmerman's eyes, the father of the Hubble (although the telescope was named after Edwin Hubble), conceived an idea for building a space telescope. It took 44 years after Spitzer's proposal and 20 years after its initial design was begun to launch the Hubble on April 24, 1990. Spitzer lost his bid to have the telescope built at Princeton when the Johns Hopkins University was chosen for the project.

Many years later, that telescope - about the size of a large tractor-trailer -is still in orbit thanks to Maryland's Goddard Space Flight Center, which manages the program. The Hubble continues to transmit sharply detailed images of distant objects in the universe. That these images exist is a tribute to mankind's persistence and ingenuity.

Cop in the Hood By Peter Moskos Princeton University / 304 pages / $14.95

When former President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs, he outlawed barbiturates, amphetamines and LSD. He also perhaps inadvertently set the stage for today's system of jailing drug offenders, costing $22,000 per prisoner per year - a total of $8 billion annually - while propelling robbery and murder statistics to record heights. After nearly 40 years, it's time to admit that this costly war has failed, says Peter Moskos in his Baltimore-based book, Cop in the Hood.

An assistant professor of law, police science and criminal justice administration at the City University of New York, Moskos came to Baltimore while a Harvard University graduate student to gather "valid data on job-related police behavior." It took him three years to turn that data into a Ph.D. dissertation and another three years to write this account.

A Chicago native, Moskos knew Baltimore primarily from the films of John Waters and Barry Levinson, whose depictions of the city differ significantly from the conditions Moskos found. Moskos was both dismayed and fascinated by Baltimore's Eastern District, which he calls "one of the worst ghettos in America" in terms of "violence, drugs, abandonment, and despair," much of it caused by drugs.

Chronicling his six months training in the police academy and the 14 months he patrolled Baltimore's east side, Moskos blends academic writing with techniques of creative nonfiction. Moskos packs his account with anecdotes, details, dialogue and off-the-cuff observations about everything from the Baltimore dialect to ghetto slang to the recipe for crack.

Ultimately, his story is engaging as well as persuasive. As Moskos aptly puts it, "If [after all these years] the war on drugs were winnable, it would already be won."

The Best Game Ever By Mark Bowden Atlantic Monthly Press / 272 pages / $23

When Alan Ameche scored the winning touchdown, it was the Baltimore Colts 23, the New York Giants 17. With its sudden-death playoff, the Dec. 28, 1958, NFL football championship was a pivotal moment in sports' history. Tense and gripping, it brought together "the greatest concentration of football talent ever assembled for a single game," Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down) writes in his latest book, The Best Game Ever.

The glamour-boy Giants, with Frank Gifford, Sam Huff and assistant coaches Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, had the best defense. The blue-collar Colts, with Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, Ameche and head coach Weeb Ewbank, had the best offense. But all of the players were dedicated, smart and persistent.

As Bowden describes it, the game resulted in the birth of the modern National Football League. Before then, baseball was the national pastime. Football was played loosely by players who sold insurance or worked in the steel mills in the off-season. After that game, football became more like a series of chess moves; games were scripted and won in classroom study and in practice sessions as well as on the gridiron.

Bowden weaves the text seamlessly from the events of the game to the players to the coaches to the plays and the strategy behind the game. Showing how everything came together, he recaptures the excitement of the occasion and brings the story alive on the page.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. She is co-editor of "Reading Lips, and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability," to be published in August.

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