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Isthmus Reads: Steam & Cinders: The Advent of Railroads in Wisconsin, Cannery Row

Steam & Cinders: The Advent of Railroads in Wisconsin by Axel Lorenzsonn

If Steam & Cinders (Wisconsin Historical Society Press) were a train, it would be one mighty locomotive -- a beautiful piece of intricate machinery chugging slowly but steadily through Wisconsin to drag its boxcars bulging with research to the promised destination.

Author Axel Lorenzsonn has freighted this history with a staggering amount of detail, from boiler dimensions to board meeting attendance, and succeeds in laying out each step taken by the frontier's would-be rail barons to build the lines that would not only grow the state, but their own fortunes as well. Much of the book is devoted to the efforts made in securing the necessary charters and capital.

While the outlining of these financial machinations may not make for the most riveting reading, to omit them would be like bridging a gorge without a trestle. Due to such diligent research, the reader is over 100 pages into the book before the first iron horse heaves its way out of Milwaukee to Waukesha, but is treated to gushing newspaper accounts, contractors' personal letters, period maps and advertising ballyhoo all the way to points west.

Particularly telling are the meandering paths some of the early lines traveled, veering to favor one hamlet (where perhaps a city father donated land) while snubbing another. Indeed, in light of the recent hubbub over commuter rail, it's quite a contrast to learn of how hungry early settlers were for these lifelines to prosperity, with farmers even putting up their mortgages in trade for railroad stocks. One wishes Lorenzsonn had spent more pages fleshing out these more human sides of the story.

Most of the principal players are given only light sketches, and the larger rail rogues such as Milwaukee's Byron Kilbourn are spared extended analysis. Disappointingly, the chronology gets truncated at the onset of the Civil War, right before the number of Wisconsin railroads multiplied, along with their political power. However, the book already runs more than 300 pages, and the line needed to be drawn somewhere (no pun intended).

Nevertheless, Steam & Cinders gets into the nuts and bolts of Wisconsin's railroad development, and if the journey seems a little slow at first, it takes us where we want to go. (David Michael Miller, production design artist)

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

I picked this one up in Monterrey when I was visiting and read it in a day and a half. Steinbeck's description of the area is spot-on, and actually helped me mentally record my visit with a memorable accuracy.

Very slice-of-life with only wisps of plot, its philosophy lifts people who act without pretension and leans toward the ways of the East. Mack and the boys only work for money when they have to, and though they live in a flophouse which essentially could be considered squalor they spend much time decorating and making it comfortable according to their own aesthetics. They don't, however, get overzealous about material possessions, and celebrate when their puppy destroys their things rather than punishing her. It means she's healthy and full of life, the inherent trait of each character in the novel.

The lifestyle of the townspeople seemed a bit idealistic to me, and a little too innocent. They are drunks and whores after all. But Steinbeck's gentle filter only made me fall in love with them all. Naturally, there is sadness that pervades throughout the town, and death hangs in the air, but Steinbeck is careful to describe this delicately beautiful. Often when characters fall into a melancholy, they actually enjoy it and use it as a time for reflection.

The reading experience of Cannery Row is very meditative. The language is beautiful, rich and sophisticated but never complex. I think this novel encouraged me to slow down and examine the smaller, more rewarding beauties in my own life like spending time with friends and taking time to appreciate my surroundings, be them nature or the city. (Craig Cady, sales representative)

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