October 20, 2005


Built to Last: Building America’s Amazing Bridges, Dams, Tunnels, and Skyscrapers.  By George Sullivan. Scholastic. $18.99.

Egypt in Spectacular Cross-Section. By Stewart Ross. Illustrated by Stephen Biesty. Scholastic. $18.99.

     It is difficult, in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the vast human tragedies they spawned, to think of works created by people as enduring.  As an old saying has it, “Man proposes.  Nature disposes.”  Yet some human works do endure.  Even the dinged, dented, damaged bridges of southern Louisiana survived Katrina’s wind and water – worse for wear but by no means irreparably damaged.  What makes it possible to build things that handle not only once-in-a-lifetime weather extremes but also the dull daily routine of people, cars, trucks, trains, and all sorts of weather changes?  Kids ages 9-12 will find many of the answers in Built to Last, a highly impressive tour of some major American construction projects that not only shows the results but also explains how these architectural icons came to be.  Thus, we learn about the little-known Frederick P. Dinkelberg, the architect responsible for New York City’s famous wedge-shaped Flatiron Building, whose design is based on a Greek column.  We read about America’s deadliest avalanche and how it spurred work on what would become the Cascade Tunnel.   And we get all sorts of information on well-known American landmarks: the Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building, Gateway Arch and more.  The book’s final section, about current major construction projects, neatly highlights two contrasting ones: Boston’s Big Dig, infamous as perhaps the costliest construction project ever in the United States; and New York’s City Tunnel No. 3, a virtually unknown project 600 feet below the surface that is also extremely expensive – because the future of the city’s water supply may depend on it.  This is an excellent combination of photos and narrative, of wonder at the works created and matter-of-fact discussion of how they were built.

     Far older than anything in the United States, the grand monuments of ancient Egypt are the sole survivors of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  But just as modern San Francisco involves far more than the Golden Gate Bridge and modern Boston far more than the Big Dig, life in ancient Egypt had far more elements than the Pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx.  Indeed, although the Valley of the Kings and step pyramid at Saqqara appear in the latest “Spectacular Cross-Section” book, they are not central to it.  Stewart Ross’ story and Stephen Biesty’s as-marvelous-as-always illustrations focus on a 30-day journey up the Nile River in 1230 B.C.E. by an 11-year-old boy, his father and several relatives.  The storytelling device works extremely well here, allowing Biesty to showcase everyday life while also giving glimpses of ceremonies that today’s readers ages 9-12 will find strange and enthralling, such as the preparation for rebirth of the body and soul of a village headman.  A short book like all those in this series, Egypt is so packed with meticulous drawings and carefully written text (in small type) that it provides many hours of pleasurable discovery and is worth returning to again and again.

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