January 26, 2006


Pompeii: Lost & Found. By Mary Pope Osborne. Frescoes by Bonnie Christensen. Knopf. $16.95.

Inside Delta Force: The Story of America’s Elite Counterterrorist Unit. By Eric L. Haney. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

     There have been many books about the destruction of Pompeii in 79 A.D. by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius – and about the remarkable preservation of the city’s artifacts, including impressions of its people, because of the speed and nature of the catastrophe.  But there has never been one quite like this.  Mary Pope Osborne focuses on the everyday life of Pompeii, and Bonnie Christensen illustrates Osborne’s words by creating actual frescoes in the style of the ones that still decorate Pompeii’s walls.

     The results can be positively eerie, as they are in the two final two-page spreads.  One shows Pompeii in ancient days, with four people and a dog going about their lives.  The other shows the scene from the identical angle today, with Pompeii’s walls now in ruins and the people in modern dress but otherwise doing almost exactly what their ancient counterparts were doing – down to the presence of a dog that seems identical to the long-ago one.  The effect is utterly remarkable, and teaches a history lesson in a way that only art can do.

     Osborne’s words are more ordinary than this, but highly informative.  She explains the disappearance of Pompeii and its reappearance some 1,700 years later, with many objects (excellently depicted by Christensen) remaining intact.  Osborne enlivens her descriptions by focusing on the little things, such as graffiti that praised individual gladiators: “Celadus, glory of the girls.”  The result is a book whose words and illustrations truly make Pompeii come alive again.

     Volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters still claim thousands of lives today – but the modern world also faces dangers the ancient Romans never did, such as international terrorism.  Videogame players ages 12 and up, who have often had the chance to “take out” modern terrorists through intense first-person shooters, will be surprised to learn that the super-secret antiterrorist squads of which they pretend to be members have a real-life counterpart.  Inside Delta Force is the story of this counterterrorist group, as told by founding member Eric Haney.  Obviously, Haney does not reveal all the details about Delta Force, which requires secrecy to function effectively.  But he tells a surprising amount, both about the organization and about himself.

     Haney is a no-nonsense person and a no-nonsense writer: “Some army posts have a real beauty about them.”  “The friendliness in his voice came to a screeching halt.”  “Side straddle hops, the high jumper, squat thrusts, pushups, turn and bounce.”  “I felt beat-up, violated, and helpless to do anything about it.”  Through prose like this, Haney explains how Delta Force was formed, how its members were chosen and trained, what sorts of tactics and techniques they learned, and how they handled sample missions.  There is no detailed information on real missions, though Haney mentions working around the world, in many of the planet’s hot spots.  For instance, he casually remarks, “In 1983 we led the invasion of the island of Grenada.”  Inside Delta Force is exciting in a scary and rather creepy way: it’s good to know we have people like Haney and his comrades protecting the United States, but it’s frightening to realize how much we need them.

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