Sample Book Reviews


Millbrooke, A.M. (1999). Aviation History. Englewood, CO: Jeppensen Sanderson. Pp. xxi + 612. ISBN 0-88487-235-1. $68.00 hard cover.

Reviewed by Nanette Scarpellini, University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Aviation History delivers an entertaining account and perspective on international aviation history. This book is an excellent resource to students, educators, and aviation enthusiasts. In reviewing this book, the principal criteria included content, organization, and reference sources. While editing errors and organizational incongruities plague some of the latter chapters, many of the shortcomings of this first edition will likely be alleviated by later editions. These problems are only a minor distraction to the story being told.

Starting with the first unmanned hot air balloon flight in 1783 through the announcement of the X Prize that will be awarded to the first non-government sponsored manned spacecraft, the author shows the detailed progression of international aviation and aerospace technology. The reader is taken on a journey through the world of aviation and receives first-hand accounts from the inventors and dreamers who made it possible. The tone of the book reflects a learned appreciation for the marvel of aviation as illustrated by a quote from the 1759 aviation-related novel Rasselas by Samuel Johnson, which explains flight in this fashion: "So fishes have water, in which yet beasts can swim by nature, and men by art. He that can swim needs not despair to fly: to swim is to fly in a grosser fluid, and to fly is to swim in a subtler" (2-5).

The author, Anne Marie Millbrooke, is a proven historian and author specializing in science and technology with an emphasis on aviation history. In addition to acting as a historian for such organizations as the National Park Service and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), she has also managed the Archive and Historical Center at United Technologies Corporation and served as a Research Collaborator with the National Air and Space Museum. Her educational accomplishments include earning her doctoral degree from the University of Pennsylvania as well as her pilot certificate. Millbrooke’s multifaceted background establishes her in a strategic position to gather and assemble key pieces of aviation history that span the globe.

The organization of Aviation History allows the reader to easily follow the evolution of aviation. The book is divided into ten chapters. Opening with early aviation of the 18th century, the book progresses through the Wright Brothers, early flight, World War I, peacetime aviation, the Golden Age of Charles Lindbergh and aviation firsts, World War II, the Cold War, space-age aviation, and finally modern aerospace through 1999 with glimpses of the 21st century and beyond. The appendices conclude with a listing of aviation firsts and space flights, as well as a copy of the Wright U.S. Patent. While it is impossible to thoroughly explore all topics, the detailed bibliography provides sources for obtaining more information. This format spotlights the key phases of aviation development.

The construction of the book meshes well with its organization and lends itself successfully to the study of different time periods in history. Each chapter is broken down into four sections, which typically fit logically into the topic of the chapter. All chapters are composed of several defining parts that maintain a sense of continuity throughout the volume. A Summary of Events for the time period under review leads into the introduction and the chapter goals. Within the text of the chapter, there are an assortment of breakout boxes that either describes an historic event, provides historical evidence to support aviation theories, or relates bibliographical information about individuals who were propitious in shaping aviation history. Unfortunately, the intriguing stories may also confuse readers when they are so numerous as to distort the flow of the text. The chapter is completed by a thorough bibliography, study questions reviewing the material covered, and a timeline augmented by providing events not directly associated with aviation. The book is well-referenced, making skillful use of first-person sources.

The orderliness of the book conforms to an academic curriculum. While the chapters create neatly parceled packages, certain areas seem forced to conform to the ten-chapter plan. For instance, Chapter 9: Space Age Aviation seems oddly burdened by the last third of the chapter which focuses on fighter aircraft and various wars, from Vietnam to the U.S. invasion of Granada, as well as a final section completely on private and general aviation. These subjects can be better covered by creating another chapter or by parceling them into both earlier and later sections. In this situation, the author provides good material and content, which is hampered by poor organization. Overall, a detailed story of the advancement of aviation is shown in readable and entertaining style.

Millbrooke presents a broad analysis of aviation history that focuses on developments worldwide, as opposed to the many history books that single out achievements of the United States. Aviation History offers an objective view of aviation developments and illustrates the interactive nature of the industry. War spurred many of aviation’s most significant advances, with countries openly borrowing new procedures and operations from enemy progress in the field creating the most effective fighting fleets. "Nationalistic pride in aviation went beyond the romance and fads of aviation, to national identity and claims of distinctiveness and superiority . . . Legends grew around the British S.E. (scout experimental made by the Royal Aircraft Factory), the French Spad, and the German Fokker" (4-4).

Each chapter is filled with pictures and colorful quotes from people of that era. These firsthand accounts provide deeper insight into what, in some history books, is just a listing of factual information. When the "Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen describes his victory over British ace Lanoe Hawker on November 23, 1916, the day comes alive. "I was on patrol that day and observed three Englishmen who had nothing else in mind than to hunt. I noticed how they ogled me, and since I felt ready for battle, I let them come . . ." (in Richthofen’s The Red Baron, 4-29).

The author supplies an in-depth analysis of various aspects of aviation often glossed over in aviation books. Some of the areas explored include the development of aerial photography, air-to-ground communication with early wireless radio equipment, and airmail expansion beyond the United States. Antoine de Saint-Exupery flew a la Ligne mail route between France and Spain that sometimes crossed hostile territory. On a flight in February 1927 he recounts the following in a letter to his mother. "The trip went well, aside from a breakdown and the plane crashing into the desert" (Schiff. 1994 in 5-41). As evidenced by the stories recounted throughout the volume, early pilots were part mechanic, part inventor, and part adventurer in order to survive.

Aviation History is a collection of significant events in aviation accented by the people who made it happen and correlated with world affairs. The book’s use of color and vivid stories helps to make the advancements come to life as something more than significant events on a timeline. While at times the stories may clutter the page, they also breathe life into what is considered by many to be a dull subject. The author’s enthusiasm for the topic is obvious throughout the book. More thorough proofreading could help alleviate some of the confusion that is caused by typos and a few mislabeled illustrations. The credibility of the content does not suffer due to these obvious errors which will likely be corrected in the next edition.


Philip Steadman

Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; 232 pp.; 8 color ills.; 72 b/w. $25.00 (cloth) (0192159674)

Philip Steadman presents his case for Johannes Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura with prosecutorial flair, bringing in diagrams, reconstructions, and a variety of circumstantial evidence. Vermeer never wrote about his methods, and no physical evidence exists in the form of preparatory drawings or sketches. The inventory of his studio contents lists standard equipment, such as easels and canvases, without a hint about lenses, boxes, or any other unusual objects that might place a camera obscura in the artist’s studio. As Steadman himself notes, the sole source of evidence for his conjectures lies within Vermeer’s paintings.

While writers have remarked on the use of the camera obscura by Dutch painters as an aid to observation since the seventeenth century, the interest in Vermeer’s alleged use dates to the beginnings of photography in the nineteenth century. Debates over photography’s place in art parallel the argument about whether Vermeer achieved his eerie stillness by methods other than direct observation. Although the issue has been around for more than a century, Steadman’s book presents some new, thought-provoking insights.

In the early chapters, Steadman presents a concise history of optics in layman’s terms. His description of the camera obscura, along with simple illustrations and diagrams, is refreshingly easy to understand. The introduction of the tent-like camera is important later in the book, because he argues that Vermeer’s camera was actually a camera, or "small room" in its Latin origins. The painter sat within the camera rather than looking into a tabletop box. A history of the debate over Vermeer’s compositional techniques is followed by a chapter placing the painter in the context of seventeenth-century Delft society. Relying again on circumstantial evidence, Steadman describes how it would have been possible for Vermeer to come into contact with men such as Constantin Huygens or the "pioneer of microscopy," Antony van Leeuwenhoek. It is even possible that one of them instructed him in the use of the camera, or at least provided him with lenses. As a painter well known and respected in his own lifetime, Vermeer very easily could have been acquainted with these men. Whether or not one believes that the sitter for Vermeer’s The Astronomer (1668) and The Geographer (1669) was van Leeuwenhoek, the works still indicate some sort of connection to the scientific community.

That Vermeer employed a camera obscura in some way is accepted by most scholars, but the extent of his reliance on it and the effect it had on his paintings has caused considerable debate. Using geometric reconstructions, Steadman not only argues for Vermeer’s extensive use of the optical device, but he is also determined to place the paintings within a specific room, indeed, to claim that Vermeer used the same room for all of his paintings. In order to rely on mathematically derived proofs, Steadman is restricted to analyzing paintings that show floor tiles as well as the opposite wall and at least one side wall. By reconstructing the rooms backward using the orthogonals visible in the images, he then explains how difficult it would have been for the artist to construct his painted space using traditional geometric perspective. Steadman describes just what sort of calculations Vermeer would have taken in order to achieve the perfectly correct reflection of the floor tiles in the mirror hanging from the back wall of The Music Lesson. When he points out the sloppy math of Pieter de Hooch’s A Woman Drinking with Two Men (ca. 1658) or Soldier Paying a Hostess (1658), he makes it apparent that Vermeer’s careful constructions would have required endless calculations.

Even for the mathematically challenged, Steadman’s painstaking descriptions are both clear and compelling. Equally persuasive is the notion that the large marble floor tiles visible in a number of paintings are really the same floor covered with small ceramic tiles in other images, since they conform to the same overall grid. Similarly, Steadman proposes that the window panes, while exhibiting a variety of patterns, are in reality always the same set of windows. These variations reflect a desired difference in interior spaces by Vermeer, be it a simple kitchen with ceramic tiles or an upper-class drawing room with expensive marble floors. Steadman focuses on counting bricks and measuring tiles, but he fortunately compresses twenty years of fascination, reconstruction, and research into a short, succinct exposition.

Yet the real point of the book is not simply to prove that Vermeer used a camera obscura to a far greater extent than has yet been acknowledged. Despite his empirical method, Steadman has a more romanticist goal in mind. He wants to find the artist in the painting, to capture the "Riddle of the Sphinx of Delft," as he titles one chapter. Floor tiles and windows now firmly in position, Steadman turns to the back wall—not seen in many of Vermeer’s works. There, he proposes, sat the painter, enclosed within a life-size camera obscura, a "camera within a camera," copying the upside-down, backward image onto either a piece of paper or directly onto the canvas itself. As proof, Steadman calculates that the size of the actual paintings were nearly equal to what they would have been if Vermeer had projected them onto this imaginary back wall. In addition, Steadman reminds us that earlier radiographic analysis of Vermeer’s paintings show no signs of preparatory or underlying drawing on the canvas and appear to have progressed from masses of tonal values to become rounded, stable objects. He also grapples with the possibility not only that Vermeer would have had to paint in the dark, but also that he would have recorded colors and shapes as abstractions. More important to his argument, a growing realization surfaces throughout this chapter that, by looking at the painting, we can now place the painter within it and somehow capture him, almost as one would catch the image of a fleeing burglar on a security-camera still. Steadman’s deliberate and careful exposition manages to create a certain amount of suspense when we suddenly imagine Vermeer-the-painter staring back at us from just outside the edge of a hanging mirror or inside the reflection of a mirrored globe.

Vermeer’s Camera is beautifully presented, clearly written but complex in its implications. Realizing the conjectural nature of his project when trying solve the problem of image reversal, he states that "this is perhaps getting over-ingenious" (113). But unlike David Hockney’s recent "revelation," Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (New York: Viking, 2001), which says more about Hockney’s self-absorption than about Vermeer, Steadman’s book makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate about the elusive painter. Whether one is swept away by the mathematical reconstructions or remains a skeptic about its claims, the book raises intriguing questions about working methods and about artists’ perceptions of themselves.

For example, if Vermeer really did place his camera obscura, and thus himself, in the hanging globe in the Allegory of Faith, as suggested in Chapter 6, was he making the same sort of self-reference as Jan van Eyck’s mirror in The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait? He certainly could have avoided giving himself away by smudging the paint a bit. And if he did actually allow us a glimpse of a smaller camera obscura in the illogically tilted mirror of The Music Lesson, what sort of statement was he making about himself as an artist expert in the latest technology? On the other hand, if Vermeer chose not to paint everything exactly as he saw it, (as when floor tiles become marble or window panes change shape, or especially when he denies the actual tilt of the mirror but not what it reflects), why then did he make an effort to incorporate photographic compositional elements and the unusual focusing effects of the camera obscura? Vermeer’s paintings are, after all, so often about light and so rarely about geometry.

Written crisply and to the point, this book satisfyingly balances mathematical method with a quixotic yearning for a glimpse of the artist himself. Steadman makes Vermeer’s few works even more haunting because the painter seems to hover just on the edges of our line of vision. The use of the camera obscura should not, as the author reminds us frequently, detract from his enduring genius. It remains a way of looking and no more affects Vermeer’s ability to place paint on the canvas than if we were to suppose that he wore spectacles.

—Susan Maxwell, Virginia Commonwealth University,


The author explores the African-American upper class, a society he knows intimately.

Inside America's Black Upper Class.
By Lawrence Otis Graham.
Illustrated. 418 pp. New York:
HarperCollins Publishers. $25.

Reviewed by Andrea Lee

I'll always remember a conversation I had back in the 1980's with a well-known New York literary figure about the black families who own weekend homes at Sag Harbor. He had spied on them on the beach, he said, and he could report that though they acted snobbish, they still ate watermelon. This ugly little joke showed, I thought, how uncomfortable even many of the most liberal white Americans are made by the idea of well-to-do black people. It is a discomfort that, sadly enough, has often been shared, ideologically and emotionally, by the wider black community itself.

So immovably embedded in the American popular imagination -- so necessary to it, in some mysterious and tragic way -- is the equation of black with underclass that even icons of establishment success like Bill Cosby and Colin Powell have done little to seduce the public away from the conviction that the only authentic way to be black in America is to be poor. Although since the 19th century a growing body of literature has attested to another kind of African-American experience -- one of generations of material well-being -- books on the subject have most often been either ignored or greeted with a kind of amazed sensationalism, as shedding light on an entirely unknown world.

Hence the brouhaha surrounding the publication of ''Our Kind of People,'' Lawrence Otis Graham's ambitious portrait of well-to-do black Americans, positioned to be the star turn of this year's Black History Month. Graham, a Harvard- and Princeton-educated attorney, a lecturer and television commentator on American class, race and politics, the author of 12 other books -- and, not least important, the product of a family with deep roots in the group he describes here -- spent six years (and in a sense all his life) researching this encyclopedic popular study of the customs, social organizations, educational institutions, vacation enclaves and histories of wealthy African-American communities in a dozen cities across the country. The result, constructed around fragments of Graham's autobiography, is a fascinating if unwieldy amalgam of popular history, sociological treatise and memoir that combine to demonstrate that prosperous black Americans are not isolated exceptions to the rule but form an extensive and cohesive group with distinct traditions and a strong sense of identity.

Anyone who has grown up privileged and black in the United States will recognize the insular world Graham describes, an ''upper class'' tenuously defined, as any American social elite must be, by money, education and a few generations of cultured ancestors, with the addition of an obsession with light skin and Caucasian characteristics as indicators of high status. It is a world whose rituals begin in the play groups of Jack and Jill, the national organization for upper-middle-class black children, and include vacations spent in enclaves like Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard.

''Such was the arrogance of black privilege on that island,'' Graham recalls of his own childhood summers, ''that it never even occurred to me that white people had summer homes on Martha's Vineyard.'' The picture is completed by debutante cotillions, degrees from Ivy League colleges or a suitable black university like Howard or Morehouse, and upscale professional careers crowned by membership in exclusive black social groups like the Boule or the Links. Developed between economic walls that have protected generations against the worst forms of racism, this is a cushioned existence, but hardly the theater for the aping of white society and rejection of black roots that it has often been charged with being.

''The black bourgeoisie suffers from 'nothingness' because when Negroes attain middle-class status, their lives generally lose both content and significance,'' the distinguished sociologist E. Franklin Frazier wrote in his controversial 1957 study, ''Black Bourgeoisie,'' with a hostility barely contained by the need for scholarly detachment. ''Our Kind of People,'' though a book of a completely different genre, is clearly to some degree a reply to Frazier. And the lives Graham sketches in 400 pages of text are neither empty nor devoid of a sense of connection to a common African-American heritage.

Looking beyond the inevitable materialism and pretension -- no different from the behavior of any rising American ethnic group -- I was struck by just how determinedly black Graham's subjects are. As he points out, privileged black Americans were active in the civil rights movement and, though conservative politically, continue to have a strong record of social activism. Many have been pioneers in integration; a recurring lament is that of parents worried that their children, taking the high road to success in white schools and universities, will lose their sense of who they are.

This classic American conflict -- between the temptation to move away from roots into the general mainstream and the desire to acknowledge and preserve those roots -- appears to have increased the vigor with which well-to-do African-Americans cultivate a sense of black identity. ''Even though my brothers and I attended private schools that might not have been available to prior generations of black people,'' a young Washingtonian tells Graham, ''our involvement in Jack and Jill and our ties to our black friends and important black institutions and causes allow us to be just as . . . connected to our culture as the ancestors that preceded us. We know who we are and where we came from.''

Graham clearly loves and admires the people he is writing about, and this is both the charm of the book and its great failing. Although he is able to look with a properly ironic eye upon the absurdities of color snobbery within black circles, the pushiness of high-powered strivers, the peculiar position of middle-class blacks who dislike whites but dislike poor blacks still more, he is still terrifically impressed by what he sees. Too often a reverent tone makes his descriptions of fashionable neighborhoods, fancy educations and ''lovely homes'' sound not only decidedly non-U but like what in less politically correct days was called women's-magazine writing; an indiscriminate desire to shower praise and mention every possible name not only makes some chapters far too long but gives them the coy tone of 1950's Jet magazine social columns.

Most disappointing of all is the last chapter, an absurd resurrection of that old American bugaboo, ''passing'' -- light-skinned black people slipping like secret agents over the line -- that reads as if it had been tacked on to satisfy the expectation that a study of flourishing, well-to-do black Americans would be incomplete unless it added, as a sort of expiatory jab, a hint that they are all yearning to be white. A far more effective conclusion would have been a chapter devoted to a major implicit theme of the book, the question of the responsibility of the black elite to the black community as a whole, and of the disgraceful hostility that continues to exist between prosperous blacks and their less privileged brothers.

Still, though Graham allows his book to end on a whimper, he has made a major contribution both to African-American studies and to the larger American picture. ''Our Kind of People'' is worth buying simply for its capsule descriptions of black social organizations, which are small gems of popular history. It overflows with portraits of extraordinary personalities, like Madam C. J. Walker, America's first black woman millionaire, or the members of Washington's historic Syphax family. And it is rich with anecdote (the curious utilitarian friendship between Henry Ford and the black Detroit minister William Peck is only one example). There is material here for a latter-day Thackeray or Trollope.

The most delightful parts of the book, in fact, are Graham's superbly evoked personal reminiscences, which sometimes rise to the level of high comedy -- for instance, his description of an interminable ride in the Williams Club elevator with ''the Waspiest black men in New York City,'' or the scene in which his snobbish Memphis aunt and uncle, their spines stiff with black pride, debate whether or not to let young Graham and his brother visit Graceland, home of that ''trash,'' Elvis Presley. In the end one feels that there is an important American novel concealed in ''Our Kind of People,'' and one hopes that one day Graham will shake himself free of social history and write it.