Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Review: Water to the Angels

Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles
Les Standiford
Engineering

There used to be a comedian (Sam Kinison, if I remember rightly) who used the line "We have deserts in America--we just don't live in them!"

WRONG.

Engineering is everywhere. Even when it's invisible--maybe especially when it's invisible--it's important. Los Angeles is an artificial city. Without engineering, it wouldn't exist; it'd be a desert, or at least a semi-desert. Water to the Angels is the story of the man and the aqueduct that made Los Angeles possible.

I like stories of this sort, and I liked this book. Having said that, I can't help feeling that Water to the Angels was written as an explicit rebuttal to the film Chinatown (which I saw as a college freshman; I didn't care for it). In fact, Standiford interviewed the screenwriter, and that's one of the few really original pieces of this book. As a rebuttal, it works pretty well. As a work that stands on its own, it's has its limits. Les Standiford admits to being besotted with Los Angeles, and that stops him from asking any of the larger questions that the book implicitly touches on. Water to the Angels is strictly about William Mulholland and the day-by-day narrative of aqueduct building, and it doesn't go beyond those bounds. Its tone is consistently admiring, though fortunately not hagiographic, and in my opinion it somewhat overstates the magnitude of Mulholland's achievement.

Water to the Angles has crossover appeal with David McCullough's wonderful classic The Path Between the Seas. A more recent book that might also appeal is Earl Swift's The Big Roads.

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