Saturday, February 10, 2007

Firehouse by David Halberstam

Firehouse is going to be a hard book to review, I think, because you can't say you "enjoyed" reading about people who died tragically, can you? However, one can say, "I enjoyed the writing," and that was definitely the case. I thought the author, David Halberstam, did an exceptional job of getting to the heart of life in a firehouse and drawing in-depth portraits of the men who worked at 40/35 - Engine 40, Ladder 35 - a firehouse located on the west side of Manhattan, from which 13 men were dispatched on September 11, 2001 and only one survived (and the lone survivor was badly injured).

I've had a little bit of experience with the firehouse scene as an outsider looking in, since I had one published short story with an arsonist and that required a bit of research that involved chatting with a local fire investigator. Later on, I had a little help from two paramedics and the now-deceased founder of Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS), Jim Page, who very kindly loaned me a copy of his history of paramedicine to photocopy and read. Unfortunately, I still haven't finished that novel.

Point being, I've been to a firehouse and noticed the quiet when an outsider steps inside the doors, the hesitation to say anything that reveals that which is germane to life within a group of people who know that they must rely upon each other not only to work together as a team but possibly to save each others' lives. Firefighters live in a very insular world and the fact that Halberstam was able to learn so much about the individual personalities is quite impressive. Real people are fascinating and three-dimensional. Halberstam definitely made those firefighters real to me and I closed the book with a feeling of gratefulness - grateful to have glimpsed their lives and thankful to those who are willing to take such huge risks for complete strangers. It's a very emotional read, of course, but a very good one.


The photo above is that of a local firehouse. I took it yesterday, while we were out searching for hawks to photograph. I've been told by several people that it's a haunted firehouse, but I've yet to find out the full story.

More info on the hawk search forthcoming. It was a perfect day; I can admit that much.

Just finished: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. I'm feeling very daunted by the prospect of reviewing this one, as well. Lotus has written a beautiful review that eclipses anything I can even remotely think of saying about the book, but I'll try. Later.


  1. Anonymous3:56 PM

    FIREHOUSE sounds like a book I would like to read. I'll have to look for it.

    Noticed you're reading GREAT EXPECTATIONS now. I had read it in high school (back in the days when books were carved on stone tablets) then re-read it a few months ago. Hated it in HS, really enjoyed it now.

  2. Great review! Yet another Halberstam I want to read now.

  3. Anonymous5:02 PM

    I'll have to read it. BFF's hubby is a fireman.

    A perfect day for a hawk search? I can't wait for the pictures!

  4. Lynne,

    I hope you like it. Another terrific one is Larry Brown's On Fire, although I got a little upset with Larry because he'd pry people out of wrecks and then go out drinking and driving, himself. But, it's an excellent book

    Yep, I'm reading Great Expectations - very slowly hacking away at it, actually. :) I'm enjoying it immensely. I took journalism in junior high and high school in lieu of a large number of English courses, so my early lit education was kind of spotty. The classics challenge has gotten me all excited about books I missed out on, again. :)


    Thanks. I've got to get a copy of The Fifties, now.


    I mentioned this to Lynne, but in case you didn't see it because you don't peek at other folks' replies (no, you would never do that, LOL), On Fire by Larry Brown is another excellent nonfiction book about experiences as a firefighter - I think, if I remember right, that he was a volunteer.

  5. I've never read anything by David Halberstam...did he do a baseball book, or am I imagining things?

  6. Bybee,

    Halberstam's a journalist, so his book are widely varied. Yes, he wrote at least one baseball book. I looked him up, a few days ago, to see what else he's written. The cover flap on FIREHOUSE says he won a Pulitzer for his "pessimistic dispatches from Saigon" during the Vietnam War.

  7. I've never read anything by Halberstam, Nancy, but after reading what you said about "Firehouse" and his writing, I certainly want to!

    Thanks for the nice words about my Alice in Wonderland post, Nancy. I agree, it is a difficult book to review because there are so many characters, puns, situations, satire, quotations etc...but once you start, it'll come together. I look forward to your thoughts.

  8. Lotus,

    I hope you like Halberstam's writing. :)

    Once again, I couldn't open the comment window on your page, but your Alice post was amazing. I think I may go with a less-is-more approach and avoid mentioning the puns and satire, etc., but just tell what I liked or disliked. There's so much more to the book than I ever imagined!!!

  9. Anonymous9:57 PM

    Wow, I give you credit for reading what must have been a difficult book, emotionally-speaking.

  10. Lesley,

    I think it helped that I knew what it was about and steeled myself a bit before reading. It's definitely not an easy topic, reading about people who died tragically. But, the book is a nice tribute because he described them so well and in context of the job all firefighters do. I loved reading the little details about the individuals, like what the tattoos on one particularly spiritual man said.


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