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F-5: Devastating, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Centuryby Mark Levine
Synopses & Reviews
It was April 3, 1974. Crime was soaring. Unemployment and inflation were out of control. A costly war had just come to its demoralizing end, and an unpopular President was on his way out of office. Then, over a sixteen-hour period, nature stepped forward with its own display of mayhem: an unprecendented outbreak of 148 tornadoes, covering thirteen states in the heart of the country, from Michigan to Mississippi. Hundreds of people were killed, thousands of homes demolished, and a billion dollars in losses sustained. Sixty-four of the tornadoes would be classified as severely violent; six belonged to the most rare, most deadly category: F5, or "incredible tornadoes."
Like the best nonfiction, F5 is a brilliantly crafted page-turner that reads with the immediacy of a novel, telling a harrowing story of natural disaster against the backdrop of the turbulent 1970s. Acclaimed journalist Mark Levine follows the heart-wrenching fate of a rich cast of intertwined characters — ordinary Americans whose lives are transformed in a terrifying instant. A pair of teenage lovers are caught while driving on a dark country road; a Vietnam veteran is trapped at home with a newborn baby; a sheriff finds himself in the line of fire twice in rapid succession; a black preacher with a past of dire hardship struggles to protect his family.
Other figures enter the story from the broader cultural scene, including Hank Aaron, on his way to challenging baseball's home run record amid racist death threats; Patty Hearst, whose image as kidnappng victim is undergoing a radical shift; Richard Nixon and George wallace, both intent on using the storms to their political advantage; and a memorably eccentric scientist, known as Mr. Tornado, who regards the "Superoutbreak" as the apotheosis of his scholarly life. Gripping and revelatory, F5 braids the story of the shattering outbreak with images of social upheaval and individual heroism in a stunning, unforgettable read.
"On April 3, 1974, a megastorm rampaged through the central U.S., unleashing at least 148 tornados, six of which attained the rare and overpowering 'F5' category, with sustained winds of over 260 miles per hour. The storm killed hundreds and caused billions of dollars in property damage. Levine, a contributor to the New York Times, focuses on the impact in the rural county of Limestone, Ala., where dozens of tornados cut a ruinous swath across the land. A thorough journalist and accomplished stylist, Levine does an excellent job of putting us in the minds of the area natives — a high school freshman, the local sheriff, a power lineman — whose lives were upended, and in some cases, ended by the storm. Levine also has the descriptive prowess to bring the tornados to vivid existence on the page. However, at times the sheer number of characters and scenes makes the narrative difficult to follow. Levine is also less than successful in his attempt to link the storm to a particular zeitgeist of 1974 America; whatever happened that day, its consequences didn't expose the country in any manner similar to what Hurricane Katrina left in its wake. Still, it's hard to fault a disaster story as engaging as this. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Earthquakes can happen anywhere. Floods and wildfires don't seem to play favorites among the countries they afflict. Even volcanoes, though mainly concentrated on the edges of continental plates, are scattered somewhat widely over the globe. But a full three-quarters of the world's recorded overland whirlwinds occur in a single country: the United States. For whatever reason, tornadoes — as Mark... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Levine points out in his arresting new book — are 'the archetypal American natural disaster.' Books about tornadoes, of course, are also pretty common in this country. I can't pretend to have read more than a handful of them, but I'd be surprised if any were more excruciatingly vivid than Levine's 'F5.' Other writers might do a better job of explaining the meteorological details of tornado formation or the mechanics of predicting and tracking the storms, but let's admit it: Those are the parts that many readers skim or skip. When it comes to conveying the crushing human toll of an American twister, Levine has few peers. Certainly, the weather event he's chosen to write about — the 'superoutbreak' of April 3, 1974 — offers a wealth of potent material. In the space of just 17 hours on that muggy spring day, 148 tornadoes raked across the midsection of the North American landmass, ravaging 13 states and the Canadian province of Ontario. An astonishing six of these were category F5 storms, known appropriately as 'incredible tornadoes,' the rarest and most extreme type. The storms killed 335 people and injured more than 6,000, while causing property losses of more than $600 million. But statistics alone tell us little about a natural disaster; the real meaning of calamity is fully appreciated only when refracted through the prism of individual experience. Levine, an award-winning magazine writer and the author of three books of poetry, understands this, so he has chosen to center his narrative on the ordeal of a handful of individuals and families in a single rural county in northern Alabama. The two huge tornadoes that ripped through Limestone County (just west of Huntsville) devastated the lives of many residents. Levine focuses on just a few: a pastor and his family, a young mother with a newborn baby, a 30-year-old lineman for an electric company. These are solidly average Americans, but it's their very ordinariness that brings home to us the freakishness of the natural force they encountered — a force that can barely be described, let alone believed. Felica Golden, a 15-year-old high school freshman, was driving with her 18-year-old boyfriend, Donnie, when their car was overtaken by the storm: 'Felica tugs the door's handle. It doesn't want to yield. She presses against the door with a shoulder. Nothing. She is trapped. Then, as though detonated, the door bursts open and is ripped from its hinges. ... (The car) seizes and bucks in place. Its body is being mashed like wet clay beneath a heavy footstep. Its hood flips up. Its innards are jarred free and tossed. The windshield shatters. ... Donnie disappears, pulled through the hole where the windshield was as though on a string, and spun into the darkness.' The specter of exploitation always threatens to overshadow accounts of this type. Authors of disaster books must work hard to avoid turning victims into objects of an unseemly voyeurism, and the problem is especially delicate when survivors and relatives of those affected are still alive. But Levine, a compassionate and conscientious writer, proves himself worthy of the trust he evidently received from the people he interviewed. He treats their stories with unfailing dignity and respect, giving the book a strong emotional grounding even in its most sensationalistic moments. 'F5' does stumble in places. Levine's attempts to link the disruptive physical energies of the superoutbreak with the chaotic temper of America in 1974 (think Nixon, Patty Hearst, the streaker at the Oscars) never achieve coherence. And there are a few interludes of spurious Roland Barthes-style showboating ('In its lighthearted way, (streaking) too is a spectacle of reversal. It asks to be liberated from stale habits of being. It posits a triumphant, if brief, return to the rule of nature and of pure sensation.') that doubtless play better in the author's poetry seminars than they do here. But when Levine keeps his focus on the concrete, his touch is sure. 'F5' is a remarkable document, a stark demonstration that the price of even the most public disaster is always paid in the coin of personal loss. Gary Krist's most recent book is 'The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche.'" Reviewed by lan Coopermanlan Coopermanlan Coopermanlan CoopermanJonathan YardleyJon MeachamSimon Sebag MontefioreStephen AmidonGary Krist, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Levine...best known as a poet...turns the laconic detail, thorough compression and rhythmic nuance of his best verse to sensational use, producing a work of reportage so artfully structured and emotionally moving that it looks pretty good next to In Cold Blood." The New York Times
"In a sweeping and thoroughly engaging narrative, Mark Levine reminds us that extreme weather has always been with us, and has always had an impact that reaches well beyond the lives it shatters directly. F5 reads like a novel, but is a masterpiece of careful reporting." Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down
"Mark Levine's F5 reads like tornado: powerful, riveting, and violently beautiful. Once the storm starts there is no chance of putting the book down. This is not just the story of explosive weather, but of one of the most explosive times in our history." Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto
"Mark Levine has written a compelling meditation on those moments in which the atmosphere clothes itself in uncanny potency and visits the abodes of men." Marilynn Robinson, author of Gilead: A Novel
Acclaimed journalist Levine has crafted a page-turner that reads with the immediacy of a novel, telling a harrowing story of natural disaster against the backdrop of the turbulent 1970s.
About the Author
Mark Levine is an award-winning magazine writer who has contributed to the New Yorker, Outside, and Men's Journal among others and whose work has been included in The Best American Magazine Writing, The Best American Sports Writing, and The Best American Poetry. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine and he teaches poetry at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Author of three books of poetry, he lives in Brooklyn and Iowa.
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