One of Jeff Bauman’s most endearing traits is his frequent, black humor-ish use of movie references. In “Stronger” (Grand Central Publishing, 2014), whose cover shows the Chelmsford native standing proudly on the prosthetic legs he’s gained since the Boston Marathon bombings a year ago, the first movie riff starts on page 6.
It ties to the famous news photo. Minutes after the explosions, the guy in the cowboy hat has just picked up Bauman — with legs blown off, bleeding out — and dropped him in a wheelchair to race toward an ambulance. Hitting that chair “was like that scene in ‘Pulp Fiction,’ when John Travolta plunged the adrenaline into Uma Thurman’s heart,” writes Bauman (his co-author is Bret Witter). “My body came alive, and I thought, No way, Jeff. No way that [expletive] is taking you down.”
The expletive is aimed at Tamerlan Tsarnaev, whom Bauman saw at the site, and later described to a FBI sketch artist, setting off one of the biggest manhunts in the nation’s history.
Another movie reference comes on page 40, when Bauman first wakes after surgery. Two friends are at his bedside and, unable to speak, he motions for paper and pencil. “Lt. Dan,” he scrawls. His buddy Sully laughs out loud. “Only Bauman,” he says.
Dan was Forrest Gump’s commanding officer in Vietnam. In the film, he loses both his legs, too.
On the one-year anniversary of the bombings, various books have tried to cover and understand what happened, but Bauman’s is the most personal — and the most concerned with the definitely-not-a-movie aftermath. Take, for instance, when he first gets his new legs: “I had imagined the moment being like in ‘Elysium,’ when Matt Damon has all the metal parts, and he’s kind of bionic. But I didn’t feel like Matt Damon. I felt like a gimp.”
“Long Mile Home: Boston Under Attack, the City’s Courageous Recovery, and the Epic Hunt for Justice” (Dutton, 2014) also favors a personal approach, weaving deep reportage with a half-dozen profiles of those at the epicenter. These include Heather Abbott, a runner who must choose whether to have her shrapnel-blasted foot amputated; David King, a trauma surgeon at Mass General who forges a connection to the bomb victims after President Obama asks him to gather their stories; and the late Krystle Campbell, who was widely loved for her “exuberance, her fondness for blue eye shadow, her indelible Boston-ness.”
Scott Helman and Jenna Russell, two Boston Globe reporters, have written a riveting work, the definitive chronicle to date. If you followed the coverage with rabid closeness, there will still be news here for you: a fuller take on the Watertown morning gun battle with the Tsarnaev brothers and a wild, you-are-there treatment of the carjacked Chinese engineer, whose escape is a combo of engineer-like logical thinking and sheer luck.
So there are exclusives. But honestly, the biggest impact comes from the cumulative effect, the juxtaposition of joy (“a kinetic rainbow” of runners) to horror (the bodies lying on Boylston Street, covered by tablecloths grabbed from nearby restaurants). Then there’s a feeling of total sickness, when you recall how investigators found a download called “Make a Bomb in The Kitchen of Your Mom” on Tamerlan’s computer.
Speaking of computers, the jury’s out on whether social media, transmuted onto the page, works as immediate history. The good news is there’s so much source material. The bad? It can be banal. “4:09:43: Boston 2013 Through the Eyes of the Runners” (Human Kinetics, 2014) was compiled by Hal Higdon, a contributing editor at Runner’s World (the title connotes the finish-line clock when the first bomb exploded). A slew of marathoners sent their impressions to Higdon’s blog, and he polished 75 of them for the book. Most thought the bombing was something else at first: a blown manhole cover, celebratory fireworks. One watched the military and police march en masse by the Pru: “It looked like a takeover.”
What’s most striking, though, are the infinite gestures of help: One resident had more than 40 runners in his apartment, handing out food and phones and blankets. Such scenarios blossom even more in “If Not for the Perfect Stranger: Heartwarming and Healing Stories of Kindness from the 2013 Boston Marathon” (Bantry Bay Books, 2014), edited by Diane Montiel and Steve Alexander. The title comes from Celeste Corcoran who, with her daughter, was gravely injured that day. If not for the perfect stranger — in this case, Matt Smith and Zachary Mione, rigging tourniquets from shirts grabbed by employees off the racks at Marathon Sports — Sydney Corcoran might have died.
Chad Beattie, a sports medicine physician in the marathon medical tent, arrived just minutes after the bombing. “What struck me first was . . . the sidewalk was already packed with people helping the victims . . . There was so much consoling, so much compassion.” This book beautifully assembles the stories of amateur and professional first responders — clearly, they’re still trying to process the trauma. Mione, for one, carries “the events of the marathon with me every day.” In the past year, he adds, “I struggled to act normal.”
“The Boston Marathon Bombing” (Essential Library, 2014) is by children’s book author Valerie Bodden. It was put out by an educational publishing company and offers a meat-and-potatoes library text on the event. This is good for a teens-and-up readership, with a timeline and glossary and quality photographs. Meanwhile, “Remember Boston: The Boston Marathon Bombing Memorials” (Green Circle Press) honors the makeshift homages that sprung up on the Common and were then hauled to Copley Square.
This photography book, by Douglas Petoskey, features images of flowers, stuffed animals, and wooden crosses (here draped with rosaries) like the ones you’d see at other improvised memorials. But what makes it singular are the piles of tied sneakers (one with wings fashioned from a pair of socks), and the signage: “Be Wicked Strong,’’ a banner from Lahey ER nurses, messages of support from Israel, Istanbul, Argentina.
Last spring, President Obama commissioned Richard Blanco, who wrote his 2013 inaugural poem, to venerate the city’s shared sorrow. “Boston Strong: The Poem to Benefit The One Fund Boston” (University of Pittsburgh) is now out as a commemorative chapbook. “I didn’t want it to be about anger,” Blanco told the Los Angeles Review of Books. “I didn’t want it to be about revenge . . . I wanted to look at the higher and positive of all this madness and give us ‘this new spring.’” Themed around the season, the poem has a great, gathering power, as in this line: “And the boy, the son — everyone’s son — his life/ outlived by the tulips dressing the windows of the city.”
On YouTube, you can watch Blanco deliver “Boston Strong” at the TD Garden concert. Crowd members look moved. Not Jeff Bauman, though: He looks lost, and is wearing big earplugs. Now that I’ve read “Stronger,” I know it’s because the explosions harmed his eardrums, and sound is distorted and overwhelming for him. I also know these outings thoroughly exhaust. When his publisher asked Bauman what he hoped we’d know from his book, he cited this past year: “I want them to know how hard it was.”
Bauman is a funny guy. In the hospital, he speaks to his brother via oxygen mask, in Darth Vader voice: “Chris, I am your father. Now get your daddy a cheeseburger and fries.” He retains his spirit, but also admits to a great sense of damage, of suspicion. “I met one bad person in this whole experience,” he writes, “but he’s dead now.” He says he knows, firsthand, that evil is real.
Then he writes something for all of us. “But I know something else, too: bad people are rare. Good people are everywhere.’’