March 12, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

The media’s post-9/11 romanticizing of firefighters has done much to raise the job’s Great American Hero quotient, but there has been little insight into the intense, singular culture of the urban firehouse. Unger’s memoir gives an unflinching account of the competitive antics, depressing casualties, and often hilarious verbal jousting inside an Oakland ladder company, while also charting his own metamorphosis from naive Ivy League ”cake eater” to full-fledged fireman. The book is filled with revelatory nuggets (”We are engaged in eating, getting ready to eat, or recovering from eating for a solid nine hours every day”) that refreshingly humanize these courageous warriors.

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