Posts Tagged ‘History’

Book Review: Pity the Billionaire by Thomas Frank

Author:Thomas Frank
Narrator: Thomas Frank
Title: Pity the Billionaire 
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2012
ISBN: 9781427223128
Previous books read by the same authorWhat’s the Matter With Kansas?
Summary/Review:

Thomas Frank explores the ways in which the crash of 2008 and ensuing great recession failed to lead to a populist revolt against capitalists nor for greater government intervention into the economy, as it has in past recessions.  In fact, we got the Tea Party instead where the government was blamed for over-regulating business and banking instead.  Frank examines the common explanations for the rise of the Tea Party, dismisses them, and proposes the long growing movement that paints capitalists as victims of government overreach drawing from the works of neoliberal economists and Ayn Rand.  It’s all very interesting, and well-composed, although nothing I’ve not read before.  My favorite part of the book turned out to be the last chapter where Thomas Frank condemns the Democratic Party for failing to have any populist ideology to counter the right, nor drawing on what made them successful in past recessions, while at the same time maintaining cozy relations with Big Business.  The Democrats failure to act on the historic principles of their party makes it somewhat plausible that they can be blamed for being affiliated with the banks that bankrupted the country while at the same time too strictly regulating those banks.

Recommended books:  The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History by Jill Lepore, and Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill) by David Cay Johnston.
Rating: ***1/2

Three Boston By Foot Walking Tours in October

If you love Boston, and wish to learn more about it’s history and architecture, check out the following three Boston By Foot walking tours lead by yours truly in October.

  • 2 October 2014, 6 pm at Atlantic Wharf (290 Congress St at Fort Point Channel) – The Tipsy Tour – This tour is not a pub crawl – it’s an exploration of Boston’s boozy past!
  • 4 October 2014, 2 pm at Dartmouth Street opposite Back Bay Station – South End – Explore one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Boston!
  • 16 October 2014, 6 pm at Massachusetts Avenue in front of The First Church of Christ, Scientist – Avenue of the Arts  – Along Huntington Avenue stands a dense concentration of Boston’s most venerable cultural institutions. From McKim, Mead & White’s Symphony Hall to Guy Lowell’s Museum of Fine Arts this tour will showcase the establishments dedicated to the fine arts, music, theater, education, religion, and sports.

Book Review: One Summer: America 1927

Author and Narrator: Bill Bryson
TitleOne Summer: America 1927
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2013
Other books read by the same author:

Summary/Review:

Bill Bryson’s talent is to delve deep into a subject, find all the minute details, and then tie them together into a bigger story.  For this work, the title explains it all: one summer in the United States when a remarkable number of historical events occurred, many with unexpected connections.

The main feature of this book is Charles Lindbergh and his historic flight from New York to Paris aboard the Spirit of St. Louis.  And then there is the aftermath in which Lindbergh deals with his celebrity, a level of worldwide renown perhaps unprecedented in history.  Other aviators who had hoped to contend for the Orteig Prize, are given their due as well, with descriptions of their less-famous flights (if they managed to get off the ground).

The book is balanced by the story of another hero, Babe Ruth.  In the 1927, Ruth would break his own remarkable single-season home run record and be joined in a race by teammate Lou Gehrig.  In fact, the entire Yankees’ lineup hit so well that they’re forever known as Murderers’ Row and one of the best teams in baseball history.  Bryson cheats a lot, leaving the summer of 1927 to fill in the back stories of Lindbergh and Ruth and other figures, and occasionally even peeking ahead.  But the meat of this book is stories of events from that summer, including:

  • the sensational Snyder-Gray murder trial
  • the apogee of Al Capone’s power as a mob boss
  • the government poisoning alcohol at the behest of Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League
  • the Federal Reserve makes decisions that sow the seeds of the 1929 stock market crash
  • radio comes of age
  • The Jazz Singer ushers in the talkie
  • television created
  • the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti
  • carving of Mount Rushmore begins
  • massive flooding of the Mississippi River
  • the Bath School bombing
  • Henry Ford transitions from the Model T to the Model A
  • The Long Count fight between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey

The whole book is fascinating and full of interesting details of a transitional time in American history.
Rating: ****

 

 

Book Review: The Race Underground by Doug Most

AuthorDoug Most
Narrator: John H. Mayer
TitleThe Race Underground
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2014
ISBN: 9780553398069
Summary/Review:

This fascinating study documents the race between Boston and New York to be the first city to have underground rapid transit.  Spoiler:  Boston wins the race, but the modest Tremont Street subway would soon be overshadowed by New York City opening an extensive network of subways covering hundreds of miles all at once.  This work includes a lot of tangents into the engineering, technological, and social changes of the late-19th century and early 20th-century in delightful ways.  Most frames the story around two brothers – Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York City – who were behind the push for improved transit in their cities, but the stories of many politicians, engineers, financiers, dreamers, and ordinary people amazed (or frightened) by the changing world around them.  The story is not without tragedy as people died building both subways, not to mention a fair amount of corruption, but ultimately this is a triumphant story about the progress of humankind.

Recommended books722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York by Clifton Hood , A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900 by Stephen Puleo, Underneath New York by Harry Granick , Subway Style by New York Transit Museum, Change at Park Street Under: The story of Boston’s subways by Brian J. Cudahy, and Tremont Street Subway A Century of Public Service by Bradley H. Clarke.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Prohibition (2011)

Title: Prohibition
Release Date: 2 October 2011
Director: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
Production Co: Florentine Films
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Documentary | History
Rating: ****

This Ken Burns documentary illustrates the United States’ experiment with banning alcoholic beverages. The story is told in three parts.

Part I documents the adverse effect alcohol consumption had on Americans, especially men, who drank away their pay while women and children suffered poverty and abuse.  The Women’s Christian Temperance Union organized to successfully (albeit temporarily) shut down saloons, and inadvertently providing a political outlet for women that helped the suffrage movement. On the other hand, alcohol played an important social role, especially in immigrant communities.  The dark side of the temperance movement is that it was made up of rural and small-town Protestants from the mid-west and south who were prejudice against the immigrant groups in the big cities.  The strongest opponents to prohibition were German-American brewers, so it was no surprise that anti-German sentiment during WWI helped sway the national opinion towards Prohibition.

Part II shows America under Prohibition.  Interestingly enough, many people (including politicians who voted for the amendment) expected beer and wine to be permitted under Prohibition.  The Anti-Saloon League under Wayne Wheeler are able to influence the drafting of the Volstead Act which enforced Prohibition by banning all beverages with more than one-half of one-percent alcohol.  There were many loopholes such as people who stocked up before the ban or those who could get prescriptions for medicinal alcohol.  While many in the heartland were pleased to abstain, places like New York City exploded with illegal importation and distilling of liquors.  These illegal activities were soon consolidated under organized crime bosses whose territorial battles contributed to notorious violence.

Part III illustrates the growing awareness that the levels of hypocrisy and unintended consequences of Prohibition, ultimately leading to repeal.

An interesting aspect of this documentary is it shows how the Prohibition story accompanies the increased role of women in American public life.  The temperance movement was led by women.  Mabel Walker Willebrandt enforced the Volstead Act in her duties as U.S. Assistant Attorney General.  Lois Long documented the glamour and sexual liberation of speakeasy nightlife in her articles for the The New Yorker.  And Pauline Sabin lead the political movement for repeal as head of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.

Like Ken Burn’s other works, this was an excellent and informative documentary, richly illustrated with period photographs and films and words read from primary documents by actors and narrators.  I learned a lot from this film.

 

Book Review: Drinking Boston by Stephanie Schorow

Author:  Stephanie Schorow
Title Drinking Boston : a history of the city and its spirits
Publication Info: Wellesley, MA : Union Park Press, c2012.

Other books by same author: The Crime of the Century

Summary/Review:

It’s an interesting premise to study one city and it’s relationship to alcoholic beverages. Arranged roughly in chronological order, Schorow covers the following topics: Colonial taverns, saloons for immigrant communities, the role of bars in ward politics, several chapters on Prohibition, the golden age of night clubs (1930s-1950s), neighborhood bars, and the present day revival of the fancy cocktail.  Schorow takes particular interest in the Ward Eight, a cocktail invented in Boston with fascinating and contradictory stories of its origin, although most people admit it’s not a very good cocktail.  The book is filled with stories and anecdotes, but does not cohere as whole.  I enjoyed reading it but I can understand criticisms of other readers who did not feel engaged by the material.
Rating: ***

Photopost: Colonial Virginia

Some of my favorite photos from our recent trip to Virginia are below.  See the complete photo album on my website.

View of Duke of Gloucester Street from the Capitol Building.

For Spring Break, my son Peter and I traveled to Virginia to visit my mother and play tourist at Colonial Williamsburg, Historic Jamestowne, and Go-Karts Plus.  It was  three-day trip but it felt like we saw and learned a lot.  Now, I once lived in Williamsburg.  I attended the College of William & Mary, worked on an archaeological site as part of a field school, studied 18th-century furniture at the art museums, and then was an employee of Colonial Williamsburg for four years during my senior year of college and the years immediately afterwards.  So, these places are familiar to me.  But this was the first time I’d visited as just a plain old tourist in close to 25 years, and the first time I visited as a parent, sharing my enthusiasm for history with my son.

We actually visited few of the sites I actually worked at in my time as a historical interpreter as Peter was drawn more to the historic trades (which, ironically, I rarely had time to visit when I actually worked there).  For a place rooted in history, a lot has changed at Colonial Williamsburg.  The Charlton Coffehouse was reconstructed in recent years and we enjoyed the unexpected treat of a free serving of hot chocolate of an 18th-century recipe.  There’s also a daily event called Revolution in the Streets where the last block of Duke of Gloucester street is open only to paying guests and character interpreters perform a drama right in the middle of the crowd.  The story we witnessed was about a slave couple deciding to “jump the broom” to marry before the man was taken away to Richmond (for some reason I never learned).  We were among the witnesses to the jumping the broom ceremony which involved everyone participating in song and dance.  It is kind of cheesy and probably not 100% authentic, but I think it gets across the point of what daily life and choices were faced by ordinary people of the past.  I liked it better than the military reviews and speeches by great men that are more typical of living history performance.

A frisbee-catching dog on Palace Green.

 

Tulips blossom in the garden behind the Governor’s Palace.

 

“Fire!”

 

A team of oxen prepare to plow another row in the field.

 

Jumping the Broom (broom not in the picture).

 

Related Post: Jamestown 2007 – America’s 400th Anniversary

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