Author: Dave Eggers
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, p2009
This work of literary non-fiction captures the harrowing story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun immediately before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Zeitoun, by all accounts a decent and honest man, is a hardworking Syrian immigrant who runs a contracting business. When the storm comes, he has his family evacuate, while he stays to keep an eye on some properties he manages. The scenes immediately after the storm are eerily beautiful with Zeitoun paddling a canoe through the streets of New Orleans joining up with other survivors to rescue people and care for dogs left behind. Then mysteriously Zeitoun and his companions are arrested. He is held under shockingly cruel conditions, abused, and not allowed to contact family or a lawyer for several weeks. It’s a chilling tale of injustice in America and indictment of the nation’s values in the post-September 11th paradigm. Most telling is how government agencies were unable to coordinate rescuing survivors, yet within days after the storm had constructed a large, high-security prison in a bus station parking lot. Eggers writing is straightforward and fleshed out with flashbacks to Zeitoun’s childhood in Syria and his wife Kathy’s conversion to Islam. The writing style is a delight to read but the story makes me angry and depressed.
Recommended books: The Day the World Came to Town
by Jim Defede, In the Name of the Father by Gerry Conlon and The Best Democracy Money Can Buy
by Greg Palast.
Huntington Avenue photo courtesy of Yarian Gomez's photostream on Flickr
Come out this Sunday October 30th at 2pm for a guided walking tour of Boston’s Avenue of the Arts lead by Boston By Foot guides (including yours truly). The tour begins in front of The Church of Christ, Scientist on Massachusetts Avenue and the cost is just $15/person. If you become a Boston By Foot member admission is reduced to just $5 and you get lots of other benefits as well.
Have you ever wondered why so many cultural institutions dedicated to fine arts, music, education, religion, and sports are clustered in one area in Boston? As we walk along this cultural corridor we’ll explore the history of Huntington Avenue and learn about:
- landmarks created by two of the most remarkable women in Boston’s history: Mary Baker Eddy and Isabella Stewart Gardner
- not one but two acoustically perfect concert halls
- not one but two historical figures named Eben
- the oldest artificial ice sporting arena in the world
- Boston’s lost opera house
- the many innovations and contributions of the YMCA
- the site of the first World Series game
- expansion and development at Northeastern University, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
- and much, much more
I’m particularly proud of this tour because I originated the idea and collaborated on the research and manual writing. So please come out and join us to learn more about this fascinating Boston district.
Huntington Avenue in 1920, courtesy of Boston Public Library's photostream on Flickr
Author: Bill Bryson
Title: At Home: A Short History of Private Life
Publication Info: Books On Tape (2010), Audio CD
Books Read by the Same Author:
Bill Bryson travels through his English home and uses it as a launching point for this history of the uses of the rooms and the types of things one finds in each spot. It’s something of a cluttered attic of a book (pun intended) with little bits of cultural history, material culture, architecture, and all sorts of odds and ends. To be honest I listened to some of the audio discs out of order and didn’t realize it at first, so linearity is not important to this work. While focusing on the broad topic of the home and private life, the focus of the book tends to stick with British and American history, and while some examples go back to Classical times most of the book is set in the past three centuries with the Victorian Era being Bryson’s favorite. It’s a nice bit of compiled history told with Bryson’s usual wit and insight, although surprisingly his own voice is not as prevalent in this intimate book as it is in his other works.
Recommended books: How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand, The Archaeology of Home: An Epic Set on 1000 Square Feet of the Lower East Side by Katharine Greider and In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz
Author: Jack Tager
Title: Boston Riots
Publication Info: Boston : Northeastern University Press, c2001.
It’s hard to believe that a book on rioting can be dull, but Tager pulls it off. First, he relies strictly on the high school essay formula of stating objectives, writing about them, and then summarizing. Like every paragraph. Secondly, it’s not until the most recent riots of the twentieth century that he calls upon primary sources in a great amount to liven up the stories of these riots. Finally, he also made the odd decision to exclude the riots leading up to the American Revolution (Stamp Act riots, Boston Massacre, and Boston Tea Party) on the grounds that they were political and crossed class boundaries. This is something he would not claim if the United States had failed to gain independence and I think the book would be improved by their inclusion in the comprehensive survey of three centuries of Boston riots.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to learn about the different things that lead to civil disturbance over the course of history. In the 18th century people rioted over the lack of food, against customs duties, impressment and the rule of the elite, as well as in “celebration” of Pope’s Day. The next century saw rioting to enforce norms (ex. – closing down brothels), race and anti-Catholic riots (such as the Ursuline Convent and Broad Street), and riots both for and against abolition. The twentieth century saw fewer riots but were bigger in size and effect: the 1919 Police Strike, the ghetto riots of the late 1960s, and the anti-busing riots of the 1970s.
The book is probably not worth reading unless for academic study or for those devoted to the history of Boston.
Boston white ethnics and their leaders had certainly fostered segregation. The plan imposed upon them had nothing to do with promoting educational quality — only integration. It exempted the well-to-do who had fled the city, exacerbated already high racial tensions, and recalled old class warfare between the Yankees and the Irish. On this occasion, however, people of Irish descent were on both sides of the controversy. – p. 192
Recommended books: The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763-1834 by Paul A. Gilje
Author: David Bianculli
Title: Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”
Publication Info: Tantor Media (2010)
Summary/Review: When I was young I discovered records by The Smothers Brothers in my family records collections and became a fan of their witty interpretations of folk music classics. I even went to see them perform live one time and was sorely disappointed by what felt like a phoned-in performance. The show was days after The Gulf War began in 1991 and since I knew the Smothers Brothers’ tv show was notoriously anti-war during the Vietnam era and expected some commentary on the contemporary situation but there was none to be had.
Well, I can’t explain that bad show but after reading Bianculli’s book I’ve learned much about their great show that aired for three seasons on CBS in the the late 1960s. The first thing I learned is that the Smothers Brothers are unlike their onstage personas. Tommy Smothers, the dumb brat in the act is actually the brains behind it all. Bianculli depicts Tom as a keen talent scout giving young musicians tv exposure before they had mainstream appeal and hiring great comedians and writers (many of the musicians, comedians, and writers would go on to greater fame). It was also Tommy who would lead the fight against network censors to who tried to squelch political and anti-war speech in the show. While the network censorship battles are detailed with all the gory details and seem unfair (and often absurd due to how tame the Smother Brothers show seems in retrospect), Bianculli also show that Tom Smother over-earnest desire to fight fanned the flames of the show’s demise.
Each episode is described in detail with Bianculli emphasizing the innovation, stand-out performances, and counter-cultural undertones of the shows. The backstage story is also rollicking with humorous anecdotes of multiple generations of entertainers working on the show. The show didn’t last long but its legacy remains. Bianculli credits the Smothers Brothers with laying the groundwork for innovative shows of the 1970s from Saturday Night Live to M*A*S*H to the comedies of Norman Lear. I need to find the DVDs and catch up.
Recommended Books: Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests by Tom Shales &James A. Miller, Life of Python by George Perry, and Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth by Jeff Greenwald.
Author: Stephanie Schorow
Title: The Crime of the Century
Publication Info: Beverly, Mass. : Commonwealth Editions, c2008.
Summary/Review: The Boston Brink’s robbery of January 1950 is shrouded in folklore and embellishment (much of it from the criminals themselves) so Shorow sets out to separate fact from fiction in this accounting of the famous crime. I didn’t know much of folklore myself but was greatly fascinated by the details of the true story. For example, I never knew that the robbers broke into the Brink’s office multiple times and had keys made for all the doors between the office and the vaults! The details that went into the planning of the crime are amazing and hard not to appreciate if not admire. Schorow also notes that while the cash haul is huge the criminals actually missed out as there was usually more cash on hand on other nights. While the crime is famed for having no shots fired and no one hurt, Shorow unearths the violence and bloodshed that came in the wake of the crime. In all an entertaining, researched and informative read.
Recommended books: The Underboss: The Rise and Fall of a Mafia Family by Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrich Boserand Dark Tide: the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo.
Author: Gavin Newsham
Title: Once in a lifetime : the incredible story of the New York Cosmos
Publication Info: New York : [Berkeley] : Grove Press ; Distributed by Publishers Group West, c2006.
Summary/Review: Having watched the documentary film Once in a Lifetime and read Soccer in a Football World, I continue to be obsessed with the unlikely story of the Cosmos. An American team playing in a podunk stadium suddenly signs Pele to the biggest contract in sports’ history and goes on to become a BIG THING attraction 70,000 fans to their games. And then the team and the league collapse. It all seems so unlikely. The Cosmos of course were my introduction to soccer as a young sports fan when I was too little to realize that American’s don’t like soccer. I probably wouldn’t have liked them so much if I knew about all the back-biting and nastiness behind the scenes that Newsham goes into in this book. It’s not all tell-all though, it’s actually fairly respectful, and even figures like the guy who dressed up as Bugs Bunny get a write-up. Newsham also depicts the corporate power of Steve Ross and how he got Warner Communications to bankroll the team. Ross’ investment in the video game Atari offers an interesting parallel as that company goes bust around the same time as NASL. It’s an unbelievable story and a great story that touches my nostalgia centers, but on the other hand it’s best that this is all in the past.
Recommended books: Soccer in a football world : the story of America’s forgotten game by David Wangerin, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler, The Bad Guys Won by Jeff Pearlman and Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests by James A. Miller
Author: Jill Lepore
Title: The Whites of Their Eyes: the Tea Party’s revolution and the battle over American history
Publication Info: Princeton : Princeton University Press, c2010.
Summary/Review: Harvard historian Jill Lepore investigates the rhetoric of the Tea Party particularly the claim by many right-wing politicians to speak to the original intent of the Revolutionary generation and the framers of the Constitution. Lepore meets with Tea Party activists in the Boston area and respectfully reports their views while not leaving them unchallenged. Lepore also writes about the historical figures of the Revolution and how their memory is claimed and interpreted throughout American political history (particularly by left-wing activists during the Bicentennial celebration). The book skips around a bit – especially distracting in the later pages – but it is a good, brief journalistic take on the politics of cultural memory.
The founders were not prophets. Nor did they hope to be worshiped. They believed that to defer without examination to what your forefathers believed is to become a slave to the tyranny of the past. – p. 113
Citizens and their elected officials have all sorts of reasons to support or oppose all sorts of legislation and government action, including constitutionality, precedence and the weight of history. But it’s possible to cherish the stability of the law and the durability of the Constitution, as amended over two and a half centuries of change and one civil war, and tested in the courts, without dragging the Founding Fathers from their graves. To point this out neither dishonors the past nor relieves anyone of the obligation to study it. The the contrary.
“What would the founders do?” is, from the point of view of historical analysis, an ill-considered and unanswerable question, and pointless, too. Jurists and legislators need to investigate what the framers meant, and some Christians make moral decisions by wondering what Jesus would do, but no NASA scientist decides what to do about the Hubble by asking what Isaac Newton would make of it. People who ask what the founders would do quite commonly declare that they know, they know, they just know what the founders would do and, mostly it comes to this: if only the could see us now, they would be rolling over in their graves. …
That’s not history. It’s not civil religion, the faith in democracy that binds Americans together. It’s not original ism or even constitutionalism. That’s fundamentalism. – p. 124-25
This, I guess, was the belly of the beast, the alarming left-wing lunacy, the godless irreverence, the socialist political indocrination taught in the public schools of the People’s Republic of Cambridge: an assignment that requires research, that raises questions about perspective, that demands distinctions between fact and opinion, that bears an audience in mind — an assignment that teaches the art of historical writing. – p. 161
Recommended books: Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Steven Waldman, The Purpose of the Past by Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionaries by Jack Rakove, and The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution by Alfred F. Young
Author: Fred Kaplan
Title: Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer
Publication Info: HarperCollins Publishers, c2008.
A different approach Abraham Lincoln, focusing on his life and legacy through the lens of his writing. Kaplan contends that Lincoln may be of few Presidents to write his own speeches and probably the last one. In addition to his oratory Kaplan analyzes Lincoln’s political writings, poetry, and even his raunchy jokes and puns. As a self-taught man, writing played an important role in Lincoln’s education as well. This book provides a unique take on the life of the great leader.
Recommended books: Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills and The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie.