Author: Eric Foner
Title: The Fiery Trial : Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
Publication Info: New York : W. W. Norton & Co., c2010.
Every year on or around Lincoln’s Birthday I read a book about Abraham Lincoln, and this year I read this study about Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery. Some people consider him the great emancipator while others think he was racist and never freed a slave. Both views have an aspect of truth. Foner shows that Lincoln was anti-slavery from early in his life but did not think freed black persons were equal or capable of living alongside white Americans. Until late in his Presidency he held true to a plan of colonization and resettlement of freed blacks in Africa or Latin America. Yet, even these views were modified over time as during his Presidency he was actually exposed to meeting and respecting black individuals on a regular basis. It’s an interesting look at how a mind changes and how the country changes as Lincoln was often just a step ahead of popular opinion.
Recommended books: The Radical and the Republican by James Oakes
- The Fiery Trial : Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner
I’ll be leading this Boston By Foot Tour of the Month of Davis Square in Somerville (which I also researched and co-wrote) on Sunday, July 29th from 2pm-3:30pm. Admission is $15 per person, $5 for members (and you can become a member on the day of the tour). No reservations needed, just show up a few minutes before 2 pm on Sunday at the plaza opposite Somerville Theatre.
Author: Geoff Nicholson
Title: The lost art of walking : the history, science, philosophy, and literature of pedestrianism
Publication Info: New York : Riverhead Books, 2008
Geoff Nicholson takes on the quotidian topic of walking, something just about everyone can do, although there who some who can who fail to exercise the ability regularly. At the heart of this work are Nicholson’s own walks. At the time of writing, Nicholson lived in Los Angeles a place generally seen to be hostile to walking although it is possible as I’ve experienced myself
. Nicholson walks in the various places he lives – London, New York, Los Angeles, and in a bittersweet final chapter he returns to walk through his childhood home of Sheffield. In between he explores the history of walking (particularly sport walkers who performed feats of endurance such as walking 1 mile an hour for 1000 consecutive hours), walks in music and movies, psychogeography, walks in the desert, and street photography. There are also walking tours, which are near and dear to my heart, including such oddities as walking tours of parking lots
. Nicholson seems to be a cranky person and that crankiness kind of sucks the joy out of his writing. Still this is an interesting book with some intriguing insights into the topic.
“Walking for peace may certainly strike you and me as futile and useless, but if a person believes it works, then it’s the most logical and rational thing in the world. To walk for a reason, any reason, however personal or obscure, is surely a mark of rationality. Money, art, self-knowledge, world peace, these are not eccentric motivations for walking; they’re damn good ones, regardless of whether or not they succeed. I find myself coming to the conclusion that perhaps the only truly eccentric walker is the one who walks for no reason whatsover. However, I’m no longer sure if that’s even possible.” – p. 85
“We walked on, not very far and not very fast. It gradually became obvious, and it was not exactly a surprise, that two hours standing around listening to stories, interspersed with rather short walks, of no more than a couple of hundred yards each, was actually very hard work, much harder than walking continuously for two hours. As the tour ended twenty people were rubbing their backs, complaining about their feet, and saying they needed to sit down. I checked my GPS: in those two hours we’d walked just under a mile.” – p. 90
Author: Ken Jennings
Title: Maphead : charting the wide, weird world of geography
Publication Info: New York : Scribner, c2011.
Ken Jennings is a person I like merely because he became a celebrity by being intelligent. Now I know he shares a common passion for maps. As a child I used to lay out maps and atlases and study them for hours and have never lost the love of looking at maps, learning from them, or appreciating their decorative aspects. Jennings connects with people like myself who love maps and to a greater extent geography through a series of essays that cover topics including geocaching, highpointing, travelers clubs, road atlas rallying, map collecting and antique sales, programming Google Earth, GPS, the National Geographic Bee, as well as maps in fiction and metaphorical maps. Jennings’ observations are illuminating and entertaining and the entire book is a delight to read.
Author: Morris Dickstein
Title: Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2010)
I’ll start off by saying that this wasn’t this book I was expecting as I was looking for more of the experience of everyday life in the Great Depression. Upon reflection that would probably be labeled a social history, which is probably obvious to most people, but I thought it worth mentioning in case any potential reader is making the same mistake I did. The other thing I should note is that I listened to the audiobook and had a lot of trouble with the CDs so I probably did not hear the entire book, although I did hear the majority. With that said, the book is actually an exploration of culture created during the Great Depression – films, music, novels, poetry, fine arts and decorative arts – and how they were influenced by the social trends of the time and in turn their effect (or lack thereof) on society. The essays Dickstein writes are thorough and opinionated and often out of my league since they refer to things of which I have no prior knowledge. That being said I did enjoy his critique on artists and performers such as John Steinbeck, Zora Neale Hurston, Busby Berkley, Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, and Bing Crosby. Overall this book was not for me but I expect it would be a valuable resource for anyone looking for the light some cultural artifacts of the 1930s shine on the Great Depression.
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.