Book Review: A Pocketful of History by Jim Noles


A Pocketful of History: Four Hundred Years of America — One State Quarter at a Time (2008) by Jim Noles takes the State Quarter Program as a launching point for an engaging look at the 50 United States and the symbols chosen to represent them.  Often, Noles goes beyond simply telling the history of the image on the coins to delve deeper into the social and cultural history of the States.  For each quarter, Noles also discusses the other finalist for the quarter design, the process of approval, and circulation of each coin.  The only thing I could ask for is more illustrations of the people and things he discusses.

My favorites include:

  • revisiting my 4th grade social studies’ lesson of Connecticut’s Charter Oak (by far my favorite State Quarter).
  • the importance of the palmetto in fort construction in Revolutionary South Carolina
  • Rhode Island’s quarter inspires a history of yacht racing.
  • the “scandal” of Ohio depicting a living person by including an astronaut who must be John Glenn or Neil Armstrong.
  • Helen Keller’s Socialist ways make her an unlikely representative of Alabama as well as someone appearing on US currency.
  • Arkansas’s Crater of Diamonds, where you can keep the diamonds you find (I didn’t know it existed).
  • exciting stories of storms on the Great Lakes make up for Michigan having the most boring quarter.
  • the Kansas quarter leads to the history of the Buffalo Soldiers, regiments of African American cavalrymen who fought in the Indian Wars of the West.
  • Colorado’s purple mountains majesty hid a CIA training camp for Tibetan subversives.
  • Wyoming’s pioneering history in Women’s Suffrage.

The quarters open a door to learning about the states, their great people, buildings and places, arts, and flora and fauna (and their conservation).  Like the State Quarters themselves, A Pocketful of History will have a broad appeal beyond numismatic buffs.  I think it especially will be a good tool for teachers and children.

Author Noles, James L.
Title A pocketful of history : four hundred years of America–one state quarter at a time / Jim Noles.
Publication Info. Cambridge, MA : Da Capo Press, c2008.
Description xxvi, 324 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.

Book Review: New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg


Following up on Ric Burns’ New York, I read New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (2007) edited by one of the stars of that series Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.

This collection of essays looks back with some nostalgia and some disgust at the City in the 70s, 80s, & 90s.  For most of the authors, New York once was full of crime, sex, and drugs, yet the rents were low and the City maintained its own character.  Today they sneer that interlopers have moved in, built luxury lofts, priced out everything that made New York unique and replaced it with typical American suburbia. Most of the essayists to some extent sink into insufferable self-importance which makes this book hard to read at times.

There’s a lot of hyperbole, but there’s truth mixed in.  And there’s still a lot to love about New York.  Each borough gets its own tribute, with the one on Staten Island being the most illuminating since I know little about that area.  There are also great stories on graffiti, civil rights, art, rock music, and ethnic foods.  If you love New York, this book is worth checking out.  If you hate New York, this book isn’t going to change your mind.

New York calling : from blackout to Bloomberg / edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.
Publication Info. London : Reaktion, 2007.
Description 368 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.

Book Review: The Joke by Milan Kundera


For the first time, my Around the World for a Good Book selection is for a country that no longer exists.  The Joke: A Novel of Czechoslovakia Today (1967, English translation 1969) is an fact a story of 50 years ago.  Since the author Milan Kundera is Czech and the novel is set in Prague, Moravia, and Bohemia, this book will represent the Czech Republic.  Slovakia will wait for another novel.

The Joke takes place in the 1950’s when the Communist Party ruled behind the Iron Curtain.  The extent of Totalitarianism was that writing a bad joke about Trotsky on a postcard could land one in serious trouble with the dour authorities.  This is what happens to Ludvik Jahn, who as a result of this joke loses his Party membership, is forced out of the university, and ends up serving in a military division for subversives and working in mines.

Talk about an unsympathetic protagonist!  Ludvik meets and falls in love with the innocent young Lucie while he’s in the military camp.  When she wont sleep with him he treats her in a beastly manner, but continues to claim his love for her is deep and to not understand why she leaves him.  Later, Ludvik tries to exact revenge on the Party member who humiliated him by having an affair with this man’s wife in the most vulgar manner.  Towards the end of the novel Ludvik has some small realizations of the errors of his ways, but for the most part this is a story of a downward spiral of selfishness.

A subplot tells of Ludvik’s childhood friend Jaroslav whose goal in life is to preserve the traditional folk ways and music of his Moravian village.  The culminating pages of the novel take place during the Ride of the King festival which tragically has lost it’s original meaning and is now an orchestrated affair for the purposes of the Party.  I liked the parts with Jaroslav and the folk music the most interesting parts of this book.

Favorite Passages

The young can’t help acting; they’re immature but they’re placed in a mature world and have to act as if they were mature.  So they put on whatever masks and disguises appeal to them and can be made to fit — and they act.  – p. 88

We listened to Ludvik, and our surprise was mingled with irritation — irritation at his certainty.  He was behaving the way all Communists behaved at the time.  As if he’d made a secret pact with the future and had the right to act in its name. – p. 134

Drunkards are the most loyal supporters of revivalist folk ventures.  The last supporters.  After all, they provide a noble pretext for getting drunk.  – p. 247

Author Kundera, Milan.
Title The joke. Translated by David Hamblyn and Oliver Stallybrass.
Publication Info. New York, Coward-McCann [1969]
Edition [1st American ed.].
Description 288 p. 22 cm.