Podcasts of the Week Ending October 26


Best of the Left :: Why Prison Abolition is not Nearly as Scary as it Sounds

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Virtual Choir

Radiolab :: Birdie in the Cage

WBUR :: Anthony Martignetti And That Famous Prince Spaghetti Ad, 50 Years Later

Dolly Parton’s America :: I Will Always Leave You

You Must Remember This :: Disney’s Most Controversial Film

The Memory Palace :: Late One Night


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Album Reviews: Quick Thoughts


What if I didn’t review any albums for some time and then did a bunch at once?  Again?

AlbumThe Competition
Artist: Lower Dens
Release Date: September 6, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “Two Faced Love” and “Young Republicans”
Thoughts: These songs have a lush sound reminiscent of the 1980s New Romantics.  Which is fine, if you’ve listened to all of that 35+ year old music and yearn for more. The big twist is that lyrically it is much more political than romantic.
Rating: **1/2


Album: Close It Quietly
Artist: Frankie Cosmos
Release Date: September 6, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “41st,” “So Blue,”
Thoughts: Greta Kline follows up on 2018’s Vessel with another collection of lo-fi folk rock tunes.  Her sweet voice clearly sings ruminative lyrics about growing into adulthood.
Rating: ***


Album: Crush
Artist: Floating Points
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Thoughts: This collection of minimalist electronic music from UK musician Sam Shepherd was just what I needed to hear right now.
Rating: ****

 


Album: There Existed an Addiction to Blood
Artist: clipping.
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “Nothing is Safe,” “The Show, and “Blood of the Fang”
Thoughts: This the third album from this experimental hip-hop act from Los Angeles, and first since 2016’s Splendor & Money.  There are two great things about this album: 1. the rapid rhymes of Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame) and 2. the deep-textured synth sounds he raps over.  The lyrics are grim and gory, making it an appropriate addition to your Halloween party playlist.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Fault Lines by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer


Author: Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer
Title: Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton & Company, [2019]
Summary/Review:

I was born near the end of 1973, so this book is essentially the history of America during my lifetime.  The authors are professors at Princeton University who built the book out of course on recent American history.  I’m not familiar with Zelizer, but Kruse has established himself as a leading public historian by sharing facts and debunking myths on Twitter. The central thesis is that the polarized politics of the United States began in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal (which disillusioned Americans faith in government, something that is ironically exploited by Nixon’s own party) as well as the revolutions of civil rights, gender, and sexuality and their conservative counter-revolutions.

The book is a thorough history of the past 45 years, and I had a lot of “oh yeah, I remember that!” moments.  I have two criticisms of the book in general. One, is that it reads like a laundry list of events with very little analysis.  Two, it is a top-down approach focusing on the actions of Presidents and Congresses as opposed to the greater societal actions.  I understand it would be a much thicker book if these things were included, but the instances in the book that offer analysis and history of the people are much richer than the book overall.

That being said, this is an excellent summary of how we got to where we are in the United States.  Every living American has lived at least partly in the period of time covered here and would benefit from reading about our recent history.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Comics Review: Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Omnibus


Volume 1
Author: Tony Lee, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Matthew Dow Smith, Dan McDaid
Artists: Andrew Currie, Richard Piers Rayner, Horacio Domingues, Tim Hamilton, Mark Buckingham, Matthew Dow Smith, Blair Shedd, Mitch Gerads, Dan McDaid, Josh Adams, Paul Grist
Colorist: Charlie Kirchoff, Phil Elliott, Rachelle Rosenberg
Title: Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Omnibus – Volume 1
Publication Info: Titan Comics, September 30, 2015
Summary/Review:

These comics were created earlier than the other Eleventh Doctor comics I’ve read and feature Amy and Rory as companions.  The comics were obviously made after Series 5 (or perhaps even based on scripts of Series 5) so the characterizations seem frozen in a weird place of Amy and Rory as were first saw them, not the characters they would grow to be.  There are some adventures here including visiting Wemba’s Lea (the medieval location that would become Wembley Stadium) for a humorous soccer-themed story, a multiworld where multiple versions of all the characters must work together to stop a Sontaran plot, a wordless story where the Doctor helps Santa Claus, and several stories with a new companion named Kevin who is a robotic T-Rex.  The comics are silly and fun, but nothing groundbreaking or worth making into a television story.

Rating: ***


Volume 2
Author: Joshua Hale Fialkov, Andy Diggle, Brandon Seifert, Len Wein, Tony Lee
Artists:  Matthew Dow Smith, Mark Buckingham, Philip Bond, Matthew Dow Smith,
Mitch Gerads, Josh Adams, Marc Deening, Andres Ponce, Horacio Domingues, Rubén González
Colorist:  Charlie Kirchoff, Adrian Salmon
Letterer: Shawn Lee, Tom B. Long
Title: Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Omnibus – Volume 2
Publication Info:  Titan Comics, October 28, 2015
Summary/Review:

The second volume of this series of Eleventh Doctor stories continues with Amy and Rory with stories that take place after Series 6 and incorporate the character growth missing from the previous volume.  In this collection they recreate Casablanca with Silurians, the Doctor and Rory have a “boys night out” where they can’t return to Amy without first making their way through several adventures, Christina de Souza returns, and the Doctor helps rescue a cosmonaut from the Vashta Nerada.  Again, the stories are fun and breezy but slight compared to what Doctor Who can offer.

Rating: ***


Volume 3
Author: Andy Diggle, Eddie Robson, Tony Lee, Matthew Dow Smith,
Paul Cornell
Artists: Andy Kuhn, Mike Collins, Horacio Domingues, Jimmy Broxton
Colorist: Charlie Kirchoff, Phil Elliott
Letterer: Shawn Lee
Title: Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Omnibus – Volume 3
Publication Info:  Titan Comics, November 24, 2015
Summary/Review:

The comic book version of Clara Oswald joins the Eleventh Doctor for this final set of adventures.  The wackiest story of all is set in Deadwood and involves Oscar Wilde, Thomas Edison, Calamity Jane, and a zombie Wild Bill Hicock. The volume also includes special issues for conventions and the 50th anniversary, with the most compelling being The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who where the Doctor enters our real world and finds that there’s a tv show about his adventures starring Matt Smith.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane


Author: Mary Beth Keane
Title: Ask Again, Yes
Narrator: Molly Pope
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This novel begins in 1973 when recent Irish immigrant Francis Gleeson falls into becoming a cop and meets Brian Stanhope, an American-born child of  Irish immigrants, at the police academy.  They are paired on there first beat in the Bronx for a few summer weeks, and share their dreams, although they don’t become particularly close.  Francis marries a Polish-Italian woman named Lena and they settle down in a quiet (fictional) suburban town north of New York called Gillam.  Shortly afterwards, Brian and his newlywed Irish immigrant wife Anne move into the neighboring house.

Lena makes every effort to reach out to Anne as a neighbor, but Anne is at first reserved, and then outright antagonistic.  Lena gives birth to three daughters in quick succession.  After a couple of miscarriages, Anne gives birth to a son, Peter.  Despite, the coldness between the two families, Peter and the Gleeson’s youngest daughter Kate become best friends.  And then in 1991, when the kids are on the verge of graduating middle school, they share that have romantic feelings for one another.  On the same of night, an act of violence permanently changes the lives of both families.

The bulk of the novel follows that night in 1991 up to the present day focusing on the lives of all six of these characters as they struggle with their past.  Kate and Peter reunite in college and eventually marry, to the disappointment and befuddlement of their parents.  I found the childhood lovers still devoted to one another as adults hard to swallow, and this book also has a number of the coincidences that only occur in literature.  Setting that aside though, the book is an excellent character study that examines generational trauma that contributes to depression, alcoholism, infidelity, and mental illness.  It also is a story of compassion, where the characters learn to recognize that people are not their worst actions.

 

Recommended books: Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, and Payback by Thomas Kelly
Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 19


Dolly Parton’s America :: Sad Ass Songs

This is a new podcast about possibly America’s most beloved living person, Dolly Parton. The debut podcast focuses on issues ranging from murder ballads to feminism.

99% Invisible :: Unsure Footing

The story of how soccer changed the backpass rule leading immediately to an embarrassing period for goalkeepers, but ultimately to a more exciting game.

Hub History :: Race Over Party

The history of African American politics in Boston in the late 19th century.

This American Life :: We Come From Small Places

The immigrant experience explored through stories from the Labor Day Carnival and the West Indian American Day Parade in Brooklyn.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Book Review: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


Author: Steven Johnson
Title: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Narrator: Alan Sklar
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: [United States] : Tantor Media, Inc., 2006
Summary/Review:

This book explores the ideas of urbanism, epidemiology, and social networks through the lens of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in the Soho district of London.  Dr. John Snow, with the help of Reverend Henry Whitehead, created a map of where people infected with cholera lived and drew their water to trace the infection to a water pump on Broad Street.  That Snow and Whitehead knew the neighborhood and its people well proved advantageous in creating the connections needed to document the spread of disease. Snow also had to fight an uphill battle against the prevailing scientific belief that diseases like cholera were spread through the air, known as the miasma theory.

Johnson details how the evolutionary response to putrefaction and vile odors made such beliefs plausible, but practices such as “cleaning up” the city by deliberately washing waste into the water inadvertently caused infections to increase.  Johnson also depicts the urban environment as a unique battleground for humans and microorganisms.  All in all this is a fascinating account of an historic account, with broader implications for how we live today and into the future.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Camille Claudel (1988)


Title: Camille Claudel
Release Date: December 7, 1988
Director: Bruno Nuytten
Production Company:  Gaumont
Summary/Review:

This French biopic tells the story of Camille Claudel, an innovative sculptor active from the 1880s to early 1900s.  In her lifetime, her art was overshadowed by her romance with Auguste Rodin. The film stars the stunning Isabelle Adjani as Claudel, a young woman with a passion for art that infuriates her mother.  Yet, her father dotes on her, and her brother Paul (Laurent Grévill), who would gain fame as a poet and diplomat, also offers her support.

Gérard Depardieu, at the peak of imperial period as France’s most celebrated actor, plays Rodin. Appropriately, Depardieu plays Rodin as the celebrity, overseeing large-scale commissions like “The Gates of Hell” with teams of apprentices working in factory-like settings.  It’s implied that Rodin has a creative block that prevents him from making his own work and finds inspiration in Claudel. Although their romance is depicted as a consensual romance, the film strongly indicates that women artists were expected to make themselves available for sex if they wished to get ahead.

Eventually, Claudel sours on Rodin, because she feels she’s not getting enough credit for her contributions, and because he refuses to break off his long-time relationship with Rose Beuret for a a monogamous relationship with her.  Claudel attempts to make her own way as an artist, but struggles against discrimination against women and abandonment by patrons and family.  Eventually she ends up living in a derelict workshop inhabited by multiple cats, paranoid that Rodin is orchestrating her demise.  The film concludes as she’s determined to be mentally ill and Paul has her committed to a psychiatric hospital where she will live out her life.

I don’t know enough about Camille Claudel’s life to judge the historical accuracy of this movie, but I sense that it is a melodramatic interpretation of a more complex story.  Nevertheless, the acting of Adjani and Depardieu and others makes it an excellent character study.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar


Author: Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Title: Never caught : the Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
Narrator: Robin Miles
Publication Info: [New York] : Simon & Schuster Audio, [2017]
Summary/Review:

Ona Judge was a woman born into slavery around 1773 at Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.  Mount Vernon is, of course, famous as the home of George Washington, soon to be commander of the Continental Army and later the first President of the United States.  Ona would become lady’s maid to Martha’s Washington in her mid-teens, and in that role would travel with the Washington to the new United States’ capital in New York City, and then to Philadelphia when the capital shifted there in 1790.

Living in Philadelphia provided Judge with new opportunities, including free time while Mrs. Washington was entertaining, and even the opportunity to attend the theatre.  More importantly she became acquainted with Philadelphia’s growing free Black community and abolitionists. Judge’s legal status was in question due to Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act which provided that slaves brought into the state by new residents from out of state would be eligible for emancipation after six months.  It was an open question of whether this law applied to the President, but nevertheless, the Washingtons arranged to rotate their slave staff back to Mount Vernon every six months.

In 1796, Washington announced he would not run for reelection and Martha Washington informed judge she would be given as a wedding gift to her granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis Law.  Faced an uncertain future Judge made the decision to run away.  Abolitionists put Judge on a ship to Portsmouth, NH where she attempted to make a new life for herself as a free person.  Washington had a local customs officer, and later his nephew, attempt to capture Judge but in both cases the growing abolition sentiment meant that she couldn’t be captured without drawing unwanted publicity to Washington.

Washington freed many of his slaves in his will when he died in 1799.  Judge, however, was legally considered still a slave of Martha Washington, and even after Martha’s death in 1802, Judge’s ownership status reverted to the Custis estate.  Judge lived until 1848, enjoying her freedom, but always a fugitive.  Despite freedom, her life was still full of struggle.  She married a free black sailor, Jack Staines, in 1797, but he died in 1803, and Ona Judge Staines would also outlive her three children.

Ona Judge Staines’ story is drawn from interviews she gave to abolitionist newspapers in the 1840s.  But as with many stories of enslaved African Americans, Dunbar has to piece together the history from sources of the white masters, such as the papers of the Washingtons and runaway slave ads.  It’s a compelling narrative, and one that focuses on the often overlooked nature of 18th-century slavery (compared with the 19th-slavery), the emergence of abolitionism, and popular conception of someone like Washington who represents liberty to so many Americans, but held Ona Judge and many others in perpetual bondage.

Recommended books:

  • Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800.
    by Leland Ferguson
  • The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia by Mechal Sobel
  • North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 by Leon F. Litwack
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
  • Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Blood & Ivy by Paul Collins


Author: Paul Collins
Title: Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard
Narrator:  Kevin Kenerly
Publication Info: Blackstone Pub (2018)
Summary/Review:

This historical, true crime narrative relates the story of the murder of Dr. George Parkman, a Harvard-educated physician and philanthropist, and from a prominent Boston Brahmin family.  The murderer is revealed to also be a well-born man, John White Webster, a chemistry professor at Harvard Medical College.  I’m familiar with the story since it is central story of Boston By Foot’s Dark Sie of Boston tour, but it’s not a well-known historical incident these days.  At the time though, the social class of both murderer and victim, and their connections with Harvard University made it an international scandal. Even 18 years later, English author Charles Dickens asked to visit the murder site on his visit to Boston.

Collins details the murder, investigation, trial, and conviction of Webster, but also focuses on the case’s place within the chasms among Boston’s social classes.  Initial blame for Dr. Parkman’s disappearance was directed at the Boston’s Irish immigrant population, then swelling due to the famine in Ireland.  Even after Webster is brought to trial, the defense’s main strategy is to deflect attention to Ephraim Littlefield, the Harvard Medical College janitor who is the main witness.  The class mores of the time saw the working man Littlefield as someone who better fit the mold of murderer.

Collins also explores the innovations that emerged from the case.  These include dental forensics as Parkman’s dentist was able to use dental molds to identify Parkman’s remains. The judge, Justice Lemuel Shaw, also gave instructions to the jury regarding the definition of “reasonable doubt” that became widespread in American jurisprudence, and weren’t updated in Massachusetts until 2015!

This book is a good introduction to this remarkable case for those unfamiliar with the story.  As someone who has read quite a bit about the Parkman murder, I also picked up quite a few new tidbits.

Recommended books: Dead Certainties : Unwarranted Speculations by Simon Schama
Rating: ***