Book Review: Dylan Goes Electric! by Elijah Wald


Author: Elijah Wald
Title: Dylan Goes Electric! Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties
Narrator: Sean Runnette
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2017)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and How the Beatles destroyed rock ‘n’ roll : an alternative history of American popular music
Summary/Review:

Elijah Wald is one of my favorite music writers for his ability to break down commonly held beliefs about popular music and show the reality of musicians and their music in the context of their time.  Dylan Goes Electric! does the same for the notorious moment at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan played amplified rock music, the crowd was outraged, and Pete Seeger tried to cut the cables to his amplifier with an ax.  Pretty much everything told about that night is incorrect, or at least incomplete.

Dylan’s performance, significant as it was, could not provide enough material to fill an entire book.  What this book is instead a history of the Folk Revival in the 1950s and 1960s with a focus on key figures like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie among others.  Wald also traces the history of the Newport Folk Festival and how it grew and changed in the years from its origin in 1959 to 1965.  Finally, Wald also details the early career of Bob Dylan, from his early influences in blues and R&B, to his quick rise to becoming a widely-renown folk musician, and his discomfort with fame and being the “voice of his generation.”

At the heart of all three stories – the Folk Revival, the Newport Folk Festival, and Bob Dylan – is a conflict between the ideas of authenticity and music for music’s sake, and the lowbrow ideas of pop music and commercial success.  Wald details that the Newport Folk Festival welcomed performances of electric blues and R&B bands while being uncomfortable the collegiate pop-style folk music of the Kingston Trio.  And while the festival promoted workshops that presented the music of rural folk performers, it was the young, urban and pop-oriented folk musicians drew the largest crowds.  As a result of the conflict over the meaning of folk music, new genres such as folk rock and singer/songwriter emerged.

Bob Dylan’s electric performance turns out not just to be a defining moment in Dylan’s career but part of a bigger story within American folk music, and a conflict that in many ways continues to this day. The stories of what actually happened that night are so disjointed, because the meaning of what happened is different to many of the people involved (and those who hear about in later retellings).

Recommended books: Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years by Eric Von Schmidt, Where Have All the Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger
Rating: ****

Book Review: September 1918: War, Plague, and the World Series by Skip Desjardin


AuthorSkip Desjardin
TitleSeptember 1918: War, Plague, and the World Series
Publication Info: Regnery History (2018)
Summary/Review:

It’s a running joke that the Boston news media will try to find the Boston angle to any major news story.  The thesis of this book is that Boston was essentially the center of world events for the month of September 1918, and in many ways Desjardin is not exaggerating.

The 1918 World Series became famous for being the Boston Red Sox last championship for 86 years (after winning 5 of the first 15 World Series).  But the World Series that year is remarkable for other reasons.  First, it came at the end of a shortened season.  As part of the work or fight edict from the US government, Major League Baseball agreed to end the season at Labor Day, with the Red Sox and the Cubs given an extra couple of weeks to complete the World Series.  Baseball was then to be suspended for the remainder of the war, and when the World Series ended on September 11th, no one knew the armistice would occur exactly two months later.  The war also depressed enthusiasm for the World Series with a low turnout in both ballparks.  The players concern of getting the smallest bonus ever offered to World Series participants combined the uncertainty of future employment lead them to strike briefly before one of the games.

The first World War lies heavily over this book as the Wilson government heavily encouraged all-out participation by recruiting and dedicating the homefront to the war effort.  One of the first American war heroes, the flying ace David Putnam of Jamaica Plain, died over Germany on September 12.  The same day the American forces under General John Pershing began the three day offensive at Saint-Mihiel which included the Yankee Division, primarily made up of New Englanders.  This was the first time American divisions lead by American officers took part in an offensive and the successful battle gained respect of the French and British, while making Germany realize their hopes for victory were growing slim.

The War also played a part in spreading the Great Influenza across continents and oceans.  The flu made it’s first outbreak in the US in Boston at the end of August 1918 and by the early days of September it was infecting – and killing – great numbers of sailors at the Commonwealth Pier and a great number of soldiers at Camp Devens in Ayer.  Patriotic events like the Labor Day Parade helped spread the flu to the civilian population.  The official response tended towards prioritizing keeping morale high for the war effort rather than reporting the actual deadliness of the disease, and military officers repeatedly stated the worst was past even as the number of deaths in the ranks increased.  The flu would burn through Massachusetts by the end of September while having an even more deadly October in the rest of the US in places like Philadelphia.

I’ve long thought that the period circa 1918-1919 in Boston is an historic era uniquely packed with significant and strange events.  Desjardin proves that just picking one month from that period provides the material for a compelling historical work.

Recommended booksFlu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It by Gina Kolata and Red Sox Century by Glenn Stout
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Arm by Jeff Passan


Author: Jeff Passan
TitleThe Arm
Narrator: Kevin Peirce
Publication Info: [Ashland, Oregon] : Blackstone Audio, Inc. : Harper Audio, [2016]
Summary/Review:

The subtitle of this book is Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports and “mystery” is an important word.  No one knows for sure why some pitchers can gain incredible endurance and others are prone to injury.  Practices for building arm strength and preventing injury are built more on guesswork than science.  And while new surgical procedures have allowed some pitchers to return to successful careers, they are no panacea. At the heart of The Arm is the fact that throwing an orb overhand a 100+ times in succession is an unnatural action, and the mystery is that anyone manages to do it without injury rather than why some pitchers can’t avoid injury.

At the heart of this book, Passan provides eyewitness documentation of two contemporary pitchers – Todd Coffey and Daniel Hudson – as they undergo Tommy John surgery and attempt to return to pitching at the top level in Major League Baseball.  In between there stories, Passan interviews various baseball legends: Sandy Koufax, whose Hall of Fame career was cut short in the days before surgeries that could’ve extended the life of his arm; Nolan Ryan, the opposite extreme, a pitcher known for his remarkable longevity despite refusing surgeries; and of course, Tommy John, whose eponymous surgery changed baseball. The career of orthopedist Frank Jobe, who humbly named ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction for his patient rather than himself, is also documented.

Outside of Major League Baseball, Passan investigates the increasing pressure in youth sports to specialize in one sport early and for coaches to overuse their young players’ arms in games.  Tommy John surgery is skyrocketing among adolescents.  An exploitative youth sports industry has also emerged that encourages young athletes and their families to pay to participate in showcases on the hopes of attracting attention of Major League scouts.  Passan also visits Japan where the traditionalist view of “pitch until your arm falls off” in high school baseball is just beginning to be challenged by the younger generation.

The mystery of the arm is not resolved in this book, but Passan does an excellent job documenting what we know about pitching and exposing a seedy underside of our national pastime

Recommended booksWherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball by R. A. Dickey and You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting
Rating: ****

Book Review: God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now by John Crossan


Author: John Crossan
TitleGod and empire : Jesus against Rome, then and now
Publication Info: [San Francisco] : HarperSanFrancisco, c2007.
Previously Read by the Same Author: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography
Summary/Review:

This is a complex but fascinating book that I muddled through over the course of Lent this year.  The basic thesis of this book is that Jesus Christ taught a radical message contrary to the idea of empire, whether the Roman empire of Christ’s time or the American empire today.  Pax Romana created peace through the enforcement of Roman military strength but the Kingdom of God is a true peace built on justice and equality.  Thus the violence of “civilized” humanity if challenged by Christ’s non-violence.  This is a book worthy of a contemplative reread.
Favorite Passages:

As the greatest pre-industrial and territorial empire—just as we are the greatest post-industrial and commercial empire—Rome was the expression, no more and no less, of the normalcy of civilization’s violence, first-century style. Usually we use the term “civilization” for everything that is good about our humanity—for example, poetry and drama, music and dance, art and architecture, image and narrative. Correspondingly, to call individuals or groups, places or actions, “uncivilized” is normally a calculated insult. So I need to explain very clearly what I mean in this book by the “brutal normalcy of civilization.” The point I wish to emphasize is that imperialism is not just a here-and-there, now-and-then, sporadic event in human history, but that civilization itself, as I am using that term, has always been imperial—that is, empire is the normalcy of civilization’s violence. It is, of course, always possible to oppose this empire in favor of that one, to oppose yours in favor of ours. But if you oppose empire-as-such, you are taking on what has been the normalcy of civilization’s brutality for at least the last six thousand years.

As everyone knows, civilization began immediately with fratricide: the murder of one brother by another. But the story is more detailed than that. “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground” (4:2), and “when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him” (4:8). That inaugural fratricide was the murder of a shepherd by a farmer on his own farm. That is the first act in the invention of human civilization—the farmer displacing the shepherd—and God does not punish the farmer but only marks him forever as the future of a lost past. There is no counterviolence from God—not even the appropriate divine vengeance when, as God says, “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (4:10).

I think that Jesus started by accepting John’s theology of God’s imminence but, precisely because of what happened to John, changed from that to a theology of God’s presence. John expected God’s advent, but Antipas’s cavalry came instead. John was executed, and God still did not come as an avenging presence. Maybe, thought Jesus, that was not how God acted because that is not how God is. Jesus’s own proclamation therefore insisted that the Kingdom of God was not imminent but present; it was already here below upon this earth, and however it was to be consummated in the future, it was a present-already and not just an imminent-future reality. Jesus could hardly have made such a spectacular claim without immediately appending another one to it. You can speak forever about the future-imminence of the Kingdom, but unless you are foolish enough to give a precise date, you can hardly be proved right or wrong. We are but waiting for God to act; apart from preparatory faith, hope, and prayer, there is no more we can do. When God acts, it will be, presumably, like a flash of divine lightning beyond all categories of time and place. But to claim an already-present Kingdom demands some evidence, and the only such that Jesus could have offered is this: it is not that we are waiting for God, but that God is waiting for us. The present Kingdom is a collaborative eschaton between the human and divine worlds. The Great Divine Cleanup is an interactive process with a present beginning in time and a future (short or long?) consummation. Would it happen without God? No. Would it happen without believers? No. To see the presence of the Kingdom of God, said Jesus, come, see how we live, and then live likewise.

It is certainly correct, therefore, to call Jesus’s death—or in fact the death of any martyr—a sacrifice, but substitution and suffering are not the point of sacrifice. Substitutionary atonement is bad as theoretical Christian theology just as suicidal terrorism is bad as practical Islamic theology. Jesus died because of our sins, or from our sins, but that should never be misread as for our sins. In Jesus, the radicality of God became incarnate, and the normalcy of civilization’s brutal violence (our sins, or better, Our Sin) executed him. Jesus’s execution asks us to face the truth that, across human evolution, injustice has been created and maintained by violence while justice has been opposed and avoided by violence. That warning, if heeded, can be salvation.

It is the age-old normalcy of civilization’s violent injustice that is weakness and foolishness with God, and it is God’s nonviolent justice that is weakness and foolishness for civilization’s violent normalcy.

To turn the nonviolent resistance of the slaughtered Jesus into the violent warfare of the slaughtering Jesus is, for me as a Christian, to libel the body of Jesus and to blaspheme the soul of Christ.

Recommended books:

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan , The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation by Barbara R. Rossing, Hell’s Abyss, Heaven’s Grace: War and Christian Spirituality by Lawrence Hart, and Quest for the living God : mapping frontiers in the theology of God by Elizabeth A. Johnson
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Boston Irish by Thomas H. O’Connor


Author: Thomas H. O’Connor
Title: The Boston Irish
Publication Info: 9780316626613
ISBN: Back Bay Books (1997)

Previously Read by the Same Author: Eminent Bostonians

Summary/Review: Subtitled “A Political History” this is the Dean of Boston History’s story of the rise of Irish from subjugated minority to political power in Boston.  While there is a lot more that could be said of Boston Irish history this book focuses on the Irish mayors and a few other political leaders as well as Irish-American Catholic bishops attempts to help lead their flock into the Boston mainstream.  O’Connor follows to trends – the business-like, accommodationist attempts to work with the traditional Yankee power elite and the more confrontational, neighborhood-focused style emphasized by John Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley.  This was an interesting summary of politics in Boston history and especially informative of the big figures in recent history of Boston.

Recommended booksHow the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald, and Ethnics and Enclaves by William Michael Demarco.

Rating: ***

Book Reviews: The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle


Author: Roddy Doyle
Title: The Dead Republic
Publication Info: New York : Viking, c2010.
ISBN: 9780670021772

By the same author:

  • Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
  • A Star Called Henry
  • The Woman Who Walked into Doors
  • The Commitments
  • The Snapper
  • The Van
  • Oh, Play That Thing
  • Paula Spencer
  • The Deportees: and Other Stories

Summary/Review: Doyle completes The Last Roundup trilogy, a story of Ireland and the Irish in the 20th century through the lens of one everyman – Henry Smart.    The first book in this series A Star Called Henry is one of my favorite novels of all time.  The sequel which follows Henry to America in the Roaring Twenties – Oh, Play That Thing –  starts of brilliantly but then collapses due to some poor narrative choices.  The final installment brings Henry back to Ireland and is a return to form albeit still failing to approach the brilliance of the first novel.

Henry accompanies John Ford to make a film based on his own life which Ford turns into The Quiet Man.  Escaping Ford’s green-tinted lens view of Ireland, Henry settles into working as a janitor at a school in a modern Dublin suburb where he may or may not be reacquainted with his long-lost wife.  Henry gets caught in the 17 May 1974 terrorist bombings in Dublin (coincidentally the second book this month I’ve read where these bombings play a crucial role after Let the Great World Spin) and his true identity is revealed.  He’s hailed as a hero of the rebellion and called back into action by the modern IRA.  Yet, Henry soon comes to realize that the IRA’s vision of Ireland is as false and idealistic as Fords.

Overall, Doyle does a great job in this series at taking on modern Irish history – warts and all – through the lens of this fascinating (if not always likable) character.  I highly recommend reading all three books even if you have to slog through the second half of Oh, Play That Thing.

Rating: ****

Book Review: I’jaam by Sinan Antoon


Author: Sinan Antoon
Title: I’jaam : an Iraqi rhapsody
Publication Info: San Francisco : City Lights, c2007.
ISBN: 9780872864573

Summary/Review: This short book is set in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and purports to be the memoir of a student who ends up as a political prisoner.  The conceit of the novel is that the i’jaam – dots added to Arabic script – have been left off leading to ambiguous (and presumably comical) meanings to some of the words, but even the author gets tired of this after a while.  I wasn’t too impressed by this book as it seemed to be trying to be too avant guarde without really delivering.

Recommended books: A Sky So Close: A Novel by Betool Khedairi
Rating: **

Book Review: The Gardner Heist by Ulrish Boser


Author: Ulrich Boser
Title: The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft
Publication Info: Smithsonian (2009)
ISBN: 0061451835

Summary/Review:

For the 20th anniversary of the theft of 13 priceless art works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, I read this book detailing the heist. The first chapter gives a blow-by-blow of all the known details of the heist itself in the early-morning hours of March 17, 1990.  Next, Boser introduces Harold Smith, an art detective who dedicates many of the remaining years of his life gathering clues and following leads about the heist.  After Smith dies in 2005, Boser himself picks up Smith’s casebook and begins immersing himself in the case to the point of obsession.  The trail of the crime leads Boser to look into various Boston underworld characters such as a noted art thief, Whitey Bulger and his mob cronies, and even the Irish Republican Army.  At one point the obsession gets ridiculous as Boser visits a town in Ireland thinking he’ll be able to pick Bulger off the street.  In the end, there’s no solution yet for the mystery of missing art, but Boser gives some interesting insights into how art theft is perpetrated and how that art may hopefully be returned.

Recommended booksDead Certainties : Unwarranted Speculations by Simon Schama, Legends of Winter Hill: Cops, Con Men, and Joe McCain, the Last Real Detective by Jay Atkinson, and  Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Harvey Karp, M.D.


Author: Harvey Karp, M.D.
Title: The Happiest Toddler on the Block
Publication Info: New York, N.Y. : Bantam Books, 2008.
ISBN: 9780553805215

Summary/Review:

Karp’s follow-up to The Happiest Baby on the Block offers very practical advice to parents for dealing with the toddler years of 1 to 4 years old.  I think it’s an even better book partly because it avoids the “infomercial style” of writing and is a more practical manual.  The basic gist of the book is that when a child starts to throw a tantrum the parent should acknowledge what is upsetting by repeating back it back (“the fast food rule”) and to use a simple vocabulary of words called “toddlerese” that toddlers will understand most when they are upset.  This book doesn’t have all the answers, for example, what to say to your son when you have no idea what is making him upset.  Overall though I found it a book with useful advice and practically organized.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Protest Singer by Alec Wilkinson


Author: Alec Wilkinson
Title: The Protest Singer : an intimate portrait of Pete Seeger
Publication Info:  New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
ISBN: 9780307269959

Summary/Review:

This is a short and easy read that summarizes Seeger’s life & career succinctly but still captures why he’s in important.  Seeger himself who never wants much attention focused on him wanted a book that someone could read in one sitting.  Much of the book is based on interviews between Wilkinson and Seeger and takes on a conversational tone.  The book jumps around between events in Seeger’s life similar to the way that one memory can prompt another only tangentially related.  It’s also good for seeing what Seeger finds memorable and important from his own past.  While are more thorough books on Seeger out there, I recommend that anyone interested in learning about this remarkable man start with this book and then check out his albums and a concert if possible.  Then start to make your own music.

Favorite Passages:

After consulting with his lawyer, Seeger said, “I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known.  I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.  I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am  not interested in who listened to them.” – p. 81

Recommended books: Where Have All The Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger, How Can I Keep From Singing? by David King Dunaway, and Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie.
Rating: ****