Book Review: Books about the 1964-1964 New York World’s Fair


Author: Bill Cotter and Bill Young 
Title: The 1964-1964 New York World’s Fair
Publication Info: Arcadia Publishing (2004)
Rating: ***


Author: Bill Cotter and Bill Young
Title1964-1965 New York World’s Fair: Creation and Legacy
Publication Info: Arcadia Publishing Library Editions (2008)
Rating: ***

Summary/Review:

I’ve long had a fascination with the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair because it intersects with several of my interests: New York City history, space age modernism, Disney theme parks, the New York Mets, and one of my most-loathed historical figures, Robert Moses.* I also know the stories from my parents and grandparents attending the fair.  These Images of America volumes contain photographs and historical tidbits from two authors who visited the fair when they were young and kept its memory alive every since.

The first volume details the fair itself.  Did you know that it was a renegade world’s fair, failing to get authorization from the International Bureau of Expositions?As a result there were only a limited number of foreign countries participating, and many of their pavilions were operated by big corporations rather than national governments.  Most of the pavilions were showcases for states, big corporations, and nonprofit organizations. Taking place in the midst of the race to the moon, many exhibits were themed to the futuristic wonders of the space age as well as the hope for peace in a smaller world. The centerpiece of the fair was the Unisphere, a surviving landmark, erected by United States Steel Corporation complete with light and water displays.

The fair also became a showcase for Walt Disney and company who brought Disneyland-style attractions to the East Coast at four pavilions.  These include the Magic Skyway at the Ford Pavilion, an animatronic Abraham Lincoln for the Illinois pavilion, General Electric’s Carousel of Progress, and It’s a Small World, sponsored by Pepsi-Cola for UNICEF.  Disney, however, did not provide all the fair’s thrill.  Visitor’s to the Kodak pavilion could walk along the Moon Deck, the Electric Companies Tower of Light contained dazzling display of lights, and visitors could ride through a history of communication at the Bell Pavilion.  While only a portion of foreign nations were represented, guests could tour a recreated Belgian village (and enjoy Belgian waffles) and several newly independent African nations made their global debut.

While fair attendees generally had a good time and it lives on fondly in their memories, the fair was not a success.  The fair went bankrupt, few of the predictions for the future came true, and buildings left behind to be adapted for the new park fell into disrepair (most notably the New York State Pavilion, famed for its appearance in Men in Black, which still stands in a derelict state).  Despite only operating for two seasons, the fair required a monumental effort.  The second volume details a lot of the planning and preparation that went into designing and planning the fair.  This includes plans for pavilions that were never completed as well as fair attractions that closed before the fair was over.  Some were replaced and some stood empty behind fences for the remainder of the fair!  There’s also a lot of detail of the demolition of the fair (a process not completed until 1967) and the fair’s legacy.

Together these two books are richly illustrated and give a glimpse of an ephemeral world of fun, science, and “Peace Through Understanding” that stood for a short time in Queens, New York.

 

*I’d like to give Moses credit for the noble vision of a great fair leading into the creation of a “Central Park for the 20th Century” at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.  However, his main legacy is crisscrossing New York with highways, including the ones that surround Flushing Meadows-Corona Park which I believe have prevented the park from achieving its full potential.

Recommended Books:

Book Review: A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs: Volume 1 by Andrew Hickey


Author: Andrew Hickey
Title: A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs: Volume 1: From Savoy Stompers to Clock Rockers
Publication Info: Lulu.com, 2019 
Summary/Review:

Last fall I discovered the podcast A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs and it has become a must listen for me.  Presented by English author Andrew Hickey, it is a meticulously researched and well-produced in-depth study of popular music.  Each episode focuses not on one song but on the musicians, songwriters, and producers behind that song including samples of their work (not just the title song) and songs that influenced this work. Hickey is very good at debunking the myths of rock music and revealing the much more interesting history of the genre and the people behind it.  This includes acknowledging the innovations of Black musicians whose contributions were often appropriated by the white music industry and later historical revisionism.

Right now the podcast is at episode 153, but this book covers the first 50 podcasts.  This very early history begins in 1938 with the jazz, jump blues, rhythm and blues, Western swing, vocal groups,  and other artists who created the many elements that would become rock & roll.  This volume ends in the mid-50 just after the first generation of rock & roll stars such as Fats Domino, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course, Elvis Presley.  The book, and the podcast, is easy to follow in the chapters/episodes on each song, but it is also an ongoing story that winds through the whole project.  The individuals who manage to pop up again and again and different times and places, and the way they influence and collaborate with one another is one of the fascinating elements of this history.

I can’t recommend the podcast and the book more highly!

Favorite Passages:

One of the great things about popular music before about 1970 is it had a lot of space for people who could do one thing really really well, and who just did their one thing. Artists like Duane Eddy and John Lee Hooker just kept making basically the same record over and over, and it was a great record, so why not?

But people will always want to push against those constraints. And in the 1950s, just like today, there were black people who wanted to make country music. But in the 1950s, unlike today, there was a term for the music those people were making. It was called rock and roll. For about a decade, from roughly 1955 through 1965, “rock and roll” became a term for the music which disregarded those racial boundaries. And since then there has been a slow but sure historical revisionism. The lines of rock and roll expand to let in any white man, but they constrict to push out the women and black men who were already there. But there’s one they haven’t yet been able to push out, because this particular black man playing country music was more or less the embodiment of rock and roll.

This series is about the history of rock music, but one of the things we’re going to learn as the story goes on is that the history of any genre in popular music eventually encompasses them all. And at the end of 1955, in particular, there was no hard and fast distinction between the genres of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and country music.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Jamaica

Author: Marlon James
Title: A Brief History of Seven Killings
Narrators: Robertson Dean, Cherise Boothe, Dwight Bacquie, Ryan Anderson, Johnathan McClain, Robert Younis
Publication Info: [Minneapolis, MN] : HighBridge Audio, 2014.
Summary/Review:

This novel is anything but brief, but instead an epic story told from multiple points-of-view sprawling over three decades and spilling out of Kingston to New York City.  There also a lot more than seven killings depicted.  The title of novel is sort-of explained later in the narrative as a kind of story-within-the-story.

The action of the story takes place over five days.  The first two are in December 1976 and detail the attempted assassination on Bob Marley (referred to throughout the novel as “The Singer”).  Later sections of the novel are set on single dates in 1979, 1985, and 1991 and deal with the ongoing personal and political ramifications of the assassination attempt as well as the rising crack epidemic.  The narrators include gang members and dons of Jamaica’s political party-aligned gangs, a CIA agent, an American music writer originally from Rolling Stone, the ghost of a murdered politician, and a young woman desperate to leave Jamaica for the USA who changes her identity several times throughout the novel.

This is a challenging book to read due to its sprawling narrative and dozens of characters.  It’s hard to keep track of the whole story and honestly I think some of the chapters may just as well be self-contained short stories.  The Jamaican patois used by many of the characters can also be difficult although I enjoyed listening to the voice actors on the audiobook. But the hardest part of the book is that is just so brutal, violent, and unceasingly grim.  That doesn’t make it a bad book, of course, and I do like to be challenged.  But it was a hard book to read nonetheless.

Recommended books:

  • Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

Rating: ***

Book Review: Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton


Author: Kira Jane Buxton
Title: Hollow Kingdom
Narrator: Robert Petkoff
Publication Info:New York ; Boston : Grand Central Publishing, 2019
Summary/Review:

This novel depicts a zombie apocalypse in the greater Seattle region of Washington as narrated by S.T., a domesticated American crow kept as a pet by a loutish man named Big Jim. When Big Jim and the other humans turn feral, S.T. must flee with his best friend, a dim but loyal hound dog named Dennis.  Thus begins a journey of discovery for S.T., raised since hatching to be human, to get in touch with his crow identity.  S.T. learns that his mission in life is to ally with wild birds to help rescue domestic animals who are at risk from both zombie humans and larger predators (including animals escaped from the zoo).

The crude humor of Hollow Kingdom reminds me a lot of the writing of Christopher Moore.  I felt the metaphor of humanity addicted to the internet and screens was heavy handed, and my interest started to lag in the last part of the book.  Nevertheless though it is a creative work of fiction with a unique perspective.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Crying in H-Mart by Michelle Zauner


Author: Michelle Zauner
Title: Crying in H-Mart
Publication Info: Knopf (2021) 
Summary/Review: Michelle Zauner, a musician who records under the name Japanese Breakfast,  writes this memoir of her life growing up mixed race in Oregon and her tempestuous relationship with her mother.  Zauner’s mother was an immigrant from South Korea while her father was a white American.  She discusses how she felt like an outsider in both communities.

The core of the book relates to her mother’s cancer diagnosis, slow decline, and death.  Zauner reflects on how this period drew her closer to her mother and see her in a different way.  Food is central to the narrative as Zauner finds learning how to cook traditional Korean recipes as a way to connect to her Korean identity. It’s a beautifully written and heartbreaking book that I recommend highly.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney


Author: Sally Rooney
Title: Normal People
Narrator: Aoife McMahon
Publication Info: [S.l.] : Crown/Archetype, 2019.
Summary/Review:

This novel tells the story of two young Irish people who attend the same secondary school in County Sligo, Ireland.  Connell is a popular, working class student while Marianne comes from a wealthy family but her eccentric demeanor makes her unpopular at school.  They get to know one another because Connell’s mother works as a housecleaner at Marianne’s home.  They start a relationship that they keep secret from their classmates.

Both Connell and Marianne end up studying at Trinity College Dublin where Marianne blossoms and becomes popular while the shyer Connell feels like an outsider. Their paths cross frequently over the years, sometimes rekindling their romance, sometimes fighting.  The story is unsettling because it deals with abuse and the dark side of otherwise likable characters.  The title Normal People is ironic since both of them do not feel normal due to their intelligence and disinterest in what the people their age are typical interested in.  Overall it’s a realistic and compelling narrative.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison


Author: Katherine Addison
Title: The Goblin Emperor
Narrator: Kyle McCarley
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2021) [Originally published in 2014]
Summary/Review:

Maia is the half-goblin son of an elvish emperor who grows up in exile as the result of his parents being married for political expediency rather than love. When his father and half-brothers are all killed in an airship crash, Maia unexpectedly ascends to the throne.  For a high fantasy, the novel deals with more down to earth details of palace intrigue. Maia has to deal with prejudice, a coup attempt, and even and attempted assassination.  And yet, despite his inexperience, Maia’s compassion is able to win over supporters and make new friends.  The book functions as an excellent character study and an uplifting story of a basically decent character persevering.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History by Michael R. Virgintino


Author: Michael R. Virgintino
Title: Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History
Publication Info: Theme Park Press (2019)
Summary/Review:

It sounds make believe, but for five seasons from 1960 to 1964, a theme park that legitimately claimed to be bigger and better than Disneyland operated in the northeast corner of the Bronx.  In fact, the park was designed by the firm of C.V. Wood, who had worked on Disneyland before having a falling out with Walt.  Many Disneyland veterans worked for Wood’s company as well. The park was shaped like a map of the lower 48 states and was divided into seven themed lands:

  • LIttle Old New York – an entry land in a late 19th-century style
  • Old Chicago – which included regular reenactments of the Great Fire of 1871
  • The Great Plains – which featured a replica army stockade and a stagecoach ride
  • San Francisco – home to an earthquake dark ride and the Northwest Fur Trapper boat ride (Freedomland’s answer to the Jungle Cruise)
  • The Old Southwest – where the park’s train ride was often boarded by masked robbers
  • New Orleans/Mardi Gras – opened before Disneyland’s New Orleans Square and had a pirate-themed ride called Buccaneer.  Also home to a Civil War reenactment.
  • Satellite City – The Future – where visitors could visit a recreation of a Cape Canaveral control room and watch a simulated space mission

This book includes detailed description of the lands, attractions, restaurants, and memories of park-goers and employees.  A lot of the book is written in list format rather in narrative that makes it less fun to read, but the material is fascinating nonetheless.

A lot of reasons are given why Freedomland failed.  The biggest is that unlike Southern California, the climate of New York meant the park could only operate seasonally.  Although Virginitino notes that proposals to open Freedomland for special holiday events for Halloween and Christmas were never followed-up on (the same types of things that regional parks in the northern climes do today for added revenue).  Another reason for the failure, one that the park’s owners harped on, is that Freedomland could not compete  with the New York World’s Fair (and its Disney-built attractions) which opened in 1964.  Virginitino notes that in reality, Freedomland was planned with the knowledge of the World’s Fair coming and the hope to piggyback on the fair’s success.  By 1964, Freedomland had already downsized considerably and sold off some of its most ambitious attractions, so that probably affected attendance more than the fair.

Virgintino also puts forward the idea that the property owners (real estate developers separate from the management of the park) had always intended for Freedomland to be temporary.  Plans for Co-Op City, which was eventually built on the site, were put forward in the 1950s.  The author’s evidence suggests that the the Freedomland structures built on the marshy landfill served the purpose of convincing the government to allow the variances to build the more profitable

Regardless, it’s hard to imagine Freedomland being able to persevere through the Bronx’s really bad times of the 1970s and 1980s. Also the the superpatriotic theming of the park would’ve been a hard sell as early as the counterculture era of the late 1960s.  Nevertheless, I wish Freedomland had survived. My mother, who grew up in the Bronx, has fond memories of visiting Freedomland in her teen years, and I wish I could’ve gone there with her when I was young.

Oddly, little bits of Freedomland have showed up in my life without me even knowing it. A sternwheeler that sailed at Freedomland was renamed the Mark Twain and was docked for many years by the Steamboat Hotel in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Two of the Freedomland trains were loaned by Edaville Railroad in South Carver, Massachusetts.  And a 20 foot cutout figure of Paul Bunyan later stood outside of United House Wrecking in Stamford, Connecticut during my childhood.

This video from Defunctland will give you a glimpse into Freedomland’s all-too-short history:

Favorite Passages:

Freedomland’s employees were slotted within 54 categories, some of which were not listed by big city employment agencies at the time. Many employees were required to possess unique skills, including buffalo wrangler, carrousel horse jeweler, totem pole carver, and stage coach harness-maker.

Other odd occupations at the park included pretzel bending, seal keeping, doughnut rolling, can-can dancing, glassblowing, and space tracking. The park also employed a skin diver who regularly inspected the Great Lakes for purity and maintenance

A new attraction was five new-born burros appropriately named Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place by Neema Avashia


AuthorNeema Avashia
Title: Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place
Publication Info: Morgantown : West Virginia University Press, 2022.
Summary/Review:

Neema Avashia is a Boston teacher who I know through her activism and her Twitter account.  In this short collection of essay-length memoirs she reflects on growing up in West Virginia and her present day life in India.  Her family emigrated to India as part of a small but significant group of Indian ex-pats who worked in West Virginia’s chemical industry.  Avashia describes the warm memories of white West Virginians and how the Appalachian and Indian cultural traditions became commingled in her childhood.  This is contrasted with how those same white West Virginians who helped her family on arrival support the MAGA ideology that discriminates against immigrants and LGBTQ people.  Nevertheless, Avashia fully embraces her West Virginia identity and heritage and makes the case that even if people like her are only a small portion of West Virginia’s population that they are nevertheless fully West Virginian.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Cherry Robbers by Sarai Walker


Author: Sarai Walker
Title: The Cherry Robbers
Narrator: January LaVoy
Publication Info :HarperAudio (2022)
Summary/Review:

The Cherry Robbers is a gothic novel set largely in 1950s Connecticut about the six Chapel daughters whose family acquired great wealth producing firearms.  Their melancholy mother Belinda, deemed mentally ill by most, believes all the girls are cursed to die if they form romantic attachments to men.  The novel is narrated by Iris, the second youngest of the six children and the only survivor (not a spoiler, it’s pretty much spelled out in the opening pages).

When I saw that the story was set in Bellflower Village near Greenwich, CT I thought the name was close enough to Bell Haven, CT and that this novel would fictionalize the Martha Moxley murder.  Fortunately this was not the case, although it does draw on the history of firearms manufacturers in Connecticut and characters draw influence from the real life figures Sarah Winchester and Georgia O’Keefe.  The better part of the novel depicts Iris’ coming of age story and the extensive grief of seeing her sisters one-by-one.  The novel has feminist overtones and critiques of the weapons industry.  The framing story set in the present day details Iris, a successful but reclusive artists living under the nom-de-plume Sylvia Wren, dealing with a persistent journalist attempting to reveal her hidden past.

Rating: ***