Podcasts of the Week Ending July 7

Fresh Air :: The Pediatrician Who Exposed the Flint Water Crisis

Interview with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha who exposed the Flint water crisis.  She also discusses growing up as a child of Iraqi refugees.

99% Invisible :: Right to Roam

I’ve always been amazed by how Britain protects the rights of walker/hikers to cross land that’s privately owned.  Whereas in the US, one is liable to be shot for doing so.

Ben Franklin’s World :: Brian Regal, The Secret History of the New Jersey Devil

If you’ve ever heard the legend of the New Jersey Devil, you imagine it as a cryptozooligical creature inhabiting the Pine Barrens.   Turns out that the story originates instead with a 17th-century colonist named Daniel Leeds who published an almanac that ran afoul of the Quaker authorities!

Disney History Institute :: Winsor McCay and the Origins of American Animation

Early animation originated as part of a vaudeville act featuring a trained dinosaur.

99% Invisible :: Beyond Biohazard

A video podcasts explores the effort to let future generations know that something is dangerous without using language or symbols that won’t be understood.

Hit Parade :: The Deadbeat Club Edition

The first part of the story of how two very different New Wave acts emerged from Athens, GA in the 1980s.

Book Review: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Author: Elizabeth George Speare
TitleThe Witch of Blackbird Pond
Narrator: Mary Beth Hurt
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2002 [Originally published in 1958]

As a child growing up in Connecticut, I developed a passion for history, particularly colonial American history and local history.  Yet somehow I missed this children’s novel set in 17th-century Connecticut.  Until now!

Kit Tyler leaves her home in Barbados after the death of her grandfather and seeks out her aunt in Wethersfield, Connecticut. While welcomed warmly to join her aunt’s family, Kit misses the sunshine and tropical splendor of Barbados, not to mention the slave labor that had kept her from the daily drudgery she now shares with her cousins.  Her free spirit is also at odds with the strict discipline of the Puritan community.  She finds a kindred spirit in Hannah Tupper, the “witch” of the title who is actually a Quaker forced to live on her own in the marshy areas on the edge of town.  As their friendship blossoms, suspicions grow in the community leading to accusations of witchcraft.

It’s a good novel, and while not 100% historically accurate, it uses its colonial Puritan setting well to create the atmosphere for a story of a positive young female character for the 20th century when it was written and now the 21st century as well.
Recommended booksJohnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol I: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson, and Blindspot by Jane Kamensky & Jill Lepore
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Author: Geraldine Brooks
TitleCaleb’s Crossing 
Publication Info: [Ashland, Or.] : Blackstone Audio, 2011.

This engaging novel set in 17th Massachusetts, primarily Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge, is the recollections of a Puritan woman Bethia Mayfield regarding the life of a Wampanoag she befriends as a child who takes the name Caleb.  The language of the narrative carries the flavor of language of a colonial American woman although at times a modern, feminist view appears in the narrative.  The novel is full of heartbreak and loss, but still there’s a great amount of nobility in Caleb as he adapts to English and Christian ways.  The culture and religion of the English and native are frequently compared with the later given a grudging respect.  Both the woman and the Wampanoag are subservient in this society and this historical fiction is a great attempt at telling their hidden stories.

Recommended books:  The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper, Black Robe by Brian Moore, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick, The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell, and A Mercy by Toni Morrison.
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates

Sarah Vowell is an acquired taste and it’s taken me some to appreciate her, especially her nasal voice and deadpan delivery.  Which makes it all the more odd why I chose to listen to The Wordy Shipmates (2008) as an audiobook read by the author, but I did.  And it was great!

Vowell and I share in common a fascination with colonial history, especially that which took place between the big events like Plymouth Rock and the Salem Witch Trials.  As Vowell details early on in this book the typical American’s understanding of the Puritans is informed by television sitcoms (and before that popular culture such as the poems of Longfellow).  The referencing of popular culture and topical events by way of analogy is a rhetorical device Vowell uses throughout the book which can be irritating but is often illuminating.  Make no mistake, while The Wordy Shipmates is often humorous is also thoroughly researched of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century and a serious effort of seperating Puritan myth from fact.

For one thing, people like to describe contemporary America as a Puritan nation, primarily due to our squeamishness when it comes to sexuality or the popularity of fundamentalist religion.  Vowell points out that there are commonalities with our Puritan forebearers in the idea of American exceptionalism or the nation’s many misguided attempts to spread the American way around the world in the spirit of the Massachusetts Bay Seal with the Indian pleading “Come over and help us!”  On the other hand Vowell contends that contemporary Americans do not see the need for the intellectual rigor to write diaries, speeches, sermons, pamphlets and books – the wordiness of the title – the way the ordinary Puritan did in the 17th century or their New England descendants continued to practice into the 1900’s.  I do believe I’ve read that there are more bloggers in New England than any other region, so  perhaps I’m part of keeping this wordy tradition alive.

One fascinating essay examines Massachusetts Bay Colony’s leader and early governor John Winthrop’s A Modell of Christian Charity which includes the oft-quoted phrase a “citty upon a hill.” Vowell explicates the sermon and discusses how it’s been misunderstood and misappropriated ever since.  Ronald Reagan frequently cited it, always as a “shining city on the hill” in speeches such as his farewell address, while Mario Cuomo countered with a 1984 DNC keynote speech “A Tale of Two Cities.” From Vowell’s reading of Winthrop’s sermon she explains how Reagan, Cuomo, and many others all get it wrong by missing the central message of community that were it proposed today would be seen by some as socialism.

Much of the book focuses on Winthrop, the upstart Roger Williams, and the positively rebellious Anne Hutchinson.  Through them and other stories the reader learns of the differences between Seperatist and Puritan, theological pamphlet wars, and more bloody wars with the Pequot.  I’m going to say that this book is not for everyone as I’d expect both the experienced historian and the novice will be put off by Vowell’s approach, but to those of us in-between I think this is a worthwhile read for understanding the complexity of the Puritans and their legacy.

A couple of other reviews:

Title The Wordy Shipmates
Author Sarah Vowell
Publication Riverhead Hardcover (2008), Hardcover, 272 pages
Publication date 2008
ISBN 1594489998 / 9781594489990

Book Review: A Mercy by Toni Morrison

A Mercy (2008) is the latest novel by one of my favorite writers Toni Morrison.  Having read all of Morrison’s novels – except Paradise which I struggled through twice and still haven’t completed – I found it different from the rest of Morrison’s oeuvre, but I can’t put my finger on what.  I thought it may be the historic setting, but that’s true of Beloved and Jazz as well.   I thought it may be that it lacked magical realism, but then I remember there’s a man who returns from the grave to haunt his house and a girl with a very realistic imaginary friend.  Maybe it’s because it’s fairly accessible to read, but Love and Song of Solomon are relatively straightforward as well.  Besides A Mercy is deceptively complex and would reward a rereading should I find the time to do so.

Not knowing what A Mercy is not about, I can tell you it is about a set of people living in colonial America in the 1680’s.  They are European, Native American, and African and share in common themes of uprootedness and slavery (both real and emotional).  They are joined together on the plantation of Jacob Vaark, a trader and a reluctant slaveholder, although presented as more of collector of orphans.  The novel focuses on the women on the plantation: Vaark’s wife Rebekka haunted by the death of her children, an Indian small pox survivor named Lina, a mysterious survivor of a shipwreck named Sorrow, and an African slave Florens who was given to Vaark by her mother to repay her mother’s master’s debt.  Florens is the central character in search of love and rootedness which finds eventually with the unamed blacksmith.  Ironically, the only self-possesed character, the blacksmith is a free African man.

This is a good novel, definitely worth reading and re-reading.

A mercy / Toni Morrison.
Publisher: New York : Knopf, c2008.
ISBN: 9780307264237 : hc $23.95
0307264238 : hc $23.95
Description: 167 p. : map ; 25 cm.