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: ****

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: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 12


BackStory :: Darkness Over the Plain

The history of the bison in America, their demise, revival, and symbolism.

Decoder Ring :: Bart Simpson Mania

Hop in a time machine to the early 1990s when an animated character of a 6-year-old became  the center of  social and political debate.  I’d totally forgotten about the bootleg Black Bart t-shirts.

Lost at the Smithsonian :: Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers

This new show hosted by Aasif Mandvi explores different objects at the Smithsonian Institution.  Many people visit the Smithsonian to see the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, but did you know that there are at least six pairs of slippers and the Smithsonian has a mismatched set?


 

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Book Review: Dutch Girlby Robert Matzen


Author: Robert Matzen
Title: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II
Narrator: Tavia Gilbert
Publication Info: Blackstone Pub (2019)
Summary/Review:

The most famous story of Netherlands during World War II is, of course, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Hepburn and Frank were nearly identical in age, born just a month apart in 1929, and their narratives of the war share some similarities.  Nevertheless, Hepburn had a privileged position and not being Jewish didn’t suffer anywhere near the level of persecution, and thus survived the war.  Otto Frank actually requested that Hepburn play the role of his daughter in the 1959 film adaptation of the diary, but she demurred, both because she was too old for the part and because she would not be able to revisit the horrors of the war.

A lot of the narrative in this book focuses on people in Audrey Hepburn’s extended family and friends in family,  or just general history of Netherlands during the war.  Obviously these types of details add context, but their prominence in the book seem to indicate that Matzen had very little material on Hepburn herself to work with.  He also overuses the practice of writing what people may have been thinking in reaction to certain invents that relies more on his (informed) imagination than actual historical records. All in all, this book is an interesting glimpse into events in Netherlands during German occupation, but is less effective as a biography of Audrey Hepburn.

Recommended books:

Rating: **

Podcasts of the Week Ending September 28


Code Switch :: The Original Blexit

Black Americans have never been fully supported by any political party, but after the Civil War, Black voters typically supported the Party of Lincoln.  Starting in the 1930s, many Black voters began switching their allegiance from Republicans to Democrats, a shift that was thoroughly completed by the 1970s.  Code Switch explains why and how that happened.

1619 Project  

This podcast debuted in August to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in what would become the United States.  The 1619 Project, created by the New York Times and hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones, explores how the legacy of slavery, segregation, and inequality have shaped American history.  There are 4 episodes so far and they are all excellent.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Podcasts of the Week Ending September 21


Memory Palace :: Safe Passage

The true story of when the U.S. Navy accidentally fired a torpedo at the President of the United States.

Throughline :: Puerto Rico

If you’re like me, you probably don’t know enough about the history of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, and the efforts of Puerto Ricans to fight for independence and statehood.  This podcast fills in some gaps in knowledge.

The War on Cars :: Dying For Change

Bicycling activists stage more aggressive protests against politicians and the police as the deaths of cyclists increase in number.

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Book Review: Spying on the South by Tony Horwitz


Author: Tony Horwitz
Title: Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide
Narrator: Mark Deakins
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2019)
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

A few months ago when author Tony Horwitz died, I learned that he’d recently released this new book of his unique blend of history, travel, cultural exploration, and literary journalism.  When I saw that his final work was based on following in the footsteps of one of my favorite historical figures, Frederick Law Olmsted, it seemed as if it was targeted at me.

Olmsted is best known for innovating the field of landscape architecture and designing some of America’s most notable city parks and park systems, college campuses, hospital grounds, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Midway Plaisance, and the grounds of the US Capitol.  Prior to his career in designing parks, Olmsted worked as a journalist, and much like Tony Horwitz, he traveled to places and wrote about his experiences. From 1852 to 1857, he traveled through the American South submitting his dispatches to the New York Times.  In 1861, just before the outbreak of the American Civil War, his writings were compiled in the book Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom, which remains a significant first-hand document of antebellum Southern society.

Olmsted was anti-slavery, a moderate position at the time compared with abolitionists who wanted to immediately free all enslaved people, and in some cases extend the full rights of citizenship to the freed African Americans.  Anti-slavery advocates, which included Abraham Lincoln and other early Republicans, sought to prevent the expansion of slave-holding to new territories and carry out gradual manumission.  Olmsted believed that practice of slavery was inefficient and had a deleterious effect not just on the enslaved people, but on the white society as well.  A goal of his travels was to meet with Southerners, civilly exchange views, and convince them of the error of their ways.  Olmsted would be disappointed, finding Southerners entrenched in their beliefs and uninterested in civil discourse on the matter of slavery.

Tracing Olmsted’s route through the South in 2015-2016, against the background of the contentious presidential election leading to Donald Trump’s victory, Tony Horwitz would also find a deeply divided America.  Some of his encounters with Southerners who supported Trumpist ideology and believed in all manner of conspiracy theory are deeply disturbing.  More disturbing still is that many of these same people treated Horwitz warmly and were happy to speak with him, as long as he hid his own political views.

The travelogue is interesting as Horwitz first journeys down the Ohio River through West Virginia on a ship towing a coal barge, offering insight into a tedious but dangerous job that some “country boys” have found as a source of income in an economically depressed region.  His next river journey is on board a luxurious replica paddle wheeler with stops at historic plantations where the tour guides tend to ignore the enslaved people who made them possible.

In Louisiana, Horwitz is joined by a friend from Australia who is literally nearly killed by the artery-hardening Southern cuisine.  They also enjoy the bizarre Mud Fest, where monster truck drivers come together to drink and drive their modified vehicles through a giant mud bog for a week. Nearby, they visit the site of the Colfax Massacre of 1873, where 150+ black men were murdered by a white militia organized to reverse the reforms of Reconstruction.  To this day an historic marker on the site only recognizes the deaths of three of the white aggressors.   Continuing on his own across Texas, Horwitz tries and fails to debunk a conspiracy theory about a compound of Islamic extremists and participates in the Battle of the Alamo reenactment, oddly set against the background San Antonio’s tourist trap attractions.

Perhaps one of the more interesting parts of the book is the Texas hill country where German immigrants settled before the war, and Olmsted found a community he thought could serve as an example of Free Soilers in the South.  150 years later, the German community persists – albeit in some cheezy ways – and Horwitz describes a part of Texas that doesn’t fit my preconceived notions of the state.  Horwitz travels by mule, a humbling experience, in the west of the Texas.  He concludes his narrative along the border with Mexico where he interacts with both the border patrol and the mixed American and Mexican communities.

In many ways, Spying on the South is a sequel to Horwitz’s best book Confederates in the Attic.  It’s also more somber and unsettling.  20 years ago one could chuckle at Confederate devotees as a dwindling number of hobbyists devoted to living in the past.  Today that same energy has been channeled into a dangerous movement that has reached its political ascendancy.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****