Book Review: The Great Halifax Explosion by John U. Bacon


Author: John U. Bacon
Title: The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism
Narrator: Johnny Heller
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2017)
Summary/Review:

As a Bostonian, we hear about the Great Halifax Explosion every year when the Province of Nova Scotia delivers a giant Christmas tree to Boston Common.  The annual gift symbolizes the gratitude they have for the people of Massachusetts being among the first to respond with relief after the devastating explosion of December 5, 1917.  Bacon’s work is a comprehensive history of Halifax during the first World War, the explosion, and its aftermath.

Bacon does a great job of finding the stories of the people who lived in the Richmond neighborhood of Halifax that was flattened by the blast.  Many of them had come to work in the port’s bustling economy, and some served in the military in Europe. Bacon also breaks down the many errors that lead to French munitions ship SS Mont Blanc colliding with Norwegian charter ship SS Imo, many of them exacerbated by wartime conditions. For example, in peacetime a ship carrying explosives flew a red flag as a warning but this was discontinued as it made ships a target for German u-boats.

Bacon also tells stories of the day of the explosion for dozens of Haligonians.  Some of them contain graphic detail such as the man who survived by landing on something soft only to discover it was a pile of human corpses.  But Bacon chiefly recognizes the heroism and self-sacrifice of many individuals and groups who helped in relief efforts and performed small acts of kindness.  This includes the great support that came from the United States and Bacon marks this response as changing the relationship between the two countries from one of hostility to one of amity.

The explosion remains to this day the largest human-made accidental blast in history.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Schindler’s List (1993)


Title: Schindler’s List
Release Date: December 15, 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Amblin Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I’ve been meaning to watch Schindler’s List since it was released but didn’t get around to it until now.  1993, the year of the film’s release, has long been a demarcation in my life from telling people name and getting puzzled looks to people responding “Oh, like Liam Neeson.”  More seriously and more important it is a film about the Holocaust and how some Jewish people in Poland were able to survive genocide.

Neeson plays Oskar Schindler, a man of German heritage from Czechoslovakia, who travels to Krakow, Poland to make his fortune as a factory-owner.  Initially depicted as a dapper and conniving man, Schindler use his charm and bribes to influence Nazi leadership into letting him take control of an enamelware factory.  Schindler puts Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) in charge of running the business, and for finding Jewish employees to work in the factory because they cost less.  Stern (who is a composite of several real-life people) is the quiet hero of the story finding some of the most vulnerable people in the Ghetto to be trained to work at the factory, thus saving their lives because they’re work is “essential.”

A great thing about this movie is that it is for most of its run it is never explicit about Schindler’s goals and where is loyalties lie.  The change from a man selfishly seeking to maximize personal profit to a man willing to put his life on the line to save thousands of Jewish people is subtle and gradual. When Krakow’s Jews are moved to Płaszów concentration camp, Schindler makes inroads through charm and bribery with the brutal commandant Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes).  In movie terms, Göth appears to be an over-the-top caricature but the real Göth was far worse, committing atrocities that Spielberg refused to commit to film.

When the Nazis decide to carry out the Final Solution, Schindler uses the last of his wealth to bribe Göth to allow him to transfer Jewish workers to a munitions factory in Czechoslovakia and then bribe Rudolf Höss when a train full of women is accidentally sent to Auschwitz.  The list of the title is the names of 1200 Jewish people Schindler and Stern save in this way. Schindler no longer hides from his employees that his goal is to save lives and even sees to it that the factory doesn’t produces working munitions. As Germany falls to the Allied Powers, Schindler plans to escape since he will be seen as a war profiteer and collaborator by the Russians.

In the movie’s weak spot, Schindler has a mental breakdown from the guilt over not being able to save more lives.  Apart from being hammy and out of character, this seen is objectionable because the very Jewish people who have lived through unimaginable atrocities have to comfort Schindler.  It’s a strange decision to once again make Schindler unsympathetic just as his redemption story comes to its conclusion.

No movie can tell the true story of the Holocaust because the enormity of its brutality and inhumanity cannot be captured on film. One of the most effective parts of Schindler’s List for me are several scenes scattered through the film where groups of Jewish people talk amongst themselves.  They share their fears and grief, but their are also a variety of responses to the Holocaust from resignation to their lot to the often-repeated belief that it can’t get worse.  That the very people suffering the worst indignities and privations of the Holocaust also can’t see its enormity is very chilling indeed.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 17


Throughline :: The Electoral College

The history of why the United States has a backwards system of electing Presidents and how it has been used to promote slaveholding and racism throughout history.

Planet Money :: Caste Comes to Silicon Valley

The constitution of India officially outlawed the ancient caste system in 1947, but discrimination against people based on caste persists in India and has followed Indian immigrants to the US.

Code Switch :: Let’s Talk About Kamala Harris

Evaluating Kamala Harris’ record on criminal justice as a prosecutor and California attorney general.

The War on Cars :: America’s Love Affair With Cars

Efforts to fight the deleterious effects of the automobile are often countered with the statement that Americans have a love affair with their cars. This podcast traces the origin of this term in an industry promotional program starring Groucho Marx and questions the validity of the “love affair.”

RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Podcasts of the Week Ending September 19


And Nothing Less

A podcast from the National Park Service hosted by Rosario Dawson and Retta examines the full history of the women’s suffrage movement and debunks a lot of myths. This seven-part series commemorates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.

Consider This :: Who Was Breonna Taylor Before She Became The Face Of A Movement?

Breonna Taylor’s family and friends talk about her life and how she’s become an icon in her death

RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Book Review: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson


Author: Isabel Wilkerson
Title: Caste : The Origins of our Discontents
Narrator: Robin Wiles
Publication Info: Random House (Audio), 2020
Summary/Review:

The author of the remarkable work on the history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, returns with a book about systems of caste.  Wilkerson focuses on three of the most deeply entrenched caste systems in world history: India’s millennia-old system, the subjugation of Jews in Nazi Germany, and the continued inequality of Blacks in the United States that persists even after dismantling slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

Through the lens of caste, which Wilkerson says trumps both class and race, we can understand how inequality persists and what can be done to dismantle it. Wilkerson works through eight pillars of caste and richly illustrates it with examples from history and current events.  Wilkerson also frequently draws upon examples from her own experience as a professional Black woman being treated as an inferior.  The book is eye-opening and sobering, and it is one that I believe should be on everyone’s must-read list.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Podcast of the Week Ending August 22


60 Second Science :: Cows With Eye Images Keep Predators in Arrears

Painting eye spots on the rear ends of cows apparently acts as a deterrent to predators.

Throughline :: Reframing History: The Commentator

A medieval Islamic philosopher named Averroes had a great influence on Western thought and the modern world that has been overlooked by history.


RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Podcasts of the Two Weeks Ending August 15


I subscribe to too many podcasts while simultaneously having less time to listen to them. Forgive the interlude as I catch you up on two weeks of podcasts.

Brattle Film Podcast :: Behind the Scenes on Boston Movies

The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge had a great series on Boston Movies and all four podcasts are worth listening to, but I particularly liked this final podcast where they interview on-set dresser Adam Roffman about the behind-the-scenes production of movies in Boston and how they’ve changed over time.

Fresh Air :: Jeffrey Toobin On The ‘Tragedy’ Of The Mueller Report

How the Democrats were out-maneuvered by the Trump administration allowing him to get away with obstruction of justice.

Radiolab :: Uncounted

An episode on voting rights focuses on the District of Columbia’s non-voting delegate to Congress and the movement to lower the voting age to 16.

This American Life :: Nice White Parents

A public middle school in Brooklyn with a predominately non-white student body deals with an unexpected influx of white students and the effects that of white parents involvement in the school operations.  This is the first episode of Chana Joffe-Walt’s series called Nice White Parents that is both fascinating in its exploration of the changes at one school over time and cringe-inducing by the careless and clueless behavior of white parents (and the school districts who cater to their interests).  I particularly like that Joffe-Walt asks tough questions and doesn’t let people get away without answering them.

Have You Heard :: Pandemics Pods: Parents, Privilege, Power, and Politics

Speaking of Nice White Parents, you may have heard of the latest trend of “pandemic pods” where parents pool together funds to hire a teacher or tutor to educate a small group of students at home instead of returning to school during the Covid-19 pandemic. This podcast explains the devastating effects this latest form of “white flight” will have and how it opens the doors to the worst offerings of disaster capitalists.

99% Invisible :: Policing the Open Road

A century ago, the rise of the automobile as a predominant form of transportation led to an increase of policing to enforce road rules. The changes lead to a vast increase in ordinary peoples’ interaction with the police, increased police power and professionalization, and even the loss of Constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizures.

Throughline :: Reframing History: The Litter Myth

In the 1950s, industry leaders organized to create Keep America Beautiful that produced public service announcements against littering. The seemingly benign ads had the effect of transferring responsibility for the environment from industries that made disposable single-use packaging to the personal responsibility of consumers. This conflict in how to deal with environmental issues persists to this day, and corporations still rely on “greenwashing” to make them look environmentally responsible.

Code Switch :: Kamala, Joe, And The Fissures In The Base

If you listen to pundits, and the Democrats 2020 presidential candidate, you might come to believe that Black Americans are a monolithic voting bloc.  This myth is dispelled in Code Switch where the diversity of opinions and conflicts even within Black families over politics are strong.

Decoder Ring :: Mystery of the Mullet

The mullet hairstyle, short in front and long in back, is worn by a diversity of people ranging from macho men in rural communities to lesbian women, from hockey players to heavy metal heads. But the Oxford English Dictionary traces the use of the term “mullet” only to 1994, surprisingly late for a hairstyle identified with the 1980s.  Willa Paskin investigates this linguistic mystery.  Personally, I never heard the term mullet until the late 1990s and had heard them called short-longs prior to mullet gaining popularity.


RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Podcasts of the Week Ending July 11


Last week I had no podcasts to share.  This week I have a bumper crop!

Afropop Worldwide :: Remembering Tony Allen

Pioneering Nigerian drummer Tony Allen died this spring, shortly after releasing his final album Rejoice, with Hugh Masekela. Afropop Worldwide revisits Allen’s storied career.

BackStory :: The End of the Road: BackStory and the History of Finales in America

My favorite history podcast BackStory comes to an end with an episode about finales in American history, from President George Washington to Mary Tyler Moore.

Hidden Brain :: The Night That Lasted A Lifetime: How Psychology Was Misused In Teen’s Murder Case

The story of a Black Boston teenager, Fred Clay, who spent 38 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted based on evidence the police extracted using hypnosis.

The Last Archive :: For the Birds

Rachel Carson, the extinction of bird species, and climate change.

99% Invisible :: Freedom House Ambulance Service

The modern practice of paramedics serving communities with an emergency medical service began in the Black community in Pittsburgh just over 50 years ago.

60-Second Science :: Animals Appreciate Recent Traffic Lull

One side benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic is the reduced use of automobiles.  Some cities (not Boston, of course) have even taken advantage of creating space for people to walk and bike by closing roads to cars.  But even in rural areas, animals are thriving because of fewer collisions with motor vehicles.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Take Me Who Out to the Ballgame?

If you’re American, you’ve inevitably sung along with the chorus “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” baseball’s unofficial anthem.  But if you’ve never heard the chorus, you may not know that the song is about a woman who wants to watch baseball at a time when that was considered a men’s only activity.  The podcast explores the history of how the song went “viral” and features music by Chicago White Sox organist Nancy Faust.

Throughline :: The Long Hot Summer

Civil disturbances in Black communities in America in 1967 lead President Johnson to call the Kerner Commission. The commission’s report revealed evidence of police violence that was criticized and ignored at the time, but still reads as a diagnoses of our present-day crises.


Movie Review: Hamilton (2020)


Title: Hamilton
Release Date: July 3, 2020
Director: Thomas Kail
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | 5000 Broadway Productions | Nevis Productions | Old 320 Sycamore Pictures | RadicalMedia
Summary/Review:

Five years after first hearing the Broadway cast recording of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history musical inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, I finally get to see what the performance actually looks like.  And I didn’t even have to pay $500 for a ticket!  This movie is made up of stage performances filmed over three shows in 2016 much like one of my all-time favorite Broadway-shows-become-movies, Camelot (1982). The high-quality film and steady-cam work enhances an already great stage production.

Since it seemed that most everyone I know was already watching this movie yesterday, I’m sure no one is waiting for my review.  Still, I do recommend watching it even if you’re skeptical about all the fuss. The story is somewhat loose with historical facts, but it needs to be recognized that this is a story for our times as much as it is history. The cast is predominately people of color who claim American history – all too often considered white history – as their own. Hamilton and Lafayette probably never considered themselves immigrants, for example, but in Hamilton they identify as such because the show is tying them into a longer story of the American experience.

Anyhow, there’s probably nothing more I can say about Hamilton that hasn’t already been said.  I like it, I love the music, I love the deeply human performances from the cast.

Rating: *****

Book Review: The Monied Metropolis by Sven Beckert


Author: Sven Beckert
Title: The Monied Metropolis : New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896
Publication Info: Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY : Cambridge University Press, 2001
Summary/Review:

I read this book as a group project at my job since the people covered in this book are the types who are represented in many of our archive’s older manuscript collections.  The author uses the word “bourgeoisie” and is very repetitive in general.  I also think Beckert could’ve been better at showing rather than telling about the social changes in 19th century New York City.  Nevertheless, it does offer some interesting insight into “the story of the consolidation of a self-concision upper class in New York City in the second half of the nineteenth century.” (Beckert, 2).

The main theme of the book is the conflict between the established merchant class and the nouveau-riche industrialists.  The conflict also manifests itself in those who are sympathetic to slaveholders in the South because it provides them financial gain (generally the merchants) and those who are anti-slavery, mainly because it threatens to compete with their own sources of labor, but also for moral and religious reasons (typically the industrialists).  Even during the Civil War there were elites who favored ending the war swiftly and going easy on the slaveowners.

New York City grows massively in population during this time as well as in wealth.  And the new bourgeoisie find ways to consolidate that wealth into a handful of families that intermarry akin to medieval aristocrats.  The elite unite to quash labor movements and increasingly use their strength to squash political organizing of the poor out of fear that the working class will be radicalized.  The elite even take on the roles of government, such as building castle-like armories and training as National Guard units to prevent proletarian uprising.

It’s hard not to read this book and not come away with the impression that the 19th-century New York City elite were pretty awful people.  Even in a charitable act such the Christmas Feeding at Madison Square Garden, the rich would gather in the stands to watch as lines of poor people processed through to receive gifts of food, adding an extra layer of humiliation to their plight.  In addition to acting against labor, the NYC elite also consolidated around antisemitism, anti-Black prejudice, and anti-immigrant sentiment.  By the end of the century they were using terms such as “businessman,” “capitalist,” and “taxpayer.” Their legacy has many echoes in the present day.

Favorite Passages:

“Mystifying the laws of the market into laws of nature allowed upper class New Yorkers to account for their own exalted position.” – 281

Recommended books:

Rating: ***