Book Review: Revolution Song by Russell Shorto


Author: Russell Shorto
Title: Revolution Song
Narrator: Russell Shorto
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Recorded Books: 2017
Summary/Review:

This history of the American Revolution is in fact the parallel biographies of six individuals whose lives came in contact with the war and the underlying ideologies of American independence.  I really like this approach to writing history because while it is unwieldy to attempt a comprehensive history of the American Revolution, by focusing on six individuals you get a better sense of how the war affected different kinds of people.  And as Short tells their entire life stories we get a lot of detail beyond just the 8 years of the war of their lives before and after the conflict.  Finally, we also get to see how these six historical figures dealt with the ideals and challenges of freedom.  I should add, and Shorto makes this explicitly clear, that these six individuals are not representatives of greater populations but simply their own American Revolution stories.

The six subjects of Revolution Song are:

  • George Washington – The most obvious figure of the story of the American Revolution, and yet Shorto is able to get beneath the “great general and first President” story to get an understanding of a many struggling to find his place in society and the opportunities that military leadership bring.
  • Venture Smith – Born in modern-day Ghana as Broteer Furro, Venture Smith was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery, eventually living in servitude in Rhode Island, New York, and Connecticut.  Venture purchased his freedom and that of his wife and children and became a successful farmer in Connecticut. One of his son’s would serve in Washington’s army during the war. His A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America was one of the first published slave narratives.
  • George Germain – The only figure in the book who never set foot in the Americas is George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville.  Having been court martialed during the Seven Years War, he was disgraced in aristocratic circles.  Nevertheless he was a favorite of King George III and was able to claw his way into politics and get appointed Secretary of State for the American Department. His aggressive approach to attempting to suppress the rebellion and lack of familiarity of the reality of the situation in the colonies is blamed for the British failure in the war.
  • Cornplanter – The chief warrior for the Seneca people who fought in both the French & Indian War and the Revolution allied with the British forces. He and his people suffered greatly when General Washington instructed Major General John Sullivan to carry out a scorched earth campaign destroying Iroquois Six Nation villages throughout New York. After the war, Cornplanter protested against the Treaty of Paris ceding Iroquois land to the United States that had never been under control of Britain, and met with President Washington in person in 1790.
  • Abraham Yates – A revolutionary lawyer and politician from Albany, Yates took a more radical position on individual liberty and mistrust of government.  He became a rival to Alexander Hamilton and a staunch opponent of Federalism and the Constitution.
  • Margaret Moncrieffe – The only woman in this book, Margaret Moncrieffe was a child when the Revolution started living in New York as the daughter of a British officer.  Her father arranged her marriage to the cruel British Lieutenant John Coghlan although she was in love with Aaron Burr. After moving to Britain, she separated from her husband and found a measure of independence as the mistress of several prominent men in Britain and Europe.

I think the stories of Venture Smith, Cornplanter, and Margaret Moncrieff are the most interesting since they are the type of people that don’t appear in histories that focus on military and political leaders.  Nevertheless, the whole book reads very well and is an interesting addition to Revolutionary War historical studies.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Picturing America : The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps by Stephen J. Hornsby


Author: Stephen J. Hornsby
Title: Picturing America : The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps
Publication Info: Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, in association with the Library of Congress, 2017.
Summary/Review:
I’ve always loved those little maps you get for free at tourist destinations that have lots of little comical people doing touristy things on plan clearly not drawn to scale.  In fact, when I was a teenager I had two pictorial map posters, one of Greenwich, CT (the town next to my own where I attended high school) and one of Williamsburg, VA (where we went on lots of vacations before eventually moving there).  Stephen Hornsby breaks down the history of pictorial maps in this book which he says peaked in the United States from the 1920s to the 1960s.  Pictorial maps were used for education, for civic and industrial promotion campaigns, and to help people on the homefront keep up with the battles of World War II among other things.  Although this is a richly-illustrated coffee table book, my one complaint is that the images were often still too small to see the details.  Nevertheless this is a fun and interesting book about an esoteric topic of my interest.

Recommended Books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman 


Author: Rutger Bregman
Title: Humankind: A Hopeful History
Narrator: Thomas Judd
Publication Info: Little, Brown & Company (2020)
Summary/Review:

The thesis of Rutger Bregman’s book is that the vast majority of human beings the vast majority of the time have good intentions.  Not only that, but scientific research backs up this optimistic perception of human goodness.  Furthermore, trusting in the goodness of others is key to the health and success of individuals and societies.  It is the belief that humankind is inherently corrupt that is often manipulated to have people carry out evil. Accepting the “veneer theory” that human society is only a thin layer over the cruel and selfish human psyche is akin to the placebo effect, or in this case what Bregman calls the “nocebo” for its negative psychological effects.

Bregman breaks down what we “know” about human behavior by debunking a number of famed studies such as Stanley Milgram’s obedience tests and the Stanford Prison Experiment, as well as histories of the collapse of indigenous society on Easter Island and the popular story of neighbors indifference to the murder of Kitty Genovese.  After reading the truth behind these stories and how they were manipulated to make the worst possible reading, you might find yourself thinking humans are good but psychologists and journalists are evil.Bregman also contrasts the fictional Lord of the Flies with the real-life experience of Tongan boys who survived being stranded on a desert island for a year through cooperation.

After showing that many cases of humans descending to “savagery” actually had many instances of people wanting to help out, Bregman also explores experimental camps, schools and workplaces where children and adults are trusted to do the right thing with positive results.  Bregman builds on existing philosophy, often contrasting the views of humanity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes.  He also draws on evolutionary biology that shows that cooperation was necessary for human survival and the desire to help is hardwired into humanity.

This is just the kind of book I needed to read right now and it’s something I think everyone ought to read.

Favorite Passages:

Tine De Moor calls for”institutional diversity” – “while markets work best in some cases and state control is better in others, underpinning it all there has to be a strong communal foundation of citizens who decide to work together.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending August 7


One YearMary Shane’s Rookie Season

One Year is a new history podcast that focuses on events from one year in history, in this case 1977.  Coincidentally, 1977 is the first year from my childhood where I have really strong memories.  In this episode we learn about Mary Shane, the first woman to work as a play-by-play announcer for a Major League baseball team, working alongside Harry Caray for Chicago White Sox games.

 

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)


Title: BlacKkKlansman
Release Date: August 10, 2018
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: Blumhouse Productions | Monkeypaw Productions | QC Entertainment | 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks | Legendary Entertainment |
Perfect World Pictures
Summary/Review:

Inspired by actual historic events, or as the opening titles state “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit,” BlacKkKlansman is the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first Black police officer in Colorado Springs.  Assigned to the intelligence division, Stallworth spots an ad for a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and calls for more information, using a white voice just like in Sorry to Bother You. Stallworth also accidentally uses his real name so a fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), ends up meeting with the Klan members using Stallworth’s name. Flip is a composite character and in the film he’s made an unobservant Jewish man to raise the stakes of his interactions with the bigots.

Meanwhile, Stallworth continues his investigation by phone, eventually beginning a series of conversations with the KKK’s national director, David Duke (Topher Grace).  Concurrently with the investigation, Stallworth begins a relationship with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a Black liberation activist from Colorado College (Patrice is also invented for the film).  He meets her at at a rally where Kwame Ture (brought to life in an excellent short appearance by Corey Hawkins) is the speaker. Michael Buscemi, Harry Belafonte, and Alec Baldwin also appear in small but memorable parts.

The movie is based on absurd events and some of the wildest details are true to life.  The characters seem to be aware of the absurdity, especially late in the film when the essentially dunk on David Duke. Some of the changes are odd, like moving the events to the early 70s when they took place in the late 70s.  But as is typical for Spike Lee films, there is great attention to period details especially the fashions and music.

The movie talks about complex issues in interesting, if not subtle ways.  For example, Ron’s earnest but perhaps naive hopes of being able to change things from the inside are contrasted to Patrice’s more revolutionary approach. Lee also uses excerpts from Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation to critique how popular entertainment reinforces white supremacist mythology.  Finally, the film also incorporates footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia as a chilling epilogue to a mostly comical look at the past.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline


Author: Eric H. Cline
Title: 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
Publication Info: Princeton University Press, 2014
Summary/Review:

The Late Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean met with a catastrophic collapse in the 12th century B.C.E. Historians commonly attribute this to an invasion of people called the “Sea People” overwhelming Egypt’s military in 1177 B.C.E. In Cline’s evaluation of the evidence, the Sea People may have actually been refugees of war, natural disasters, and/or a climate crisis.  Evidence exists for a cluster of earthquakes, droughts, and internal rebellions at the time before the arrival of the Sea People.  The combination of the multiple catastrophes could have lead to the collapse.

The book is sprawling in both time in place as Cline sums up several centuries of history leading up to the collapse of several civilizations including the Greeks, Myceneans, Minoans, Hittites, Assyrians, Cypriots, Canaanites, and Egyptians. Along the way Cline explores the historic origins of the famed stories of Exodus and the Trojan War.  Cline is good at explaining what we can learn from written records and archaeological finds, and how both of these have to be interpreted.  He’s also good at noting that there typically isn’t enough evidence to know what happened precisely and how historians develop theories based on the facts we know.

Other interesting facts I learned from this book:

  • Hatshepsut, who ruled as Pharaoh upon the death of her husband, wore a Pharaonic false beard and men’s clothing and was addressed as “His Majesty.”
  • Kings of different nations who were not related used kinship terms like “father” and “son” when addressing one another, creating an artificial family relationship.
  • a new type of glue was invented for archaeologists recovering copper ingots from the Uluburun shipwreck to allow them to bring the artifacts up in one piece.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Da 5 Bloods (2020)


Title: Da 5 Bloods
Release Date: June 12, 2020
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks | Rahway Road | Lloyd Levin/Beatriz Levin Production
Summary/Review:

Four African American veterans reunite in Vietnam in order to recover the remains of their inspirational squad leader Stormin’ Norman (played in flashback scenes by Chadwick Boseman, whose death in real life adds gravitas to the character who never lived to see old age).  Their ulterior motive is to also recover a cache of gold bars they hid almost 50 years earlier.  Spike Lee intercuts the narrative with documentary footage of the various injustices of the war in Vietnam and violence against Civil Rights and anti-war activists in the 60s & 70s.  The movie is kind of a bizarre combination of Apocalypse Now, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and The Black Power Mixtape. And Lee has some fun by making some very obvious allusions to older films.

The main cast is made up of veteran actors, some who’ve worked with Lee before, but none of them superstars.  It’s good to see them all get a chance to demonstrate their acting chops.  Delroy Lindo plays Paul, who suffers from severe PSTD which contributes to his anger and paranoia, as well as contrariness such as supporting Trump.  Otis (Clarke Peters) is a calmer presence who also uses the trip to Vietnam to reunite with a Vietnamese girlfriend, Tiên (Lê Y Lan).  Eddie (Norm Lewis) is a successful owner of car dealerships and likes to show off his wealth, but is also the most adamant about using the gold for Norman’s vision of supporting Black Liberation. Melvin (Isaih Whitlock Jr.) is the rock of the group who tries to hold the Bloods together when things get strained. Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors), is the uninvited guest on the expedition adding additional tension to the movie.

There is a lot going on this movie, so much it feels like it’s bursting out of the film’s 2-1/2 hour length.  It’s impossible for this movie to do justice to so many threads ranging from PTSD to landmine clearance to Black Lives Matter.  The movie is also more brutally violent than I expected and ends up a bummer despite the oddly-victorious tone Lee takes in the finale.  Although it’s a sprawling mess, the Da 5 Bloods still works, something I credit to the great cast. Despite this being a long movie, I still wish I could spend more time with these characters.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Zambia

Author: The Old Drift
Title: Namwali Serpell 
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This is an epic novel that attempts to depict the history of Zambia through the fictional stories of several generations of a few interrelated families.  The characters are a mix of Black African people native to the region that would become Zambia as well as European colonizers and expatriates.  The novel begins with explorer David Livingstone seeing Victoria Falls for the first time.  This is ironic since later in the novel a character says that when telling stories to white people you need to always start with a white person “discovering” something. The novel ends in a near future time when biotechnology has become commonplace.

The stories in this novel draw on the traditions of magical realism.  For example a woman’s hair grows so fast so as to constantly cover her entire body.  Her daughters, on the other hand, have fast growing hair on their heads that they are able to profit from by selling for wigs.  Some parts of the story seem ludicrous but are drawn from actual Zambian history, such as the plan for a Zambian space program in the 1960s to send a woman to Mars with several cats.  This may or may not have been a joke in real life.

The novel is sprawling and it includes a large cast of characters and I found it hard to remember who is who. The novel is also written in a style more akin to history than a literary narrative which made it hard for me to hold my attention.  I would chalk this up as a reader issue than a flaw of the book, though.

Overall, this is a weird and wonderful work of fiction.  Serpell is a young contemporary author and it will be interesting to see what she produces next.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 17


Best of the Left :: Our Democracy is Filibusted, Time to Kill the Filibuster

The filibuster is a tool of white supremacy and it must be eliminated to allow the United States to pursue freedom and equality for all.

99% Invisible ::  Welcome to Jurassic Art Redux

The best way most people have to understand how extinct animals like the dinosaurs lived is through art.  Over the years, paleoart has transitioned from maintaining outdated ideas, to illustrating new understandings of dinosaurs, to entirely speculative art of different possibilities of how dinosaurs looked and acted.

Throughline :: The Real Black Panthers

If your understanding of the Black Panther Party is informed by depictions like Forrest Gump of a group of radical Blacks who hate white people, it’s worth listening to this podcast to learn what they actually understood.  In reality, the Black Panthers were seen as a threat by the FBI, and others, due to their radical vision of cross-racial activism.

The Story Collider :: Stories of COVID-19: Teachers

Teachers have dealt with a lot during the pandemic, from the brunt of redesigning education for remote learning on a moment’s notice to being the target of anger from parents and politicians.  Here are some of their stories.

Unf*cking the Republic :: AOC & the Lying Men Hydra

New York congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the target of rage from Republicans, establishment Democrats, and Leftists alike.  This podcast explains what they have in common.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 10


99% Invisible :: The Real Book

How a book of pirated sheet music became a must have for students in jazz music programs.

Throughline :: Policing in America

A history of police in America and how it has served the purposes of white supremacy.

Unf*cking the Republic :: Mass Incarceration: The War on Drugs

A  profanity-laden summary of the work Michelle Alexander and others have done to detail how increased policing and imprisonment is being used to infringe the rights of Black Americans.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021