Book Review: What Was Hurricane Katrina? by Robin Koontz


Author: Robin Koontz
TitleWhat Was Hurricane Katrina
Publication Info: New York New York : Grosset & Dunlap, An Imprint of Penguin Random House, [2015]
Summary/Review:

I find it easier to work through difficult issues through books so I was impressed when my son picked out out this history of Hurricane Katrina written for children.  The book does a good job of setting up the history of New Orleans’ location and the necessity of levees as well as a primer on hurricanes and other storms.  The details about the storm and the flooding are clear and not sugar-coated (without being overly graphic) and it does not shy away from the poor decisions of political leaders.  There is also a chapter on the role that climate change played in the disaster.  All in all it’s a good introduction for children to one of the great tragedies of recent years, but something that may seem a long time ago to them.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Was Louis Armstrong by Yona Zeldis McDonough


Author: Yona Zeldis McDonough
TitleWho Was Louis Armstrong
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2004.
Summary/Review:

The life of musician and icon Louis Armstrong is explored at a kids level, focusing mostly on his early life up to the 1930s.  Armstrong grew up in poverty in New Orleans and spent time in a reform school although he claimed that it saved him as it introduced him to the cornet.  Armstrong is celebrated both for his musical talent and innovation and for breaking down barriers for black people.  It’s an interesting book about a fascinating person, and it doesn’t shy away from some of the nuances of race such as when critics called him an “Uncle Tom.”

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Was Jesse Owens by James Buckley, Jr.


Author: James Buckley, Jr.
TitleWho Was Jesse Owens
Publication Info: New York, NY : Grosset & Dunlap, 2015.
Summary/Review:

Jesse Owens is well-known as a legendary track and field star who was a pioneer for black athletes, attending Ohio State University, going to the Olympics, and winning four gold medals.  Much is made of Owens being a black man demonstrating his prowess in front of Hitler and the Nazis, but this book also points out that German fans cheered for him and a German athletes befriended him.  There’s also an unsettling moment when it appears that the US Olympic Team may have made Owens run a relay in place of a Jewish runner.  Celebrated at home, Owens also received jeers from prejudiced whites and from more radical blacks who thought he should not have gone to Nazi Germany.  Later in life, Owens criticizes the Civil Rights movement but later has a changed of heart.  All in all this is a story of remarkable and complex man, and I appreciate that this children’s biography worked through the many layers of nuance.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Who Was Annie Oakley by Stephanie Spinner


Author: Stephanie Spinner
TitleWho Was Annie Oakley
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2002.
Summary/Review:

I keep learning things I never knew from my son’s biographies of notable people.  Annie Oakley was a sharpshooter and that was all I knew about her.  Turns out she made an interesting life out of her skill traveling around the country and Europe with circuses and Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.  The relationship with Cody could be contentious, especially since Annie Oakley was the star attraction.  But it appears that she also was always a kind person and spent her later years on philanthropic pursuits as well as teaching women how to shoot, for free.

Rating: ***

Book Review: In the City of Bikes : The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist by Pete Jordan


Author: Pete Jordan
TitleIn the City of Bikes : The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist
Publication Info: New York : Harper Perennial, c2013.
Previously Read by Same Author:   Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States
Summary/Review:

Pete Jordan’s book serves three purposes:  first, it’s a memoir of his coming to Amsterdam in 2002 for a five month urban studies program and ending up staying for over a decade so far and raising a child with his wife.  Second, it’s a distillation of the ideas behind what makes a great cycling city. But mostly it is a detailed history of over a century of cycling in Amsterdam based on deep archival research.  Jordan focuses on the rise of cycling in Amsterdam and the many aspects of the culture that makes it successful but also chaotic.  The occupation by Nazi Germany leads to attempts to ban the Dutch from biking and the bike becoming a symbol of the resistance.  The bike is also central to the counterculture movement of the 1960s (although the famous White Bike program was more powerful as a myth than in reality).  And in the 1970s and 1980s, when Amsterdam became overwhelmed by cars, there was the fight to reclaim the city for bikes. There’s a downside to biking in Amsterdam with the high levels of bike theft, and Jordan also ponders why so many bikes end up in the canals (and admiringly watches the city employees who have to fish them out).  Even a bike tunnel through the Rijksmuseum is a constant source of wonder and conflict.

It’s a wonderful and engrossing book filled with humor and smart observations and it makes me want to pack up and move to Amsterdam right now.
Favorite Passages:

It was past midnight. What the hell were all these people doing out on their bikes? Why were they all moving so unhurriedly? And why were they in my way? That’s when it struck me: It’s the middle of winter; it’s past midnight—and I’m stuck in a bicycle traffic jam. My haste vanished. I decelerated, accepted the pace of the others and appreciated the rest of my ride home. From then on, whenever anyone asked why I had immigrated to Holland, I didn’t hesitate to reply: “So I can be stuck in a bicycle traffic jam at midnight.”


The most gender-neutral characteristic noted: the carrying of ironing boards. Of the 16 people spotted with an ironing board, 8 were female, 8 male. Far from being an ironer myself, the meaning of these stats is unclear. Further study on this topic is required


The most gender-neutral characteristic noted: the carrying of ironing boards. Of the 16 people spotted with an ironing board, 8 were female, 8 male. Far from being an ironer myself, the meaning of these stats is unclear. Further study on this topic is required the lingering animosity toward the Nazis for all of their misdeeds. Over the next few years, whenever a German tourist in the Dutch capital asked a local for directions, the Amsterdammer was apt to either give false directions or ask for his bike back. If a German requested service in an Amsterdam café or restaurant, oftentimes the response was: “First, return my bike.”


A car is acceptable as a means of transport only within thinly populated areas or from a thinly populated area to the city. Cars are a dangerous and totally unsuitable means of transport within the city. There are better ways of moving from one city to another. For these purposes, the automobile is an outdated solution.


The film drew the audience’s attention to each renegade cyclist, leading us to overlook the obvious: the vast majority of the cyclists were actually obeying the traffic rules. Later I watched the film again. The number of cyclists highlighted as lawbreakers? Nine. The number of cyclists in the film who broke no laws (that is, stopped for the traffic signal, rode within the bike lanes)? One hundred and seventy-four. By featuring the 5 percent of the cyclists in view who were scofflaws, the film helped to embellish the image of the Amsterdam cyclist as out of control. Yet if the film had highlighted the law-abiders, the message could just as easily have been this: 95 percent of Amsterdam’s cyclists obey traffic laws. Maybe we aren’t such a bad lot after all.

Recommended booksAmsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City by Geert Mak,  Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne, and  Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes
Rating: ****

Book Review: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann


Author: Charles C. Mann
Title1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Narrator: Peter Johnson
Publication Info: Minneapolis, Minn. : Highbridge Audio, p2005.
Summary/Review:

This book attempts to reconstruct what the world of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere was like before contact with the Europeans.  Often what the first conquerors and colonists saw was not representative of the pre-Columbian reality as the diseases that preceded them decimated the Indians leading to political instability, and often a faction allying with the Europeans and hastening the demise of the culture in it’s entirety.  Mann focuses on three main points, presenting evidence for and against these hypotheses:

  • the population of the New World was much greater than generally accounted for, possibly more populous than Europe
  • people arrived in the Americas much earlier than the popular Bering land bridge theory would suppose
  • the Indians left an indelible mark on the landscape, building cities, managing ecoystems, and even creating the Amazon jungle

In many ways this book raises more questions than it answers, but dang are they good questions.  Ultimately, the full story of the pre-contact Americas may never be known, but the assumptions of what it was like have been tested and failed to hold up.

Favorite Passages:

What seems unlikely to be undone is the awareness that Native Americans may have been in the Americas for twenty thousand or even thirty thousand years. Given that the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago, the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the “New World.” Britain, home of my ancestor Billington, was empty until about 12,500 B.C., because it was still covered by glaciers. If Monte Verde is correct, as most believe, people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.

Recommended booksGuns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond and A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Great Bridge by David McCullough


Author:  David McCullough
TitleThe Great Bridge 
Narrator: Nelson Runger
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2006)
Previously Read by the Same AuthorJohn Adams1776, and The Wright Brothers
Summary/Review:

What’s the longest period that a book has been on your “to read” list before you actually read it?  For me, it may be 33 years as I got a copy of this book around the time of the Brooklyn Bridge centennial in 1983, looked at the pictures a lot, but never got around to reading.  Since my copy of the book is falling apart, I listened to it as an audiobook.  It’s a straightforward history of the planning, construction, and aftermath of Brooklyn Bridge and it’s effect on the cities of New York and Brooklyn.  Central to the story are three people: John Roebling – the great bridge builder who designed Brooklyn Bridge but died as construction was beginning in 1869, Washington Roebling – who emerged from his father’s shadow as chief engineer but suffered greatly from illness and injury that kept him away from the job site, and Emily Roebling – who stepped in to manage the chief engineer responsibilities when her husband was indisposed.  The construction of Brooklyn Bridge faced many challenges including the physical demanding work of the laborers leading to injury and death (particularly the notorious caisson’s disease), a rivalry with James Eads – then constructing a bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis, and the revelations of corruption of the Tweed Ring that were tied up in the bridge project.  All three of these things lead to efforts to remove Washington Roebling that would be defeated.  If there’s one flaw to this book it’s that McCullough tends to pile on the details and repeat himself in ways that make this a less engaging read than it could be, but otherwise it’s a fascinating story of a significant monument in American history.

Recommended booksBoss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York by Kenneth D. Ackerman, 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York by Clifton Hood, A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczy, and Five Points by Tyler Anbinder
Rating: ****

Book Review: Who was Johnny Appleseed? by Joan Holub


AuthorJoan Holub
TitleWho was Johnny Appleseed?
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2005.
Summary/Review:

Another children’s biography that I read to my son that ended up teaching me about someone I knew little about.  John Chapman, Massachusetts born, moved to the frontier to raise apple orchards and sell seeds and seedlings to the pioneers who didn’t have time to time raise any apples themselves.  Both an eccentric and a genius of self-promotion, Johnny Appleseed left his mark on the American landscape.  If there’s one downside to this book is that it glosses over the fact that the apples were primarily used to make an alcoholic beverage, something I don’t think needs to be hidden from the kids.

Rating: ***

Boston By Foot Jamaica Plain Walking Tour 7/21 @ 6 PM


Next week, Thursday July 21 at 6 pm, I will be one of the guides leading the Boston By Foot walking tour of Jamaica Plain. Yes, two of my favorite things – historic walking tours of Boston and my home neighborhood – will come together for ONE NIGHT ONLY!

Regular readers of this blog will remember the Jamaica Plain A to Z experiment, and many sites mentioned in the A to Z will be on the tour.  Here is the full description of the tour.

Jamaica Plain is one of the smaller neighborhoods of Boston, with an unusually big history. JP (as it usually called by locals) encompasses only 3.07 square miles but offers a tremendously rich and varied narrative.

Settled by Puritans in the 1630s and attracting wealthy Bostonians to build summer estates on the Jamaica Pond in the 18th century, JP was transformed in the 19th century by transportation. It became a “streetcar suburb” and earned the nickname “The Eden of America.”

Come along to see one of the oldest houses in Jamaica Plain used as a military hospital at the start of the American Revolution, a selection of very impressive Victorian houses, and part of the Emerald Necklace park system.

On this walking tour you will discover why Jamaica Plain is so well-loved by its residents.

Here is the remainder of my 2016 schedule.  I don’t expect to be adding any other tours this year, so if you want to see me, make sure to come out for one of these tours!

July 14: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

July 15:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

July 15:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

July 21:  Jamaica Plain – 6pm

July 28: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 4: The Dark Side of Boston  – 6pm

August 5: Boston by Little Feet – 10 am

August 11: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 18: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 25: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 26:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

August 26:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

September 9: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

September 26: Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

September 27: Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

September 28: Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

September 30: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

October 14: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

October 28:  The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

November 11: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

Book Review: Amsterdam : a history of the world’s most liberal city by Russell Shorto


Author: Russell Shorto
TitleAmsterdam : a history of the world’s most liberal city
Narrator: Russell Shorto
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2013
Summary/Review:

Shorto’s history of the Dutch city of Amsterdam is built on a principle that the city defines liberalism in both senses of the word.  There’s economic Liberalism – the principle of laissez-faire in free market capitalism, and there’s social liberalism – which values communal action and individual liberty.  While these two interpretations of liberalism are at odds with one another in much of the world, Amsterdam is a place where individual enterprise and community spirit work together surprisingly well.  This may have its origins in the creation of the city itself, literally reclaimed from the water by dint of communal work, and yet the new land became property of individuals at a time when most land was owned by royalty or the church.  Shorto describes how the notable Dutch tolerance is based on the idea of gedogen, turning a blind eye rather than strictly enforcing the law.

The history of Amsterdam is broad and Shorto both compresses a lot of detail and tends to overstate Amsterdam’s significance, but appropriate to Amsterdam’s characteristic of establishing individual identity, he focuses historical periods through the eyes of specific historical Amsterdam personages.  These include:

  • Rembrandt van Rijn – the portrait artist who explored human interior life
  • Baruch Spinoza – rational philosopher who foresaw modernism
  • Frieda Menco – a contemporary of Anne Frank who also went into hiding in Amsterdam and then to concentration camps.  Shorto refers to extensive interviews with Menco
  • Robert Jasper Grootveld – anarchist organizer of the Provo movement who helped make the 60s counter-culture a permanent facet of Amsterdam
  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali – a feminist activist known for her outspoken opposition to Islam

I found this an engaging history of this fascinating city.

Recommended booksAmsterdam: A Brief Life of the City by Geert Mak and Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner
Rating: ****

Book Review: A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn


Author: Howard Zinn
TitleA People’s History of the United States
Narrator: Jeff Zinn
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2009)
Other Books Read By Same Author: A People’s History of American Empire and Marx in Soho
Summary/Review:

This is a powerful “alternate” history of the United States that I’ve long intended to read but only just got around to (I get intimidated by thick books so I went for the audiobook).  Zinn presents many of the familiar stories of American history, but from the point of view of those who don’t often get into the history books – Native Americans, blacks, women, and other marginalized groups.  Wars are stories not of patriotism and national unity but of an average rank and file often at odds with the leadership and demonstrating this through desertion and revolt.  Wars in general have seen much protest, from the Revolution where the goals of the leaders were quite different from the common agitators to the mass opposition to the War in Vietnam. From the earliest days of the American colonies there is also a divide between the elites who hold the wealth and power and the common people that comes out in many class and labor conflicts.  Zinn discusses unheralded unity – such as blacks and poor whites working together for progressive farmers’ movements in the South – as well as divisions within the many movements for Civil Rights and equality.

At times the attitude of the author is too far left-wing for even me to handle, but largely I find this book an instructive look at American history that informs a lot of where we are today.  This book is so full of detail that it’s worth reading again, and the many works Zinn cites could make for a lifetime of additional reading.

Recommended booksLies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer, Eyes on the Prize by Juan Williams, How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev, A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit,  A people’s history of the American Revolution : how common people shaped the fight for independence by Ray Raphael,  A People’s History of the New Boston by Jim Vrabel, The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz, The whites of their eyes : the Tea Party’s revolution and the battle over American history by Jill Lepore,  and A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy S. Greenberg,
Rating: ****1/2

 

 

 

Boston By Foot Roxbury Highlands Tour – June 26 at 2 pm


Join me and several other talented Boston By Foot walking tour guides as we lead a special Tour of the Month of Roxbury Highlands.  The tour begins at 2 pm on Sunday, June 26 at Roxbury Crossing station on the MBTA Orange Line.

Practical vinyl siding side-by-side with full-on restoration to Victorian era.

We start in the Stony Brook valley and work our way uphill and through history to the top of Fort Hill, passing through Roxbury’s colonial town center at Eliot Square along the way.  Learn how Roxbury went from early colonial settlement to strategic military location to bucolic suburb to immigration destination to one of Boston’s densest neighborhoods.  See Roxbury Highlands continue to transform with ongoing restoration and new construction.

Photo of Alvah Kittredge house from 2007, you won’t believe what it looks like now!

The full description of the tour is on the Boston By Foot website where you can also pre-order tickets!

The Roxbury Highlands tour explores a remarkable neighborhood. Our tour travels through the center of colonial Roxbury:  Eliot Square, where the First Church proudly stands as the oldest wooden church in Boston. The Highlands flourished in the mid-19th century as a garden suburb with many pear and apple orchards.  There was even an apple named after the area – the Roxbury Russet.  We will see wonderful Greek Revival and Victorian houses along our route and discuss some of the amazing individuals who called this area home including Edward Everett Hale – author of The Man Without a Country, and Louis Prang – who printed the first Christmas cards in America.   Finally, we finish on top of the hill at the Roxbury Standpipe, in a lovely park which occupies the location of the Roxbury High Fort. Come explore with us!

More photos from the 2007 tour to whet your whistle for Sunday.

Here’s a current list of my Boston By Foot tours for the 2016 season:

June 26:  Roxbury Highlands – 2pm

July 2: Historic Waterfront – 2pm

July 3: A Son of Boston: Benjamin Franklin – 3pm

July 4: Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

July 7: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

July 14: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

July 15:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

July 21:  Jamaica Plain – 6pm

July 28: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 4: The Dark Side of Boston  – 6pm

August 11: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 18: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 25: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 26:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

August 26:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

Book Review: A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts by Joseph M. Bagley


Author: Joseph M. Bagley
TitleA History of Boston in 50 Artifacts
Publication Info:  Hanover ; London : University Press of New England, [2016]
Summary/Review:

A few years ago I listened to the brilliant podcast series A History of the World in 100 Objects presented by the BBC and the British Museum.  Joseph Bagley also listened to this podcast while he was at work and since he’s the city archaeologist of Boston it inspired him to write this book.  Bagley selected 50 objects and broke them down into 5 time periods: Native American Shawmut peninsula before colonization, 17th century Puritan Boston, 18th century growing Boston, Revolutionary Boston, and 200 years as an independent city from the 1780s-1980s.  The artifacts come from several significant archaeological sites including the Katherine Nanny Naylor Privy in the North End, the Three Cranes Tavern in Charlestown, Boston Common, the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, along the Big Dig construction site, and Brook Farm in West Roxbury.  My favorite artifacts include weaving by the Massachusett, a bowling ball from a time when the Puritans forbade such things, vaginal syringes from Ann Street brothels, a Hebrew prayer-book (at the African Meeting House!), a Red Sox pin, and children’s toys.  Each artifact tells a story and from them Bagley draws a bigger picture of the people in that time and place.  Together the 50 artifacts tell an intriguing history of Boston and is a brilliant introduction to archaeology as well as advocating for the importance of archaeology programs in local governments.  This book is a must read, especially if you have any interest in archaeology or Boston history.

Favorite Passages:

“Archaeology, as we archaeologists describe it, is simply the study of the human past through the artifacts that people leave behind.  One important thing missing from this definition is a cutoff date – the coin dropped today is already part of the archaeological record.  When I encounter people who doubt this fact, I always remind them that archaeology is not about the stuff, it’s about the story.  We may know more about the story of daily life now because we live in the “now” and can see how many things interconnect in someone’s life, but over time, these connections break down and the meanings behind various aspects of the past are lost.” – p. 173

Recommended BooksRubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage by William L. Rathje, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz, and Highway to the Past: The Archaeology of Boston’s Big Dig by Ann-Eliza H. Lewis

Rating: ****1/2

2016 Boston By Foot Tours UPDATED


Spring is here, and it’s time to get out and explore the great city of Boston!

One of the best ways to see Boston is on a Boston By Foot walking tour.  The non-profit, educational organization is celebrating 40 years of sharing the history, architecture, and stories of Boston with tourists and locals alike.  This will be my 17th season as one of around 200 volunteer guides leading tours for Boston By Foot.

Below is the list of tours I’ve signed up to lead this season, but I encourage you to check out all our tours and an architecture cruise lead by our many brilliant guides.  If you live in the Boston area, or plan to to visit and take multiple tours, membership is the best deal!  Membership gets you free admission on all regular tours, discounts on tours of the month, and special members-only events!

April 15: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

April 29: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

May 20:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

May 20:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

May 20:  The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

June 3:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

June 3:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

June 3:  The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

June 19: Roxbury Highlands (members preview) – 2pm

June 26:  Roxbury Highlands – 2pm

July 7: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

July 14: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

July 15:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

July 15:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

July 21: Jamaica Plain – 6pm

July 28: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 4: The Dark Side of Boston  – 6pm

August 11: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 18: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 25: The Dark Side of Boston – 6pm

August 26:  Heart of the Freedom Trail – 11am

August 26:  Road to Revolution – 1pm

See you out on the streets of Boston!

Book Review: The Fever of 1721 by Stephen Coss


Author: Stephen Coss
Title: The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics
Narrator: Bob Souer
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster (2016
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced readers copy of this audiobook through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.

1721 is a pivotal year in Boston history.  Coss details how a popular party of elected representatives challenge the rule of the Royal Governor establishing the ideology and some of the organizations that would be used by the Revolutionary generation 50 years later.  At the same time, The New England Courant is launched as the first colonial newspaper completely independent of the government’s imprimatur and challenges the political and religious leaders of the time.  Tying them together is an epidemic of smallpox and the effort of some learned people in the town to try to fight it using a new idea, inoculation.

There are five pivotal figures in this book:

  • Elisha Cooke, Jr., the popular party politician whose election as Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representative leads to a showdown with Royal Governor Samuel Shute, who dissolves the House and calls for new elections.
  • James Franklin, publisher of The New England Courant, who publishes opinions that scandalize the established elites and religious leaders of the colony, while also aiming for a more entertaining and literary journalism than offered by the two existing newspapers.  While generally on the side of reason against tradition and superstition, Franklin’s Courant comes out strongly against inoculation.
  • Benjamin Franklin, James’ much younger brother and apprentice who educates himself with materials at the print shop and makes his first impression by anonymously submitting the Courant‘s most popular opinion pieces under the pseudonym of Silence Dogood.  Franklin, of course, is a direct connection to the Revolutionary period of the 1760s & 1770s.
  • Cotton Mather, the conservative Puritan preacher and theologian, seeking redemption for his part in the Salem Witch hysteria.  Surprisingly he is also a man of science who initiates the call to attempt inoculation against small pox which he learns of from his African slave Onesimus and the writings of physicians in Europe.
  • Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, a middling physician who answers the call to attempt inoculation and continues to do so despite strong opposition in the town and threats to his life.  Boylston ends up successfully inoculating nearly 250 people for smallpox despite being a provincial doctor with no formal training and doing so before anyone in Britain had attempted to do so.

While I was familiar with a lot of the aspects of this history, I found it fascinating how Coss tied them together and showed how they influenced one another and lasting impact on Boston and Colonial America.  It’s a fascinating and engaging historical work.

Recommended booksThe Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic That Changed America’s Destiny by Tony Williams,  Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore, and The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
Rating: ****

Photopost: Jane Jacobs in Boston Tour


In honor of Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday yesterday, I took a tour of the North End lead by Max Grinnell, the Urbanologist, an urban studies expert who divides his time between Boston and Chicago.  While I’ve been leading tours in the North End for more than 15 years, I learned some new things and visited places I’d not been before.  We talked about what Jacobs found successful in the North End in 1960 and what has changed in the intervening years as the neighborhood has gone remarkably upscale.  The highlight of the tour was a stop at Polcari’s Coffee where the shop owner gave a personal history of the business and the neighborhood.

If only the weather had been better, but it was worth getting soaked to the bone to celebrate Jane Jacobs and urbanism.

Book Review: Wild lives by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld


Author: Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld
TitleWild lives : a history of the people & animals of the Bronx Zoo
Publication Info: New York : Alfred A. Knopf, c2006.
Summary/Review:

This is a children’s book history of the Bronx Zoo, a place I visited since childhood and have always been fascinated about it’s background.  The book focuses mostly on the early days when the zoo was designed by William Temple Hornaday.  Hornaday was concerned with conservation, breeding animals, and creating naturalistic settings for the exhibits.  In some areas he was successful, such as donating animals to the American Bison Society to repopulate the herds on the great plains, or opening the first veterinary hospital in a zoo in 1916 (which sadly came after many animals died in captivity).  Natural habitats and breeding would come later (most notably with the opening of the African Plains in 1941) although the author makes a point of these developments being built on what was learned from studying the animals in the early days of the zoo.  The book makes no mention of the darker moments in the zoos history such as the leadership of Madison Grant, a notorious racial eugenicist, or the time in 1906 when Ota Benga, a man of the Mbuti people of Congo, was put on display in the zoo.

The book also focuses on the efforts of the New York Zoological Society, later the Wildlife Conservation Society, in the area of field research.  This originated with William Beebe, who traveled the world observing wildlife in nature, his discoveries informing how to design exhibits and care for animals at the zoo.  Later the zoo would expand to work with wildlife parks and reserves on various continents both for research and conservation.  Later chapters bring updates at the zoo itself up to the end of the 20th century.  The book makes a good case for why zoos remain relevant and necessary in the 21st century.

Recommended booksThrough a Window by Jane Goodall , Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenburg, and Central Park in the Darkby Marie Winn
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein


Author: Naomi Klein
TitleThe Shock Doctrine
NarratorJennifer Wiltsie
Publication Info:  Macmillan Audio (2007)
Summary/Review:

This book exposes the ideology of neoliberalism, the idea that government should be limited to the bare bones and that corporations should be completely unregulated, a school of thought promoted by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago.  The book begins with the story of CIA mind-washing experiments which attempted to erase the very self-identity of the subjects.  The shock doctrine applies these same actions (mostly metaphorically, but sometimes literally with interrogation and torture techniques) to entire communities and economies.  This begins with the overthrow of democratically-elected government in Chile and the installation of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was advised by Friedman’s own trained “Chicago Boys.”  The same policies pop up again in response to disasters – war, economic collapse, and natural disasters – where neoliberal policies are ready to go at the time when democratic processes are least likely to be followed. Klein examines how both Iraq and New Orleans were deliberately cleared of their past and memory to be remade in a neoliberal model, with much exploitation and corporate profits in the process.  This is a chilling and illuminating book.

Favorite Passages:

Communism may have collapsed without the firing of a single shot, but Chicago-style capitalism, it turned out, required a great deal of gunfire to defend itself.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank


Author: Thomas Frank
Title: Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
Publication Info: Metropolitan Books (2016)
Previously Read By Same Author:  What’s the Matter With Kansas and Pity the Billionaire
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Thomas Frank asks the question – if the Democrats have held the Presidency for 16 of the last 24 years, and have the demographic majority to take full control of the country, and have been in control in many states and regions for some time, why is it that the middle and working class continue in steep decline while Wall Street gets bailouts and the rich get richer?  The answer is that the Democrats have abandoned their traditional base of working class people and organized labor, instead becoming enamored with what Frank calls the professional class.  These are the wealthy and well-educated people credited as being “creative” and “innovators” and who are called upon to resolve problems with their innate brilliance on a revolving door among prominent universities, corporate boardrooms, and political office.  Meritocracy is baked into this idea of the professional class with the people who’ve succeeded being credited with working hard to earn their degrees and get to the place where they are (with the unspoken counter being that those who fail and are poor can only blame themselves for not trying hard enough).

Frank traces the Democrats connection to the professional class to the wake of the troubled 1968 election when Democratic leaders made a conscious decision to move away from their traditional base of organized labor and working people (assuming that these people would have to vote Democratic anyway).  The Democrats lost several Presidential elections over the 1970s & 1980s and the assumption for party insiders was always that they were always too Liberal and moved the party further to the right.  The core of the book is several chapters about the 1990s and Bill Clinton where the Democrats finally could win again and the professional class took control of the reins of government.  Only Nixon could go to China, but only Clinton could ratify NAFTA, approve the sweeping crime bill, dismantle the social safety net of welfare, repeal regulations of the financial industry, and other things that had been on the Republican wishlist for decades.  Frank even details negotiations between Clinton and Newt Gingrich to privatize Social Security, the cornerstone of the abandoned New Deal, that were only scuttled due to the impeachment proceedings against Clinton. With only professionals represented in the Clinton government, alternatives were not considered, and all problems were resolved by doing what would most benefit the professional class.

Frank also covers the Barack Obama presidency  where Obama was swept in to power on a populist movement in the wake of the financial crisis.  Frank notes that Obama had the powers to punish those responsible for the Great Recession, but instead chose to bring Wall Street professional class “innovators” into the government to regulate themselves and work towards bipartisan consensus with the Republicans who were clearly not interested.  The presumptive 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is described as someone working to advance women’s equality, but doing so in a narrow way that only sees women working hard to become successful “entrepreneurs”  (another variation on the meritocracy of the professional class) and working class women are just not seen at her events or in her policies.  The book also details how the place where the New Democrat ethos of the professional class has had it’s greatest implementation – Massachusetts – is emblematic of this  reverence of the “creative class,” and also why the state has the greatest level of inequality in the nation.

This book does an excellent job of explicating what has happened in the Democratic party over the last several decades where it’s gotten to a point that a lot of their ideology is indistinguishable from Republicans and the large portion of Americans have suffered as a result.  The year’s still young, but I think this is going to be one of the most important books of the year and I suggest that everyone should read it.

Recommended books: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander andThe Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Rating: ****

Podcast of the Week: “Pass/Fail: An American History of Testing” from BackStory


Testing is a big topic of debate in education circles these days.  Tests are increasingly been used not just evaluate what students are learning in class but to make high-stake decisions such as a student advancing in school, whether teachers are given rewards or are fired, and even to justify closing entire schools!  With tests being given so important, a lot of classroom time is being given over to test preparation,  and a lot of money is being given over to the publishers of the tests and test prep materials.

The American History Guys at the BackStory podcast provide an interesting historical background to testing in the United States.  The first written tests in American schools only date to the 1840s.  But there are other types of tests, and podcast examines the tests of faith for early Puritans, the civil services tests, and the questionable scholarship behind the IQ test and the Myers Briggs test.  It’s a fascinating hour of history.