Podcasts of the Week Ending March 27


Radiolab :: Border Trilogy, Part 1

Stories of the Mexican-American border featuring a high school in El Paso where the students resist their harassment at the hand of the border patrol.

Risk! :: Babies

Mariah McCarthy’s story about her pregnancy, labor, and turning over her child for adoption is beautiful and weep inducing.

99 Percent Invisible :: Airships Future Never

I love airships and the future of airships that never was.

Levar Burton Podcast :: “A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets”

A humorous and touching story about a man who buys a coat at a thrift store in which slips of papers appear that have the prayers of people in the vicinity.

 

 

 

 

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Podcasts of the Week Ending March 17


HUB History ::  The Curious Case of Phineas Gage

The fascinating story of the most famous brain injury.

Planet Money :: Rigging the Economy

Liberal-tarians agree!  The economy is rigged.

Planet Money ::  XXX-XX-XXX

The history of the Social Security number.

Afropop Worldwide :: Roots and Future: A History of UK Dance

Caribbean music traditions and US dance beats come together in the only place they can: the United Kingdom.  A history of jungle, garage, drum & bass, and grime.  This made very nostalgic for the dance tracks of yore.

Have You Heard? :: Strong: Lessons from the West Virginia Teachers Strike

Reporting from the West Virginia teachers strike, featuring interviews with many, many teachers.

Invisibilia :: The Other Real World

Using a reality talent show to counter Islamist extremism in Somalia.

BackStory :: Wherever Green is Worn: The Irish in America

Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes, the Molly Maguires, and other Irish Americans of lore.

Re:sound :: Analog

When I was a kid I recorded myself as the DJ of a “tape radio” station called WLTS, so I feel a kinship with Mark Talbot. Also a repeat of the Ways of Seeing story I highlighted last summer.

 

Book Review: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Ghana

Author: Taiye Selasi
TitleGhana Must Go
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2013)
Summary/Review:

I was surprised that my Around the World for a Good Book selection for Ghana turns out to have a good portion of the narrative set close to home in the Boston, Massachusetts area.  Selasi’s novel is a story of immigration, family, the long term ramifications of choices made, and an attempt to peer beyond the stereotypes of Africa and Africans.

The novel is set around the family of Kweku Sai, long isolated from one another, coming together in Ghana for his funeral.  Kweku immigrated to America where he became a celebrated surgeon, but after being unjustly fired, the great shame causes him to leave his family and return to Ghana.  His wife Fola was a law student who gave up her career to support Kweku, and faces difficult choices when forced to raise 4 children on her own.  The eldest son Olu follows his father into medicine, but his father’s abandonment leaves him fearful of commitment.  The sister-brother twins Taiwo and Kehinde bear the scars of being sent to live with Fola’s brother in Nigeria after Kweku’s departure and the sexual abuse they suffered there. The youngest child Sadie didn’t know her father at all and until shortly before the main narrative begins had been very close with her mother.  All of their stories are told in extended flashbacks intertwined with the present day story.

This is a heartbreaking and harrowing novel and should come with a big trigger warning.  It unfortunately tends toward the melodramatic although there is honesty in the family dynamics portrayed.  Thankfully, this is also a story of redemption and healing, although it is still hard to not feel unsettled after reading.

Recommended booksThe Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri  and Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 9th


99% Invisible :: The Nut Behind the Wheel

A history of how the auto industry and road engineers avoided including safety measures in their designs in their cars and highways leading to countless deaths, and how they blamed everything on the driver.  Yes this should make you think of firearms manufacturers.

Fresh Air :: The Golden Age of Comics

An interview with Cullen Murphy who took over writing “Prince Valiant” from his father in the 1980s.  Murphy remembers how special the full-color Sunday comics section was for children, and the community of comic artists in Fairfield County, CT.  Not mentioned in the interview, Murphy and I went to the same high school, albeit he attended well before I did.

Hidden Brain :: What Can A Personality Test Tell Us About Who We Are?

Hidden Brain examines personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs.  Scientific or a glorified form of astrology?  Worse still, how employers are misusing these tests in personnel decisions.

Fresh Air :: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Daniel Ellsberg discusses “The Pentagon Papers” and top secret plans for nuclear war that he discovered as a national security analyst in the 1960s but was not able to reveal to the public at the time.  A chilling look into the United States’ militaristic past and present.

Hub History :: Boston and Halifax, a lasting bond

One hundred years ago, a collision in Halifax Harbor caused a munitions ship to explode, devastating the city and causing thousands of deaths and injuries.  Boston responded by sending a train with medical personnel and supplies to help the survivors.  To this day, Nova Scotia continues to thank Boston by providing a Christmas tree every year.

60 Second Science :: Yeti Claims Don’t Bear Up

Science disappoints us again by showing that evidence of the Yeti is genetically just a bear.  Well, not “just,” because bears are important to, and these studies tell us more about them.

The Bernie Sanders Show :: Our Budget Priorities with Elizabeth Warren

Two of our few remaining sensible Senators discuss important things that make sense.

Decode DC :: The Changing Race of Immigration in America

A history of immigration to America focusing on who was allowed to “become American” and who was excluded, and the government’s role in all of this.

Resistance Mixtape: Immigrant Songs


We are a nation of immigrants, although some like to act like we’re not, but our musical heritage is rich in songs of the travails and contributions of immigrants.
“Thousands Are Sailing” by The Pogues tells the first person stories of generations of Irish arrivals on American shores.
“America” by Neil Diamond is a cheerful ode to the ideal that’s not always realized.
“Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)” by Shad is a Canadian hip-hop exploration of the same theme.
“Paper Planes” by M.I.A documents the red tape and paperwork needed to cross borders today.
“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” by Cisco Houston reminds us that not everyone who makes it here is allowed to stay, and often human live are treated as disposable
“Esta Tierra Es Tuya” by Sones de Mexico Ensemble. But, all the same, “This Land is Your Land,” no matter what language you sing it in.
There are hundreds of songs I could share here, so please let me know some good ones I left out in the comments.
Previous mixtapes

#TryPod Day 3: Maeve in America


All this month, I’ve heard about the campaign to spread the news of podcasts called TryPod.  As I am a voracious listener of podcasts (you can see the complete list of my current subscriptions and other recommendations on my podcast page), I figured I ought to participate while I can.  So I will post about one of my favorite podcasts every day for the last 9 days of March.

Maeve in America stars Irish-born comedian Maeve Higgins who interviews a different immigrant to the United States learning their stories and struggles in the anti-immigrant mood of present-day America.

Some favorite episodes:

Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders


Another week, another protest, although it feels as if I should be marching in a demonstration daily.

This time is was the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Massachusetts’ Protest Against the Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders in Boston’s Copley Square.

Here on the steps of Boston’s most architecturally renown Christian church, Massachusetts’ political leaders and religious leaders of different faith traditions (including my friend Reverend Laura Everett) spoke of our promise to love and defend our Muslim neighbors and welcome immigrants and refugees of all backgrounds.

This all happened steps away from where two immigrant brothers detonated bombs that murdered three and wounded hundreds, purportedly in the defense of Islam.  The 25,000 people who marched today know that banning Muslims and rejecting refugees does nothing to protect us from attacks like the one on Boylston Street, and if anything further fan the flames of hatred.

“Let’s be clear: Donald Trump’s order has nothing to do with security. Little girls who flee murderers are not a threat to the United States. Elderly grandparents in airports are not a threat to the United States.

“No, this order is not about terrorist threats. This order is about religious tests, and the United States does not impose religious tests—period.” – Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker


Author: Helene Wecker
TitleThe Golem and the Jinni
Narrator: George Guidall
Publication Info: Blackstone Audiobooks (2014)
Summary/Review:

This engaging novel is set in the immigrant communities of lower Manhattan circa 1900. A woman made of clay – a golem named Chava – finds herself stranded alone in the Lower East Side after the man who would’ve been her master dies on the passage across the Atlantic.  A jinni named Ahmad is freed from a metal flask after 1000 years of captivity to fin himself at a tinsmith in Little Syria.  Both Chava and Ahmad have to find ways to fit in with their human society, but it’s interesting that Chava, created to be a slave, has trouble adjusting to having free will, while Ahmad, once a powerful king, has to adjust to his more humble circumstances.  That they meet and befriend one another is no surprise, and it’s a relationship that proves mutually beneficial.  In many ways this is an immigrant tale within a magical realism setting.  Eventually, an old antagonist arrives, and the golem and the jinni need to fight to save themselves, which I understand is necessary to create conflict and resolution, but ultimately I enjoy the earlier parts of the novel where they are establishing themselves and finding their place better. There is a host of endearing supporting characters including Rabbi Meyer who recognizes Chava as a golem and takes her under his wing and Boutros Arbeely who forms a partnership with Ahmad in tinsmithing.  Guidall does some incredible voicework bringing all the characters to life in the audiobook.

Recommended booksThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Brooklyn (2015)


TitleBrooklyn
Release Date: 2015
DirectorJohn Crowley
Summary/Review:

I love immigration stories, and Irish immigration stories especially.  I’m sentimental that. But I really struggled reading the novel Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín.   It’s a beautifully written book that depicts the everyday challenges of a young woman alone in New York half a world away from her family, but I found it frustrating because Eilis seems to have no agency and allows other people to make every decision for her. So it was with some trepidation that I went to see the movie adaptation.

While following the same basic plot line, the film has more humor and allows Eilis to have much greater agency.  In fact, the through line of the film is Eilis developing her confidence and her decisions at the end of the film are much more definite than in the book.  So basically, the story was Hollywood-ized.

And I’m okay with that.  This is a rare occasion – perhaps the second time after The Natural – where I actually think the Hollywood ending makes the movie better than the book.  It helps considerably that Eilis is portrayed wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan who takes the challenge of portraying a character we mostly see from the interior in the book and making her thoughts and feelings clear through her expressions and few words.  There’s also beautiful cinematography and costuming that capture the look and feel of the Irish countryside and the bustle of 1950s Brooklyn and their people.
Rating: ****

Book Review: A Home on the Field by Paul Cuadros


A Home on the Field (2007) by Paul Cuadros is the story of rapid cultural changes in the small agricultural town of Siler City, NC.  Prompted by offers of work from chicken processing plants and construction firms, more and more Latin Immigrants are settling into this community with their children.  Cuadros, a journalist, went to rural North Carolina in search of a story about this quiet immigration but instead found himself advocating for a soccer team at the local high school.  Soccer was a way that Cuadros felt would help assimilate that newcomers as well as keeping young men in school and helping them learn loyalty and discipline.

Not too mention having fun and kicking some butt.  Once Cuadros fields a team they immediate success in their conference and participate in the state championship tournament in each of the three seasons documented in this book.  But getting on the field is a challenge of its own as Cuadros has to fight the power elite of the school system and face down racist opposition from David Duke himself!

In many ways this book is very similar to Outcasts United – a Southern town, an influx of immigrants, culture clashes, and ultimately hope for America’s future.  There’s also the tough but caring coach.  Cuadros is no Luma Mufleh on the harshness scale, but he does end up suspending star players before a key game due to fighting.  The big difference in this book is that the coach is also the author.  I found Cuadros’ writing style a bit dull at first, and considered giving up after 50-pages.  The game descriptions in particular seemed cliched in that they always began in media res and then pulled back for the big picture of the game in progress.

But I’m glad I stuck with this book as I really warmed up to Cuadros and his players and their story.  Cuadros also has some really insightful commentary on the controversy over immigration.  Cuadros also relates some harrowing tales of his players making journeys across the border returning from visits to family.  These boys grow up way too fast.

Cuadros also offers some critique of the way soccer is played in the United States as a “country club” diversion of suburban middle class who stick to a boring and predictable style of the play.  Hopefully scouts from Major League Soccer, NCAA schools, and US Soccer will read this book and Outcasts United.  The children of immigrants are the future of our nation and should figure in our national soccer scene as well.

Favorite Passages

“[Duke] had said it all for everyone in America who views the migration and Latinos the way he does.  They didn’t want the workers or their families living in their towns but the sure wanted their chicken.  And that was all that mattered.  America spoke with its stomach and it wanted its tomatoes picked, its cucumbers gathered, its blueberries busheled, its hamburger ground, its pork processed, its Thanksgiving Day turkeys slaughtered, its Christmas trees cut, and its chickens butchered, and it didn’t care much how that was done as long as the people who brought its food were kept invisible and cheap.

Duke had spent two hours bashing the very workers who had brought him his fried chicken.  He didn’t even realize the full extent of his hypocrisy. … If they were sincere about recuding illegal immigration, they could take a stand and refuse to buy these products.  They could stop eating fried chicken, bacon, hamburgers, steaks, lettuce, turkey, hot dogs, tomatoes, grapes, wine; and stop purchasing other products like furniture and textiles; and deny themselves services like landscaping and construction.  But I suspect that, like Duke, most would simply help themselves to a nice plate of chicken.” – p. 55-56

Author : Cuadros, Paul.

Title : A home on the field : how one championship team inspires hope for the revival of small town America / Paul Cuadros.

Edition : 1st ed.

Published : New York : Rayo, c2006.

Book Review: Outcasts United by Warren St. John


Outcasts United (2009) by Warren St. John tells a story about something I never even knew was going on in America today.  Large numbers of refugees from war-torn nations worldwide are relocated to new homes in the US, but instead of blending into immigrant communities in large cities like New York and Los Angeles, they are moved wholesale into small towns, often ones that have hit economic hard times and need an infusion of new residents.  One of these locations is Clarkston, Georgia, a small town near Atlanta that in the last decade has seen an influx of refugees from Liberia, Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Congo and dozens of other countries.  St. John paints a surreal portrait of housing projects packed with people of many cultures and languages with virtually no interaction with people born in America.  The long term residents have either moved away or are obstinately trying to reclaim their small-town lifestyle by ostracizing and mocking the refugees, keeping them under police survaillance and restricting where they can go or work.

Fortunately, for this book to have a shred of hope there are also people who more charitably are working to help the refugees acclimate to life in America and escape from poverty (often brought on by debt for paying one-way fares to the US and exacerbated by cultural and language gaps in finding good work).  One of these people is Luma Mufleh, a woman born in Jordan and educated in Western-style schools.  She studied abroad at Smith College and at the cost of being disowned by her parents chose to remain in America after college for the greater opportunities afforded to women.  She is the creator and coach of the Fugees soccer team which allows the “misfit” boys of Clarkston to come together to share a common bond on the field.  Luma is a strict coach with rules that must be followed by any boy who wants to play on her team.  She kind of reminds me of University of Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summit in that she sounds very harsh but still commands the respect and admiration of her players.  Luma also gets result as her Fugees with very little in the way of equipment, uniforms, and as documented in this book, even trouble getting a decent practice field, still are able to compete with and defeat teams from Atlanta’s wealthy white suburbs.

The Fugees are in fact three teams – under 13, under 15, and under 17.  The central drama of this book regards the U15 squad which Luma actually dissolves early in the season when too many players refuse to follow the rules like getting haircuts and showing up on time for the bus to a game.   Yet a core group of players are able to convince Luma to reconstitute the team with tryouts for new players even though there’s little chance the team can gain any ground in the standings so far into the season.  The U13 team also shows considerable success in making it to a local tournament.

This is a well-written book centered on soccer but more about the life of refugee peoples in this small town in Georgia.  It’s quite remarkable and thankfully quite hopeful.  I learned a lot from this book and highly recommend it.

Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town by Warren St. John. Spiegel & Grau (no date), Hardcover, 320 pages

Book Review: Empire Rising by Thomas Kelly


On a flight to Portland, OR a little over 10 years ago I read Payback a novel by Irish-American writer Thomas Kelly.  It told the story set in the mid-1980’s about Sandhogs, construction workers who build tunnels, with a mix union-management strife, corrupt politicians, Irish gangsters, and family squabbles turned violent.  It was a breezy read full of violence and machismo, but intelligent as well.

Now I’ve listened to Empire Rising (2005) read by Michael Deehy, which is a similar story but set in 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, amid Prohibition, with the construction of the Empire State Building at it’s centerpiece.

  • Michael Briody – a recent emigrant from Ireland.  Fought with the British in WWI, against the British in the Anglo-Irish War, and against the Free State in the Irish Civil War.  Briody lives in the Bronx, works on a team of iron workers on the Empire State Building, and is an amature boxer.  Also he continues to do jobs for the IRA and for Tommy Twohey.  Oh yeah, and he also wins the heart of Grace in this novel’s central romance.
  • Grace Masterson – an Irish woman with a troubled past who settles on a house boat in Brooklyn.  She visits construction sites to sketch and paint the workers.  As Lewis Hine’s assistant she’s able to enter the ESB site.  She’s also the paramour for Johnny Farrell who has her “deliver money” to banks around town.  Scarred by life, she’s surprised that Briody wins her heart despite everything.
  • Johnny Farrell – the head honcho of Tammany Hall behind the Walker administration.  A finger in every pot, whether legal or illegal.  Not too pleased to learn that Grace is having liasions with Briody.
  • Tom Twohey – a boyhood friend of Farrell’s who is the chief gangster in their Bronx neighborhood.  Also runs guns for the IRA.  Finds himself making an uneasy allliance with the Italian mob.

Kelly’s fictional characters mix with real-life historical figures such as Mayor Jimmy Walker, Governor Franklin Roosevelt, photographer Lewis Hine,  failed presidential candidate Al Smith (also head of the Empire State Building project) and Judge Joseph Crater (working in an answer to Crater’s mysterious disappearance).

For the most part this is an entertaining book weaving together New York City history, the Irish-American experience, and the romance of the era.  Towards the end it gets over the top as seemingly everyone wants to kill Briody, and for good reasons too as he’s got himself mixed up in everything.

Author Kelly, Thomas, 1961-
Title Empire rising [sound recording] / Thomas Kelly.
Publication Info. Hampton, N.H. : BBC Audiobooks America, p2005.
Description 13 sound discs (974 min.) : digitally mastered.

Book Review: The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon


The Lazarus Project (2008) by Bosnian-American author Aleksander Hemon represents Bosnia and Herzegovina in my Around the World For a Good Book project, albeit only a small portion of the novel takes place in that stricken country.  Still it captures the spirit of ATWFAGB in the way it travels between the “countries” of America and Europe, and of past and present. The author Hemon was born in Sarajevo of Ukrainian and Serbian ancestry. He went to Chicago in 1990 and found himself unable to return home once the war began.

The Lazarus Project tells two stories.  First, there’s Lazarus Averbuch, an Eastern European Jew who having survived a pogrom emigrates with his sister to Chicago.  There on March 2, 1908, Lazarus attempted to deliver a letter to the chief of police, the latter refusing the letter and instead shooting and killing Lazarus.  Amplifying the attrocity, the police chief concocts a tale that Lazarus was a dangerous anarchist.  From this kernel of a true story Hemon draws out the aftermath of the anti-anarchist hysteria on Lazarus’ sister Olga and his colleague Isador.

The second story, in alternating chapters, is the contemporary tale of Brik, a man much like Hemon himself – an immigrant from Sarajevo suffering a sort of survivor’s guilt for not being at home during the war and attrocities.  He’s out of work and in a loveless marriage with an American-born neurosurgeon, but holds on to the promise of writing a book about Lazarus Averbuch.  Receiving grant money for his research, he sets of on a journey through Eastern Europe to follow Lazarus’ path to America.

Accompanying Brik is a friend and photographer Rora.  Each chapter begins with a beautiful photograph with the conceit that they are from the lens of Rora himself.  Rora is also a  counterpart to Brik as a survivor of the war, participating in a paramilitary group in Sarajevo.  Rora’s stories of the war and Brik’s ceaseless curiosity about them are a major theme in this book.

This is not a cheerful book.  Brik and Rora’s journey seems to be through an Eastern Europe full of sad prostitutes, mobsters, and sterile fast-food chains.  Olga and Isador must survive insults and degradation.  It would be hard to read this book without gaining a sense of fatalism.  Yet, Hemon’s way with language redeems the book, drawing beauty out of suffering.

Book Review: Manhattan ’45 by Jan Morris


Manhattan ’45 (1985) by Jan Morris attempts to capture New York City at the time of its greatest success, optimism, influence and power, just as the Second World War comes to an end. This is not a travel book so much as an historical recreation.  The author never even visited New York until nearly a decade later.  Writing in 1985, the book is full of copious footnotes where Morris tells us what is gone and different.  Reading this an additional 25 years later my mind adds another layer of meta-analysis of things further lost and changed in Manhattan’s continuous build and demolish cycle.

This book is filled with details of life and how it was lived in 1945 mostly from books, letters, photographs and interviews.  Everything’s discussed in categories and in a gossipy tone that covers people, places, race, class, shopping, transportation, music, technology, slums, mansions, art, parties, and schools.  I kind of wish I’d taken better notes on this book since it’s full of fun little tidbits, but no great memorable themes.  I’d like to read it again, perhaps while in Manhattan, the book tucked under my arm as I visit what’s there and what once was.

I’ve previously read the following books by Morris: The World of Venice and Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress.

Author Morris, Jan, 1926-
Title Manhattan ’45 / Jan Morris. —
Publication Info. New York : Oxford University Press, 1987.
Description 273 p., [12] p. of plates : ill. ; 22 cm.

Book Review: The Fabric of America by Andro Linklater


The Fabric of America: how our borders and boundaries shaped the country and forged our national identity (2007) by Andro Linklater is built on a thesis that the idea of the United States being defined by the frontier and rugged individualism – with Frederick Jackson Turner as a major proponent – is not true.  Instead of the frontier, Linklater believes that our nation is defined by our frontiers, the national boundaries fixed by government agencies.  Within these boundaries, Linklater contends instead of wanting less government, pioneers brought government with them in the form of surveying, land claims, squatters’ rights, and establishment of local governments.

Most of the book doesn’t really stick with the thesis but instead is a history of the United States’ borders.  A major portion of the book tells the story of Andrew Ellicot who surveyed the boundaries of Pennsylvania (picking up where Mason & Dixon left off), Washington, DC, and the boundary between the U.S. and Spanish Florida. There are lots of interesting historical facts about how the nation and states took their shape as well as the practice of surveying, of which Ellicot was an innovator.

The portions of the book from Ellicot’s death in 1820 to the present feel rushed and unfocused.   Linklater’s theory about how our nation’s boundaries defined us feel tacked on to the more interesting historical narrative.  Still, this was an interesting and quick historical read.

Book Review: New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg


Following up on Ric Burns’ New York, I read New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (2007) edited by one of the stars of that series Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.

This collection of essays looks back with some nostalgia and some disgust at the City in the 70s, 80s, & 90s.  For most of the authors, New York once was full of crime, sex, and drugs, yet the rents were low and the City maintained its own character.  Today they sneer that interlopers have moved in, built luxury lofts, priced out everything that made New York unique and replaced it with typical American suburbia. Most of the essayists to some extent sink into insufferable self-importance which makes this book hard to read at times.

There’s a lot of hyperbole, but there’s truth mixed in.  And there’s still a lot to love about New York.  Each borough gets its own tribute, with the one on Staten Island being the most illuminating since I know little about that area.  There are also great stories on graffiti, civil rights, art, rock music, and ethnic foods.  If you love New York, this book is worth checking out.  If you hate New York, this book isn’t going to change your mind.

New York calling : from blackout to Bloomberg / edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.
Publication Info. London : Reaktion, 2007.
Description 368 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.

Movie Review: New York: A Documentary Film by Ric Burns


New York: A Documentary Film is an 8-part film made by Ric Burns that debuted on PBS in 1999 (except for episode 8, which is from 2003).  Thanks to Netflix, I’ve finally seen this epic documentary about my ancestral homeland and one of my favorite cities.

Ric Burns’ style is similar to his brother Ken in that their is a rich wealth of archival images, photos and films, supported by contemporary film interspersed with interviews with a variety of experts and dramatic renditions of quotations by historical figures.  It’s an effective technique, albeit one that could use a few adjustments.  I particularly like hearing from the experts, a grab bag of historians, writers, politicians, architects, and New Yorkers.  Standouts among the crowd include urbanist Marshall Berman, soft-spoken historian Craig Steven Wilde, and architect Robert A. M. Stern (as an aside, it seems to me that architects are often great speakers as well).  I would prefer longer clips of these people speaking about New York in place of the narration, no offense to David Ogden Stiers.  It would be one way to reduce the cliches that plague this film.  If you had a dollar for every time the words “Capitol of the World” are uttered, you could take me out for dinner at a fancy restaurant and probably get change.  Similarly, the contemporary film of soaring over the Manhattan skyline is overused creating a visual cliche.

These are minor quibbles though.  I would expect that many viewers would criticize the filmmakers for leaving things out although it would be impossible to cover every detail of city as large and historic as New York.  I would have liked to have seen more about New York’s role in popular culture such as radio, film, tv, and sports, not to mention more details about the four boroughs not named Manhattan, but so be it. I also felt that the 70 years covered in episodes #6 & 7 could have branched out to include more than road building, public housing, and white flight, since so much else happened in those times.  But then again this is the time of my life, and my parents, and my grandparents so I’m much more connected to it through personal experience and stories

The film covers New York History chronologically, with each episode culminating in a Big Event that kind of ties together the historical and cultural processes discussed in the episode.  These include 1. the Erie Canal, 2. the Civil War Draft Riots, 3. the Consolidation of  Greater New York, 4. the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire, 5. the construction of the Empire State Building, 6. the Great Depression and the 1939 World’s Fair, 7. the 1975 Fiscal Crisis, and 8. the World Trade Center & September 11th Attacks.  I think a more effective approach would have been to ditch the chronological approach and made the episodes specifically about these events: what led up to them, what effects did they have, how they influenced the people and their times, et al.  Episode 8 about the World Trade Center does in fact follow this method by tracing the history of the buildings construction, use, and desctruction, subtly creating a microcosm of New York history from the 1950’s to 2001.

Each episode also has a Big Person, a New Yorker of great prominence and influence who somehow personifies his times (and they are all “he’s”).  These include 1. Alexander Hamilton, 2. Walt Whitman, 3. William Tweed, 4. Al Smith, 5. F. Scott Fitzgerald, 6. Fiorello LaGuardia, 7. Robert Moses, and 8. no one really but high-wire artist Philippe Petit is the surprising heart of this episode.  I like this aspect less if only because it seems to lead to lionizing “great men” and repetition of more cliches (with the exception of Robert Moses about whom opinions were more neutral to negative, appropriate since Moses was eeeeeeeevil).

My overall impression Ric Burns’ New York is positive.  Episode 4: The Power and the People and Episode 8: The Center of the World are standout episodes that particularly bring the history of the city to life.  The former episode covers some of my favorite topics such as immigration and labor, while the latter profoundly recreates the horror of the September 11th attacks, but also the hope and heroism in the aftermath.  If you like New York, history, and/or documentaries check this one out.

Book Review: The Deportees and Other Stories by Roddy Doyle


Over the past decade or so, while the US economy has gone down the toilet, the dollar has crashed and burned, and xenophobia blossomed to the point of building fences on our borders, Ireland has become a prosperous nation built on new industries, the strength of the European Union, and the rising Euro. As a result, a centuries-long trend of Irish emigration has been reversed and now Ireland is a destination for the world’s poor and dispossessed looking to make a new life. One of Ireland’s premier contemporary writers Roddy Doyle takes on the challenges of the emerging multi-cultural society in his collection of short stories The Deportees and Other Stories (2008). The eight stories are built on the simple premise: “someone born in Ireland meets someone who has come to live there.”

Doyle is one of my favorite authors and I’ve enjoyed many of his novels including The Barrytown Trilogy: The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, and my favorite Doyle novel A Star Called Henry (sadly,a sequel to Henry called Oh, Play that Thing, was uneven to put it politely). Doyle may be the most appropriate author to write about this new Ireland. He has an eye for detail and ear for language, and his stories are comfortable in the space between poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. Doyle originally published these stories as part of a regular column (in 800 word increments) fo Ireland’s multicultural newspaper Metro Eireann.

My favorite stories include:

  • The title story in which Jimmy Rabbite of The Commitments decides to put together a new band, this time with no native Irish musicians, to play the songs of Woody Guthrie. I’d pay money to see that band.
  • “New Boy” in which a boy named Joseph who escaped political violence in his native Africa has to stand up to playground violence on his first day at an Irish school. This story hits the nail on the head in showing a child’s perspective on being the new kid in class.
  • “Black Hoodie” in which an Irish boy in a hooded sweatshirt and his Nigerian maybe-girlfriend lead store security guards on while their friend in a wheelchair robs the store blind. Its all part of a business proposition to test stereotypes and collect consulting fees from the store managers. It’s almost too clever for its own good.

By the way, watching the video below will apparently play a part in determining how Irish you are:

New York: Viking Penguin, 2008.

Links of the Day for 9 January 2008


Sacco and Vanzetti: 80 Years Later


On this day in 1927, Italian immigrants and anarchist leaders Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were put to death by electrocution in Charlestown, MA for a crime they probably did not commit.  The story of Sacco and Vanzetti continues to be studied as an example of xenophobia and failures of the criminal justice system in America.  As much as we’ve advanced in the past 80 years there’s still a lot that hasn’t changed.  In the 1920’s, Italians were seen as fearsome foreigners while today Italian-Americans are part of the mainstream American population that can look at new immigrants and foreigners as criminals.  Similarly, those with unpopular political views are not always granted free speech and sometimes are punished for their views.  I don’t know what lesson there is here other than looking back at the past as the good old days or saying that we’re better now than we were then are both wrong.

More on the anniversary of Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution at:

Replaying injustice: Sacco and Venzetti, 80 years later by Mike Milliard, Boston Phoenix

Lessons of Sacco and Vanzetti by Peter Miller, The Huffington Post

Sacco and Vanzetti: Innocent or Guilty by Jack Kelly, American Heritage

Italy’s American Baggage byAndrea Cammileri, The New York Times