While the book that David Chappell is best known for, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, seems as though it could be taugh...moreWhile the book that David Chappell is best known for, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, seems as though it could be taught in philosophy or religion classes as well as history classes, his latest book is a different species. Waking from the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King Jr., is pure history and political science. Depending upon your inclinations, that might make it a more difficult or less difficult book to love. Stone of Hope, with its discussions of Reinhold Neiburh and Arthur Schlesinger, sometimes necessitates breaks to digest the philosophy. Even so, Stone of Hope had a simple message at its heart: there was passion and conviction preached from the pulpits of African-American churches during the “third American revolution,” (for Civil Rights) about justice that was, unsurprisingly, missing from the pulpits of white churches. Indeed, the Southern Baptists (created back in the 19th century because Baptist preachers and congregations in the South supported slavery, in opposition to Northern Baptists) and Methodists came out in tepid favor of Civil Rights. Whether you believe in grace, Christ, God, or not, it’s demonstrable that faith played a role in filling African Americans with faith and determination that their cause would prevail. Their opponents, in contrast, were filled with pessimism, hatred, fear, and uncertainty. Waking from the Dream is harder to pin down. Chappell is a marvelous historian and a good writer, something that is obvious just by his ability to keep readers turning the pages on what is actually the rather dry topic of process, meetings, planning, and politics – in contrast to the sweeping drama of Civil Rights marches in the face of violence and hatred. He divides the book into six chapters: 1) the Civil Rights Act of 1968; 2) the National Black Political Conventions of 1972 and 1974; 3) the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978; 4) the battle to create a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, signed into law in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan; 5) Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988; and 6) what Chappell describes as the “public reckonings” with King’s character. Each chapter offers insights into the American story of its people respecting one another as legitimate, worthy of being called Americans. Chappell is an inveterately honest historian, unable to keep back tidbits of information that don’t fit a triumphal American story of redemption and progress. It’s hard to quantify, for instance, what came of those conventions. The MLK holiday was in some ways a marker of defeat as it became clear that larger societal goals of protecting the middle class (both black and white) were not going to be prioritized any time soon, even though the Humphrey-Hawkins bill passed. Jesse Jackson may have lied about how close he was to King at the time of the assassination, although there’s no evidence other than the say-so of at least one other King aide. And, finally, the chapter on J. Edgar Hoover’s evidence regarding King’s sex life discusses evidence rarely used against King because it revealed too the FBI’s illegal and immoral surveillance of him. Chappell has said that he doesn’t want people to finish his book thinking that his message was that there was continuity after King’s murder, that the journey for Civil Rights continued and that the story of those years should also be included. I’m not sure what’s wrong with that message – which is indeed one of my major take-aways. The difference was that after King’s death was that there was no beloved, charismatic figure (at least in comparison with King), and that the gains were more often made through legislative process born of the power of the ballot box rather than of blood spilled on bridges or motel balconies. Perhaps the message of this sobering book is that politics are messy, and that African-Americans are simply people. Many African-American leaders are extraordinary people, but they’re also simply Americans, as likely to be misguided, angry, divided, and racist as any other American. Despite that, despite “waking from the dream,” it’s incumbent upon all of us to keep battling for a better, fairer system. Chappell finished Stone of Hope with one of King’s favorite quotes. It’s a quote that reflects King’s understanding that people need prodding and inspiration in equal measures. This book could have used that same quote at its end, for surely there is continuity at least is this, the basic human condition (if viewed through optimistic eyes): “Lord, we ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we ought to be; we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God! We ain’t what we was.” (less)
For me, with a passion for history, faith, and mystery, St. Peter’s Bones was almost bound to be a hit. It was especially meaningful since I’ve been t...moreFor me, with a passion for history, faith, and mystery, St. Peter’s Bones was almost bound to be a hit. It was especially meaningful since I’ve been to Rome a couple times, and wandered through much of that city’s history, the layers of which are so marvelously visible.
Author Craughwell uses the bizarre story of the search for St. Peter’s bones to give a brief history of St. Peter and his basilica.
If you go to Rome, be sure to take the daily tour beneath the church, where more than 90 popes are buried, including Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. That level, beneath the floor of the present-day basilica, is called the Vatican Grottoes. Before reading St. Peter’s Bones by Thomas Craughwell, I didn’t understand that there is another level below the grottoes, called the necropolis (city of the dead). It’s there where the bones of St. Peter, along with a scrap of purple cloth woven with gold thread, may have been found.
He leads readers through Catholic history, from the Acts of the Apostles through the twentieth century, by luring us on with the gripping story of the excavation. He covers who St. Peter was, why it’s thought Peter came to Rome, Rome’s deadly fire in AD 64, how St. Peter died at the hands of Nero a few steps from the basilica, the Emperor Constantine’s conversion and the construction of the first basilica over St. Peter’s grave, and then the construction of the second basilica during the Renaissance.
It’s a fantastic story. While World War II raged all around, Pope Pius XII decided to reconstruct the Vatican Grottoes beneath the immense church, lowering the grotto floor by two-and-a-half feet and creating what would become a tourist-friendly series of crypt chapels instead of what had been a claustrophobic burial chamber. That’s where all the pope’s are buried, a place of lemony light against whitewashed arches, filled with the murmur of tourists and prayer.
Craughwell never addresses what would possess the pope to begin such a project at such a time.
He does, however, offer up the story of the bones in just the right order, and presents the implausible story in such a way that this reader could just barely believe that someone would lose archeological evidence and sacred relics in the way that the allegedly responsible party did. (No spoilers here!) The book’s power is in the way it links the present with the past. I’m sure I’d understood that the obelisk out in St. Peter’s Square was associated with Nero’s Circus—where St. Peter was crucified—but it never hit me until reading here that the obelisk is a direct link to the martyrdom of the first pope.
I’d recommend this book to those who are interested in early Christianity and in archeology. It simplifies the past, for instance not mentioning that the obelisk was moved a few yards during the construction of the present-day basilica. That might be a benefit, since those details can sometimes veil the crucial point. The book also lacks illustrations or diagrams. Is that a serious issue with internet resources at our fingertips? Probably not.(less)
Terrifically important book on how and why the New Deal sacrificed the equality of African-Americans in order to save democracy and stand up to totali...moreTerrifically important book on how and why the New Deal sacrificed the equality of African-Americans in order to save democracy and stand up to totalitarian governments. Katznelson doesn't condemn the Roosevelt administration for doing it; he paints instead an America consumed by fear of the rising tide of totalitarianism, the fearful weapons invented in the 20th century, weapons that killed so efficiently and horrifically that they changed the landscape of war; and, last, the looming social change at home: equality - so feared by racists but also, to some extent, by progressives, because of worries over how it would happen. Would the whites bomb African American communities? Would they murder black children in churches? Would they fight the end of America's caste system with an orgy of lynching and blood-letting? White racists did all that and more. (less)
This was a compulsive read for me, a balanced look at an unbalanced act nearly 60 years ago, by two girls who brought to life the vague parental fear...moreThis was a compulsive read for me, a balanced look at an unbalanced act nearly 60 years ago, by two girls who brought to life the vague parental fear of a friend being "a bad influence." It's fairly clear that neither of these girls would have committed this murder on their own, but that they were terrible influences upon one another - that along with their raging teenage hormones and the euphoric, crazy-making effects of fasting. They managed to grab hold of whatever underlying personality disorder each suffered from and embrace that disorder until it became true madness.
I'd agree that the book was a bit padded - I didn't care too much about some of the chapters' subjects - the family backgrounds, for instance. But I think that was the best kind of padding, from an author who fell in fascination with his subject matter and wanted to share everything.
The best chapter for me was at the end, where Graham looked at modern psychiatry's view of what possessed the girls. (less)
Historian David Eisenbach and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt teamed up to catalog what most of us already knew - men ambitious enough to make it to the...moreHistorian David Eisenbach and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt teamed up to catalog what most of us already knew - men ambitious enough to make it to the presidency most likely have powerful sex drives too. Put that together with the fact that power is attractive to a lot of women, and it becomes clear that faithfulness, as seemingly found with W and Obama, is the presidential exception rather than the rule.
So now that Eisenbach and Flynt have made it abundantly clear that founding fathers, presidents, and other politicians have sex, from Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln, James Buchanan, FDR, both JFK AND Jackie, and, of course, Bill Clinton, no doubt we'll be able to set aside the whole issue, along with the gotcha journalism and partisan attacks that helped derail the country in the otherwise glorious 90s.
What? You don't think so? Then what's the point of this book? Just titillation? Ya think?
Well, Flynt does go into a bit of a tub-thumping attack on the hypocrisy of it all, but the truth is, that's the least enjoyable part of this easy-to-read history. Nothing wrong with a little titillation with your history, after all. Might get more kids to pay attention.
This is one of the best memoirs ever written, and certainly the best book I've ever read about Cambodia. I know that reveals some Euro-centric bias on...moreThis is one of the best memoirs ever written, and certainly the best book I've ever read about Cambodia. I know that reveals some Euro-centric bias on my part; I agree that some of the memoirs of the Killing Fields written by Cambodians are just as eloquent and perhaps show an even clearer picture of Cambodia during the awful ascendency and throttling years of Pol Pot.
Still. Bizot was the only Westerner taken and released instead of killed by the early Khmer Rouge squads. In his case, his captor was no less a monster than Duch himself, murderer of hundreds of his countrymen and women.
Bizot was heroic during his days in Cambodia. The genocide going on there wasn't really his war; he was just an anthropologist, he could have gone home. Except it was his war - he was human. And he loved the people, the country, and its history. For me, his insights into what happened and his descriptions of how it happened are brilliant - and the book is a page-turner. It's amazing that he survived, and amazing how many people he saved. (Not many, considering the numbers who died, but considering the circumstances, many indeed.) It's as if the Raoul Wallenberg of Cambodia were also a gifted writer. (less)
Here's Michael Sean Winters's review at NCR. Winters writes:
"The most startling religious fact about the year 1200 in Paris was that for much of the
...moreHere's Michael Sean Winters's review at NCR. Winters writes:
"The most startling religious fact about the year 1200 in Paris was that for much of the year the city was under interdict. The King had taken an almost instant dislike to his queen, and he set her aside and took another. The Pope did not like the arrangement and, after failing to persuade the King to return his queen to her proper place, he placed the Philip’s realms under interdict. Baldwin writes, 'Throughout the city the doors to churches and the gates to cemeteries were closed, and the sacraments were withheld from the faithful. Only baptism was administered to the newborn and the consecrated host given to the seriously ill. These draconian measures affected all levels of the clergy and the laity. Regular observance of mass [sic] and confession ceased; the special occasions of confirmation, marriage and the conferring of holy orders were suspended; and the stench of unburied bodies infected the air.'
I remember a few years ago agents were saying "enough of the World War II books! Enough!"
That was three, four years ago, and all the books they were...moreI remember a few years ago agents were saying "enough of the World War II books! Enough!"
That was three, four years ago, and all the books they were talking about have been being released, in 2011 and 2012, and I get it. Enough! Even though many are great books - like HHhH, by Laurent Binet - there are also a lot that are stinkers, like The Palace and the Bunker: Royal Resistance to Hitler. I've just had enough.
In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson is the exception. This book is so good I may read it again. It's the exasperating story of the U.S. ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937, nine-tenths of it focusing on his first year there, 1933 to 1934, which included the Night of the Long Knives, 30 June 1934, which really should be called Hitler's purge, where he and his minions simply murdered maybe 500 people during a time when there was hope that Hitler and the Nazis might be restrained.
That ambassador ended up spending too much of his time denouncing the good old boys club that was/is the State Department and the country's system of appointing ambassadors. He didn't take as strong a stand as he should have against the Nazis, never, for instance, insisting that Americans should not be visiting Germany, considering the fact that they were frequently beaten for not doing the asinine heil hitler salute. Still, he was one of the few voices speaking out against the nazis.
His daughter Martha's story is also an important part of the book. She slept around, vigorously, and at first loved the Nazis. The book is partly about her realizing that she'd been making excuses for brutality and evil when she shouldn't have.
This book reads like a novel, but it's pure history. You won't be able to put it down.(less)
Great little book on crime and cons and magic during Tudor days in not-so-merry olde England. This is about a credulous (possibly downright stupid) no...moreGreat little book on crime and cons and magic during Tudor days in not-so-merry olde England. This is about a credulous (possibly downright stupid) nobleman trying to rid himself of inconvenient people with expensive magic. His luck in this deadly effort is so bad it's almost comedic, think I Love You To Death, the 1990 movie where Keanu Reeves and William Hurt are stupid hit men trying to kill Kevin Kline.
There's gambling, syphilis, magic, murder - and it's all true, and after reading its few pages I walked away with a far clearer, more vivid picture of Tudor society.
Read it together with Mary Sharratt's wonderful novel Daughters of Witching Hill, also a great book and an eye-opener about those long-ago times. (less)
I reviewed this book for the Historical Novel Society's review magazine. They're a great organization if you love historical novels and history.
It's a...moreI reviewed this book for the Historical Novel Society's review magazine. They're a great organization if you love historical novels and history.
It's a good read, a history (non-fiction) about Benedictine Brother Peter Morrone (1210-1296), who took his last name from a mountain in the rough Italian Abruzzi. He lived there as a hermit—but not just any hermit. Morrone was a rock star hermit, attracting crowds of followers and fans. He even founded a strict but popular religious order, the Celestines. When the pope died in 1292, the College of Cardinals spent two years bickering over who would be the next pope. Peter sent them a message to hurry it up. To his horror, they immediately chose him. He was consecrated Pope Celestine V in August 1294 and resigned, the only pope ever to have done so, five months later. His successor imprisoned him and he soon died, a suspicious hole in his skull. That’s the bare outline of a story that’s rife with self-flagellation, hermitic visions of naked seductress demons, murdered and murderous popes—even the Franciscans are divided and torturing one another. It turns out St. Thomas Aquinas’s death, en route to the Second Council of Lyon in 1274, was also suspicious.
I didn’t find much mystery (as the title promised) surrounding the elderly Celestine’s abdication. The book is all the same an enjoyable albeit blood-curdling read, filled with marvelous details. (less)
In January 1943, the Nazis shipped 230 French women, members of the Resistance, to the death camp Birkenau, in Poland. Author Caroline Moorehead chron...moreIn January 1943, the Nazis shipped 230 French women, members of the Resistance, to the death camp Birkenau, in Poland. Author Caroline Moorehead chronicles their deaths here, but also the survival of 49 of them -- a percentage that defied the odds. The women survived through a hard-headed dedication to solidarity, an understanding that their only hope was in working together.
It's unlikely that this book will be widely read, because of its grim subject matter. Indeed, it sat on my shelves for months before I made the plunge. It was worth it. Moorehead is a good writer, and one who shows us not only the terrible pathos and tragedy, but who brings to life the grandeur of the spirit in its worst extremity of suffering - the servant energy, the fact that the women survived by focusing on one another.
The book's two parts wonderfully memorializes their courage: first, what they did to bring the Nazis' wrath down upon them; their work in the Resistance. Second, how some of them survived the horrors of the French châteaux de la mort lente (castles of slow death), and then Birkenau.
There's a lesson here. Those maternal, sisterly prisoners, absolutely doomed, were as brave and resourceful as any band of brothers. Recommended.(less)
How to Survive the Titanic is great history -- always seeking to understand, sympathetic, literate, witty, and, in the end, tragic. The book begins wi...moreHow to Survive the Titanic is great history -- always seeking to understand, sympathetic, literate, witty, and, in the end, tragic. The book begins with two quotes, one from J. Bruce Ismay, owner of the Titanic, at the New York inquest about the tragedy: "I took the chance when it came to me. I did not seek it." The other is from Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim: "Ah! What a chance missed! My God! What a chance missed!" The chance Ismay was referring to, of course, was the chance to save his life, and step into a lifeboat with empty seats. There were no women or children nearby, the lifeboat was about to be lowered into the sea. Ismay did what most of us would have done -- and most of us mothers, sisters, and daughters would have wanted our sons, brothers, and fathers to have done. Ismay never recovered from that decision on 14 April 1912. He was vilified around the world and his position in society lost. One observer, at an inquest in London, wrote that you would never guess that Ismay was a captain of industry. He'd told the investigators that he was like any other passenger, and everything about his demeanor spoke to that. He had been revealed a common man, in its worst sense. The first half of the book covers what happened at sea, including information from the inquests, from Second Officer Charles Lightoller's book, and other sources. There was plenty here that was new to me -- but then I'm not a Titanic aficionado. For instance, Ismay's faith in the ship was so fierce that he evidently gave the order to keep moving even after they hit the iceberg. Lightholler defended the shipping line in the inquests, but:
According to Lightoller's granddaughter, Louise Patten, the officer confided to his wife a very different version of events. What he told her was kept a 'family secret' for nearly a century. Following the collision, when he had gone to the bridge to ask if the blow was serious, Ismay had told the Captain to continue moving 'Slow Ahead'. The ship, which had stopped following the collision, now started up again and continued at a speed of around 5 or 6 knots until 12.15 a.m., when the Captain sent down the order to once again stop the engines. In pushing her forward, Lightoller believed, Captain Smith had allowed water to pour through the damaged hull at hundreds of tons a minute and to burst through six watertight compartments, one after another. Had the Titanic stood still, 'the whole ship would have assumed a fairly acute and mighty uncomfortable angle, yet, even so, she would, in all probability have floated -- at least for some considerable time, perhaps all day. Certainly sufficient time for everyone to be rescued'.
The second half of the book moves through more investigations and castigations of Ismay, including Conrad's insights and Ismay's betrayal of his family with a woman he fell in love with on the Titanic's sole voyage, Marian Thayer. Author Wilson's beginning quotes - about a chance taken to save one's own life vs. the hero's chance to go down with the ship (the buck stops where?) gives focus to this book, revealing a man who lost his own life even as he saved it. This book has the twists and turns you'd expect from a psychological thriller -- with characters shifting from bad guys to victims and back again; and good guys revealed to have less than pure motives. It's good reading. * I received this book through a firstreads giveaway.(less)