When I first heard about this book, I was utterly shocked, even as a native Southerner who has done a little bit of reading on the Civil Rights movemeWhen I first heard about this book, I was utterly shocked, even as a native Southerner who has done a little bit of reading on the Civil Rights movement. How could this be true? How could this have been legal? How did this go on for so long? After Brown V. Board of Education, as the rest of the South either prepared to integrate or to fight directly, Prince Edward County in rural Virginia instead decided to close all their schools. Just close them. Seriously. Then the white families opened a private school just for whites. They took some equipment from the closed public schools. But mostly the funded the new schools themselves, but with some "grants" from the state and region. Yep, they used public funds for these private white-only schools. Minds blown yet?
The author, Kristen Green, grew up on Prince Edward County. And she went to that white-only school. In the 1980s. Yes, the public schools had reopened by then, but the private school, which most of the white attended, was still white-only. She hadn't thought much about it as a child, but when she grew up and went away to college, she was fascinated by fellow students of other backgrounds. Eventually her best friends were a mix of many colors, and she married a mixed-race man, and now has two mixed-race children. And while working as a journalist in Boston, she thought about how her grandparents probably wouldn't have liked her own children very much. Which was a sad realization. And it made her think more about her hometown. And how she was raised. And how her family would be received there.
She began looking into the history of the school system and was horrified to discover that her grandfather had been instrumental in starting the whites-only school. She'd thought her family had just gone along with it--not actually helped to create the situation. After all they had a beloved African-American cleaning lady whose own daughter had had to move away to go to school during that era. How could they have seen the impact on their own employee's family and not cared?
From there, she started doing a vast amount of research and interviews, eventually even moving back to the town, living only a block away from her parents' house, and volunteering at the local civil rights museum. This book is an interesting mix of memoir and history. It isn't often than a journalist has such an inside track like this on her subject. And Ms. Green melds the two genres beautifully. I wasn't sure they'd hold together so well but it's just great. She's obviously done a vast amount of background and research, and while some on the town were reluctant to speak with her, as a local, she surely got more people to speak with her then an outsider would have. It's amazing that more than 50 years after this, people still are proud of the decision, ashamed of their town's history, and sometimes even did refuse to talk to Ms. Green. This region still has to come to terms with what they did. This book is an excellent start....more
I heard Cokie Roberts on NPR talk about the inspiration behind this book. She had heard a lot--I think we all have--about how women during WWII had toI heard Cokie Roberts on NPR talk about the inspiration behind this book. She had heard a lot--I think we all have--about how women during WWII had to work and take over the men's jobs and how crucial that was, that women worked. And it occurred to her that this probably wasn't only true during WWII. It had probably been true in all wars. As a native Washingtonian, she wanted to look at the impact of war on that city, and the Civil War made the most sense to look at. It was far enough before WWII that most people didn't think about as a comparison, and it also took more American men than any other war before or since. And she was right.
We think o f the women involved in nursing, with Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix, and it's true, they grew that field enormously among women and were considered vital to the war effort. But women worked for the Postmaster General. Women worked in the Treasury Department, cutting out currency with scissors. Often the women workers were preferred because they could be paid so much less (!), sigh. Mostly women though did what they'd always done: backstage machinations, persuasion, entertainment, lobbying (lobbyist noted they could sometimes be more effective by convincing a wife about their cause, and then letting the wife convince her husband Congressman to vote for it, than if they approached the Congressman directly).
Through letters and diaries, Ms. Roberts recreates the lives of dozens of influential women, from the famous (Mary Todd Lincoln, Julia Grant) to the less-than-famous (Elizabeth Lee) and the once-famous (Kate Chase Sprague). Some were very manipulative, some were upstanding privileged women who worked themselves to the bone to help the less fortunate, some were catty and vindictive, some were known as angels, and some were spies. All wore corsets and lived through war, some nearly starving to death.
I love learning new trivia, and I learned some excellent trivia indeed. Including a few things I ought to have already known, such as that when the Southern states were seceding, it was Buchanan who was president, not Lincoln. And that war didn't start immediately after the secession, but a few months later. I also didn't realize how cool Varina Davis was, the wife of Jefferson Davis. And along the way in these books you inevitably run across some women, like Kate Chase Sprague, who had they lived now, would have been formidable politicians in their own right, I have no doubt.
This was a fascinating glimpse into a corner of feminist history I hadn't thought about before (it was during this period that "men" was first inserted into a Constitutional amendment, the first time women were excluded. It also was when the Women's Right to Vote movement really began in force and picked up strength.) There were powerful and hard-working women in every era, but we seem to have forgotten those before our own time, which isn't fair to these strong and resourceful women. Any lover of history, or student of feminism, ought to read this book....more
Here's why I hate boring books. Not only are they boring, not only do they take a long time to read, but they prevent me from reading not one, but twoHere's why I hate boring books. Not only are they boring, not only do they take a long time to read, but they prevent me from reading not one, but two alternate (and hopefully good!) books!
The book started off well. It's very readable, unlike the last boring history book I read. But it includes WAY too much detail, and because it is so long and so stuffed full of info, occasionally the author has to give us a recap, which is necessary, but it repetitive, and could have been prevented with more discernment in what to include.
It's a fascinating idea for an American: we know why America went to war with Britain in 1775, but why did Britain? It never occurred to me before to think of that side of things. I figured it was just because we started a fight and so they fought back. But of course there's a lot more to it than that, and a lot more to what started the war. It could have been prevented more than once. A big part of the problem of course, given the era, was the slowness of communication across the Atlantic. And another big part was that almost no one in the English Parliament really saw the American point of view, so there was a serious reluctance to change the legislation that Americans felt were unfair and unreasonable. Of course we know about "no taxation without representation" and the Boston Tea Party, but I never really understood what was going on there. England had imposed a steep tax on tea in the colonies, which the colonies resented, and then they had a huge overstock of tea, which they forced on the Americans. That's not something I learned in history class!
So the information was interesting, but there was entirely too much of it which bogged down the story and also the truly important information was lost among minor details, and extensive editing would have made for a big improvement....more
I hate the cold. Hate it. And I live in a fairly temperate part of the country (North Carolina). Being trapped at the North Pole would be one of my niI hate the cold. Hate it. And I live in a fairly temperate part of the country (North Carolina). Being trapped at the North Pole would be one of my nightmares. In fact, I don't even like reading these kinds of books at this time of year, preferring them in July when it's blazing hot. But I am so glad I read this! When I was a teenager, I remember watching a PBS miniseries about the actual explorers who were racing to reach the North Pole first and it was so gripping and heartbreaking, and this book really made me think back to that show.
It starts off a little slow. We're told about a different failed polar expedition aboard the Polaris, and how one of the men who participated in a rescue team, George De Long, was captivated by the polar region, and thought he knew what the Polaris captain had done wrong. It took several years and a while finding the right financial backer and the right ship, and of course the right crew (that was the biggest mistake on the Polaris where the captain was poisoned by his own crew), but De Long and 32 men set out in 1879 to try a new route, through the Bering Strait in the Pacific, to the North Pole. Bafflingly, they and many other eminent and intelligent men of the time, thought all the ice encountered in the region by whalers and previous explorers, was just an outer ring around a warm open sea (really going against every observation and logical conclusion), and so you could sail to the Pole. They were expecting to be penned in by the ice in the winter (which begins in September) but thought they would get spit out eventually on the other side. While that can happen (and a later explorer does successfully do this, but of course he was spit out in the Atlantic, not in a mythical open Arctic Sea), after two years, the crushing ice finally does in the ship, leaving the men to forage over land and open sea with sleds, small boats, and dogs, to try to find their way back to civilization.
It did take me a while to get into the book, when introducing all the characters, discussing previous explorations, getting the ship ready, discussing the odd benefactor newspaper mogul Bennett, but once they're on the boat in the ice, I because utterly fascinated. And one the boat went down, there was no way I could put the book down. Mr. Sides does a great job of creating tension. With nonfiction the problem normally is the outcome is known, and while any reader could google it and find out, the outcome of this event isn't common knowledge, so it was easy to be on the edge of my seat, hoping and wishing for luck to go their way. I do wish I hadn't skipped ahead and checked out the photo insert as it did give away one spoiler for me. However, it could have given away a much bigger spoiler and I appreciate very much that it doesn't. I wouldn't say it reads like fiction exactly, but it's pretty darn close, with tons of quotations from letters and journals. The crew of The USS Jeanette were brave and admirable men who deserve to be remembered. I am so glad that Mr. Sides has given them such respectful and literary treatment, as now a new generation of Americans will know who these brave men were....more
I was starting high school when Gary Hart ran for president in 1987. I don't remember much about it. But I was very interested in the author's thesisI was starting high school when Gary Hart ran for president in 1987. I don't remember much about it. But I was very interested in the author's thesis that this was the moment when news started to become infotainment and stopped being particularly helpful to citizens. The import of moments like this are often only apparent in retrospect. I'm sure no one at the time foresaw how the Monkey Business scandal was going to affect politics. Sure, people figured that it would have an affect, but most people wrongly assumed that it meant that politicians with any skeletons in their closets, particularly of a sexual nature, could never run for office ever again (hello, Bill Clinton!)
Instead, Bai comes to the conclusion that the big change in this moment was that we stopped considering the substance of the politician and only considered their character. In fact he compares Barack Obama's lack of much political experience to Sarah Palin's (although he acknowledges that the similarity ends there.) The lack of substance is a scary thing (hello Palin!) and he believes the strength of character bit is overplayed. I agree on the first point but not on the second. In fact, he doesn't seem to believe it himself, ending the book by pointing out that Hart could have reentered politics numerous times, had he only changed his story and apologized. Instead, he stood by his story and never faltered (that nothing sexual happened with Donna Rice), despite the harm that caused to his career and aspirations, and Bai calls that evidence of good character. I agree, but if Bai's just been telling us for hundreds of pages how insignificant the whole "character" thing is in politics, then why in the end approve of Hart's character? It's true that other politicians who were serial cheaters (F. Roosevelt, Kennedy) did great things politically, and politicians who did reprehensible things (T. Kennedy) went to to achieve much in the world of politics, but just as Bai argues that a slip-up in one's personal life shouldn't end one's political aspirations, the obverse is also true. Just because a person does good things for the country doesn't mean they're not an awful person (Nixon). But Bai seems to yearn for the pre-Hart days when journalists winked at politician's sexual dalliances and other personal problems and wrote lengthy, thought-out pieces about international world views and the like. That ship has sailed. And not entirely for the worse. Bai admits that not much dirt was ever found on Obama, and that some personal problems are indicative of issues the politician has with decision-making, risk-taking, and prioritizing. Yet he yearns nonetheless.
This was a fascinating analysis and look back, but I for one am glad we no longer live in a time when politicians can do horrible things and journalists look the other way. Yes, personal lives are fair game now, and you don't have to think it's fair, but I do. Yes, we might never have another introverted president, and that is a shame, but I think that overall, the greater transparency works out. While on the one hand, I don't really care who a president is screwing (if his wife doesn't care) so long as he isn't the screwing the country, on the other hand I do want to know he is screwing around and have the choice on election day to make that call. Some relationships are complicated (helloooooo Clintons!) and that's their business, but the rest of us have a right to know as much as is reasonable (and I argue that decisions made at home are indicative of decision-making in the office, and therefore are fair game) when we decide who to elect....more
This is a book that couldn't quite make up its mind. Is it funny? Is it a memoir? Is it a travelogue? Is it going to give straight-up history of MormoThis is a book that couldn't quite make up its mind. Is it funny? Is it a memoir? Is it a travelogue? Is it going to give straight-up history of Mormonism or slyly poke fun at it? The answer to all of these questions is unfortunately "kind of."
Last month I saw the musical The Book of Mormon and so when I saw this book was out, I jumped on it. I had heard of the author (in fact I own his first book though I haven't gotten around to it yet.) And from the cover and the description, I thought it would be funny or at least give me a better idea of the history behind Mormonism. And it was funny in moments, but it also was serious in others. Sometimes the author seemed to think the religion was crazy, and at other times he was very respectful and straightforward. He also hinted in a memoir-style about his failing marriage, but we never find out why it was failing or what happened to it in the end. And the final segment of the book, when Avi was participating in the annual pageant performed in New York State where Joseph Smith claimed to have found the golden plates from which he transcribed and translated The Book of Mormon, was marred by the author's inexplicable use of another name, which was found out right before the performance and he was kicked out. If he'd at least had a good excuse for doing that, I could have excused the deflated ending to the book, but it just felt like he'd stupidly panicked, which is not the sort of behavior we expect from a professional writer being paid to research this book.
That said, I think the musical set my bar too high. The book was very readable, entertaining and light, and I did learn a little bit about Smith and Mormonism, even if not exactly what I'd wanted to learn (I'm not sure the book I want to read exists.) I really liked Steinberg's comparisons of Smith's writing trials to that of every author's struggles to write. And it was interesting how he pointed out that for decades, the story of how Smith wrote the book was much more important than what was in the book. (Possibly still true today although in the late 1980s Mormons were finally encouraged to actually read it.) Laypeople who want to find out a little bit about Mormonism likely will enjoy this book, if they don't expect an academic treatise or a laugh-out-loud farce....more
The premise of this book was interesting. Back in the early 1800s in Connecticut, a group of people founded a "Heathen school" to both teach people ofThe premise of this book was interesting. Back in the early 1800s in Connecticut, a group of people founded a "Heathen school" to both teach people of different nations (including Hawaiians and several Native American tribes, as well as an Indian, a New Zealander, and others from other countries) and more importantly, to convert them to Christianity. The school seemed successful at first and raised a ton of money and had some prominent advocates. However, when the converting didn't seem to stick (several Hawaiians in particular seemed to "go native" quickly when they returned home), things got rocky, and the school's fate was doomed when not one but two of the students (both Native Americans) ended up marrying young white women and causing a scandal.
I wanted the book to be fascinating but instead it was quite dry. It did pick up the pace in the second half with the scandal, and the very few, brief parts of the book where the author spoke personally of his visits to the pertinent areas were easy to read and smoothly written. But otherwise, it was a bit of a slog. In particular, there were long sections set apart in indentations like quotations, but I do not believe they were quotations, but instead were sections where he quoted liberally from documents which was awkward. And he just gave way too many details without enough action or movement. It was static and staid. I did learn some interesting facts about an odd little nook in our country's history, but I wish it had been written in a more accessible, less academic style....more
Why did I put off reading this? It was only by a few months, but this book couldn't have been more perfect for me. It's long (450+ pages) and yet I wiWhy did I put off reading this? It was only by a few months, but this book couldn't have been more perfect for me. It's long (450+ pages) and yet I wished it was longer!
Mr. Carroll researches minor historical events (or major ones that have inexplicably been forgotten) and he sets out to visit scores of them, all with the explicit rule that they must not have a historical marker, showing how they have been neglected or overlooked. Some are major (The death of nearly 1800 Union troops on the steamboat Sultana immediately after the end of the Civil War! Hitler and his doctors' eugenics program was inspired by an American--who also helped to save the California redwoods and the bison! One America, Dr. Maurice Hilleman, invented the mumps vaccine, and measles, and the MMR, and more than 40 vaccines including those for chicken pox, and hepatitis A and B!), some are minor (Washington had a slave who ran away! The Spanish flu started in Kansas!), some are just fun trivia (The inventor of cruise control was blind! The man who cast the bronze status on top of the Capitol building during the Civil War was a slave! Al Capone's older brother was a famous Prohibition agent!) several of them circle around and come up again and tie together, showing how all of history is linked and is hard to pull apart.
Not only was this book about awesome trivia, but it was an engaging travel book filled with quirky characters and it made me feel like on my next road trip, I could possibly be finding it much more enlightening and enthralling than anyone else. For example, if I go to the Heights Arts Theater in Cleveland, I could say, "That's where the film The Lovers was shown in 1959 that eventually inspired the Supreme Court to say can't define porn, but they know it when they see it! And until the early 1980s, the Court had a regular adult movie day, screening porn films to decide if they had any educational or artistic merit." Wouldn't it make travelling with me more fun?
Thoroughly entertaining, well-written, meticulously researched, I don't know how Mr. Carroll found so many overlooked and forgotten historic moments but I hope there are more, enough for a sequel!...more