Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Birds Fall Down

Posted by nliakos on March 8, 2017

by Rebecca West (Viking 1966)

This was one of my mother’s books, many of which I rescued from her house in Hackensack, NJ before we sold it in 1984. It’s also the first Rebecca West I have read. She wrote not only novels (six up to and including this one), but also history, biography, criticism, and short stories.

Actually, I found The Birds Fall Down rather hard to get through. It tells a story of intrigue and betrayal among Russian expatriates and revolutionaries in the early part of the twentieth century, before the Russian Revolution. Eighteen-year-old Laura Rowan, English on her father’s side and aristocratic Russian on her mother’s, goes with her mother to visit her grandparents, Nikolai Nikolaievich and Sofia Andreievna Diakonov, who are living in Paris after Nikolai was framed and exiled by the Tsar. Leaving her mother and her ailing grandmother behind, Laura and Nikolai begin a journey by train to a place called Mures-sur-Mer. On the way, they are joined in their car by a former friend of Nikolai’s, now a revolutionary, Chubinov. Most of the novel is consumed by an endless “conversation” between Count Diakonov and Chubinov on the train, as Chubinov attempts to convince the Count that he wants to help him. (I put the word conversation in quotes because it is more a succession of interminable monologs than a real conversation. And that was the part that was the most arduous to read. It seemed to go on forever!)

Spoiler Alert! Eventually, Chubinov and Nikolai realize that they have both been betrayed by a double agent in the Count’s retinue, and the shock kills Nikolai. Laura is left to handle the situation on her own until her father arrives from London, which takes several days. Although she has been depending on her father to save her from the double agent, Laura realizes that she cannot trust him to protect. Ultimately, she relies on Chubinov to save her, but until the last moments, neither Laura nor the reader is really sure who the villain is.

Laura is not really important for the story, but she is the thread that holds it together, and we see the other characters and the action (such as it is) from her point of view. But I did not find her to be a very convincing character. She seemed too mature for an eighteen-year-old, and her reactions to some of the events in the novel seemed wooden to me. I couldn’t identify with her, and she didn’t seem like a real person to me.

The Birds Fall Down has some things in common with the great Russian novels: lots of characters who are known by several different names and a twisted plot. I found it rather tiresome to read, but I did finish it and (sort of) followed the plot! Dame Rebecca West notes in the Prologue that she based the story on an actual historical event, but Google was unable to help me find exactly what that could have been.

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Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Posted by nliakos on January 16, 2017

by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau trade paperback 2015; copyright 2014)

Bryan Stevenson started working with prisoners on  death row  while he was still in law school. Later, he went on to found the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization which is “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society” (from the EJI website).

In Just Mercy, Stevenson presents what he views as some of the worst abuses of our criminal justice system: the sentencing of children to life in prison without the possibility of parole,  the witch hunt for “bad mothers”, the execution of innocent prisoners due to technicalities, the corruption that allows incompetent defense or prejudiced prosecution to condemn innocent people to life in prison or capital punishment, the incarceration and abuse of people with disabilities, the awful treatment within the prison system, and more.

Chapters about the case of Walter McMillian, an African-American man on death row for a crime that was committed while he was at home hosting a fish fry for about twenty people, are interspersed with chapters narrating other cases. Thus, Walter McMillian’s story begins on page 21, when Stevenson was not yet thirty and he received a call from the judge in the case, warning him not to proceed with it, and ends with the Epilogue and Walter’s death from dementia. This reflects the reality that a single case can drag on for many years without resolution, as it works its way through the levels of the justice system. (Many of Stevenson’s cases made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, such as Miller v. Alabama, which declared the sentencing of children to life in prison without parole to be unconstitutional.)  Meanwhile, the innocent prisoner’s life is running out. It was so evident that Walter McMillian had been wrongly accused, sentenced, and imprisoned (he was sent to death row even before he was sentenced to die), that the reader can hardly believe that this case actually happened. Forget “innocent until proven guilty”. The people that arrested, prosecuted, and condemned Walter McMillian had to have known that he was innocent, yet all they cared about was “solving” the crime (The true murderer was never found.). At one point, after years of trying to get McMillian out of prison, Stevenson was told by a lawyer from the Alabama Attorney General’s office, “Bryan, it’s all going to work out, but you’ll need to wait a few more months. He’s been on the row for years, so a few more months are not going to make that much of a difference.” Oh, really? Try it yourself, Mr. Hotshot Lawyer. You will find that every single day on death row is an eternity.

One chapter that affected me even more than Walter McMillian’s tragic story was “All God’s Children”, which focuses on three cases handled by EJI:  Trina Garnett, an intellectually disabled, neglected and abused child who when she was fourteen unintentionally set a house on fire, which resulted in the death of two other children; Ian Manuel, convicted of armed robbery and attempted homicide when he was thirteen; and Antonio Nuñez, charged with kidnapping and attempted murder at fourteen. In all three cases, older children involved in the same crimes received lighter sentences because they implicated the younger ones, while Trina, Ian, and Antonio were all found guilty and sentenced to life without parole (in other words, sentenced to die in prison).  Stevenson points out that adults convicted of similar crimes usually receive much lighter sentences and eventually serve only ten or twenty years before being released. Children who are sentenced and incarcerated in the juvenile justice system are usually released after spending some period of time in juvenile custody, perhaps when they turn eighteen or twenty-one. But these three minor children were all prosecuted as adults, and all received life without parole. Ian Manuel actually spent eighteen years in solitary confinement, supposedly for his own protection. Even when the victim in his case (who survived and went on to lead a normal life) requested that his sentence be reduced, the courts refused to budge. By the time the EJI took on their cases, Trina, Ian, and Antonio were “broken by years of hopeless confinement” (although Ian had somehow managed to educate himself while in solitary confinement). Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, the EJI was finally able to get their sentences reduced, but they had to serve more time added onto the long time they had already spent in prison.

Reading this book, I was constantly horrified and ashamed of what passes for “justice for all” in these United States. It’s not justice, and it’s definitely not for all.

See also The New Jim Crow.

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Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

Posted by nliakos on December 14, 2016

by Dava Sobel (Walker & Co. 1999; ISBN 0-8027-1343-2)

Having enjoyed Dava Sobel’s previous book, Longitude, I opened this biography of Galileo Galilei with high expectations, and it did not disappoint. In addition to the meticulous retelling of Galileo’s life, discoveries, and inventions, Sobel has chosen to shine a light on the special relationship between the great philosopher and his elder daughter Suor Maria Celeste (born Virginia Galilei), who spent most of her short life in the Convent of San Matteo, in the town of Arcetri, outside of Florence. Suor Maria Celeste had a fine intellect and was by all accounts a virtuous and kind young woman who adored her father above all else. Despite his difficulties with the Roman Inquisition, the banning of his books,  his detainment (first in Rome, then in Tuscany and finally in his own house in Arcetri), she never doubted his goodness or rightness about natural phenomena such as the Earth’s motion.

What sets Galileo’s Daughter apart from other biographies of Galileo is the inclusion of many of the letters which Suor Maria Celeste wrote to her father (his replies have been lost), which the author translated herself. In the letters, we read about the many services that she performed for her father (from sewing his lace collars to copying his manuscripts to managing his affairs when he was away), the many requests she made of him (for money and ingredients for preparing foods and medicines, often not for herself but for others–including him), and most of all the great love and respect that she bore him.

When Suor Maria Celeste died of dysentery at the age of only 34, Galileo, who was then 70 years old, was overwhelmed with grief. When he himself died eight years later, his student and companion Vincenzio Viviani, unable to bury Galileo as he wished due to papal decree, secretly buried him together with his beloved daughter. Eventually, both sets of remains were re-interred together in a grand monument in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence.

Some things I did not realize about Galileo:

  • He was in poor health for most of his life.
  • He lost his sight in his old age.
  • He remained a devout Catholic despite all that he suffered at the hands of the Church and despite realizing that the Pope was not infallible.
  • Many of his friends never deserted him despite his vilification by Pope Urban VIII and the Roman Inquisition.
  • Einstein considered him the father of modern experimental science (pg. 326, Note).

Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image

Posted by nliakos on November 21, 2016

by Leonard Shlain (Penguin/Arkana 1998; ISBN 0-670-87883-9)

From time to time, I read a book that really upends my worldview. This is such a book. Leonard Shlain tells the story of human history through a neurologic lens; that is, how the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere over the right over the past five thousand years has predisposed the human race to aggression, mistrust of the female and of images. And the cause of this left hemispheric hijacking is literacy–in particular, alphabetic literacy. Over and over, throughout Western history as well as in Eastern cultures (e.g., India, China, Southeast Asian countries), he shows that once a culture adopts an alphabet and literacy spreads among its population, goddess worship declines (or is done away with completely), art comes under attack, and women’s rights are abrogated.

To the right hemisphere of the brain, Shlain attributes mysticism, emotion, appreciation of music, art, and dance, being, irrationality, intuition, love, faith, gestalts, concreteness, all-at-once perception (like facial recognition), metaphor, and non-verbal aspects of communication. The right hemisphere is most often dominant in women, who are the healers/nurturers of the human race.

To the left hemisphere, he attributes linearity, abstract thought, language, numbers, analysis, action (doing), reason, sequence, science, and  a sense of time. It is most often the province of men, the hunters/killers of the human race.

The really original part of Shlain’s hypothesis is to attribute the rise of the left brain to the detriment of the right to the invention of writing, especially alphabetic writing, which is not only abstract but forcibly linear and sequential. The process of learning to read (not the content of what is read), he argues, actually changes the human brain over time, rendering it more prone to abstract, linear thought and eventually to bellicosity, aggression, and suppression of images and women’s rights. Again and again across human history, he shows how war, persecutions and massacres (think the Spanish Inquisition, the slaughter of first peoples in the Americas, the 15th-17th century witch-hunts in Europe and America, the Holocaust) follow increases in literacy.

In the Epilogue, Shlain confesses, “As a writer, as an avid reader, and as a scientist, I had the uneasy feeling that I was turning on one of my best friends” as he “expended considerable ink bashing the left brain”. Reading his book, I often felt longstanding assumptions being turned on their heads–for instance, the assumption that monotheism represented some sort of progress (but Shlain points out that the first alphabetic people, the Jews, in recognizing one all-powerful male God, were rejecting the divine feminine principle that had checked the hunter/killer in us for millennia).

Each chapter in the book focuses on a left/right dichotomy:

  • Image/Word (an introduction to the book’s thesis)
  • Hunters/Gatherers (male and female roles in ancient prehistoric societies; the beginnings of language)
  • Right Brain/Left Brain (what each hemisphere is good at)
  • Males: Death/Females: Life (prehistoric human societies; the agricultural revolution)
  • Nonverbal/Verbal (how the left-right balance shifted to left dominance; how speech differs from written language)
  • Cuneiform/Marduk (early Mesopotamian peoples, who created the first written language we know of, and their creation myth–the horrific slaying of the goddess Tiamat by the god Marduk)
  • Hieroglyphs/Isis (ancient Egypt, where writing was pictorial and women enjoyed high status)
  • Aleph/Bet (ancient Hebrews and their alphabet, which Shlain speculates was the first in the world)
  • Hebrews/Israelites (musings on the Exodus and how Hebrew society was transformed by the Old Testament: “The miracle, I believe, was  the reduction of graphic symbols from  thousands to two dozen.” The Israelites’ hostility toward images)
  • Abraham/Moses (more Jewish history: Abram/Abraham, Yahweh, Jacob, Joseph in Egypt, Moses and the Exodus, the writing down of Yahweh’s commandments)
  • Thera/Matzah (the Exodus again; how the eruption of Thera’s volcano could have been the cause of some of the miracles described therein)
  • Adam/Eve (musings on who wrote the Old Testament; different versions of Biblical stories; early gods and goddesses)
  • Cadmus/Alpha (Prince Cadmus introduced alphabetic writing to the Greeks; misogyny among the ancient Greeks; the Old testament and the Iliad)
  • Sappho/Ganymede (sexual excess, homosexuality, and bisexuality in ancient Greek culture; as opposed to the rather straitlaced Israelite culture)
  • Dionysus/Apollo (the right-brained/left-brained dichotomy in classical Greek mythology)
  • Athens/Sparta (Greek myths that illustrate women’s loss of power and prestige; the increasing sexism of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle)
  • Lingam/Yoni (ancient Indians’ views of books, images and the divine feminine)
  • Birth/Death (the Buddha and the religion he founded; Buddhist views on images and women; comparison with Hinduism)
  • Yin/Yang (how to reconcile Chinese patriarchy with the equality of the female principle as evidenced by the yin/yang circle; musings on the Chinese writing system and how it differs from an alphabetic system)
  • Taoism/Confucianism  (how Lao-tzu resisted writing while Confucius embraced it, eventually winning out–as a religion with a sacred book always wins out over one with only an oral tradition; how the writing down of Lao-tzu’s aphorisms transformed his belief system into something much different)
  • B.C./A.D. (Alexander the Great, the early Roman Empire; Judaism in the Roman Empire)
  • Jesus/Christ (how the right-brained ideas of Jesus turned into the left-brained, anti-woman ideas of Paul
  • Death/Rebirth (how Paul conceived of the new religion that would become Christianity)
  • Patriarchs/Heretics (early Christian history: misogynistic Orthodox vs.  more egalitarian Gnostics [Shlain: “The Orthodox/Gnostic struggle was at its core a conflict between words and images”]; Montanus, Valentinus, Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine, and how they corrupted Jesus’ original message)
  • Reason/Madness (the Jewish revolt against the Romans; why the early Christians accepted and even sought martyrdom; how alphabet literacy was instrumental to the spread of Christianity)
  • Illiteracy/Celibacy, 500-1000 (after the fall of the Roman Empire, literacy waned and female rights resurged; the pro-feminine Age of Chivalry; the rise of the cult of Mary; the demonization of the feminine in the devil [a concept original to Christians]; Christian ascetism; Benedict and the invention of all-male monastic communities, which “did more to undermine the position of medieval women than any other social institution”)
  • Muslin Veils/Muslim Words (the predictable loss of freedom for Arab women once the Arabs got their own sacred book, the Quran; how the illiterate Prophet’s views of and behavior with women were corrupted by later literate Muslims who wrote the Hadith; how face veiling undermines the right hemisphere; the history and geography of female genital mutilation and how it is tied to literacy rates)
  • Mystic/Scholastic, 1000-1300 (the Crusades and the resulting rediscovery of Classical learning; women’s prestige and rights at a high point in Europe; how Pope Gregory VII began to replace medieval feminine values with masculine ones; enforced celibacy and misogyny [along with promoting literacy]; Abelard and Heloise; the mass murder of the Cathars and Albigensians, Christians with a more feminine, tolerant orientation; the beginnings of the Inquisition; Scholasticism [a balanced right/left philosophy]; Hildegard von Bingen vs. Thomas Aquinas)
  • Humanist/Egoist, 1300-1500 (how Gutenberg’s printing press set the stage for exploding literacy; the Renaissance and its anti-female bias; the difference between male and female advice, and what happens when men lack female advisers; six Popes whose reigns “constitute one of the most dramatic examples of sustained folly in recorded history”; the corruption of the Church which led to the Protestant Reformation)
  • Protestant/Catholic (Martin Luther’s revolution; imageless, drab Protestantism versus Catholic images and colors; Protestant views of the female; John Calvin, who was even more misogynistic than Luther)
  • Faith/Hate (reigns of terror, religious persecution, the Anabaptists, how reading the Bible for themselves transformed European peasantry, religious wars, the Spanish Inquisition, the collision between literate Europeans and native Americans after Columbus’ “discovery”; Henry VIII and the Church of England; the repression of the Huguenots in France; the Italian Inquisition; Protestants vs. Catholics in the Netherlands; Africans and slavery. “Taken as a whole, the religious wars that wracked Europe in the 150 years after the printing press had transformed European culture can be viewed as a sort of mass madness.”
  • Sorcery/Science (the witch hunts of the 15th-17th centuries)
  • Positive/Negative, 1648-1899 (Darwin, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Industrial Revolution, the discovery of electromagnetism, the invention of photography, which “did for images what the printing press had done for written words”)
  • Id/Superego, 1900-1945 (Freud, Charlie Chaplin and the rise of images; relativity and quantum mechanics; the resurgence of the right hemisphere; surrealism in art and literature; nationalism and feminism; communism (another religion with a sacred book), Nazism and the holocaust; the power of the spoken word on the radio
  • Page/Screen, 1945-2000 (television and the Internet, which are responsible for a return to prestige of images [and not coincidentally, a resurgence of women’s rights])

In this month following the shocking election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, I wonder if Trump’s boast that he has never read a whole book, coupled with many of his supporters’ disregard of facts and reason, is a new phase of anti-literate right-brain resurgence (Shlain points out that each time a culture’s means of communication changes, a kind of madness takes over). It’s difficult to see anything positive in this particular change, but as Shlain says, when we are in the washing machine being tossed around, it’s hard to observe that the clothes are getting clean!

I really liked this book for the way it forced me to look at things in a completely new way, but I should mention that Shlain sometimes attributes cause and effect to two events without showing how he arrived at that conclusion.

Other resources:

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Posted by nliakos on September 12, 2016

by Benjamin Franklin (Dover Thrift Editions, copyright 1996, ISBN 978-0-486-29073-7; originally published posthumously by J. P Lippincott, 1868)

I don’t remember having read Franklin’s Autobiography before, but it should be on all Americans’ required reading list. I bought my Dover Thrift Edition for a whopping $2 at the Benjamin Franklin Museum in Philadelphia earlier this summer (B&N and Amazon both list it at $3.60.). It has 136 pages of small, closely set type, and lacks the annotations that would have been helpful in establishing and explaining the context for the people and events described by Franklin, but even lacking these, it is fascinating reading and appeals even to a modern reader who has forgotten much (and never knew a lot to begin with).

The Autobiography began as a letter written to Franklin’s son with the aim of explaining how Franklin’s own success in life was achieved, in the hope that his descendants might “find some of [the ways he achieved success] suitable to their own situations, and therefore fit to be imitated.”  He describes his early life, how he became a printer, his escape from Boston to Philadelphia at the tender age of seventeen, and his rise to prominence in the colony of Pennsylvania. He does not omit behavior of which he was not proud; for example, he writes how when he went to England, he never wrote to his girlfriend, Miss Deborah Read; believing he had forgotten her (as he probably had), she married someone else, with whom she was unhappy. Later, after that marriage ended, she and Franklin became close again, and he married her in 1730. He wrote, “We throve together, and have ever mutually endeavor’d to make each other happy. Thus I corrected that great erratum as well as I could.” Later in life, Franklin, by then a kind of elder statesman, was persuaded to finish and update the autobiography. He then added Parts Three and Four, but was unable to finish them before he died, so the Revolutionary War and its aftermath are unfortunately not included.

It is astonishing to think of Franklin’s many achievements: Philadelphia’s fire department, public library, hospital, the academy that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society… He published a newspaper (the Pennsylvania Gazette) and almanac, printed paper money for the colony, served in the colony’s militia and supplied the British army with provisions during the French and Indian War, was Pennsylvania’s ambassador to England, transformed the American postal system, invented the Franklin stove, bifocals, counterfeit-proof paper money, and more…. The list goes on and on (not all of it included in the Autobiography, which he never managed to finish; see this timeline for a complete list). I was reminded of Ayla, the character in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, who domesticated the first dog and horse, invented surgical stitches and a host of other things, and almost single-handedly created human civilization. Only Franklin was a real person; he actually did all those things.

Franklin considered himself an honest, hard-working man of integrity who never tried to profit from his position of influence–which is why, he claims, he was able to wield so much influence; people respected him and trusted his judgment. He worked hard at being a virtuous person. He avoided alcohol, meat, gambling and other vices. If you read his Autobiography, you will wish you could have met this extraordinary man.

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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics

Posted by nliakos on August 27, 2016

by Daniel James Brown (Penguin 2013 , ISBN978-0-14-312547-1)

If you enjoyed Chariots of Fire, you will love this story of the University of Washington crew who won gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, to the dismay of Hitler and his Olympic organizers who did their best to put the American (and British) crew at a disadvantage while favoring the German and Italian crews. You will also learn a lot about rowing, shell construction (the long, narrow boats are called shells), the Depression, the rise of the Nazis and their calculated use of the Berlin Olympics to appear legitimate in the eyes of the world, the rowing coaches, and the young men, undergraduates at the University of Washington, who powered the Husky Clipper to victory in Berlin despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Brown focuses his attention on Joe Rantz, a young man who grew up motherless and in poverty and was abandoned by his father and stepmother when he was fifteen. The story of how Joe managed to finish high school and then put himself through college is truly amazing. He never lost sight of his dreams: of marrying his girlfriend Joyce Simdars, of making the U of Washington rowing team and later of making it to the Olympics, and of graduating from the university. Brown was able to interview Rantz at length before he died in 2007, with the result that he could accurately describe Joe’s thoughts and the emotional highs and lows of eighty years ago.

Brown’s description of the race for the gold in Chapter 18 had me on the edge of my seat (reading in the Metro on the way home from the Shakespeare Free-for-All, where we had seen a wonderful performance of The Tempest). There were so many strikes against the Americans during that 2,000-meter race that it seems impossible that they could have won it; yet win it they did. What a story! No wonder this book has been on the Washington best-seller list for many weeks!

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The Secret Chord

Posted by nliakos on May 30, 2016

by Geraldine Brooks (Viking 2015; ISBN 978-0-670-02577-0)

If only Geraldine Brooks could write her historical novels as fast as I read them! I have now run out of Brooks’ novels (but am looking forward to sampling her nonfiction, especially Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women and Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over, which was recently recommended by a librarian at my local library).

The Secret Chord is the story of David–of David & Goliath fame, yes, King David, the writer of psalms–narrated by Natan (Nathan),  who has divine visions of what will be (and sometimes what is or what has already been) and serves as an advisor and confidant to David. An aging David has authorized Natan to interview people from his past about his life and to record the story; Natan, having finished this task, refers to the securing of the manuscript in “the high, dry caves where [he] played as a child”–perhaps a reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the possibility that such a manuscript might someday be unearthed.

Brooks/Natan portray David as a gifted musician and poet, a charismatic leader, and  a military and political strategist, whose abundance of love for his sons leads him to spoil them outrageously, thus sowing the seeds of his downfall. His seduction (or rape?) of Batsheva, wife of the faithful general Uriah, ends in tragedy for all, but eventually Batsheva (now a favorite wife) will bear the child who will become David’s successor–Shlomo (Solomon).

It makes me want reread the story of David in the Bible, because I am curious as to how much Brooks fabricated and from what actual references. (I did the same after reading The Red Tent.) I also guess that the songs and poems quoted in the novel are actual psalms, although I did not recognize any of them.

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March

Posted by nliakos on May 21, 2016

by Geraldine Brooks (Viking 2005; ISBN 0-670-03335-9)

I guess most American women have read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women at some point; I know I did, but it wasn’t a favorite that I reread over and over, and my memory of it is quite vague, despite having seen the 1994 movie based on it. Basically, I remembered that the main character was named Jo, and that was about it.

Jo had three sisters (Meg, Beth, and Amy), a mother named Marmee (which I took to be an odd spelling of Mommy, but according to this, it was her nickname), and a father who wasn’t there. It was set in Massachusetts during the Civil War, and he had gone away to minister to the Union troops fighting to end slavery. Master storyteller Geraldine Brooks tells Mr. March’s side of the story in this amazing historical novel.

In the fascinating afterword, Brooks explains that she based her Mr. March’s character on Alcott’s own father, Amos Bronson Alcott, who, like Mr. March and his wife, was a fervent abolitionist. Alcott was a teacher; Mr. March is a minister (albeit an unconventional one) who becomes a teacher to runaway slaves (so-called “contraband”) on a northern-run cotton plantation in Virginia while the war rages on in other parts. (One of his pupils will use the literacy skills he taught her to save his life later).

March is a strict vegan (again, Brooks based this trait on Alcott’s father, who founded a commune whose members eschewed not only meat but also wool, and who refused to fertilize their fields with animal manure or to kill agricultural pests that were ruining their crops) and very dedicated to pacifism and abolition. The horrors of the war sorely test his values, and during a horrific attack on the plantation by a rebel militia, his survival instinct will not allow him to sacrifice his life for his friends, leaving him a changed man, one who is overcome with guilt and self-hatred. March feels doubly guilty because the war has brought him back into the presence of Grace Clement, whom he had encountered as a young man when she was a slave on her father’s plantation, and with whom he had a dalliance.

Several chapters told from Marmee’s point of view, when March is hospitalized in Washington, DC and physically unable to write his own story, explore the shock and pain experienced by the wife as she realizes that her husband has not been completely faithful to her.

Like all of Brooks’ novels, this one pulls the reader into the hearts and minds of the characters and teaches about the period and the events they are living through in a fascinating way. (I feel inspired to reread Little Women.)

 

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Microbe Hunters

Posted by nliakos on March 12, 2016

by Paul de Kruif (Blue Ribbon Books; © 1926 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.)

Did you look at the pub date? That’s right–1926. During the Great Depression; between the World Wars. There was no airline industry. There was no Internet. There was no Big Pharma. I don’t know if the book belonged to my mother (born in 1914) or my father (born in 1905–so more likely, I guess). I remember reading some of it, but not how old I was when I did. . . . perhaps 13 or 14? I remember reading about Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who invented the microscope in the 18th century and was the very first human to see the microbial world, and Louis Pasteur, and Robert Koch. Lightly drawn checks on the Contents page indicate that I may also have read about Lazzaro Spallanzani, who proved that microbes were living things that begot more microbes; Émile Roux and Emil Behring, who made the serum that cured diphtheria; Theobald Smith, who was the first to show that microbial disease could be transmitted by another living thing, a tick; Ronald Ross and Battista Grassi, who discovered how malaria was carried by the mosquito Anopheles claviger; Walter Reed, who sought to prevent or cure yellow fever; and Paul Ehrlich, who invented a way to stain bacteria to make them easier to see. For no reason that I can remember, I apparently skipped the chapters about Élie Metchnikoff, who invented calomel ointment, which cured syphilis; and David Bruce, who solved the mysteries of nagana (or trypanosomiasis), a disease that killed Europeans’ horses and cattle) and sleeping sickness.

This time around, I read everything, and I saw things through a very different lens than I did as an adolescent. Then, I suppose I saw these men as heroes who saved mankind from terrible diseases. They were, and they did, but they also slaughtered untold numbers of innocent animals to achieve their goals (without benefit of any laws requiring humane care of the animals), used unsuspecting human beings in some of their research, made possible the human population explosion that plagues us now, and enabled a few European nations to divide Africa up into colonies, robbing native Africans of their birthright and leading to the destruction of African wildlife.

Of course, I would not want to die of yellow fever, rabies, malaria, tuberculosis, diphtheria, syphilis, smallpox, or any of the other diseases brought under control by medical science (although as we now know, the microbes are quite capable of evolving along with our so-called cures and vaccines, staying a step ahead of us–I am writing this soon after the terrible Ebola outbreak in West Africa and at the beginning of the frightening Zika epidemic that is spreading quickly through Latin America.). But after reading Jared Diamond, I can appreciate how the European powers’ conquest of Africa was delayed by trypanosomiasis and malaria; finding cures for these diseases and others made that conquest possible. As de Kruif wrote, “Bruce made the first step towards the opening up of Africa.” He saw that as a good thing, but in retrospect, I do not (for either the people or the animals that live there). In order to “open up” the continent, he advocated the extermination of native African wildlife. De Kruif was unsympathetic; of sleeping sickness, he wrote, “It was turning the most generous soil on earth back into an unproductive preserve for giraffes and hyenas.”

Furthermore, de Kruif was writing at a time when Africans could be called “darkies” and their children “pickaninnies,” and he sneered at Jews, the Japanese and the Portuguese, among others. His racist, Eurocentric  attitude is shocking to a modern reader. On the other hand, he was about to actually interview some of his subjects before they died, which seems amazing today. His writing style is peculiar to us–a mix of conversational/slangy and very formal styles. Ninety years can change a lot. However, despite these drawbacks, the book is still available today through Google Books, and from Barnes and Noble and Amazon, which will even deliver it wirelessly to your Kindle. Paul de Kruif would be astonished.

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Greenback: The Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America

Posted by nliakos on January 18, 2016

by Jason Goodwin (Henry Holt & Co., 2003; ISBN 0-8050-6407-9)

Greenback is about the history of the United States as seen through the lens of its money (or about the history of American money seen in the context of U.S. history). Most of it surprised me; much of it confused me. Money is something that seems so universal, so logical, so unchanging (except for inflation) that I never realized that the dollar was somehow different from the other currencies of the world, and that Americans’ attitudes toward money were (are) somehow fundamentally different from those of other peoples, but this is what Goodwin proposes. He emphasizes that money is just an idea, anyway. Whether it is gold, silver, dollars, or euros, “money is numbers, plus regulations, plus belief.” (p. 261) This is a difficult concept to come to terms with, although I know it to be true.

Goodwin also describes the chaos of American monetary policy in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was shocked at the untrustworthiness of the dollar, at the rampant greed of the bankers (although I guess that hasn’t changed much), and at the impact of technology on printing, counterfeiting, mining, banking, and every aspect of life in America.

I was also confused by history hitherto unknown to me, mixed with economic theory I don’t understand well. I could not remember from one page to the next what I had read, who had done what, who was a bimetallist, who a silverite, what Republicans and Democrats stood for at various times in our history, etc. I think I should probably read the book again, and take notes. (But I probably won’t.)

For anyone interested in economics or American history, this book is a fascinating read.

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