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Posts Tagged ‘history’

“Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”  That quote sums up for me the essence of W.E.B. Du Bois‘ The Souls of Black Folk, which my book club is reading. If men would just know men, “double consciousness” would not be a way of life for people of color — a way of living that splits people in two, the person they are and the person the racist world sees them as.

Du Bois wrote this book around the turn of the 20th century; Jim Crow was the law of the land, and the initial hope and promise of the Freedmen’s Bureau was a distant memory. Du Bois’ descriptions of life in south Georgia (the “black belt”) are haunting to me because we spent five years living just 45 minutes north of Albany in Americus, and the legacy of systemic inequity is still evident, or was within the last two decades when we were there. The places where each race attends their own churches, their own schools (although not officially, but in many parts of rural Georgia, including the town where we lived, many white families send their kids to private school and the percentages of black and white children in public school don’t come anywhere near matching those of the population at large), their own entertainment — still existed when my family lived there in the early 2000s.

I was also struck by the chapters on individuals’ struggles to live as their true selves — Of Alexander Crummell and Of the Coming of John — which are especially powerful positioned after essays on reconstruction, the economy of share crop cotton farming, education, etc. I struggled, if I’m honest, to get through some of the history and sociology; important as it is to understand, it’s dense and difficult. Anytime I read about reconstruction I wonder what would have happened if Lincoln lived?

As I’ve thought many times recently when trying to read a more diverse history of the U.S. than what I was taught, it’s appalling that public schools don’t fully teach American history. There is so much I am only learning in more depth as an adult that was glossed over in a few sentences in my childhood history books. Someone I know told me recently that every so often he looks at 5th grade social studies books and checks to see if Martin Luther King is mentioned in a sidebar — rather than having his own chapter.

King, at least, is a household name. What about Alexander Crummell, who I’d never heard of until reading The Souls of Black Folk, or A. Philip Randolph, a man who is among the most important labor and civil rights pioneers in this country but I’ll bet many of you have never heard of (I only learned about him at a free breakfast about using online sources for historical research at the ACRL conference)?

It’s never too late to add “narrative plentitude” to one’s understanding so I’m going to keep learning about privilege and its lack.

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The subtitle of John Gilbert Winant’s memoir of his time as US Ambassador to Britain during WWII is “An account of a stewardship.” Several years ago I read Lynne Olson’s terrific history of this time, Citizens of London and I became a fan of the unassuming Winant. His view of ambassadorship as stewardship is one of the reasons why: he was a public servant, who took seriously his call to serve the greater good and not American interests alone.

Winant opens the book, addressed to Geoffrey Story Smith godfather of Winant’s son John, by explaining that he is writing from the flat in the embassy building in London, which he is moving out of, reflecting on the momentous years he’s lived there. “One of the deeper reasons for wanting to write to you is the growing disillusionment of today; which not only dims and obscures the present, but is trying to cloud the past.” He wants to set the record straight: men and women did selfless things, quietly heroic things, to defeat fascism.

What’s especially moving about that line  is that Winant committed suicide around the time Letter from Grosvenor Square was published. The book is so full of kind and admiring observations, even about people who don’t come across as well in other accounts, like Roosevelt. Winant seemed to see the better nature of people, and to principles of fairness and justice, including fair labor practices. After describing how women contributed to the British war effort, he notes, “The part women played is still a binding force in the light and life of human progress.”

Because this is a first person account and not a history, it’s incomplete — Winant tells the things he felt were memorable or notable about his work, and the work of those around him. He explains some details of U.S. farm policy that made it possible to supply England with more food, but he doesn’t talk about his son being shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans, except briefly in the opening chapter addressed to Smith. And he tells a number of stories about Churchill and other British leaders but speaks particularly admiringly of ordinary British people who carried on with their lives regardless of the relentless German bombing.

If you want the full story of Winant’s time as ambassador, don’t miss Citizens of London, and if you want a glimpse into the generous spirit of the man who spent his entire adult life in the service of others, read Letter from Grosvenor Square.

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This past week or so I’ve been reading Sy Montgomery‘s illustrated memoir How to Be a Good Creature: a Memoir in Thirteen Animalswhich my book club is discussing next week, and Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis. The friend who went to the Five Colleges booksale with me last year went again this year and got Strapless. I had picked it up myself at some point (possibly on a free cart), so when I asked her lately what she was reading I decided to read it as well.

I’ve written about Sy Montgomery’s last few books here at bookconscious — if you’ve been here with me you know she is an excellent writer who combines eye-opening, thought provoking insights into the animal world with similarly observant and self-aware insights into the human animal. Many of her books are part memoir — she is a large-hearted person who shares her own thoughts and emotions and that’s part of what makes her writing so delightful. Reading her work often feels like listening to a friend telling you about their life.

How to Be a Good Creature is more like listening to a wise teacher. Montgomery reflects on how from a young age she felt more at ease with animals than other children, how she took a dream trip as a “citizen scientist” in the Australian Outback that changed her life, and how the many vertebrates and invertebrates (a tarantula named Clarabelle as well as more recently, the octopuses made famous in her best-selling The Soul of an Octopusshe’s known have contributed to her life and added to her understanding of the world. “Just being with any animal is edifying, for each has a knowing that surpasses human understanding,” she writes. “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”

There are some tough things in this book; if you’ve read any of Montgomery’s other books you know she didn’t have the best time as a child and had a longstanding rift with her parents that she handled with grace and empathy. Montgomery has also lived with bouts of depression. But ultimately she has come through some very real challenges with her spirit and her large heart in tact with help from the animals she has known, and she writes about that here. So if you’re in the mood for a book that will restore your faith, if not in humanity (although there are also many wonderful humans in Sy Montgomery’s life and she writes affectionately about them as well), at least in the general goodness of creation, this is a book for you. And of course, if you’ve had an animal help you through difficulties you’ll be nodding along.

If on the other hand you want to read a book that will remind you that obsession with fame and a press that inundates readers with sordid and titillating stories and profits from feeding a perceived mass desire to judge people and relish in their bad fortune are nothing new, Deborah Davis’s Strapless is for you. It’s certainly also a book about John Singer Sargent, and about the wealthy, vain, eccentric French Creole woman, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who Sargent painted in his iconic portrait of Gilded Age Paris, Madame X. Even if you’ve never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see that famous painting you’ve probably seen an image of it at some point. You may or may not know it caused a sensation and humiliating criticism for both artist and subject when Sargent showed it at the Paris Salon in 1884 in large part because it originally portrayed her with one strap fallen off her shoulder.

This is incredible to us today, but Davis does an excellent job of showing exactly how bizarre it was then, given the types of entertainment popular in Paris at the time. This aspect of the book is a fascinating and somewhat alarming examination of how humans have always created strangely detrimental ways of engaging with each other in society. A very popular activity in 1800s Paris was viewing dead bodies at the morgue, another was reading ridicule of famous people in newspapers, and still another was reading sensational reports of crimes. The next time you despair of the endless cycle of bad news and the obsession over Kim Kardashian’s shape, remember this is nothing new.

Beyond this disheartening reminder that dehumanizing popular culture is not a contemporary invention, Davis provides a really interesting look at the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century art world, at Sargent’s career and work, at his friend Henry James’ role in helping Sargent gain the attention he deserved, and the many other people who befriended him, commissioned his work, or admired it. I am an admirer, and I also am a big fan of Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose own scandalous portrait (which like Madame X does not appear scandalous today), is one of two portraits he painted of Gardner on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Which also holds one of his famous large scale works, El Jaleo. Gardner actually built a space to display El Jaleo before she even owned it.

Anyway, as my friend noted, there is a lot packed into this book, and it’s a really interesting read. I learned new things about Sargent even though I also read Sargent’s Women not that long ago. That book was also good, but focused more on the wealthy American and English women he painted (including Gardner). If you enjoy art, or even if you don’t but you’re fascinated by culture and history, you will enjoy Strapless.

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I had heard of John Dominic Crossan before, but first really dug into his ideas in Karen Armstrong’s St. Paul: the Apostle We Love to Hate. I was intrigued enough that when I saw his book The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer at a used/remaindered bookstore in Portsmouth a few weeks ago (Book & Bar) I picked it up. I started it the week before Holy Week and it took me a couple of weeks of reading it slowly to finish. It’s a book that requires some re-reading and thinking to digest.

Yes, this book is challenging, but only because it’s deep and rich and thorough. I grew up Catholic and have been Episcopalian for around 18 or 19 years. I didn’t grow up learning much about the bible, so I am still fascinated by the differences in the Gospels and their writers, which Crossan gets into. He also fills in historical context for both Jesus’ time and the writers’, and provides a good bit of literary analysis as to style, pattern, word choice, etc., honing in especially on the “key” words in the prayer: “Father,” “name,” “kingdom,” “will,” “bread,” “debt,” and “temptation.” And he’s a darn good writer himself. To be able to make clear some pretty heavy stuff, like whether God is a “God of nonviolent distributive justice, and restorative righteousness” or “a God of violent retributive justice and punitive righteousness” or both, is a gift.

Here’s what Crossan says at the beginning of the book that the Lord’s Prayer is ” . . . a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world . . . . a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth.” He had me at that. Addressing the criticism that has been directed at him, he notes this is not “Liberalism, Socialism, or Communism . . . . We sometimes name that biblical vision of God’s World-Household as Egalitarianism, but, actually, Enoughism would be a more accurate description.”

Enoughism. Let that settle for a bit. Imagine it.

The book crescendos with a final short chapter addressing the aforementioned difficulty of understanding God, and concludes with Crossan’s brief but brilliant assessment of justice, comparing justice and love to the soul and the body — if you’re missing one of those, you’re dead. Just so, he says, “Justice without love or love without justice is a moral corpse. That is why justice without love is brutal and love without justice becomes banal.”

If you’ve come out of Holy Week into Easter fired up and ready to learn more, this is an excellent book about what it means to follow the Way of Love that Jesus taught his disciples and teaches us. If you’re just curious about the Lord’s Prayer as a hymn/poem, or about first century sociopolitical history in the Middle East under Rome, there’s something for you here as well. A great read.

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One of the joys of cataloging is that I see books as they come in that I might not otherwise notice. Sargent’s Women by Donna Lucey was on one of my carts in the late fall and I was excited to read it. One of my favorite places is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and one of the four women Lucey writes about in this book is Gardner. I started reading Sargent’s Women after visiting the museum last weekend and hearing a docent talk about some of Sargent’s work, including his famous portrait of Gardner.

The three other Sargent portraits Lucey writes about are of Elsie Palmer, Elizabeth Chanler Chapman, and Sally Fairchild, although that chapter is primarily about Sally’s unconventional sister, Lucia Fairchild Fuller. Each woman’s story is interesting in its way. Fuller seemed the most compelling to me, not only because she came to live in New Hampshire near Cornish, where an arts colony thrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but also because she overcame illness and adversity to support her family with her own art (she became a renowned miniaturist ).

If there’s a common thread between these women it’s their status — all were wealthy, although Fuller fell on hard times because her husband was an entitled jerk and neither he nor his family cared to support Fuller and their children. All four women moved in rarified circles, where Sargent worked. Gardner was the only one who really did what she wanted in life, and enjoyed the support of those closest to her for the most part. These families seemed to all be pretty awful to each other, too, and it’s not just a matter of men ruling over women’s lives, although they did that plenty. There were mothers, sisters, and aunts interfering as well.

The four women are interesting to read about, in their way. I would have liked to know more about Sargent himself, although that’s not the point of this book. Sargent’s Women is interesting, and you could dip into a chapter, set it aside, and come back later to read about another woman and her portrait. It’s always intriguing to look at the lives of women mostly forgotten to history, even very privileged women, and to understand a little about the context in which an artist painted. This book, like the paintings of these women, gives us a glimpse into a world most of us can’t imagine.

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My dad and I share books and he brought me Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee  by Thomas J. Craughwell the last time he visited. It’s the story of how Jefferson’s slave, James Hemings, learned French cooking in Paris when Jefferson was sent to France in 1784 as an American envoy. Jefferson took James, who was Sally Heming’s older brother, along, promising that if he learned to cook like the French and agreed to teach a slave back at Monticello, then Jefferson would free him. The book also explores Jefferson’s love of food, gardening, and wine. It’s a quick read, with some interesting digressions, such as some brief observations of Jefferson from John and John Quincy Adams and a bit about Jefferson’s difficult relationship with Alexander Hamilton. The French revolution began when Jefferson was preparing to leave France, and those events appear in the book as well. There’s also a fascinating look at 18th century travel and details of Jefferson’s three month trip around the south of France and northern Italy.

But mainly, it’s about what Jefferson liked to eat and drink, what was superior about French cooking (for starters they cooked on stoves, rather than over hearths, and had better pots and utensils), and how Jefferson tried to improve American agriculture through what he learned abroad (bringing plants, seeds, techniques, and even a rice cleaning machine home). Craughwell credits Jefferson with introducing French cooking to America along with champagne, which wasn’t often consumed here. He and James also brought home macaroni and cheese, that all American food which was unknown here before Jefferson’s French sojourn.

Because not much is known about James Hemings, Craughwell can only speculate about how he felt and why he did not claim his freedom in France, where he could legally do so. Hemings’ altercations with his former French tutor in Paris, and later his tragic death in America, are also mostly a mystery. It’s sad that this man’s life was valued so little that he’s mostly a shadow in the historical record.

Another man who played a large role in the life of a historical figure and then was almost erased from history is Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria’s “munshi,” or teacher. Like James Hemings, he changed culinary history, as he introduced the Queen to curry. In fact writer Shrabani Basu was working on a book about curry when she learned of Abdul’s life, and she went on to write about him and his beloved royal pupil. I went to see the film adaptation of Victoria & Abdul a couple of weekends ago and that got me curious about how much of it was true, so I read the book. If you haven’t heard of the film or the story, Abdul Karim was a Muslim Indian clerk in Agra who was sent to London for the Queen’s golden jubilee and ended up becoming her teacher and friend. His elevation from simple servant to confidant who Queen Victoria bestowed with gifts, including homes at Windsor, Balmoral, and the Isle of Wight, caused so much conflict with Victoria’s household, family, and even some government ministers that she was physically ill from the stress of defending her friend.

The film compresses what was actually thirteen years of service into what appears to be a much shorter time. But it does depict the racism, bigotry, and classism of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and his allies in the Queen’s household. Quick aside — the film is worth watching just to see Eddie Izzard being a racist jerk and Judi Dench having none of it. While Victoria, in her late sixties when she met Abdul, was curious and open to learning about his culture and religion, and mastered Urdu enough to write and speak it, her family and many of the government officials tasked with administrative powers over India were disdainful of India, couldn’t be bothered to distinguish between Muslim and Hindu servants, considered Abdul low born, and even questioned whether Victoria was of sound mind. Some wished him dead, others just wished he’d disappear, and several conspired to try to find dirt on him. The Queen dealt with it all, and stood by her friend.

She comes off better than Abdul in the book; he sometimes appears vain and he did ask for a lot of favors. But he also knew that he was suspected and looked down upon. Victoria interested me enough that I may seek out more books about her — Basu’s portrayal of her is that she recognized how prejudiced and selfish people close to her were and did what she wanted to the extent she could. Basu’s book also illuminated for me that even though Victoria was a very powerful woman, she lived in a man’s world, and many of the men around her did not credit her with being smart or worldly enough to know what was best.

Both books are entertaining; Victoria & Abdul seemed like it couldn’t done with some editing, as some information repeats. Neither takes long to read — I finished both in the last couple of days. If you like history and are interested in the stories beyond the headlines, either book is a good read. If you enjoy food history, both are interesting additions to that genre, although Victoria & Abdul is only marginally about food.

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Much of my reading lately has been about strong women; Night Waking is a novel about Anna Bennett, Dr. Bennett as she introduces herself to the police officer who insists on calling her Mrs. Cassingham (her husband Giles’ surname) when they interview her about the infant skeleton she and her son Raphael accidentally dug up as they planted an apple tree. Anna is an Oxford Fellow, working on a history of childhood in the 18th century. She’s with her family, Giles and Raphael and Timothy, who is still a toddler (the boys go by Raph and Moth, so hereafter I’ll call them that), on an island off the coast of Scotland, where Giles’ family has had a home for generations. Giles studies puffins, and to augment their academic earnings, they’ve made a vacation cottage out of an old building on the island and are about to host the first guests.

I first read Sarah Moss last winter when I chose Names for the Sea for one of my book bingo squares (a book set in a place I’d like to visit – although after I read Moss’s memoir of a year in Iceland, I wasn’t so sure). Her nonfiction writing is witty and smart, and so is Night Waking. Anna is fed up with caring for small children and managing the house (or not really, as she is frequently out of kitchen essentials, inconvenient when you live on an island with no shops) and mourning the loss of her intellectual life. This passage sums it up: “When we got to the beach, after passing half the morning in negotiation about putting on shoes, Moth walked into the sea and then had a tantrum because it was wet, and Raph stood with his back to the waves talking about potential uses of hydroelectricity on oil rigs. I sat on a rough rock, my arms wrapped around Moth as he drummed his heels on my shins and tried to bite my arms, and remembered the staircase in the Bodleian Library . . . . I decided that if I made Moth walk the whole five hundred metres back to the house he might take less than forty-five minutes to go to sleep after lunch and, if I didn’t rush him at all, stopped to inspect every pebble and touch each flowering grass, it might almost be time to start putting together an early lunch when we arrived.” Sound familiar, mothers of young moms out there?

Anna and Giles quarrel a bit, in a half hearted way, over the children and the work to be done and the work they’re not getting done, and Anna looks into the history of the island to try to determine why an infant might be buried there. There’s a side story about the family who come to stay — Zoe, an anorexic teen, her cardiologist workaholic father and housewife mother whose controlling attitude has driven her daughter to illness and despair. I didn’t like that storyline (I’m tired of the old trope of the mother causing anorexia), but it did move some of the story about Anna and Giles along. And Moss humanizes the harping mother, just a bit.

What I loved about the story is the way Moss wove Anna’s historical research into childhood and parenting and the lives of women and children on the island into the novel. The mystery of the infant skeleton is interesting, too. Of course I also appreciated the honest look at parenting — Anna is a bit extreme, but most parents of small children go through her familiar swings from boredom and exhaustion to almost overwhelming love and tenderness for their offspring. All in all it was a good read, one that made me chuckle at times, and that transported me to a faraway place and other people’s lives while also recognizing bits of my own, which is always enjoyable.

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