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review 2019-01-18 01:45
The Watsons Go To Birmingham
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 - Christopher Paul Curtis

The Watsons go to Birmingham is both a heart wrenching yet funny and relatable book about the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. As someone who as grown up in Alabama my whole life, I remember reading this book and laughing at some of the mannerisms Grandma had because it was something that I had seen from other grandmothers around me growing up. However, it also covers the tragic 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. This would be a great book to link to Alabama History or to read before a field trip to Birmingham to give students a context to what they will see on the trip. Another activity that you could do with this assignment is having students write a journal entry on what they think it would be like to have lived in that time period for them. This would be a book that I would read with 4th and 5th graders depending on what I was linking it to. 

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text 2019-01-17 20:03
Down for the Count - Reading progress update: I've read 22%.
Down For the Count (Pushkin Vertigo) - Martin Holmen,Henning Koch

Hey, the slang changed to proper British. Reads a lot smoother.

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review 2019-01-17 19:57
Fawkes
Fawkes - Nadine Brandes

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Gorgeous cover (I admit the cover + the title are what drew me to the book in the first place), and also an interesting take on historical events by showing them under the colours (see what I did there) of magic rather than religion. In this alternate early 17th-century world, people are able to bond with a specific colour, and exert control over items of this colour through the wearing of a mask. The conflict arises from how people view the use of colours: Keepers (the ‘Protestants’) believe that a person should only master one colour and not give in to the ‘White Light’ that governs them all, lest greed devours them and twists their powers to nefarious ends; while Igniters (the ‘Catholics’) believe that listening to the White Light, and controlling more than one colour, is the way to go. Both factions are in conflict not only because of these views, but because of a plague that turns people to stone, with each camp blaming the other for the advent of this mysterious illness.

Enters our protagonist and point of view character, Thomas Fawkes, son of the (now) infamous Guy Fawkes, who’s been struck by this very Stone Plague and can’t wait until he gets a mask of his own, learns to master a colour, and hopefully manages to heal himself, or at least make sure the plague will stay dormant in him and never spread further than his eye. Of course, things don’t go as planned, and as he finds himself reunited with his father, the latter offers him a place in a plot meant to blow up the King and Parliament (as in, literally blow up, re: Guy Fawkes, Bonfire Night, and all that).

So. Very, very interesting premise, and I really loved reading about the London that is the backdrop in this novel—not least because I actually go very often in the areas depicted here, and I enjoy retracing in my mind the characters’ steps in streets that I know well enough. Little winks are found here and there, too, such as Emma’s favourite bakery on Pudding Lane, or a stroll to the Globe. It may not seem much, but it always makes me smile.

The story was a slow development, more focused on the characters than on a quick unfolding of the plot. I don’t know if the latter is a strong or a weak point, because I feel it hinges on the reader’s knowledge of the actual Gunpowder Plot: if you know about it, then I think what matters more is not its outcome, but the journey to it, so to speak. If you don’t know it, though, the novel may in turn feel weak in that regard, by not covering it enough. I didn’t mind this slow development, since it allowed for room for the side plot with Emma and the Baron’s household, and I liked Emma well enough. I still can’t decide whether her secret felt genuine or somewhat contrived, but in the end, it didn’t matter so much, because she was a kickass person, with goals of her own, and actually more interesting than Thomas.

As a side note: yes, there is romance here. Fortunately, no gratuitous kiss and sex scenes that don’t bring anything to the story and only waste pages. In spite of the blurb that mentions how Thomas will have to choose between the plot and his love (= usually, a sure recipe for catastrophe in YA, with characters basically forgetting the meaning of things like “priorities” or “sense of responsibility”), it is more subtle than that. Thomas at least also starts considering other people being involved, such as, well, the three hundred Members of Parliament meant to go up in flames along with the King. Casualties, and all that…

Bonus points for White Light, who we don’t see much of, but was overall engaging and somewhat funny in a quirky way. I just liked its interventions, period.

Where I had more trouble with the story was Thomas himself, who was mostly whiny and obsessed with getting his mask. All the time. You’d get to wonder why his father trusted him and invited him to be part of the plot in the first place. Often enough, he came as self-centered and constantly wavering in his beliefs. While I can totally understand that the prospect of his plague suddenly spreading left him in a state of constant, nagging fear, and therefore prone to focus on this more than on other people’s interests, the way he hesitated between which way to pursue (stay faithful to the plot, or listen to the White Light, or shouldn’t he listen to his father, but then are his father’s beliefs really his own as well, etc.) was a bit tedious to go through. Good thing Emma was here to set his sight straights, and by this, I don’t mean showing him the light (OK, OK, I should stop with the puns now), but making him aware that her circumstances are more complicated than he thinks, in his own ‘privileged’ way, even though his being plagued does contribute to a common understanding of being immediately rejected because of what one looks like.

Also, let’s be honest, Guy wasn’t exactly Father of the Year either, and the story didn’t focus much on developing his ties with Thomas. They were united through the plot, but that was pretty much all, when this could’ve been a wonderful opportunity to reunite them differently, in deeper ways, too. There just wasn’t enough about him, about his personality, and in turn, this lessened the impact of Thomas’ decisions when it came to him.

Another issue for me was the magic system. I got the broad lines, and the reason for the Keepers/Igniters divide, but apart from that, we weren’t shown how exactly this magic works. It is, I’m sure, more subtle than simply voicing an order to a specific colour, and there seems to be a whole undercurrent of rules to it, that aren’t really explained. For instance, why can the masks only be carved by the biological father or mother of a person, and not by an adoptive parent (or even by anyone else)?

Mention in passing as well to language: sometimes, it veered into too modern territory (I mean 20/21st-century modern English specifically, not ‘but Shakespeare’s English was technically Modern English, too’ ;)). I think it was especially prevalent in Thomas’ discussions with White Light, and I found this jarring.

Conclusion: 3 stars, as I still liked the story overall, as well as the world depicted in it, despite the questions I still have about it. I was hoping for a stronger story, though.

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review 2019-01-17 16:02
A revisionist account of a pivotal election
The Election of 1860: "A Campaign Fraught with Consequences" - Michael F. Holt

The presidential election of 1860 was unlike any other in American history. The product of the contentious and often violent politics of the 1850s, it saw no less than four candidates contesting for the White House. With the fracturing of the Democratic Party over the issue of slavery, the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was able to win with a only a plurality of the vote, thanks to the majority he won in the electoral college through his near sweep of the populous states of the northern United States. In response to his victory, seven southern states sought to break away from the Union, an action that led to the bloodiest war in the nation's history and the eventual abolition of slavery in the country.

 

Given its dramatic nature and the momentous events that followed, the 1860 campaign has never wanted for attention from historians. Yet Michael F. Holt argues that a number of misconceptions have accumulated around the election which have skewed our perception of it. His book offers a revisionist account of the campaign that highlights these obscured or distorted elements in an effort to gain a better understanding of the issues that defined it for the voters who participated. Foremost among them, he argues, is the idea that the election was primarily about slavery, which he sees as the view of the southerners who would subsequently seek to break away from the union. For most voters, though, the main issue was the corruption of the Buchanan administration. Holt shows how Republicans highlighted this in the months leading up to the election, making the case that what was needed was a clean sweep of the executive branch. As he explains this also played a key role in the selection of "Honest Abe" as the nominee, as Lincoln's profile was one better suited to make the case for the Republicans than that of his main competitors, William Seward and the corrupt Simon Cameron.

 

While the Republicans sharpened their arguments about Democratic corruption in advance of the election, the Democratic Party was plagued with infighting between the president, James Buchanan, and Stephen Douglas. Holt traces the origins of this to Douglas's refusal to admit Kansas as a state under the proslavery Lecompton constitution. As Holt points out, this coupled with Douglas's qualified acceptance of the Dred Scott decision also alienated him from the southern Democrats who increasingly dominated the party, setting the stage for the party convention in Charleston in 1860 at which the Democrats fractured into pro- and anti-Douglas factions. With a victory by the (at that point undecided) Republican candidate increasingly likely, a group of politicians organized a conservative alternative to Republicans in the form of the Constitutional Union Party, who selected the elder statesman John Bell as their presidential contender. With the nomination of Douglas and Vice President John Breckinridge by the separate Democratic factions, the stage was set for a chaotic contest.

 

In covering the campaign that followed, Holt pushes back against the traditionally narrow view of it as separate contests between Lincoln and Douglas in the north and Breckinridge versus Bell in the south. Though Breckinridge, and Bell both refrained from electioneering, their campaigns sent speakers and mounted rallies in the northern states as well as the southern ones, while Republicans distributed ballots in the border slave states as well. Most dramatically Douglas undertook the then-unusual step of personally campaigning by making speeches in both the northern and southern states. Holt's chapter on the campaign itself is the best in the book, as he describes the myriad activities the parties adopted to turn out the vote. In this respect the Republican effort proved the most successful, as the dramatic appeals to young voters with the "Wide Awake" clubs and criticisms of Democratic corruption delivering them the victories they needed in the key swing states. As Holt points out, slavery was a salient issue only in the south, where arguments that Republicans were seeking outright abolition were so disconnected from Republican campaign goals that Republicans failed to take seriously the threats of secession by many southerners —a delusion that would quickly be dispelled in the weeks following Lincoln's victory.

 

As a longtime scholar of antebellum politics, Holt brings a lifetime's worth of learning to his subject. Yet he wears this lightly, providing an accessible description of the election while making arguments that go far towards shaking up the traditional interpretation of the 1860 election. Yet Holt oversells the revisionist nature of his account. Though he performs a valuable service in highlighting aspects of the campaign that were obscured by subsequent events, as Holt himself acknowledges at the end, perceptions of Democratic corruption and "misrule" in the north were as much tied to the perception of the party's excessive deference to southerners' anxieties about slavery as it was the buying of votes or the favoring of Democrats in awarding contracts. Moreover, his account of the election itself only qualifies somewhat the view of it as separate contests, suggesting the misconception is more one of emphasis than detail. Yet in the end these are criticisms of degree rather than of substance. Overall, Holt's reexamination of the 1860 election offers a refreshing reexamination of one of the truly pivotal moments in American history, and is necessary reading for anyone seeking to understand the election and how it led to the devastating conflict that followed.

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review 2019-01-17 15:40
My one hundred thirty-second podcast is up!
The Peyote Effect: From the Inquisition to the War on Drugs - Alexander S. Dawson

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Alexander S. Dawson about his new book about the history of peyote in the United States and Mexico. Enjoy!

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