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review 2019-01-17 16:30
The House of the Seven Gables (Hawthorne)
The House of the Seven Gables - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Somehow I missed this during my omnivorous reading of the 19th century gothic in my undergraduate years. I read it now from the point of view of someone who distinctly resembles fractious, unsightly Hepzibah far more than the idealized "little woman" Phoebe (though perhaps I have always been more a Hepzibah than a Phoebe). In any case, the emphasis on Hepzibah's incapabilities and infirmities, and her constant scowl, was the one truly uncomfortable note for me in this otherwise delightful excursion into Hawthorne's extravagant and oratorical chessboard of symbols and motifs. I'm aware that Hepzibah's offputting scowl, which does not at all represent her actual mood or actual morals, is the counterpart of the Judge's false and beaming smile, and both are equally insisted upon beyond any reasonable requirement for description so as to force the careless reader to consider what they actually represent. But I must admit, at the umpteenth reference to the ugly Hepzibah scowl, I was provoked into growling, "oh just give it a rest, already, Nathaniel!" Subtlety - not his forte.

 

Chapter 18 is extraordinary writing. I started reading it in a slightly irritated mood, because it seemed that the author was going to take a simplistic trope (the narrator doesn't realize that Judge Pyncheon is dead) and just make a chapter out of it without doing much. Instead, it becomes an absolute symphony of rhetorical, imaginative expansion of the would-haves and could-haves surrounding the mundane fact of a nasty man dead of congenital heart failure in a decaying old house.

 

I have a very small and select folder on my Kindle called, "read but keeping". In goes The House of Seven Gables.

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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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review 2019-01-16 02:06
WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF THE INCREDIBLE JOSEPHINE BAKER
Josephine Baker's Last Dance - Sherry Jones

Josephine Baker is someone I had known about since my elementary school days in the mid-1970s, when I first saw her profile in a calendar celebrating what was then Black History Month. I was fascinated to learn that she had gone to Paris in 1925 and made herself into a superstar in France and across the world. 

"JOSEPHINE BAKER'S LAST DANCE" was given to me last month as a Christmas gift. The essence of the novel has as a centerpiece, what was Josephine Baker's last great stage performance in Paris in April 1975. The author uses it as a springboard to take the reader back to Josephine's early years in St. Louis, where she was born in poverty in 1906. I very much enjoyed seeing Josephine as she grew and matured. Hers was not an easy life. There is much in the novel that conveys the struggles and abuse that she endured. America was then an unwelcoming and at times, brutal and dispiriting place for its black citizens. Baker gets into vaudeville as a dancer in her mid-teens and eventually, the gateway to stardom opens and Josephine arrives in Paris with La Revue Nègre . 

The only part of the novel I found fault was its description of Josephine Baker's service in World War II as an intelligence agent and member of the French Resistance. The time sequences which covered the early war years seemed at times nebulous and compressed. If the reader had little or no knowledge of how the French defeat to Nazi Germany impacted the country in June 1940, he/she would be led to think that the resistance movement to the Germans developed overnight. That was not true at all. There was, initially disillusionment and fear when the Germans entered Paris - which had been declared an open city by the French government - on June 14, 1940 - and compelled the French to sign an armistice 8 days later. It would be several months to a year before an incipient resistance movement began to take shape in France as the Germans solidified their power and authority there. 

There was also a mention in the novel which indicated that Josephine Baker made the acquaintance of the courageous British spy Krystna Skarbek, a Pole (aka 'Christine Granville') during the early days of the German Occupation. That is simply untrue. (I read a book in 2015 about Krystyna Skabek's wartime service --- 'Christine: SOE Agent & Churchill's Favourite Spy'. Krystyna Shabek did not get to France until the summer of 1944. Earlier, she had been engaged in espionage work since late 1939 in German-occupied Poland, the Balkans, and Egypt.) That is why I am taking away 1 star and giving "JOSEPHINE BAKER'S LAST DANCE" 3 stars.  Outside of that glaring, historical inaccuracy, it is a very good novel which brought out the real Josephine Baker in so many interesting ways.

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text 2019-01-15 17:25
Reading progress update: I've read 31 out of 391 pages.
The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements - Sam Kean

Well, let's just say Mr. Kean clearly isn't Helen Czerski (and that is not a good thing).

 

He either has no clear conception of who his target audience is, or he doesn't know how to talk to his audience.  Someone with an average to advanced training in science obviously wouldn't need any explanations as to the structure of the periodic table, to begin with.  The rest of us might need one -- but (and it speaks volumes that I even have to emphasize this) a clearly structured one, please, not an assortment of anectdotes that blows any explanatory structure clean out of the window.  Also, if you're writing a book subtitled (in part) "...Tales of ... the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements", wouldn't it be a good idea to give your readers an idea when and how the periodic table itself made its first appearance in the history of the world?  Just a paragraph or so, for reference in conjunction with its basic structure, so we know where we are, both in chemical terms and the history of science?  (Ms. Czerski did just that.  But as I said ... Mr. Kean clearly isn't Helen Czerski.) 

 

So far, he's managed the feat that only one of my school teachers ever managed, and that was my physics teacher, who, like Sam Kean, presented his material full of enthusiasm as to the magic of it all, or the big joke associated with a given scientific fact / discovery, or some other reaction clearly warranted in his eyes, while completely failing to transport to the rest of us -- and hence, leaving us entirely mystified -- what all all of this had to do with any of us and why it was actually important (other than in a way that only the initiated would be able to appreciate).  I used to actually like chemistry in school (unlike physics), and I believed I had a fairly good grip on the subject -- an impression my teachers seemed to share, judging by my grades.   A major reason for this was the fact that (unlike in physics class) I never had a moment's doubt as to why what I was learning mattered, and how it all fitted together in the grand scheme of things.  But if I didn't at least have this distant reservoir to rely on, I'm pretty sure I'd be entirely baffled already.  And I can only hope that this state of affairs is going to improve, because otherwise I'm either going to throw in the towel or it's going to take me eons to finish this book (and it won't earn a particularly high rating, either).

 

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