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Review: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

over The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

“If not for Mrs. Parks nobody would have ever heard of Martin Luther King Jr.” – E.D. Nixon

After reading Jeanne Theoharis’ “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” I have to say that if not for Mrs. Parks there is a lot we never would have heard of and the world today would be a worse place for it. Growing up, and well into adulthood all I knew about Rosa Parks was the popular myth, she was a tired seamstress who was tired and refused to give up her seat. Earning a degree in history I learned that that story was a simplification of the real story. Reading Theoharis’ book i discovered that what I learned in college was a simplification of the truth.

I don’t know why some books are harder for me to review and with other books the review almost writes itself. This is one of the difficult ones. It is a great book. I think it could be the best book I read this year and I read some very good books this year. That could be part of my problem. It is good on many levels. I learned Mrs. Rosa Parks life story as well as can be written until the last archive of her papers is opened to researchers. I also learned about classism and the power of showing up.

I have to recommend this book to anyone interested in the Civil Rights Movement or American culture. It is well written, well researched, and well reasoned. I hope it gets wide exposure, the country could use some of Mrs. Parks tenacity and hope.


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Filed under Book review, Gender studies, History, Politics, Race Relations, Social History

Review: To Have and Have Another

book cover To Have and Have Another

Philip Greene’s To Have and Have Another

Philip Greene has an interesting biography. He is a descendant of the New Orleans pharmacist that developed Peychaud Bitters. He helped found the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans and works as legal counsel for the Marine Corps. His book, “To have and have another : a Hemingway cocktail companion” is something of a cross between a Mr. Boston’s cocktail guide and a someone’s doctoral dissertation on Hemingway’s writing. Greene’s writing is much better than that last sentence would suggest. There is none of the dry stuffiness of academia or any salesman’s hype on any of the drinks or ingredients.

With each of the 56 drinks that Green found mentioned in Hemingway’s fiction and personal papers Greene giver the recipe, with occasional variations, and offers details about where Hemingway used them in his fiction or drank them in life. Key West and Cuban bars are well represented here. As is the real and the fictional Harry’s Bar which is also the name of the bar my grandfather and I frequented back when I looking forward to becoming a teenager. I am a little annoyed that there is no one left to ask if Hemingway was the inspiration for that establishment’s name.

I confess that I am not a huge fan of Hemingway’s but reading this has caused me to consider giving his fiction another try. I know that the next time I have friends over for a party we will be sampling a few of these drinks and remembering Hemingway.

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2014 Reading List

Father Time

Father Time marches on.

I only managed to read 22 books this year. Even considering that several of them were well over 400 pages long I am a little disappointed. I did manage to review all but the last on, which I am working on right now and should be ready to post next week.

The worst was Peter Bronson’s “Behind the Lines” where he tries to explain away the 2001 manslaughter of Timothy Thomas by an inexperienced police officer unfamiliar with the area who, against instructions, chased Thomas down a dark, narrow walkway and shot him dead as he reached for his phone. It turned out to be a story that kept repeating through the year. Just like today the reaction against the unjust killing was blamed on the victims of police violence.

On a personal level Christine Sismondo’s “America Walks into a Bar” might be the most important. That is the book that made me want to try a Lime Rickey and got me started on the path to a home bar. In the larger world Martin J. Blaser’s book “Missing Microbes” could turn out to be the book of the year. His argument that we and our bacteria evolved together, that we could have a myriad of symbiotic relationships with the bacteria that lives in and on us and that indiscriminately eliminating them can be, has been, detrimental to our health opens up vast field of investigation for medical researchers.

Here is the complete list.

1. Edsel, Robert M., and Bret Witter. The monuments men : allied heroes, Nazi thieves and the greatest treasure hunt in history. New York: Center Street / Hachette Book Group, 2010

2. Deetz, James. In small things forgotten : an archaeology of early American life. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.

3. Sismondo, Christine. America walks into a bar : a spirited history of taverns and saloons, speakeasies, and grog shops. New York, N.Y: Oxford University Press, 2011.

4. Stiglitz, Joseph E. The price of inequality. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.

5. Larson, Edward J. Summer for the gods : the Scopes trial and America’s continuing debate over science and religion. New York: BasicBooks, 2006.

6. Blaser, Martin J. Missing microbes : how the overuse of antibiotics is fueling our modern plagues. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014.

7. Purdum, Todd S. An idea whose time has come : two presidents, two parties, and the battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. New York: Henry Holt and Co, 2014.

8. Murtagh, William J. Keeping time : the history and theory of preservation in America. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley, 2006.

9. Bronson, Peter. Behind the lines : behind the lines of action, between the lines of truth, the untold stories of the Cincinnati riots. Milford. OH: Chilidog Press, 2006.

10. Shriver, Maria, and Olivia Morgan. The Shriver report : a woman’s nation pushes back from the brink : a study. New York, N.Y: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

11. Connell, Robert L. Fierce patriot : the tangled lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. New York: Random House, 2014.

12. Cronkite, Walter, Maurice Isserman, and Walter Cronkite. Cronkite’s war : his World War II letters home. Washington, D.C: National Geographic Society, 2013.

13. Johnson, Jacqueline. Western College for Women. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2014.

14. Purdum, Todd S. An idea whose time has come : two presidents, two parties, and the battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. New York, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014.

15. King, Quentin S. Henry Clay and the War of 1812. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.

16. Bradley, David. The historic murder trial of George Crawford : Charles H. Houston, the NAACP and the case that put all-white southern juries on trial. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.

17. Potter, Maximillian, and Donald Corren. Shadows in the vineyard : the true story of a plot to poison the world’s greatest wine. Solon, Ohio: Findaway World, LLC, 2014.

18. Bailey, Mark, and Edward Hemingway. Of all the gin joints : stumbling through Hollywood history. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014.

19. Krist, Gary. Empire of sin : a story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle for modern New Orleans. New York: Crown, 2014.

20. Trudeau, Noah A. Southern storm : Sherman’s march to the sea. New York: Harper, 2008.

21. Henry, David, and Joe Henry. Furious cool : Richard Pryor and the world that made him. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013.

22. Levin, Phyllis L. The remarkable education of John Quincy Adams. London New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

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Review: Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea


Book Cover

Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea

“Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea” is the first book by Noah A Trudeau and the second book on William Tecumseh Sherman that I have read. Trudeau has done an excellent job of writing what should be a popular history on an iconic event in the history of the United States, an event that has suffered at the hands of partisan revision at the hands of Southern “historians”. The campaign was brutal, Sherman intended to destroy any military asset in his path and he had his troops foraging to extend the supplies they brought with them. They took any horses needed to replace their worn mounts and destroyed broken down mounts and pack animals to prevent them from later serving the rebels. Did civilian homes burn? Sure some did, it was a windy dry day in Atlanta and Sherman was not going to risk his men fighting the spread of fires. As Sherman said to a complaining rebel prisoner, anyone that starts a war has no right to complain of the violence.

The book reads like the works of Cornelius Ryan. Ryan attended reunions of World War Two veterans for both sides to collect his personal stories. Trudeau had diaries. He had so many diaries that he was able to reconstruct the weather, he said he had at least six references to the weather from each day. What are future historians going to do? Will they be able to look at old Facebook pages and Twitter feeds?

There were a few disappointments in the book. The maps could have had a scale on them. I was often wondered were his lines separated by miles or tens of miles. “Special Field Orders #15”, forty acres and a mule, which could be the most controversial aspect of the entire operation was only mentioned in one paragraph. Without prior knowledge of the Special Order a reader would not have a clue what it was about from Trudeau’s work. Even though the subtitle was “Sherman’s march to the sea” I was a little disappointed that the narrative ended with Sherman in Savannah. Sherman and his Army of the West pulled up stakes and marched through the Carolinas and into Virginia, where is that story? The post march history was interesting but can be summed up simply, the north is proud of Sherman and the Army of the West for their brave efforts to shorten the war of rebellion and the south resents hearing about it.

It was a good read, informative and at times entertaining. I recommend it, as long as 550 pages of text with an extra 200 pages of index, bibliography, and muster rolls does not seem overwhelming. I was concerned about the length, it did take longer than usual for me to finish it but at no time did the book seem to drag or become repetitive which is sometimes a problem when an author has a point they want to make so badly that they are willing to beat it to death. This is not that sort of book but the sparse treatment of the benefits derived from the labors of the African Americans who left their “owners” and volunteered their local knowledge and labor to the Army of the West makes me wonder if anything else was overlooked.

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Book Review: The Cholera Years: the United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866

Book Cover

The Cholera Years

“The Cholera Years: the United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866” is only tangentially a medical history. Charles Rosenberg used the opening year of the three worst epidemics of cholera in the United States as lenses through which he could take snapshots of American society. In each year examined the disease spread westward across Europe to inevitably reach the shores North America. By looking at how the medical and religious communities, public officials, and the people, those represented by newspaper editorials, reacted to the stress of the impending epidemics Rosenberg was able to clearly show how society changed over the decades.

“The nest of college-birds are three
Law, Physic, and Divinity
And while these three remain combined
They keep the world oppressed and blind.
On Lab’rers money lawyers feast
Also the Doctor and the Priest.”

This poem, from 1832, shows that popular American distrust for academics is long held. However by 1848 even the upper-class was turning its back on physicians. Today we see governors who ignore the best scientific opinions and follow their own ignorance on Ebola. It does seem that the more things change the more they stay the same. Rosenberg attributes this to the medical communities inability to cope with epidemics, the 1832 outbreak of cholera in particular. The fact is that Galenic physician’s had never been effective. What was it that changed between 1832 and 1848 that made their ineffectiveness unacceptable? Rosenberg does not really look at what caused the change, he just shows that the general attitude did change.

Originally published in 1962 Rosenberg’s book is still readable. The writing is better, in my opinion, than most of the histories published today. I recommend it to anyone interested in 19th century American history, it provides insight to the social values of the times. I do wish that someone would take a look at what caused attitudes about physicians to change. Was it competition? Thomsonians, herbalists, and Homeopathic medicine was giving the traditional physicians competition. They were saving more people by avoiding, at least in large doses, the mercury, arsenic, and other poisons that were some of traditional physicians favorite medicines. I have read how physicians reacted to the competition. One way strategy was forming a trade union, the American Medical Association, and blackballing Homeopaths. I would like to see a scholarly paper on how people reacted to the competition.

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Book Review: Cholera The Biography

Book Cover

Cholera : The Biography

History is much more than naming Kings, Presidents, and Generals. In “Cholera : The Biography” Christopher Hamlin looks at the ‘life’ of the disease that came to be known as Cholera and along the way manages to show us the development of medical science over the last two hundred years. Before Cholera there was cholera, western medicines name for the “stomach flu”, a 24 hour bout of diarrhea. In 1817 British physicians serving in colonial India noticed a new cholera. It came on with a feeling of unease then came violent vomiting and diarrhea, muscle cramps, the patient’s skin became bluish and their heartbeat unsteady and, in most cases, they died, all with within a single day.

Western medicine, essentially the same medicine practiced by Hippocrates and Galen in ancient Greece, saw disease as the imbalance of the bodies “humors” brought on by foul odors, a change in the air, or sin. Vomiting and diarrhea were good things, the body trying to restore balance. Cholera in India was obviously a result of “filth”, a catchall term for “not like us”. As cholera came closer to Paris and London, it became clear, to the physicians of Paris and London, that the cause was less “filth” and more the judgement of God.

Hamlin covers the changing attitudes toward cholera, the evolving and devolving of cholera treatment by physicians as they groped for treatments and causes and fought to maintain their status and egos. He also looks at the range of government responses to the epidemics, dancing between protecting population and protecting trade.

Cholera was the subject of what was possibly the first “disease biography”, Norman Longmate’s “King Cholera : The Biography of a Disease”, in 1966 and has been featured in other medical histories since then. I now understand why. It spans, and may have helped initiate, the scientific revolution in medical science. At the time Longmate wrote his work Cholera was seen as defeated. We had treatments, we knew the cause of it, we had preventive measures that worked. However the physicians of 1817 also knew that disease was brought on by foul odors, a change in the air, or, possibly, sin. Advances in medical science since the 1960s have changed our medical understanding as much as it changed between 1817 and 1960.

Hamlin’s writing is often fun to read, as when he is explaining how the authorities believed that since “a feeling of unease” was the first symptom reported they believed that a “feeling of unease” may be the cause of cholera. “Worry about fear (or fear of worry) was often at the heart of these {governments}efforts. You might make hysteria a crime, as McGrew notes of Russia, but any attempt to stop it would cause it.” A little science background helps but is not really necessary. At times having a strong stomach helps, there is much discussion of fecal-oral transmission and, obviously, diarrhea.

I learned quite a bit about the advancement of science in the 19th and 20th centuries from this book. Even better I came to understand the present day better after Hamlin compared the debate over the causes of cholera to the climate change debate. Neither side is likely to be convinced until the other essentially proves a negative. “Cholera : The Biography” is perhaps the most enlightening history I have read in the last year and with Ebola in the news seeing how difficult it is to quarantine a disease and how economics and ego can put ahead of public health is cause for concern.

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Book Review: How to Lie with Statistics

Book cover

How to Lie With Statistics

For a book to remain in print for fifty years it must be good. This one was originally published in 1954 and, as far as I can tell, has been in print ever since. A book less than 150 pages long, generously seeded with amusing cartoons is not what you would expect to find on a graduate school reading list but that is exactly where I learned about this one. Darrell Huff and illustrator Irving Geis produced a little marvel with their book “How to Lie with Statistics”. As Huff points out early in the book a cat-burglar who writes a how-to memoir in prison does not do it for other cat-burglars. They already know how to burgle. The intended audience is people who do not want to be burgled, or, in the case of this book, lied to.

Huff is careful to spread the blame for lying statistics widely, overeager researchers, poor information gathering by statisticians, advertising people willing to apply lipstick of any color to their pig, journalists looking for a marketable story. The fact that most of these lies are “true” is not ignored. For me the most memorable story he uses to make this clear is the restaurateur who explains his rabbit-burger is 50% rabbit, he mixes it in a 1 to 1 ratio with horse-meat. One rabbit to one horse.

After nine chapters of explaining how easy it is for statistics, charts, graphs, and percentages to lie the last chapter makes a serious attempt to explaining how we can avoid being lied to by asking a few simple questions like, who says so, how does he know, what’s missing, and does it make sense. As Huff points out it is important to be able to detect these lies, not just because of misleading advertisements but because we have elections every few years.

As an amateur historian who is just a few years younger than this book I have to admit I enjoyed the window into the past that the many cartoons offered. Yes, we really dressed and smoked like that. The books age was a little disconcerting when Huff dissected an article about the income of the “average” Yale graduate. Going to Yale hardly seemed worth the $25,000 income it offered until I ran it through an inflation calculator, then it made sense. This book is one of the most informative and fun books I have read in a long, long time. It was informative not because I know nothing about statistics, I do, it was informative because neither of the classes I have taken on statistics covered how easy it is to miss-use or misunderstand exactly what it is the numbers say. If you do not like being lied to, consider reading this book.

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