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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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Review: Democracy in Black

Democracy in Black

Democracy in Black

Eddie Glaude’s “Democracy in Black” convinced me of one thing I have long suspected. The best decision I ever made was to be born white and male. Except that I never made that decision, no one does, so why on Earth should I profit from it? Why in a nation formed from Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” argument that heredity proves nothing, not even the son of a King can be counted on to be a good leader, or even a good man. But it does. Thanks to my fortuitous choice of parents I can drive a little sloppy, I have been able to count on finding work when I need it, I can be disrespectful to a police officer and live.

Although when I requested to review this book I expected more of a history than an essay it was definitely not a disappointment. Glaude exposes the way things are in a blunt manner that I think we should hear more. He explores enough modern history to make it clear who he means when he discusses black political leaders and how they have allowed their focus to drift away from improving the community to self improvement and ego building. Then he exposes, explains, how the black community has disintegrated. Thanks to this there is no training ground for new leaders to develop who can unite the community and lead them to rise to the challenges of our times. I would point out that the same community disintegration has happened in the white community but that is not the topic of this book.

The main topic is what I alluded to in the first paragraph. The unfortunate fact that in the United States white lives are believed to matter more than the life of any person of color, most obviously the lives of black men and women. I understand the history of how our color, or lack of it, has been used from Colonial times to divide and control the work force but I am always amazed at how many people that look like me buy into it. I am not rich and I am not good looking but the (lack of) color of my skin is not the only thing I can be proud of. How pathetic are those who only have that lack of color as evidence of their own worth?

Glaude was adamant that the attitude that white lives matter more needs to change but he was relentless in pointing out the failures of past attempts to change America’s attitude on “race”. When he pointed out that the leaders of Ferguson’s protests had no faith in the power of the vote I started to lose hope. Thankfully he managed to find some reason to be optimistic by the end of the book. Unfortunately it will not be easy to finally get to where all Americans act as though they believe these words from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”

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Review: Striptease, the untold history of the girlie show

Book cover

Striptease the untold history of the girlie show

On an opera stage in France, sometime in the 1830s, a dancer showed her ankle and shocked the audience. One hundred and fifty years later Goldie Hawn was gyrating in a gilded birdcage wearing only a bikini, her act broadcast to every American living room and only few people objected. Rachel Shteir looks at the evolution of stripping, of undressing, as part of a performance, in her book “Striptease: the untold history of the girlie show”, which won the 2004 George Freedley Award for Excellence in Live Theater Writing.

Social and technological changes seem to be the principal driving force behind the evolution of theatrical “undressing”. For most of the 19th century the rules were stable. If a “dancer” moved on stage she must stay covered. If a dancer stood still bare skin was permissible. Flesh was only exposed, legally, in “living art”, a still life representation of well known paintings or sculpture. If the dancer moved the most that they could expose was a form fitting “union suit”. It was the female form, not female flesh, on display. During this time dance was not even the principle “undressing act”. Most often their was a simple, often unimaginative, skit that provided the rationale for the undressing, bathing, preparing for bed, or the ever popular game of strip poker. Eroticism was a product of making public the private act of undressing .

Shteir points out that at least one change in fashion was necessary for the development of modern strip and tease, each started as a separate style of undressing act. The whalebone corset fell out of fashion, increasing the ease and speed for a woman to undress. With the coming of the first world war came the dawn of the Jazz Age, a result of moralists and the US military shutting down Storyville, New Orleans’ vice district, unemployed musicians spread the New Orleans sound up the Mississippi river to St. Louis and Chicago where it took root and spread across the nation and soon the world. In the roaring post war economy burlesque adopted jazz, a energetic boost to its Tin Pan Alley roots. A six piece band, a “strip band”, became the norm in the industry. The Midwest in the 1920s gave birth to both the “tease”, where the dancer performs a short song then ducks behind the curtain to remove an article of clothing before popping back on stage for another number repeating the sequence as far as local law enforcement will allow, and the “strip”, where the dancer slowly and deliberately undoes buttons and hooks while performing a song or to a song. Not all performers sang, often the theater would have someone singing just off stage, a job referred to as a “tit serenader”. By 1928 Billboard magazine had combined them into one word, striptease.

The Depression did not stop burlesque, top performers could earn $400 a week. Beginners and older dancers could still make $35 a week. Comedy played a bigger part in the performances, lifting the spirits of people enduring economic hard times. The comedy kept women in the audience of burlesque performances through the 1930s. Fannie Brice and Gypsy Rose Lee worked to put humor in their acts. It was also the age of burlesque queens, Sally Rand, Ann Corio, Gypsy Rose Lee and others who moved beyond the burlesque circuit into “legitimate theater” and the movies but maintained a relationship with striptease. With the bad economic times the moralists became more vocal, blaming the hard times on burlesque rather than on bad management by WASPs.* Moralists came out in force during the depression, doing their best to ruin business and slander performers. Ferdinand Pecora, a name I respected, the lawyer that investigated and prosecuted the big banks and oligarchs who brought on the Depression, prosecuted the Minsk’s for obscenity.

With the outbreak of World War II burlesque and striptease found some acceptance in the general population. Americans saw no need to deprive young soldiers going off to war a chance to have a good time. The war also exposed the world to what had been described as one of only two American art forms, striptease. Striptease caught on in France after WWII the same as jazz caught on after WWI. The late 1940s and 1950s were a highpoint for striptease but they also were the opening chapters in its fall from prosperity.

With television people had less reason to leave home. With changing fashions people had less need to pay to see the female form. Low revenue forced theaters to close, some reopening to show films featuring skin, movement, and no teasing. Fewer theaters meant fewer performers could find work and those that did tended to keep doing the acts that had worked in the past, originality suffered and even fewer paid admission. By 1969 Shteir says that striptease was economically obsolete. A few performers kept going into the 1980s performing in tents at county fairs to audiences that were now female by a 3 to 2 ratio. In her conclusion Shteir looks at the resurgence in interest in old fashioned striptease, neoburlesque where professional looking amateurs stage performances for their own reasons.

“Striptease” is a well written, well researched, and well organized book that was as fun to read as it was educational. Early in the book I was concerned that Shteir was using obscure words to sound more academic but it soon became evident that I just needed to be more familiar with parts of our language. The two words that I first tripped over, “chorine” is one chorus girl and “zaftig” is on the scale of “svelte” to “voluptuous” but I am still not sure where on the scale it falls, were uncommon but necessary to express the author’s ideas. Shteir also pointed out that in theater speak any action that shocks the audience, that grabs their attention is a “flash”, it is not just about breasts and behinds.

Although reviews on Amazon, which I read after reading the book, question some of the incidental facts in the book I only have to look at the list of resources Shteir researched and the detailed notes she includes to dismiss those objections as questionable at best. After all none of the reviews document their claims and anybody, even me, can post a review on the internet. Shteir’s basic premise, that striptease was an economic choice that some, but not all, performers made in spite of its hardships, is well defended and convincing. I have to recommend this book to any one interested in women’s history, economic history, and the theater.

* White Anglo Saxon Protestants for anyone younger than I am.

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Review: No Magic Bullet

book cover No Magic Bullet

No Magic Bullet

Allan M Brandt’s “No Magic Bullet: a social history of venereal disease in the United States since 1880” was first published in 1985. A new edition came just two years later, I have to assume that is because its topic was changing so quickly with AIDS becoming common knowledge. I imagine Brandt wanted a do over on what he had written about AIDS in the first edition’s introduction.

Very early in the first chapter Brandt explains that doctors at first thought that women were not affected by gonorrhea.  I was bothered by this not because I doubted it was true but because just a few pages earlier, in the introduction, Brandt wrote that AIDS was a disease of gay men without questioning what was considered true at the time. At the very least he should have mentioned that at one time gonorrhea had been considered the problem of only one gender. Why study history if we don’t use it to form questions about the present? Even in the introduction to the 1987 edition, when it was well known that there were multiple modes of transmission, he failed to mention the failure in physician’s reasoning in assuming venereal disease, any disease, is limited by gender by anything other than ease of infection. Did Brandt miss the similarity of the failed assumptions about gonorrhea and AIDS?  Did he simply choose not to mention it? I have to believe that if he had noticed it he would have mentioned it even if only to dismiss it as meaningless.

Brandt looked at only two parts of society in this “social history”. One made up of military and public health officials and the other made up of that large and vocal subset of the leisure class that makes everyone else’s behaviour their business, moralists. The military and public health professionals followed the science but often were forced to bow to pressure from the moralists.

The moralists clamor for abstinence before during and after World War I. They continued to clamor for abstinence before during and after WWII. They are still at it. Then, as now, they are only concerned with their version of morality and about other people’s behaviour, not their own. Brandt manages to overlook the opinions of working people, business men and women, minorities in regard to venereal disease. I was surprised that the book was from the 1980s and not the 1950s. People besides the powerful had their agency recognized in the 1960s, why not here?
Sometimes I feel I should make allowances for works of history that are as old as this, twenty eight years since the new edition, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Histories on on narrow topics like this are few and far between. Unlike books about Lincoln or major wars there is not a new volume on the history of VD being published every few months. A search of World Cat for the subject “Sexually Transmitted Diseases United States History” turns up only a few dissertations, several government publications that look like primary sources and Alexandrea Lord’s 2009 book “Condom Nation” which looks at government sponsored sex education from World War II to the present. Unfortunately this could be the go to book on social attitudes about VD for many more years. I hope a student interested in the subject gets creative in their readings and are able to find more than the two viewpoints Brandt offers on the subject.

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Reeview: Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the world that made him

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor

I was excited to review “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the world that made him”. I don’t generally read biographies but Pryor was one of my favorite entertainers back “in the day”. The last part of the title, ‘the world that made him’ seemed to promise some of the social history that I most enjoy. It turns out that the book, written by brothers David and Joe Henry, is neither a biography not a social history, at least not in any form that I am familiar with.

This has been a difficult review to write. The Henry brothers writing is very readable. They do look at the entertainment world that Richard Pryor existed in. The book lacked the documentation I expect but it was never meant to be a scholarly work so that is my problem not a flaw with the book. I learned quite a bit about Pryor and the state of the entertainment industry that I did not know. Ed Sullivan was a pioneer presenting black entertainers on network television? I never knew that and found it surprising that the King of plate spinners and marionettes would also showcase artists like Richard Pryor.

Whenever a new movie or comedy album was discussed, it seemed to me, that the entire body of Pryor’s work was gone over again until I was totally confused about what the new project was, what came before and what was being discussed that had not happened yet. I don’t read about entertainment, maybe that is normal in the genre. I found it confusing.

My biggest problem with the book, what made this review so difficult to write, should be a plus for the Henry brothers as historians, they managed to stay impartial on Pryor’s violence with the women in his life. They simply reported the facts, as soon as there was serious commitment Pryor did what he could to drive women away, violence was a common tactic. They reported it, they did not try to hide it, they did not try to sugarcoat it, but I really wanted something more. What I am not sure, perhaps a look at the socioeconomic and cultural conditions that empowered him to beat multiple women and prevented them from leaving him. Maybe talk to the woman and get their side of the story? Of all of Pryor’s self destructive behavior it was the way he treated women that bothered me the most.

Overall this is a well written book but be prepared for Pryor, and others, bad behavior.

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Review: Empire of Sin, a story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle of modern New Orleans

book cover

Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin

One of the classes I took on my way to earning a BA in history was on the history of jazz music. I think that Dr. Berkaw would love to read Gary Krist’s “Empire of Sin: a story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle of modern New Orleans”. The decades of New Orleans history covered by Krist, from 1890 into the 1920’s, saw the birth of all modern music, right there in New Orleans’ Storyville district. But the book covers much more than that. Racism and lynchings that went beyond the expected American story of white on black violence.

Storyville was a social experiment, “reformers” wanted to confine activities they looked down on into one area in the city, they said this would leave the rest of the city free from “filth and degradation”. As a social experiment it worked very well. Too well for the “reformers”. Saloon keepers and madams were making enough money to take on “respectable” roles in the city. Roles that it becomes apparent the “reformers” felt should be reserved for themselves. Tom Anderson entered state politics, Josie Arlington established a family home in a “respectable” upper class neighborhood. Even worse, whites and blacks mingled together. It was not just the multi-racial houses of prostitution, that served only white customers, but the new music brought black musicians into nearly every venue. This could not be allowed in the post-Reconstruction south.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, in particular the coverage of Carry Nation’s visit to Storyville. Speaking to a crowd at the St. Charles Hotel she said “Roosevelt, Busch, Schlitz, and Muerlein are the quintet which is doing America much harm” Being familiar with Cincinnati’s brewing history I was pleased to see her reference the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company even if the newspaper misspelled it. During her conversations with working girls at Emma Johnson’s House of all Nations she was told that it it was not coercion or entrapment, the “white slavery” explanation for prostitution that was popular at the time, it was simple economics. “Respectable” jobs for single woman paid pennies a day, not close to what it cost to stay alive. Of course, as is always the case with “reformers”, Miss Nation was deaf to the facts that did not support her dogma.

Krist does not rub reformers nose in their failings but he is willing to point them out. He points out that one reform politician was a ringleader in the mass lynching covered early in the book. He credits reform politicians ineptitude with their failure to get re-elected and their character assassination of “Ring” politicians as a factor allowing Huey Long to gain the governor’s office. I have to give Krist credit for sticking with the facts, even when the facts don’t follow the standard script of WASP exceptionalism. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book and look forward to finding another one of his works. Learning a little about the bartender that created the Ramos Gin Fizz was an added bonus.

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My 100 Proof Hobby

I seem to have developed a new “hobby” over the last year or so. I was with my wife at one of the conferences at the JW Marriott in Washington DC in the winter of 2013. We had just flown in, tired and hungry we went to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Of course the first thing they give us was a drink menu. On the menu they claimed to be the hotel that served the first Gin Rickey over a century ago. I had recently read a book, “America Walks into a Bar”, and in it I learned something about how “cocktail culture” developed. Their claim sounded reasonable so I ordered one.

This shocked my wife. We joke about being a mixed marriage, she drinks wine and I drink beer. When I say I drink beer let me clarify, a six pack can last me a month. And I have had cocktails before. Dad made Mai-Tais for us kids on the holidays and mom’s “cold medicine” is better known as a Hot Toddy, but that was the first cocktail my wife ever saw me order. She still should not have been shocked. I bought a bottle of cognac when we got married and occasionally drank a shot of it. That bottle lasted almost a decade so the key word here is “occasionally”. We also, at times, had vodka and bourbon in the house. My wife made a killer Cranberry Vodka Pork Chop and her Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie is the best anywhere. I occasionally had a shot of the bourbon or made someone a Hot Toddy when they were sick but no one would have said we were into cocktails. Good liquor, I said, should be enjoyed straight.

That Gin Rickey was great. Even my wife agreed. So when we got home I went and got a bottle of gin, a bottle of lime juice, and one of club soda and I mastered the Gin Rickey. The same conference this year was in San Diego. My wife had lived there when she was fresh out of high school and she took me around town to see the sights. We had a late lunch in Old Town and the waiter asked if I would like some Tequila. At first I said no, but I had second thoughts about that. We had ridden the train and walked to get there. One shot was not going to be a problem and after all, where else could I expect to get good Tequila? So I told him to bring me a shot. When he asked what brand I confessed to him that I had never tried it before and asked him to pick something good. I wish I had paid attention to what brand he picked, it was good. (He stood there and watched me take the first sip, I think he was expecting a reaction from a “non-drinker”. If that was the case he went away disappointed. I may never have had tequila but I grew up in the land of bourbon.) The next day at a restaurant near the museums in Balboa Park I decided to try something else new to me, a martini. It was nasty, all sugary sweet, no bite, and, no taste except sweet. When we got home I started thinking about how bad that martini was. Would James Bond drink something like that? Not a chance.

I remembered that, in our collection of cookbooks, we had two about cocktails. A 1984 printing of Mr. Boston’s Guide and a 1934 book titled “Charles’ Book of Punches and Cocktails”.  There are also a lot, a lot, of free and low cost apps about mixing cocktails that I found when I started looking there. So I started looking, reading the little recipes, some sounded horrible, some sounded interesting. I decided to have the kids, and their kids, over for a Labor Day party where I would let them try some of the different concoctions. Even the teenage and younger grand-kids got into the act with Shirley Temples, Arnold Palmers, and Roy Rogers, all non-alcoholic drinks. I think we all had a good time and I am planning a Halloween get to get together with drinks with names like Zombies.

Now that I am paying attention I notice that I am not the only one looking into the cocktail culture. In August I learned that I was to review “Of All the Gin Joints : Stumbling through Hollywood History” and  recently I heard the author of “The Curious Bartender: The Artistry and Alchemy of Creating the Perfect Cocktail” interviewed on NPR. I have seen articles on “shandys”, drinks for when beer is too heavy, for example, one part lager beer and one part fruit juice. Another one on making your own bitters was more surprising. There is even a book devoted to bitters, “Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-all”. I have not even gotten far enough into mixology to use bitters. These days, around 8:00 in the evening you can find me mixing a cocktail, one I have never tried or a “revised” recipe of one that did not seem as good as it should be.

Bond was right, martinis can be very good when done right. Trying these recipes can be a bit of an adventure. In the older books measurements are vague or even optional. Thankfully with Google I have a hope of learning how much a “pony” or a “wine glass” is supposed to be. (1 ounce and 4 ounces) Unfortunately dashes and splashes are still just as vague as they were 80 years ago. Some of the drinks I have tried I should have known better, a White Plush, equal parts whiskey and milk, is not going to be a modern hit. Some are much better than their names suggest, an Ambassador or a Cincinnati Cocktail for instance. If you are feeling thirsty you might try my newest favorite, an Incider. One part Bourbon with six parts Apple Cider. Just pour the whiskey over ice in a rocks glass and top off with the cider. When I offered my wife a sip of my first attempt at this cocktail I never got the glass back.

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