In his latest populist reality check, Raphael (Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive, 2012, etc.) demonstrates how objectively studying the original broken political system lends insight into ours.
Take off your rose-colored glasses, people: The Founding Fathers embraced a strong federal government, at the risk of falling into anarchy and disintegration. Therein lies the kernel of the author’s readable demystification of some of the ongoing crusades by conservatives touting the supremacy of “originalism.” From the beginning, the fledgling republic was plagued by what George Washington observed as “illiberality, jealousy & local policy” by the states’ tendentious representatives in Congress under the Articles of Confederation. The Articles were scrapped, and so-called nationalists like Washington, Robert Morris, John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton pushed for a “national and supreme” government with teeth to provide for the common defense and levy taxes—albeit with plenty of argument about direct taxation. Raphael reminds us that the tax burden was allowed “to fall more heavily on the rich…a long-standing tradition dating back to early colonial times.” Thanks to the notes taken by Madison, whom Raphael elegantly calls the “scribe” of the Constitution rather than its “father,” we see the roiling jealousies and bickering of the delegates in Philadelphia in 1787—e.g., in the battle between small states and large states over representation and in the manner of selecting a president, among other things. Raphael carefully sifts through the subsequent Federalist Papers delineating the ratification debate, and he shows the framers’ fluidity of argument, rather than inflexibility.
With documents amply provided at the close of the text, Raphael provides a truly accessible teaching tool.
A seminal epoch explored in terms of statecraft and religion, sociology and belief.
The first century B.C. was largely dominated by imperial Rome and its regional client kings. Octavian defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra and became Augustus, master and overlord of the Roman world. In its German campaign, Rome suffered disastrous defeat. It was a time when conquest by trade was preferable to war, when mystery cults held sway, and pagan gods could be human enough to do business with mortal men. Charity was an unknown notion to the Romans, but clearly, religion held empires together. In Alexandria, still under Hellenic influence, compassionate Isis was the divinity of choice. The Arabian exporters of frankincense and unguents had their own gods, as did Palmyra. China, under Confucianism, was the world’s oldest empire. There, the crafty usurper Wang Mang displaced the Han Dynasty for a few unhappy years. Despite Roman hegemony in Jerusalem and most of the known world, though, the Jews would not or could not be assimilated. In her fine synthesis, journalist O’Grady (co-editor: A Deep but Dazzling Darkness: An Anthology of Personal Experiences of God, 2003, etc.) brings antiquity to vivid life, relying on myriad sources, including Horace, Josephus and Saul of Tarsus, Suetonius, Cicero, Plutarch, Schama and Gibbon. There are tunics, togas, coins, carvings, slaves and struggles, all vibrantly presented in an admirably accessible text. O’Grady demonstrates the universal symbiosis of state and faith before and during the formative years of Christianity, and she offers a secular gloss of the remarkable success of Pauline Christianity in a tumultuous world.
A wonderfully illuminating, prodigious tour de force of ecclesiastical anthropology.
A stunningly original memoir that explores a woman's connection to the real and imagined Midwestern landscapes that have defined her life.
Borich (Creative Writing/DePaul Univ.; My Lesbian Husband, 1999) takes on the formidable challenge of "countermapping [her] American body against 'the true and accurate atlas' any woman of [her] place and generation was supposed to follow." The author was born and grew up on Chicago's industrial South Side, which her Croatian grandfather helped to build. It was a place she "carr[ied] under [her] skin" in the same way she carried a tattoo of Chicago and her adopted city of Minneapolis on her back. Borich's path to Minnesota was anything but clear-cut. As a young woman, she traveled to a "prairie college town" in Illinois to attend college, but she gave herself over to alcohol and eventually dropped out. When a much older male lover in Minneapolis invited her to live with him, she joined him. But privately, she agonized over whether she was gay, straight or "something else." Borich's sexual quest(ion)ing led her to the lesbian community, where she began to map out her desires through the bodies of female lovers. In this riotously gender-bent world, she met Linnea, her future "husband." They shared a journey of partnership that would include excursions into the inevitable bodily reshapings brought about by time, desire and illness. Fragments of history—her own, her family's and those of the cities that have marked her life-coordinates—intermingle with images and actual maps of Borich's "Middle West.” Together, they create an elegant literary map that celebrates shifting topographies as well as human bodies in motion—not only across water and land, but also through life.
An argument for rethinking the stereotypes of Vietnam veterans in light of oral histories of ex-servicemen and women from New York City.
Napoli (History/Brooklyn Coll.), who founded the Vietnam Oral History Project and conducted interviews for Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation (1998), is well aware of the apparent differences between these two generations of warriors in the public’s eye: The elders, perceived as victors on their return, were celebrated as heroes and became the pillars of their communities and the postwar American economy. The Vietnam vets, who lost their war, so the stereotype goes, came home scorned and spat upon, suffering PTSD and often falling through the cracks. Most of Napoli’s subjects did indeed endure psychic and physical wounds in battle. Some fell prey to various addictions and underwent spells of homelessness. But all of his subjects are now productive citizens. Most are Brooklyn-born descendants of Irish immigrants, though Jews, Italians, African-Americans and Latinos are also well-represented. Most are from working-class homes, with a few coming from the projects and a smattering from well-heeled suburbs. Each, however, is unique, and their stories are never dull. All illuminate the horror of war and the devastation it wreaks on the individuals who experience it. Some standouts: Joseph Giannini, a Long Island criminal defense attorney who used his experience in combat to acquit a client accused of killing a cop; Herbert Sweat, an infantryman originally from Bedford-Stuyvesant who spent years in and out of prisons and shelters before finding a path up via Black Veterans for Social Justice; and Neil Kenny, a colorfully expressive native of the Lower East Side whose PTSD cost him several jobs until he found purpose working with Iraq and Afghanistan vets.
A thoughtful, deeply personal approach to understanding the Vietnam War for the Americans who fought it.
The co-authors of The Trials of Lenny Bruce (2002) return with a sharp-edged history of the Beats.
Collins and Skover, both law professors (Univ. of Washington and Seattle Univ., respectively), focus on the notables of the movement. William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti enjoy the most space, but we also learn about the friends, lovers and criminals swept along in the artists’ wakes—though it’s sometimes questionable whose wake is transporting whom. Early on, Collins and Skover emphasize the lawless culture that attracted the artists: the drugs, drinking, violence, thefts and infidelities that found the Beats in and out of trouble (and jail and mental institutions). The authors begin with a fatal stabbing, introduce us to Herbert Huncke (junkie, hustler, thief) and describe a serious car accident that propelled Ginsberg into an asylum. Then another death—that of groupie Bill Cannastra in a reckless subway stunt—and another: junked-up Burroughs, in a William Tell moment, shooting his lover in the head. Throughout, Neal Cassady jumped from woman to woman. “It was a world,” write the authors, “where, by and large, men were verbs and women objects.” The last half of the volume deals with Kerouac’s long struggle to publish On the Road, Ginsberg’s publication of and ensuing obscenity trail for Howl and Other Poems and Burroughs’ legal problems with Naked Lunch, all of which occurred somewhat simultaneously. Collins and Skover handle the various trials and legal issues with aplomb, and by the end, they soften their criticisms of the Beat lifestyle—though they do suggest, more than once, that Ginsberg, traveling in Europe during the Howl trial, left some San Francisco friends in a precarious position.
A balanced history—sometimes admiring, sometimes blistering—of the writers who fractured the glass capsule of literary conformity.
Man’s indomitable need for adventure is the only thing more impressive than the awesome power of nature and the brilliance of technology described in this lovingly rendered retelling of one of the most remarkable events ever to occur inside the Grand Canyon.
In 1983, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, a confluence of unlikely events provided three unique characters with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become the fastest to ever race through that singular marvel in a rowboat. How these quirky “dory men” were able to surmount every obstacle thrown in their way and actually attempt this remarkable undertaking is breathtaking enough. But theirs is not the only tale being told. This is the story of the Grand Canyon itself, harkening all the way back to the days when a band of befuddled Conquistadors first stumbled upon its rim and failed to grasp its magnitude. It is also the story of the Glen Canyon Dam, that Herculean feat of human ingenuity that was constructed with the staggering imperative to harness the power of the Colorado River. Former Time staff writer Fedarko’s extensive knowledge of both, coupled with his powers of description, are almost as impressive. Powerful and poetic passages put readers inside the adventurers’ boats, even if they have only ever imagined the Grand Canyon or seen it in pictures. “Every mile or so, the walls opened and gave way to yet another side canyon filled with secret springs and waterfalls,” he writes. “The air was alive with pink-and-lavender dragonflies that paused, twitchingly, on the shafts of their suspended oars.” Each piece of the extensive back story is assembled as lyrically as the epoch-spanning walls of the canyon itself and as assuredly as the soaring concrete face of its dams.
An epic-sized true-life adventure tale that appeals to both the heart and the head.
Her curiosity piqued by the multitude of French cheeses, essayist and self-proclaimed cheesehead Lison chronicles her tasty culinary journey exploring the art and science of French cheese making.
Since she grew up in Wisconsin, the nation’s largest producer of cheese, her “interest in cheese was inevitable.” Following a perusal of a French cheese encyclopedia describing more than 350 kinds of fermented milk, the author poses a basic question: “Why produce this crazy number of cheeses? I mean, why not just one nice sharp cheddar?” Lison’s query engendered nearly 7,000 miles of travel and the consumption of copious amounts of artisanal cheese. The author trekked from high alpine barnyards to sparkling multinational corporate headquarters, talking with shepherds and scientists. Along the way, Lison discourses on the merits of hand milking vs. portable milking machines and the history of the classification system, which consists of five basic types of cheese. The author explores what makes some cheeses so stinky and why, since the Middle Ages Roquefort, cheese and the concept of appellation have been intertwined. Lison attended what she calls a “cheese-tasting debutante ball” and explains the real meaning behind the Camembert War. “Camembert however, is the dream of the French cheese,” she writes, “a fromage so closely linked with Frenchness in the minds of people everywhere that just the name ‘Camembert’ evokes visions of berets and fleurs-de-lys.” The author laces the narrative with satisfying kernels of French agricultural history, especially data concerning the pressures of the post–World War II environment and its role in hollowing out the population of the French countryside.
Whether Lison is ruminating on the short lactation cycle of sheep, the origins of rennet, or the grassy, lemony taste of a spring goat cheese, readers will have all their senses engaged.
One of the clearest accounts yet of the causes for the violence in Ciudad Juárez and the convoluted politics behind Mexico’s attempts to keep it from dragging the whole nation down.
Ainslie (Education/Univ. of Texas; Long Dark Road: Bill King and Murder in Jasper, Texas, 2004, etc.), a psychologist and filmmaker with dual Mexican and American citizenship, interviewed scores of Juárenses over some of the worst years for violence (2007-2010). By chance, they coincided with the mayoral term of José Reyes Ferriz, who is effectively the central figure of the narrative. A member of Mexico’s deeply entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party (known by its Spanish initials PRI), Reyes Ferriz was at odds with the party’s old regime leadership as represented by the governor of Juárez’s state of Chihuahua, José Reyes Baeza. This political rift stemmed as much from Mexico’s decade-old experiment in democracy, which allowed parties other than PRI to win elections, as it did from the increasingly violent wars for control of the drug traffic to the United States by rival cartels based in Juarez and Sinaloa, which Mexican President Felipe Calderón has tried to fight with the national military. It’s a complicated story with tangles of threads leading all over the place—from PRI’s repression of student and leftist dissent in the 1960s and ’70s to the expiration of the U.S. assault weapons ban in 2004 that led to a radical spike in the appearance of deadly AR-15 automatic rifles in the hands of cartel operatives. Though occasionally miring the story in repetitious regurgitation of news clips, Ainslie does best when focusing on the often heartbreaking stories of the long-suffering people of Juárez.
A hard-nosed, cleareyed analysis of a legacy of institutionalized corruption and its dire consequences for human lives.
Northern slavery, often overlooked by historians, is the subject of this detailed history of a well-preserved plantation at the far end of Long Island.
Landscape historian Griswold (Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon, 1999, etc.) stumbled upon Sylvester Manor during a boat trip in 1984. Intrigued by the gardens, she sought out the owners and discovered that the property had been in the same family since the 1650s—and that the owners had, in its colonial heyday, kept slaves. That set Griswold on a search for the manor’s history, carefully preserved over the generations. The first owner, Nathaniel Sylvester, was apparently the youngest son—birth records are missing—of an English Protestant family that had relocated to Amsterdam during the religious turmoil of the early 17th century. Like many of their fellow exiles, they became merchants, sailing from Africa to Barbados to New England, buying and selling. The family bought the manor from a Long Island Indian tribe, seeing it as a northern base for their trade operations. Griswold has conducted massive research, traveling to locales important in the history and, when possible, visiting the places her subjects lived or did business—including African slave ports and the family’s sugar plantation on Barbados, as well as sites in England, New England and the Netherlands. She has also read the original family documents, especially those preserved by the Sylvesters. The result is one of the most detailed examinations of the culture of slavery and slave-owning and its deep influence on the development of the American colonies. While Northern slavery died out well before the crisis of the 19th century, its role in the establishment of a solid economic base cannot be overlooked. Among the ironies of the narrative is the fact that Nathaniel Sylvester’s wife became a Quaker, one of the denominations that later did the most to advance the cause of abolition.
A deeply researched, painstakingly detailed story of a forgotten chapter of our nation’s history. Highly recommended.