Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore
Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and is still famous today. He was a printer, an inventor, a diplomat, and signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. This book is about his little sister Jane, born in Boston in 1712. She is obscure, and would be unknown today except for her brother. Benny and Jenny were very close, and exchanged letters for over 60 years. They outlived their 15 brothers and sisters, and 11 of Jane’s 12 children. Many of Jane Franklin Mecom’s letters have been lost, but Jill LePore, Professor of American History at Harvard University, has used Benjamin’s letters to fill in the gaps and tell the story of Jane’s long, eventful life. The Franklin family was poor; their father made soap and candles. Benjamin was the only son sent to school for a while. He probably taught Jane to read and write, a little. She never learned to spell. No schools in Boston taught girls at that time. Marrying a saddler, Jane continued to make soap for her brother most of her life, and also made bonnets and caps. She also helped raise some of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Jane loved to read, anything she could, especially her brother’s writings. She loved news and gossip, religion and politics. Her letters show a woman with wide interests, frank and witty. In 1771, Benjamin Franklin sent Jane a box of 13 spectacles from England, with instructions on how to find a pair that worked for her. I think that must have been a wonderful present; she could keep reading and writing to her brother, and they stayed connected until his death. I found this book fascinating and a great way to learn more about life in 18th century America.
One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
The summer of 1927 in America was a momentous one, wonderfully recounted by Bill Bryson. Readers will be amazed, informed, and entertained. The most exciting event was the successful flight of Charles Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris in May. Many others attempted to fly across the Atlantic; most failed. Lindbergh, 25, became an instant celebrity; the last thing he wanted. His visit to New York City of his return to receive a medal was broadcast on radio nationwide.
In the most catastrophic flooding of the Mississippi River in history, over 700,000 American were displaced, but no federal funds were provided. Herbert Hoover was sent to oversee relief efforts, helping him get elected President the next year. “Silent Cal” Coolidge spent three month in the Black Hills of South Dakota, fishing and wearing a cowboy outfit, and declined to run for re-election as President. The carving of Mt. Rushmore began.
Sports and theater captured America’s attention in 1927. Large and elaborate movie and Broadway theaters were built, hundreds of silent movies were filmed and Broadway shows with huge casts were popular. Al Jolson spoke on screen in the first “talkie”. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig led the New York Yankees in a record-breaking season. The Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney boxing match was a huge event.
In 1927, crime also fascinated America. Anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were put on trial, Al Capone’s Chicago outfit brought in more than $100 million, and the Snyder-Gray murder trial got more publicity than the Mississippi River flood. All told, the summer of 1927 was quite memorable.
The audiobook is narrated by Bryson, an excellent narrator.
Here, There, Elsewhere by William Least Heat-Moon
A fascinating collection of the author’s travel essays and articles, from 1983-2011. The author writes of the Great Plains, the Missouri River, Lake Superior, Japan, the south of England, New Zealand, the Yucatan, Lewis and Clark, Alaska, and more. The sheer variety of topics and settings in dazzling, but the articles are meant to be savored, read one of two at a time. Some of his travels are retracing trips taken as a child, when the lure of the highways was as strong for his parents as it clearly is for the author. The author also travels by boat, and history, geology, and food are common themes. Parts of this book reminded me of The Longest Road, by Philip Caputo. Here is a conversation between the two authors.
The White Cascade by Gary Krist
February, 1910 was a very unfortunate month to be a passenger or an employee on the Great Northern Railway. A record-breaking blizzard trapped two trains high in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. A fast mail train and a passenger train were snowed in for several days at the small Wellington Station before disaster struck. On March 1, a huge avalanche swept both trains down the mountainside in the middle of the night. Through the stories of the survivors, telegrams, letters, diaries, and court records, Gary Krist brings the past to life, letting the reader get acquainted with the passengers, railroad workers, mail clerks, and even the railway management, and then hoping the people will escape before the avalanche or be rescued afterwards. A truly moving, fast-paced account of a major railway disaster and its aftermath, as well as a history of the Great Northern Railway.
The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
Reporter Lily Koppel, who wasn’t born until after the last Apollo mission, became fascinated by a photo of the astronaut wives in Life magazine, and wanted to learn their stories, which have never been told. The wives of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts were suddenly thrust into the spotlight after years of living quietly on drab military bases. The astronauts had training, all kinds of it, but the Mercury wives didn’t even get any advice from NASA on how to handle their new roles. Life magazine had exclusive access to the astronauts and their families, but their photos and stories didn’t tell the real story; the emotional side of the space race. The wives strove to be supportive while raising their children and maintaining their homes almost single handedly while worrying about their husbands when they were training or on a mission. They did meet monthly, in an informal group, and were always there to be supportive during missions or after a death, but didn’t share all of their fears and doubts until years later. Many of the marriages crumbled under the stress. Today, many of the astronaut wives are still friends, and are now telling what they remember of those stressful, exciting years when they rode in parades, went to balls and the White House, and were married to men who became instant celebrities.
Approaching 70, author/journalist Philip Caputo decides it’s time to realize a dream; to drive from Key West, Florida to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska. He reads up on the history and literature of the places he might visit, rents a vintage Airstream trailer, and finally asks his wife Leslie if she can join him on the trip and help take care of their two dogs. Leslie, a magazine editor, had already figured out a plan to work part-time while on the road.
They try to avoid expressways, but sometimes use them. Traveling the Natchez Trace Parkway, they are amazed by its beauty and lack of commercial development. A highlight is traveling the Lewis and Clark trail. Along the way, Caputo interviews 80 Americans, asking them what unites or divides us as a country. Their answers are varied, and thought-provoking. They visit small towns, national parks, reservations, historical monuments, and sample lots of regional food specialties. Traveling and camping with a small trailer and two dogs isn’t always easy, but it’s often funny, such as when Leslie meets “Mothra”, a huge moth, in a campground shower.
While I enjoyed reading about the road trip, it was the historical background Caputo shares with the reader that made the biggest impression on me, from learning about the Lewis & Clark expedition, the Nebraska setting for Willa Cather’s books, researching a soldier at the Battle of Little Bighorn, information about the national parks, and more. The small towns in decline were quite a contrast to communities like Grand Island, Nebraska, a multicultural melting pot with immigrants from many parts of the world recruited for factory jobs. References to other travel writers and memories of growing up in Chicago and Westchester round out the book. I think both history buffs and armchair travelers would find The Longest Road well worth reading, as well as anyone interested in reading about what other Americans think about our country today. Read more about the book and watch a book trailer on the author’s website.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
This is a book that has been well researched and cited by the author to argue his point that “Jesus of Nazareth” was the “real, historical” Jesus, versus “Jesus the Christ” which was an “interpretation” of Jesus’s ministry that would sell well to its prime audience which was the Romans, in Rome, and not the Jews of Palestine. “Jesus of Nazareth”, a fire breathing nationalist, was transposed into “Jesus the Christ”, a pacifist, who preached loving thy neighbor and doing good works to enter the “Kingdom of Heaven.”
The chief architect of this interpretation is made out to be Paul of Tarsus, who was called Saul before he converted to Christianity, writing many years after Jesus’s death. As Aslan states: “Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”
Regardless of where you stand on the Divinity of Jesus this is a worthwhile book to understand both Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ.
The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
How is our modern, high-tech, industrial culture both better and worse than life in a traditional hunter gatherer or subsistence agriculture group? That is the question explored in this book by Diamond, who spent decades in Papua New Guinea first as an ornithologist and later as an anthropologist. Traditional societies on several continents are covered. Some of the chapters I found more interesting or easier to read, but overall this is a thought-provoking read. Who is a friend, a stranger, or an enemy? Sometimes it depends on degrees of relationship, a common language, or the potential as a trading partner. Are large scale wars worse than frequent small battles? Is the lessened risk of dying from an infected insect bite offset by the frequency of diabetes and heart disease as people adopt modern diet and medicine? Chapters explore child rearing, justice, diet, the benefits of multilingualism, religion, warfare, responses to perceived and actual dangers, and how traditional societies cooperate differently when there is drought or an overabundance of food. The author’s experiences in New Guinea would be of interest for readers of Lost in Shangri-La.
Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the making of Christianity in the West, 350 – 550 AD by Peter Brown
“Again, I tell you it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven.” With these words, spoken by Jesus and brought to us by the gospels, Peter Brown, in his new book, attempts to deal with “The distinctive manner in which wealth and social status came together in Roman society.”
Wealth in the Roman Empire in the 4th Century AD, was as unequally distributed as it is today. Riches derived from the fruits of the land, expansion of the tilling of the soil and favorable planting conditions. Rich farmers would intermarry with other wealthy landowners, so the profits would be kept within the family. Well off families would create magnificent villas, and in time the Fabulous City of Rome with its overarching Emperor. A lot of wealth was also created by using a slave class to do work that was not compensated. Slaves were imported from conquered territories throughout the Empire. In order to keep the slave and working classes pacified, in the cities, the wealthy patrons of Rome held almost daily Games and Circuses that were free to the general public. While attending these events the common folk could forget their wretched lot for a while.
The rise of the Christian Churches started to compete with these enterprises by offering the Liturgy and the Eucharist to the wealthy and the poor. By offering Jesus’s vision of “Eternal Wealth in Heaven” instead of transient riches here on earth, the Church was able to sway and gain hold with the moneyed class in what was now termed a “Pagan Environment”. So instead of endowing themselves or passing on their wealth, the rich gave their treasure to the newly rising Christian church. “in some way or another, to give within the Christian Churches was to open a path to heaven. That Wealth despised on earth should somehow follow the ethereal soul up to the stars opened a new horizon.”
Another element of giving to the church was the notion that possession of riches was evil. “There was a common proverb, cited on one occasion by Jerome, which stated that “a rich man is either a wicked man or the heir of a wicked man”
The writings of Augustine (City of God), Ambrose and Jerome amplify this thesis as the Roman Empire begins to disintegrate at the end of the 4th Century, due to Barbarian invasions and widespread internal corruption.
“Through the Eye of a Needle” reads like a novel. “His report is a masterpiece that introduces us to the wealth and poverty of an empire as it implodes and the inspiring Christian concept of treasure in Heaven.”
Foundation: The History of England from its earliest beginnings to the Tudors. By Peter Ackroyd
Life in medieval England was nasty, brutish and short. Mr. Ackroyd does not spare on the horrid details of daily life in very old England. In the beginning, people, mostly Celts lived in mud huts with their livestock. If you got sick, there were the leaches and the bloodletting followed by a poultice of cattle dung applied to the affected area. There were constant wars between competing factions and soldiers were easily expendable. And this was before the “100 years war”, which actually lasted 114 years. If you got into trouble, really bad trouble, like William Wallace who dared to defy Edward Longshanks (see the movie Braveheart) you could be hanged, then dis-emboweled while you were still alive, then drawn and quartered which meant that your head and limbs were severed and put on display. If you were a heretic, which there were not many, you would be burned at the stake. If you were a King and were deposed by an opposing faction you could die by having a red hot poker shoved up your backside.
Here is Richard the Lionheart, who was not so noble, but was really good with a sword. King John was so bad that the barons teamed up and presented him with the Magna Carta, the basis of all western law.
Here too is the Battle of Hastings in 1066 which some people still regard as the end of true English civilization, with England being overrun by Normans. The Author shows through archaeological data that long before the “Norman Conquest”, the Celts were being infiltrated by a constant stream of Danes and Vikings, who intermingled with the population.”
The Black Death shows up in the 1300’s and a third of the population dies. The author postulates that it was not Bubonic Plague but instead was Anthrax, Influenza, or a form of Haemorrhagic Fever.
Regarding the Jews “The history of the Jews in medieval England is an unhappy and even bloody one. Since Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest, some other group of merchants had to be created. The Jews became moneylenders by default, as it were, and as a result they were abused and despised in equal measure.”
The last part of the book is devoted to the Wars of the roses; the house of Lancaster vs. the house of York, the white rose vs. the red rose.
In conclusion Ackroyd says : “when we look over the course of human affairs we are more likely than not to find only error and confusion. There is in fact a case for saying that human history, as it is generally described and understood, is the sum total of accident and unintended consequence.” I guess some things never change. There is a volume 2 to this history, “Tudors the history of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, which will be published in October of 2013.