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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

England’s King Henry IV was a tyrannical monarch who was involved in many wars. His oldest son Hal (Timothée Chalamet), the Prince of Wales, wanted nothing to do with his father and had no interest in the crown. The king had made plans for this second son to succeed him. While the king was on his deathbed, the younger son died in battle, and Hal had no choice but to ascend to the crown, becoming King Henry V. Palace politics and intrigues kept trying to entrap him, but he stood his ground. However, due to the machinations of courtiers, he was deceived into invading and attacking France, particularly as he considered himself to be the legitimate heir to the French throne too. The war in France was not easy, but he was victorious, largely due to the advice and experience of his friend and confidant, Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). Key to the invasion was the famous Battle of Agincourt.

There have been many history books written about the famed Battle of Agincourt. I always like to read historical fiction, as it provides colorful and tangible detail and makes history come alive. One such book was Agincourt – by Bernard Cornwell, which I reviewed here about a year ago. It goes without saying that you’ll learn a lot more about the battle and the historical details by reading the novel, but movies are good at fleshing out some of the imagery, the costumes, the living conditions and the times in general. The movie The King does that superbly. It is loosely based on the Shakespearean “Henriad” plays, but not specifically any one of them.

The Battle of Agincourt is described in Cornwell’s book from the perspective of the common soldiers and the knights, who were basically at the mercy of the young and inexperienced boy-king. In this movie, the entire story is told from the point of view of the king. A very different story indeed.

King Henry V lived from September 16, 1386 until August 31, 1422. He took the throne of England on March 21, 1413 at the age of 26 and ruled for only 9 years until his death at the age of 35. He died in war, but it is not clear exactly how. Some suspect dysentery, others heatstroke, as he had ridden all day in full armor in terrible heat that day. He is celebrated as one of the greatest warrior kings of medieval England. When he died, his infant son, only a few months old, became King Henry VI of England.

Just watching the movie, The King, would be entertaining, but learning all the historical background around that time in history makes it all worthwhile. So I definitely recommend The King.

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In the late 1960s, when I was a school boy in Germany, I remember that the evening news, along with what was going on in Vietnam, often covered violence in Northern Ireland. Catholics and Protestants were always murdering each other in violent clashes, shootings and bombings. As a child, I could never understand why Christians would hate each other so much that they’d kill each other, year after year after year.

As a school boy in Bavaria I witnessed almost all my friends and school mates being Catholic. Everyone was Catholic in Bavaria, except a very few. Those who were not Catholic were called “die Evangelischen” which translates to our overall term “Protestant.” In a classroom of 30 to 40 students, there might be one or two Protestants, often none. We knew that, because there was mandatory religion class, where a religion teacher, usually a priest, would teach about religion. We had no choice but participate, except those kids that were Protestant. They were pulled out and went to some other study room, or had their own consolidated Protestant class, except there were so few of them in school that they would not be able to put  enough together to fill a classroom.

Bavarians were generally Catholic, and Protestants were the children of refugees. Refugees in Germany in the sixties always came from the east and were people who were displaced when the Russians closed in on Hitler in World War II. They spoke a very different dialect, so we could tell who they were, and they were usually Protestant.

As a kid, I never gave it much thought.

The book A Column of Fire deals with the subject of Catholicism and Protestantism in the sixteenth century in Europe and particularly in England. Queen Mary Stuart was a staunch Catholic, and Protestantism was against the law. Protestants were called heretics, and the inquisition, staffed by sadistic priests, had the power to accuse anyone of heresy, try them in “court” and burn them at the stake, if convicted. Accused heretics were tortured, like stretched until all four limbs were completely dislocated. Under such torture, most every accused person confessed to heresy, which ended the torture, but started the brutal execution, like being burned naked and alive while the public watched and the clergy looked on. Queen Mary, sometimes called “Bloody Mary” ordered hundreds of such executions of Protestants.

Reading about tortures, I also remembered that as a school boy, I once took a tour of the Regensburg Rathaus (the old town hall). One of the most memorable sights there was the Folterkammer (torture chamber).

I was in that torture chamber and was able to inspect the various implements. As a kid it didn’t affect me much, and I never thought about it. As it turned out, between the years 1533 and 1770, suspected sinners were asked to confess, and if they didn’t confess, they were shown the torture instruments, which I suspect made many of them change their minds. But the key point is, “freedom of religion” as we know it today, is a very recent invention, and just a few hundred years ago, in Germany, in England, and all over the world, if you lived in a predominantly Catholic country, the laws were such that if you were not Catholic, or if you worked against the church, you were a blasphemer or a heretic, and the punishment could easily be death, depending on the severity of the crime as determined by the inquisitor.

That does not mean only the Catholics were the barbarians.

When Queen Mary Stuart died, Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne of England. Elizabeth was a Protestant, and professed herself to be a moderate. She said she didn’t believe that people should be killed for their religion. Yes, the country was Protestant, and Catholicism was outlawed, but at least you weren’t summarily killed for it. However, since the Catholics were obsessed with their right, they felt Elizabeth was illegitimate as queen, and they tried various plots to kill her and give the throne to Mary, Queen of Scots – you guessed it – a Catholic.

The church and politics were completely intertwined, and the pope, his cardinals and bishops had as much power as the nobility and wielded it with a brutal hand.

A Column of Fire plays in the fictional town on Kingsbridge about 200 years after World Without End. It starts in 1558 in Kingsbridge and ends in 1620. It follows the lives of various prominent Kingsbridge residents as they do the bidding of famous historical figures, like Queen Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots, King Filipe in Spain, King Henri in France, Sir Francis Drake, and many other historical figures of the time. A Column of Fire is the third book in the Kingsbridge trilogy, or the “Pillars Trilogy” as I have called it. You can read my other reviews here:

The Evening and the Morning – the prequel

Pillars of the Earth – book one

World Without End – book two

A Column of Fire – book three – this review

This is a historical novel about the Christian religion in its dark days. Reading it I am glad I live today, and I live in a country that prides itself of religious freedom – and I say that somewhat facetiously. Catholics and Protestants in the United States don’t kill each other (anymore), but I am not so sure whether all Jewish people and definitely Muslims in the United States today would agree that we have religious freedom. But if you want to learn first-hand what lack of religious freedom means, you should definitely read A Column of Fire.

I like Follett’s books because they make history come alive. It’s one thing to read in a history book that Martin Luther didn’t like what the Catholics were doing and wanted to reform the church, but the Catholics didn’t approve of that. That’s dry, that’s history lectures in school with no context. It’s another thing to be inside the head of a young woman in Paris who sells copies of the Bible in French or English, which were printed clandestinely, and the penalty for being discovered selling illegal books was death. Yes, the Catholic church banned bibles in languages other than Latin and the penalty for violating that rule was death. The Catholic church has, in all its history, actively worked on keeping the people uneducated, so it could wields its power over them and essentially extract money from them for its own enrichment. I may seem on a rant, and off topic now, against the Catholic church, but not really. A Column of Fire brings the power or the church in the 16th century to life in front of your eyes.

This is a very long book with 919 pages and it takes time to read. But it was time well-spent. I am now going to have to read a biography of Martin Luther, as I am embarrassed to say, I know only very rudimentary facts about him and his life and work. I need to fill in that blank. I have also concluded that I need to find a historical novel that plays during the crusades, another time in history that warrants better understanding, and I suspect I will learn more about atrocities committed by the church.

The third American colony was started in New England by the passengers of the Mayflower in 1620. It was in the context of the political structure in England described in A Column of Fire that these first pilgrims stepped onto the Mayflower in search of religious freedom, and now I understand how and why that happened.

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It is the year 997 in England, the end of the Dark Ages. The people live in wooden houses and use primitive tools.

Edgar is an eighteen-year-old youth, the son of a boatbuilder. During a Viking raid, his village is destroyed, his father is killed, and his mother and brothers have to move to a new village and start from scratch, trying to survive.

Ragna is the daughter of a Norman nobleman who falls in love with Wilwulf, the ealdorman (you’ll have to look that up here) of Shiring. She moves to England to marry him, but she has no idea what the customs are in her new world. Quickly her life is all but destroyed.

Aldred is a young monk who wants to turn his monastery into a center of learning and culture. This is in the time when copies of books were written by hand, and when books where hugely expensive and impossible to own.

Wynston is the bishop of Shiring, a cunning, brutal man who will stop at nothing, including fratricide, to get what he wants, more power and more riches.

The lives of these four people are interlinked and connected as we watch them struggle for survival, for love and lust, for power and for enlightenment. But in the end, the story is too simple, the plot predictable, and the characters are one-dimensional and not believable.

I bought this book without bothering to first download the preview to see if I’d like it, based completely on the reputation and caliber of the author. I have read the “Kingsbridge Trilogy” starting with Pillars of the Earth, one of the best historical novel I have ever read. The Evening and the Morning is the fourth book of the Kingsbridge series, written as a prequel to Pillars. It plays about a hundred years before Pillars, when the little hamlet that will once become Kingsbridge consists of just a few hovels in the middle of nowhere.

I have no idea why the title of the book is The Evening and the Morning. Surely, Follett could have spent a little more time thinking of a better title. The book is over 900 pages long and it takes patience to read. I was hoping I’d get more history out of the experience, but I really didn’t. The story is a love story, a tale of utter evil and brutishness, power and abuse, sex (too much of it) and melodrama. Disney could have written the story, and it could have played anywhere and at any time. It just turns out it played in the decade between the years 997 and 1007, during the reign of King Ethelred II.

The Evening and the Morning is a nice attempt at a historical novel that describes life during the Dark Ages, or better, the end of the Dark Ages, but it misses a lot of opportunities. Edgar, one of the protagonists, could have been shown as an old man, jumping forward closer to the 1100 period, where Pillars starts. As it turns out, I learned more about the history of that period in England browsing wikipidia.org for Ethelred, the term “ealdorman,” the Viking raids, and court life during that period than I learned from reading The Evening and the Morning. 

Follett is a great writer, and this book leaves me with the feeling that he just wanted to write something quickly and without much imagination to make some money from his loyal followers. The book really doesn’t have anything to do with the Kingsbridge stories, other than it plays 100 years before John Builder first sets foot into the town of Kingsbridge is search of a job.

That’s when it gets exciting. You will not miss anything if you skip The Evening and the Morning.

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Watching the Republican National Convention these days, speech after speech paints bleak pictures of “Biden’s America,” by calling out riots, looting, rage and mass shootings, and no respect for law enforcement.

This reality we are experiencing is not Biden’s America, it’s Trump’s America.

They tout Trump’s great economy, lowest unemployment ever, a thriving middle class relieved of the tax burden.

This is not what is going on right now. The middle class hasn’t seen its taxes cut. Tens of millions of people are out of work and barely hanging on with – yes – government handouts. This reality is not Biden’s America, it’s Trump’s America.

The people are afraid for their futures and the future of their children. This isn’t freedom. This is calamity. It’s Trump’s America.

They are blasting Biden for wanting to raise $4 trillion in taxes, but the party of fiscal responsibility, fashioned by Paul Ryan ten years ago, just accumulated another $6 trillion in debt in the last 4 years. This is not Biden’s America.

It’s Trump’s America!

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Just a couple of days ago was the 75th anniversary of VE Day in Europe, the day the Nazis surrendered about a week after Hitler killed himself. What most people do not realize is how short the tenure of power of the Nazis actually was. Hitler didn’t come to power until March 1933 and his Third Reich (which he called the 1000-year-empire) lasted only 12 years.

Today, May 11, 2020 is the 100th anniversary of a milestone speech Hitler gave at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich at 7:30pm, titled “Was wir wollen?” (what we want?). Below is a poster proclaiming the event. This was the time when the fledging Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei (the Nazi party) recognized Hitler’s oratory and propaganda skills and he started to rise within the party. He proclaimed he fought for the worker class, he called the people Genossen (comrade) and his mantra was to Make Germany Great Again after its humiliation by the allied powers after “the World War” which we now know as World War I.

Germany didn’t know it at the time, but the dark period started that day. The name of Hitler on the poster was still in very small font.

[May 11th, 1920] First NSDAP advertising posters in Munich. Call for the public party rally on May 11, 1920. Speaker: Adolf Hitler from 100yearsago

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Based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, the movie The Irishman shows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), an Irish-American who lives in Philadelphia, tell his life story. The Martin Scorsese movie is three and a half hours long. So make sure you have ample time before sitting down for this one, or split it into two nights.

The story starts when Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran, is in a wheelchair in a nursing home, telling the story of how he started out as a truckdriver delivering meat, to becoming a hit man for the Bufalino crime family, led by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and a friend and confidante of Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

The Irishman leads us through a few turbulent decades of American history and the mob’s involvement. Particularly the Kennedy Administration, how Kennedy got elected, Bobby Kennedy’s role, and eventually even Nixon are involved in the plot. Most of all, it gives deep insight into the thinking of the mob and the unions, and it’s not a pretty picture.

The acting is superb. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Ray Romano are at their very best. We have not one superstar actor in this film, but half a dozen of them, all doing an exemplary job.

The Irishman is shocking, exhausting to watch, long and drawn out, but hugely educational, and a history lesson.

I never knew much about Jimmy Hoffa, other than I knew that he was a union figure, and there was a movie about him (Hoffa, 1992, with Jack Nicholson). Now I know a lot more about Hoffa, and I’ll have to watch that movie too.

The Irishman is 209 minutes long, and 209 minutes worth watching.

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At the end of The Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla is expelled from the Clan, and she walks away into the unknown wilderness in search of “The Others,” her own people.

Eventually, she finds The Valley of Horses, with a suitable empty cave on a cliff in a protected canyon, a stream with a waterfall above it, and the steppe not far beyond the valley. The glacier, which shapes the local climate an the flora and fauna, is not far away toward the north.

Ayla makes her home there. The rescues a colt and raises it, and later she rescues a baby cave lion, and raises it too. She ends up spending three years alone in the valley with her animals.

Jondalar and Thonolan are two young brothers on a journey down the Danube to the “sea,” which of course is what we know as the Black Sea today. On their odyssey they get to know many different tribes. Eventually, they end up in Ayla’s valley under catastrophic conditions, with Jondalar severely injured.

Ayla nurses Jondalar to heath and eventually the two become a couple.

I read The Clan of the Cave Bear decades ago for the first time, and I remember reading The Valley of Horses, its sequel, also, but I remembered nothing about it. When I recently re-read Clan, I decided to also re-read Valley. They are the first two books of the Earth’s Children series of six books written by Auel. I enjoyed The Valley of Horses to a degree. It does a nice job portraying life in the stone age by the Cro Magnon man, our direct ancestors, and it contrasts that to the lives of the Neanderthals, of “the Clan” as they are called in this series. I have always been interested in pre-history, taking place in southern and eastern Europe during the current Ice Age but before the last glacial period – or about 30,000 years ago.

Jondalar’s home is where France is today, and Ayla’s home is originally in today’s Crimea. The Valley of Horses is about where today’s Kiev is in Ukraine. The Cro Magnon people were on the rise with their advances in hunting techniques, weapons and general social structure. The Neanderthals, who had reigned over Europe and Eastern Europe for more than 100,000 years, virtually with no changes in their lives, were on the decline. There was occasional interbreeding during that period, between the two sub-species of humans, and this overall backdrop sets the stage for The Valley of Horses.

The story is a bit boring at times, particularly when the author repetitively describes things that she has described before. There is also a surprising amount of explicit sex, with detailed, graphic sex scenes going on for pages. I can understand that it’s necessary to include sex to describe the lives of the people, but there is too much of it in this book. Sometimes I felt like I was reading a romance novel, and it should have had a Fabio-like dude with a fur loin cloth holding a blond vixen in a passionate kiss. I don’t know why the author found it necessary to include as much sex as she did. It got repetitive to me, and I found it unnecessary.

I got my fix of pre-history with these two books.

I now marvel about time-scales. This played 30,000 years ago. That’s 10 times as long as our modern timescale, if you think of the time of the ancient Greeks as the start of modern times. No innovations occurred in their lives for tens of thousands of years, thousands of generations. When I compare that to the pace of innovation we are experiencing now, I am awestruck at the length of human history, and how long we endured under very challenging conditions so I could be here today.

I will not read the next four books in the series, but it peeked my interest in anthropology. So today, at the bookstore, I picked up “Who we are and how we got here – Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past” by David Reich. It’s a science book. It won’t have sex scenes, but it’ll give me that feeling of awe when I face the unlikely history of humanity.

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Nicholas Hook was a common 19-year-old man in England in 1413. He had one gift: He was a superb archer and as a result he ended up in the army of King Henry V invading France. Henry V thought he was the rightful heir to the French throne, in addition to the English, and he thought God was on this side in his quest to claim what was rightfully his.

This story is about the legendary battle of Agincourt, about which many scholars of history have written numerous books. It tells the story of that invasion in vivid detail from the point of view of the common man. We get drawn into the lives of the people, the thinking of the nobility and the clergy at the end of  medieval Europe during the Hundred Years’ War.

Life was rough. Lords had the power of gods and could do anything they wanted. Clergy was revered and utterly corrupt. All evil deeds were somehow done on behest of God and great suffering was inflicted on the people, through taxation, backbreaking labor, and relentless abuse. During war, the boys and men of the losers were killed, and the women raped and enslaved. This was just how life was.

Agincourt is full of terrible, endless violence. Here is an example of a battle scene:

“Stay tight, stay tight!” Sir John bellowed, making sure there was a man to his left and Sir William to his right. You fought shoulder to shoulder to give the enemy no room to pierce the line, and Sir John’s men-at-arms were fighting as he had trained them to fight. They had stepped over the first fallen Frenchmen and the second line of English were lifting enemy visors and sliding knives into the eyes or mouths of the wounded to stop them from striking up from the ground. Frenchmen screamed when they saw the blade coming, they twisted in the mud to escape the quick stabs, they died in spasms, and still more came to be hammered or chopped or crushed. Some Frenchmen, reckoning themselves safe from arrows, had lifted their visors and Sir John slammed the poleax’s spike into a man’s face, twisting it as it pierced the eye socket, dragging it back jellied and bloodied, watching as the man, in frantic dying pain, flailed and impeded more Frenchmen. Sir William Porter was stabbing his lance at men’s faces. One blow was usually enough to unbalance an enemy and Sir William’s other neighbor would finish the job with a hammer blow. Sir William, usually a quiet and studious man, was growling and snarling as he picked his victims. “God’s blood, William,” Sir John shouted, “but this is joy!”

— Cornwell, Bernard. Agincourt (p. 402). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

A good third of the book describes such atrocities. Skulls crushed by hammers and axes, a thousand eyes poked out by knives, swords rammed into bowels and twisted up to the lungs and hearts.

It is graphic and realistic, but it was too much for me. At times I’d start skimming over the battle scenes, as I simply didn’t need to know about every stabbed eye socket anymore, and I wanted to move on.

This was my first Cornwell book. It was recommended to me by colleagues as great historical fiction, and I found that it is. There are countless other Cornwell books, probably just as vivid and graphic. It was well written and very educational, but unlike other fans of Cornwell that end up binge-reading all his books, I think I am done and ready for other subjects.

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I read The Clan of the Cave Bear many decades ago and I remembered liking it, being impressed by it, and that the main character’s name was Ayla. But that was all.

When I recently read Pushed Back it reminded me of this book, so I read it again now.

The story plays about 30,000 years ago, the end of the age of the Neanderthals, on the peninsula of Crimea, the same Crimea that was taken over by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. The glaciation of the northern hemisphere was at its maximum, reaching down all the way to southern England, covering Scandinavia, and getting to within a few hundred miles of Crimea in what is now Russia.

Ayla is a 5-year-old girl born to Cro-Magnon humans who had just started arriving in Europe at that time. Ayla was away from her tribe playing when a strong earthquake demolished their encampment and everyone perished. The little girl was left alone, naked, in the wilderness. After days of wandering about, just before her imminent death, a migrating troupe of Neanderthals comes along and their medicine woman, Iza, convinces the leader to take the little girl in so she could save her life. And so it comes about that a little girl “born to the Others” is raised in a Neanderthal clan.

The Others look like modern humans, and the Clan people find her ugly. Eventually she is accepted into the Clan and those around come to love and respect her. But it does not come without a price. The Clan’s rules are highly patriarchic and restrictive. The successor to the current leader, Broud, is an ambitious youth, very insecure, and sees Ayla with all her differences as a threat. He develops a deep hatred for her that festers and escalates until the day he takes over.

The book is 468 pages long and delves deeply into the Clan’s society, culture and individual thinking. As a reader, I found myself thinking like many of the main characters, like Brun, the Neanderthal leader, Broud, his eventual successor, Creb, the clan’s magician and spiritual leader, and the many women and children. The author goes into great detail into the lifestyle of the clan, how they live, hunt, eat, celebrate and socialize. Reading this book is an immersion into stone-age life.

Much of the detail, of course, is the author’s conjecture. For instance, she describes the Clan people as speaking mostly using sign language and not voices. She also makes many assumptions about the social structure, and while we are not sure what is fact and fiction, I was fine with it. I didn’t come to read the book to get a historically accurate and factual representation of Neanderthal life, I came to experience what it might have been like, and how it would have felt. In that, the author was very successful.

For a while, as I was reading the book, I became a Neanderthal.

It struck me how much of their life and their culture was guided by “spirits.” Most important decisions, most laws or rules, were based on what the spirits wanted or dictated. Many decisions were made not based on the visible reality of the world, but what they thought the spirits wanted. This caused misery, sometimes death, unspeakable pain and sorrow, and much overall suffering.

One of the conjectures I found hardest to believe was that the Clan people thought that pregnancies were started by totem spirits fighting over the woman’s body. If the outside male spirit won, the woman became pregnant. Sexuality was a casual activity. Any male could beckon any woman or young girl, any time he wanted, and she would simply have to assume the position, so he could “relieve his need.” This was done in open sight all the time. You would think that Neanderthal society, which was active for over 100,000 years without any real progress or change, but was very smart with herbs, medicinal uses of plants, tool making, and the like, would have figured out that it was the relieving of a man’s need into a woman’s womb that might be the cause of the baby getting started in there? Surely they knew!

While I wondered how it was possible that societies could be that much influenced by imaginary powers, imaginary threats, and imaginary disasters, I realized that we have many parallels today.

Millions of people today are still guided by religions and their laws, ceremonies, customs and limitations. In addition, we allow ourselves to suffer from imaginary foes, like mortgages coming due, debts having to be repaid, bad grades in college, titles attained or not attained. All those things are imaginary powers, not unlike the spirits of the Neanderthals, and I found suddenly that my life was not that different and in its own way was driven by the Spirit of the Cave Bear.

 

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The Missouri State Capitol building has been under renovation for more than a year. The dome has been wrapped up for construction that long.

Yesterday, during a visit to one of the state office buildings, I was lucky to be there during exactly the time when the statue was installed again after being gone since November 2018.

This is the historic bronze statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, perched 238 feet above  the entry of the building. It took a 550-ton crane to raise the 10′ 4″ statue, weighing 1,407 pounds, on this bitter-cold day in Missouri. 

I was there for a historic moment.

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Number 86 on the Random House Board’s list of 100 Greatest Novels is Ragtime. A business associate had given me the book as a present. I finally got finished reading it.

Ragtime tells the story of life in New York City in the years before World War I. It brings together a number of famous contemporaries of the time, including Henry Ford, Houdini, the famous anarchist revolutionary Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and many others, and weaves them into the fictional characters of Doctorow that tell a compelling story of racism in America.

The main storyline is about Coalhouse Walker, a black American Ragtime musician who, through talent, hard work and discipline creates a successful life for himself in New York. He can even afford a car, and the drives around in a new shiny black Model T. Most whites cannot afford cars, and when he runs into a roadblock in front of a firehouse, the firemen thugs are harassing him. But Coalhouse Walker does not bend to injustice. He starts a one-man war, and it does not end well for the firemen and the city of New York.

More poignant than the story itself are the graphic description of life of the common man, the black man, and immigrants, at that time in our history. Here is an excerpt on immigration:

Most of the immigrants came from Italy and Eastern Europe. They were taken in launches to Ellis Island. There, in a curiously ornate human warehouse of red brick and gray stone, they were tagged, given showers, and arranged on benches in waiting pens. They were immediately sensitive to the enormous power of the immigration officials. These officials changed names they couldn’t pronounce and tore people from their families, consigning to a return voyage old folks, people with bad eyes, riffraff and also those who looked insolent. Such power was dazzling. The immigrants were reminded of home. They went into the streets and were somehow absorbed in the tenements. They were despised by New Yorkers. They were filthy and illiterate. They stank of fish and garlic. They had running sores. They had no honor and worked for next to nothing. They stole. They drank. They raped their own daughters. They killed each other casually. Among those who despised them the most were the second-generation Irish, whose fathers had been guilty of the same crimes. Irish kids pulled the beards of old Jews and knocked them down. The upended the pushcarts of Italian peddlers.

— page 16

I have been to Ellis Island. This description does not match the glorious pictures we have in our minds of immigration into the United States over the years. It matches more the descriptions of Trump today, does it not? Ragtime is a novel, of course, and not reality, but it paints a very dark picture of our history that does not match what we like to tell ourselves today about “this great country.”

Life in New York was very different a hundred years ago. I have always loved the city. When I walk through its streets today, as I did 45 years ago when I first came to this country, I always think about its rich history and all the stories that its walls and streets and parks and sidewalks could tell – if they could speak. Here is a particularly graphic paragraph depicting city life not as we think about it:

That evening White went to the opening night of Mamzelle Champagne at the roof garden at Madison Square. This was early in the month of June and by the end of the month a serious heat wave had begun to kill infants all over the slums. The tenements glowed like furnaces and the tenants had no water to drink. The sink at the bottom of the stairs was dry. Fathers raced through the streets looking for ice. Tammany Hall had been destroyed by reformers and the hustlers on the ward still cornered the ice supply and sold little chips of it at exorbitant prices. Pillows were placed on the sidewalks. Families slept on stoops and in doorways. Horses collapsed and died in the streets. The Department of Sanitation sent drays around the city to drag away horses that had died. But it was not an efficient service. Horses exploded in the heat. Their exposed intestines heaved with rats. And up through the slum alleys, through the gray clothes hanging listlessly on lines strung across air shafts, rose the smell of fried fish.

— page 19

Racism in America needs more coverage. Reading Ragtime today, thinking of our current policies as they relate to immigrants and racial minorities, opens our eyes about our sketchy history and terribly flawed past. Our politicians always talk about:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Oh no, those are illustrious words, but we haven’t really lived up to them, and we’re not living up to them today.

Ragtime is a powerful book, with 320 pages a fairly quick read, that I highly recommend.

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There are a lot of headlines about gerrymandering by the Republicans these days. I was curious about where the word came from.

In Massachusetts in the year 1812, the governor was Gerry Elbridge. His party redistricted the state to preserve the Antifederalist majority. After they were done, one district in Essex County resembled a salamander.

Here is a picture of an article in the Boston Gazette of March 26, 1812. You can click to enlarge.

“The Gerrymander: a New Species of Monster” Boston Gazette, March 26, 1812, page 2, Library of Congress Newspaper, Serials and Government Publications Division.

And that’s how Gerry and (sala)mander created the word gerrymander that we still use today.

Do you have anything that can trump that?

 

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A Brief History of Humankind

As the subtitle states, the book is a brief history of the human race. The Israeli author has a Ph.D. in history and lectures at the Hewbrew University in Jerusalem. He tells the story of humanity from a scientific and cultural viewpoint. The material was originally published in 2011 and updated in 2014. Some of the references to current events, like global warming for instance, are therefore already quite outdated, but the impact of that is very minor.

Unlike what we think of history books, Sapiens is a page-turner. The author’s viewpoint sometimes shocks and surprises us. Humans are apes that managed to become the apex predator of the planet.

Being scientifically oriented myself, and keenly interested in history to boot, there was not much material in Sapiens that I didn’t already know in a broad sense, but the level of detail and the sharp, keen observations that the author supplies made it very valuable.

I learned a lot about our history, and there are many subjects the author addressed that resulted in my taking notes for further study and reading. For me, it all makes sense, but I can see that for a Christian or a Muslim, or a technologist, some of the conclusions of the author may be surprising or even disturbing and shocking.

Many sapiens eat pork:

Pigs are among the most intelligent and inquisitive of mammals, second perhaps only to the great apes. Yet industrialised pig farms routinely confine nursing sows inside such small crates that they are literally unable to turn around (not to mention walk or forage). The sows are kept in these crates day and night for four weeks after giving birth. Their offspring are then taken away to be fattened up and the sows are impregnated with the next litter of piglets.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 342). Harper. Kindle Edition.

I read the book cover to cover, and I learned – mostly that I know very little. My rating key for books states: “Must read. Inspiring. Classic. Want to read again. I learned profound lessons. Just beautiful. I cried.” Obviously, I rate a book with four stars when it changes me in some way.

After reading Sapiens, I will never think about many topics quite the same again. I can’t “unread” this book. I read it, and now:

  • Christianity, Islam and all the other religions will never quite look the same to me.
  • I always believed animals are not different in kind from humans in any way. Animals feel, hope, love, lust, fear and mourn, just like we do.
  • We are destroying ourselves and our planet, and all the creatures on it (or most of them).
  • Our current Republican government is corrupt, criminal and repugnant.
  • Our species does not appear fit to survive.
  • We are at the cusp of turning into something quite different entirely. I call it the ultra-sapiens, in great contrast to divine. The ultra-sapiens will look at us sapiens like we sapiens look at ants. Get out the Raid and wipe them off the countertop.
  • We could do so much good, be so much better, but we don’t have the maturity to pull it off.

Sapiens changed the way I think, and I suspect it would change your way of thinking, too.

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Adolf Eichmann was Hitler’s “architect of the final solution” and one of the most notorious henchmen of the Nazi regime. He was one of the few senior Nazis who did not commit suicide but managed to escape to Argentina after the war. He lived a quiet life with his wife and two children, and worked as a manager at an automotive factory.

In 1960, Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad got a tip from agent Peter Malkin. He convinced them to try to find and abduct Eichmann and bring him to Israel to stand trial.

The movie deals with the soul of a Nazi, and how he justified his deeds at the time, and how he lives with himself afterwards. “I just followed orders, like everyone else,” is the simple answer most of the monsters of history have used to justify their bloody deeds. It also addresses the role the Argentinian government played in protecting the Germans.

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The Original Starbucks

Yesterday I was at a conference in downtown Seattle. In the afternoon I had some free time so I walked down to the pier to the famous Pike Place Market. Seattle has more Starbucks stores than any other city. You can literally step out of any building and look around in all direction and you will likely see a Starbucks. Here is a fun little article that illustrates my point. 

When I got down to Pike Place Market, I was in for a treat. Because that’s where the original Starbucks store is.

The first Starbucks store was established in 1971 at 2000 Western Avenue where it operated until 1976, when it moved to 1912 Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. So this address, while still hosting the original Starbucks, is actually the second location for the chain.

There are now 27,339 Starbucks stores worldwide.

As you can see in the picture above, there is a line going into the store. While it is not visible in the image, the line continues along the sidewalk to the left and goes all the way down the block.  There were probably a hundred or more people lined up – to get a cup of Starbucks in this store. I was not in the mood.

But I enjoyed a bit of coffee history and took this photograph.

My plan was to visit the Seattle Art Museum, just a few blocks down the road, but unfortunately, it was closed Monday as Tuesday, as museums are wont to be. Perhaps another time, after a good cup of coffee.

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