Saturday, January 7, 2017

Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson

Title: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
AuthorErik Larson
Pages: 448
Release Date: May 10, 2011
Publisher: Crown
Genre: Nonfiction; History
My Rating: 2/5

Erik Larson, New York Times bestselling author of Devil in the White City, delivers a remarkable story set during Hitler’s rise to power.

The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Nazi Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming--yet wholly sinister--Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.

I can understand why Erik Larson might delve into the subject of the American ambassador to Germany, pre-WWII: Hitler is coming to power etc etc, what did the American ambassador think about all this etc etc, what did the Nazis think of the American ambassador etc etc. I get it. It could be interesting. I can only suspect that after devoting too much time to the average and uninteresting Dodd family Larson was like, "fuck it, I'll try to make a compelling story and see if people take the bait because I'm a bestseller." I'm not buying what you're selling, Larson. This book was boring af.

William Dodd had no interest in being an ambassador to Germany. He did it because FDR personally asked him (unbeknownst to Dodd, after many others turned FDR's offer down). Dodd also hoped that the workload would be minimal so he could finish a book he started on the American south. It wasn't. Soon after arriving in Germany with his wife and twenty-something-year-old children, Dodd showed regret. "I have worked twenty years on the subject and dislike to run too great a risk of never finishing it. Now I am here, sixty-four years old, and engaged ten to fifteen hours a day! Getting nowhere. Yet, if I resigned, that fact would complicate matters. It defeats my history work and I am far from sure I was right in my choice last June," Dodd whined to a friend. Dodd asked for permission to take a three month vacation only 6 months into the new job.

That's not to say Dodd is lazy. Or unintelligent. He was horribly idiotic sometimes (example: On Hitler: "fundamentally, I believe a people has a right to govern itself and that other peoples must exercise patience even when cruelties and injustices are done. Give men a chance to try their schemes."), but he was also incredibly humble, steadfast, and wise. The only memorable act I can recall of Dodd is a super passive aggressive, albeit wonderful, speech he made to the American Chamber of Commerce in Berlin, in 1933.

Dodd referenced moments in English and French history to basically say "the Nazis are doomed." "In conclusion, one may safely say that it would be no sin if statesmen learned enough of history to realize that no system which implies control of society by privilege seekers has ever ended in any other way than collapse." To fail to learn from such "blunders of the past," he said, was to end up on a course toward "another war and chaos." Did I mention Joseph Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg were in attendance? We repeat history, always. Just like we are now drawing comparisons to the rise of Hitler and Trump, but whatever.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Book Review: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Title: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Author: Trevor Noah
Pages: 224 pages
Release Date: November 15th 2016
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Genre: Nonfiction; African; Memoir; Race
My Rating: 4/5

Trevor Noah's unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents' indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa's tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle. 

Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man's relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother: his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.

The eighteen personal essays collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother's unconventional, unconditional love.

During breakfast every day, I watch the previous night’s Daily Show starring Trevor Noah. I’m new to this routine, new to The Daily Show, but leading up to the election and then its fucking horrible aftermath led me to shows, websites, twitter feeds, etc etc that I never paid much attention to before. The Daily Show is one of these.

With all due respect to Trevor Noah, I had no plans to ever read this. Celebrity memoirs don’t usually interest me. The celebrity memoirs I would read don’t exist because the people are dead. Or they’re assholes or incredibly private. Or both. However, I was gifted this book.

Noah never mentions The Daily Show. He mentions his comedy career only when absolutely necessary. That part of his life is fairly recent. His first twenty years or so were spent either under South Africa’s apartheid system or dealing with the aftermath of being a “colored” (the name given to people of mixed race) man navigating a post-apartheid environment.

Noah grew up in the Johannesburg area of South Africa during apartheid and was literally "born a crime,” as interracial relationships were punishable by law. He was a level of poor Americans cannot begin to comprehend. He was shut out from the world. "Black people were not properly educated. White people didn't talk to black people. So why would black people know what's going on in the white man's world?", Noah says on why no one knew who Hitler was. "Black people knew of Hitler as a powerful person. A tough guy. If you want your son to be tough, you name him Hitler." Noah knew more than one 'Hitler'.

Trevor Noah has a wisdom one can only get from growing up in apartheid South Africa. There were a few passages that were particularly memorable:

On the "black tax":
So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it “the black tax.” Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use you skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to being everyone behind you back up to zero.
On crime:
In the hood, even if you’re not a hardcore criminal, crime is in your life in some way or another. There are degrees of it. It’s everyone from the mom buying some food that fell off the back of a truck to feed her family, all the way up to the gangs selling military-grade weapons and hardware. 
The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate.

How he became a comedian and then host of a renowned American political satire program, I still do not know. That’s in the next book I suppose.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

HTHS: 2016 Retrospective

It's that time of the year again. Here are HTHS's 2016 Superlatives: a look back at this year's major historical happenings. Happy New Year.

Best Story: The House Sit-In
Image source: NPR
To hear Democrats tell it, the “historic” sit-in in the House this year was a noble effort to bar terrorists from buying guns, on par with the suffragette movement, the heroic defiance of the civil rights movement, and the valiant efforts of Father Lankester Merrin to save the soul of Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, all rolled into one.

Least Surprising Story: We Have Nazis Now
Image source: The Atlantic

After reading Telegraph's The warnings of the Holocaust have never been more relevant in Britain 
which discusses the rise of hate crime incidents following the Brexit result, it was no surprise that the United States would produce a similar story once Trump won the election.

Best Nickname: Nasty Woman
GIF source: Giphy
This New York Times article describes why it was the nickname Hillary Clinton was waiting for, why it was a rallying cry for her supporters, and how it will probably live on.

Image source: National Geographic

This October, for the first time in centuries, scientists exposed the original surface of what is traditionally considered the tomb of Jesus Christ. Located in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, the tomb has been covered by marble cladding since at least 1555 A.D., and most likely centuries earlier.

Image source: Seeker
Melanesians (people native to Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, West Papua and the Maluku Islands) could carry DNA from a now-extinct human ancestor that is so far unknown in the fossil record.

Class *Evil* Clown: These two motherfuckers
Image source: Metro UK

Nigel Farage and Donald Trump

Most Hopeful 2017 Discovery: Amelia Earhart
Image source: Huffington Post

The momentum to find Earhart is stronger than ever. Follow for the latest information.

New research has proved that Gaëtan Dugas, a French-Canadian flight attendant who was dubbed "patient zero," did not spread HIV to the United States. What a change in legacy.

Image source: Wall Street Journal

King, activist, environmentalist, musician I guess. Arthur is the gift who keeps giving. And this time, it's with Reverb Nation, an online platform for musicians to upload their music and connect with other artists.

Most School Spirited: Hamilton
Image source: ZAM

2016 was Hamilton's year. The hit broadway show, a hip-hop musical about the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton and the American revolution, has sold out its whole run, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and was nominated for a record-breaking 16 Tony awards, eventually winning 11.

Cutest Couple: Adam and Eve
Image source: Seeker

Eve was not made from one of Adam's ribs, but was instead created using a bone in his penis, a Biblical scholar has claimed causing much controversy this year. Ziony Zevit, a distinguished professor of Biblical Literature, argues the Biblical story has been wrongly interpreted.

Image source: NY Times

Franco may have ruled Spain for almost four decades, but an equestrian statue of the dictator — headless from an earlier act of vandalism — that went up at a Barcelona cultural center lasted just a few days.

Image source: Telegraph

Women were allowed to take part in jousting at English Heritage events for the first time this year, as they abandoned strict historical accuracy for gender equality.

Best Smile: Hillary Clinton

Because headlines like these are bullshit.

Best History Movie: 13th
Image source: Shadow and Act

This was my favorite history movie of the year, and I'm not so sure it even qualifies. The Netflix film connects the dots between American slavery and mass incarceration. 
"History is not just stuff that happens by accident. We are the products of the history that our ancestors chose, if we’re white. If we are black, we are products of the history that our ancestors most likely did not choose. Yet here we all are together, the products of that set of choices. And we have to understand that in order to escape from it."
Worst History Movie: Bridge of Spies
Image source: LA Review of Books

Technically 2015, but dominated the 2016 award season. Based on the 1960 U-2 spy plane incident during the Cold War, the movie is two hours of "we have your guy," "you have our guy," "cool. let's trade." And then two guys walk across a bridge. fuck this.

And some other notable stories from 2016 that were just too good to be left behind:
Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman to receive the presidential nomination from a major political party. 

Building for Egypt's First Female Pharaoh Discovered
People tried like hell to erase Hatshepsut from Egypt's collective memory. Whenever a piece of Hatshepsut's existence is discovered, it's a big deal.

Never-before-seen Shakespeare play discovered
A discovery that researchers say could redefine the scope of Shakespeare scholarship, the 206-page play was discovered in January but has been kept under wraps while a specially commissioned team of historians and literary scholars conduct rigorous examinations to certify its veracity.

New Study Confirms Ancient Maya Codex is Genuine
The Grolier Codex is in fact the real thing: a Maya text written in the early 12th century that represents the oldest document to survive from the Americas.

Researchers confirm location of Salem witch trial hangings behind a Walgreens
The team used historical documents and modern archaeological techniques to determine that Proctor’s Ledge is where 19 people were hanged in 1692.

Onwards to 2017 y'all.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

America's Most Endangered Places (2016 Ed.)

The 2016 list of America's Most Endangered Places was released by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The National Trust has been creating this annual list since 1988 and its popularity has brought necessary attention to many of the sites. More than 270 sites have been on the list over its 28-year history, and in that time, only a handful of listed sites have been lost. See who made the cut, take action, and compare the list to last year's here.

Azikiwe-Nkrumah Hall at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania was constructed in 1865 and named after Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria, and Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana. Azikiwe-Nkrumah Hall is the oldest building on the campus and the site of the first degree-granting institution in the world to educate former slaves. The Hall is on the brink of demolition to make way for a new welcome center. Sign the petition to save Azikiwe-Nkrumah Hall.

Bears Ears on the Colorado Plateau in southeast Utah is a 1.9 million acre cultural landscape that includes archaeological sites, cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, and ancient roads that tell stories of diverse people over the course of 12,000 years of human history. The federal land lacks adequate legal protection and funding. National Trust is joining Native American tribes, conservation groups, and public officials in requesting that President Obama use his Antiquities Act authority to create a Bears Ears National Monument, to provide permanent protection to this unparalleled landscape. Ask President Obama to save Bears Ears by signing the petition.

The Charleston Naval Hospital District in North Charleston, South Carolina was completed in time for the outbreak of WWII and became a primary re-entry point for servicemen injured in Europe and Africa. “This is the place where the wounded warriors of the Greatest Generation were repaid by a grateful nation,” says Don Campagna, member of the Naval Order of the United States. The hospital is being threatened by a proposed rail line. Sign Campagna's petition to move the train.

The Chihuahuita and El Segundo Barrio Neighborhoods in El Paso, Texas reflect the entire span of the city’s history, from the Spanish conquest through the modern era. Through El Segundo Barrio’s historic role as the “Ellis Island of the Border,” these El Paso neighborhoods embody the unique trans-national character of the city’s border community. However, as El Paso’s development boom continues, the neighborhoods face renewed threats of displacement and demolition.

The 1926 Delta Queen in Houma, Louisiana is the last remaining authentic link to our country’s 200-year tradition of passenger steamboat transportation. The Delta Queen’s grandfathered status from a law that prohibits wooden boats from carrying overnight passengers expired in 2008. Without this protection, the ship’s financial viability and historic integrity are called into question. This threat is easily resolved by passing federal legislation - and in so doing, restoring this one-of-a-kind experience for travelers along America’s waterways. Donate, here.

Historic Downtown Flemington, New Jersey has an abundance of 19th-century architecture and is home of the 1877 Union Hotel, most famous for having served the press, sequestered jurors, attorneys, and families involved in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial of 1935. The hotel was also known for its murals that were painted during the Great Depression by two area artists, including an award-winning illustrator of the original children’s books Bambi and The Jungle Book. Flemington’s unique history is threatened by a developer’s proposal that would demolish the now-shuttered Union Hotel along with three other adjacent buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places to create an 8-story mixed use project that would tower over Main Street’s remaining buildings. Sign the petition to help save Flemington's historic Main St.

The James River flows through Jamestown's collection of nationally recognized cultural, historic, and natural resources located in Virginia’s Historic Triangle - a region which receives over 3.5 million visitors annually. This is the second time in three years that the river has made this list, as the public is hoping to persuade decision-makers to bury the transmission line or adopt an alternative route that would protect the evocative landscapes of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, Historic Jamestowne, Colonial Parkway, and Carter’s Grove. What you can do if you live in the area, also, sign the petition.

Lions Municipal Golf Course in Austin, Texas is Austin’s oldest municipal golf course (built in 1924) and often recognized as the first desegregated course in the South. In late 1950, two African-American youths walked onto the course and were allowed to play. Their round marked the quiet desegregation of the course, which was particularly noteworthy for having occurred without conflict and with minimal public debate. Its lease, currently held between the City of Austin and the University of Texas, technically expires in May 2019, but previous public statements point to a possible dissolution of the agreement to make way for potential commercial development on the property. Help save the course by donating, getting on the mailing list, and signing the petition.

The Mitchell Park Domes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin are a unique engineering marvel, and a nationally significant example of Midcentury Modern architecture. The three domes (The Show Dome, the Tropical Dome, and the Arid Dome) contain a vast array of flora that one observer called “a zoo for plants.” In addition to their stunning architectural features, the structures are marvels of modern engineering, featuring the world’s first “conoidal”—or cone-shaped—domes. They remain the only glass conoidal domes in the world in use as conservatories. The County estimates that it would cost as much as $70 million to repair the aging domes. Key county officials have said that demolition of the Domes could be an option. Add your name to the petition calling for a preservation solution for the Domes.

California's Embarcadero Historic District is the historic interface between San Francisco and its beloved bay and a major economic engine for the Bay Area, hosting a variety of maritime uses while also serving as the region’s ferry hub. Its historic character has contributed to a remarkable urban waterfront renaissance in San Francisco. Despite these successes, however, the district is facing two major physical threats: earthquakes and sea level rise. The dual seismic and climate change threats require a coordinated local, regional, state, and federal response that embraces creative strategies that assure long-term resilience for the Embarcadero’s rich heritage.

Tucson, Arizona's Sunshine Mile is a two-mile long stretch of glass storefronts, geometric building designs, and quirky signage, and is one of Arizona’s most significant concentrations of historic Midcentury Modern architecture. Constructed primarily between 1939 and 1972, the Sunshine Mile developed as a commercial corridor after World War II as a new American optimism and economic boom were transforming the nation and the Southwest. Today, the Sunshine Mile is threatened by a proposed transportation project calling for the widening of Broadway Boulevard from four to six lanes and in some sections, all the way up to nine lanes—a plan that currently requires the demolition and sale of several properties on Broadway.

All pictures and (most) text taken from National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Book Review: They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement by Wesley Lowery

Title: They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement
Author: Wesley Lowery
Pages: 256 pages
Release Date: November 15th 2016
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Nonfiction; African American; Race; Black Lives Matter
My Rating: 3/5

A deeply reported book that brings alive the quest for justice in the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray, offering both unparalleled insight into the reality of police violence in America and an intimate, moving portrait of those working to end it

Conducting hundreds of interviews during the course of over one year reporting on the ground, Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery traveled from Ferguson, Missouri, to Cleveland, Ohio; Charleston, South Carolina; and Baltimore, Maryland; and then back to Ferguson to uncover life inside the most heavily policed, if otherwise neglected, corners of America today.

In an effort to grasp the magnitude of the repose to Michael Brown's death and understand the scale of the problem police violence represents, Lowery speaks to Brown's family and the families of other victims other victims' families as well as local activists. By posing the question, "What does the loss of any one life mean to the rest of the nation?" Lowery examines the cumulative effect of decades of racially biased policing in segregated neighborhoods with failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and too few jobs.

Studded with moments of joy, and tragedy, They Can't Kill Us All offers a historically informed look at the standoff between the police and those they are sworn to protect, showing that civil unrest is just one tool of resistance in the broader struggle for justice. As Lowery brings vividly to life, the protests against police killings are also about the black community's long history on the receiving end of perceived and actual acts of injustice and discrimination. They Can't Kill Us All grapples with a persistent if also largely unexamined aspect of the otherwise transformative presidency of Barack Obama: the failure to deliver tangible security and opportunity to those Americans most in need of both. 

They Can't Kill Us All is a galvanizing book that offers more than just behind-the-scenes coverage of the story of citizen resistance to police brutality. It will also explain where the movement came from, where it is headed and where it still has to go.

They Can't Kill Us All is an excellent primer to the Black Lives Matter movement and the lives that were taken by law enforcement.

Wesley Lowery, reporter from the Washington Post, was on the front lines during the immediate aftermath of the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson, 12 y/o Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, etc etc. This is a compilation of his firsthand research of the murders, police brutality, and interviews with the victim's families and young activists who continue to fuel the Black Lives Matter movement. Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, the arrest of Martese Johnson, Philandro Castile (and on and on) are all discussed. I don't think one of these cases has produced the retribution that we want to see. We hear about the Confederate flag finally being challenged by Bree Newsome. We hear about extremists gunning down police officers in the name of Black Lives Matter. We hear about Dylann Roof executing 9 church-goers in Charleston. This is very complex. There will be textbooks written about this in the future and Lowery's work will be included. The Black Lives Matter movement will forever have a place in the black narrative of America.

This book was very disjointed and jumped chronologically around all over the place without warning or transition. As if Lowery wanted to squeeze every bit of his field notes in. Strong editing would have done wonders. I watched Lowery on The Daily Show discuss his goal of showcasing the young activists involved in Black Lives Matter in hopes of making them more understandable. Accomplished, but disorganized. I got a sense that Lowery had contempt for one of the activists which was sort of odd to read. I read this as very passive aggressive on Lowery's part. Childish, even.

Regardless, this is an important book from a firsthand witness. This will be used as reference for years to come.