Tag Archives: history

Review ~ Thieves, Rascals and Sore Losers

Cover via Goodreads

Thieves, Rascals and Sore Losers: The Unsettling History of the Dirty Deals that Helped Settle Nebraska by Marilyn Coffey

On they came, from Belgium and New Hampshire, from Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia, from the Chicago fire, from the territories: Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, the Dakotas.

All the way they brawled, about Indians, about border lines, about slavery, about who was the bigger imbecile.

And then they fought County Seat Wars in most of the 3,000 new counties.

A thousand of those remaining ended up in south central Nebraska, scrapping about Harlan County and which still-imagined town should hold the seat of government. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
After River City Empire and A Dirty, Wicked Town, both about Omaha, I thought I’d read more about history in the rest of Nebraska.

What Worked
Marilyn Coffey starts out at home. Herself a native of Harlan County, Nebraska, she has first-hand knowledge of the lasting hurt-feelings that have occurred over the location of  the county seat—events that happened over a hundred years ago. Getting the county seat of government could make or break a town. It was a hotly contested responsibility. In frontier Nebraska, that was only half the story. Maybe not even half. These “petty” political battles were fought against the backdrop of “Indian wars,” the Civil War, and the harsh environment. Coffey does a great job giving scope to Harlan County’s story.

What Didn’t Work
There are a lot of names and a lot of back and forth details. It gets a little muddled, no matter how many times Coffey points out a personage that will be important later. Also, occasionally, the light tone of the narrative is out of place. Something like the Sand Creek massacre is more than a “dirty deal.” And many of the absurdities of frontier politics don’t need any gilding.

Overall
There’s lots of great information in this book. Even in Omaha (Douglas County), there is some tension between us and our county brother to the south (Sarpy County to the south). Thieves, Rascals and Sore Losers is a look at this type of smaller intra-state conflicts against a national stage.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle, Omega Cottonwood Press, 2015
Acquired: Amazon, 12/1/2017
Genre: history

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20 15 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books

 

Review ~ Heaven’s Ditch

Heaven's Ditch cover via Goodreads

Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal by Jack Kelly

The technological marvel of its age, the Erie Canal grew out of a sudden fit of inspiration. Proponents didn’t just dream; they built a 360-mile waterway entirely by hand and largely through wilderness. As excitement crackled down its length, the canal became the scene of the most striking outburst of imagination in American history. Zealots invented new religions and new modes of living. The Erie Canal made New York the financial capital of America and brought the modern world crashing into the frontier. Men and women saw God face to face, gained and lost fortunes, and reveled in a period of intense spiritual creativity.

Heaven’s Ditch by Jack Kelly illuminates the spiritual and political upheavals along this “psychic highway” from its opening in 1825 through 1844. “Wage slave” Sam Patch became America’s first celebrity daredevil. William Miller envisioned the apocalypse. Farm boy Joseph Smith gave birth to Mormonism, a new and distinctly American religion. Along the way, the reader encounters America’s very first “crime of the century,” a treasure hunt, searing acts of violence, a visionary cross-dresser, and a panoply of fanatics, mystics, and hoaxers. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I won this book from Doing Dewey almost two years ago! It falls firmly into the category of “I know nothing about this…let’s read a book about it!”

What Worked
There are many story threads in this book. I found each of them really interesting and learned a lot. The Erie Canal. The Masons. The Mormons. Millerism. Rivivalism. Abolitionism. Honestly, I probably knew the most about the history of the Mormons, but that isn’t saying much. It’s really amazing how many concepts in American religion—and American politics—came into being in this area during this time period.

What Didn’t Work
There are many story threads in this book… The organization of how they were interwoven didn’t always work for me. Granted, this is probably the most difficult thing to do well in this sort of nonfiction book.

I also really wish there would have been more about building the canal. In the early 1800s, a 363 mile was a marvel of human engineering. I’m kind of a sucker for people building amazing things. There was a lot of heaven but not enough ditch for me.

Overall
Each of the individual narratives were compelling, though my reading was slowed down by shifting gears when the “scene” changed. Good history though!

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, St. Martin’s Press, 2016
Acquired: Won it from Doing Dewey!
Genre: nonfiction, history

20 15 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books

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Review ~ A Dirty, Wicked Town

Cover via Goodreads

A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha by David L. Bristow

Omaha, Nebraska, is a laid-back city in America’s heartland. In the nineteenth century, however, it had a very different reputation. Omaha grew from a speculative scheme in 1854 to a booming city. Along the way there were scores of great stories.

“It requires but little if any, stretch of the imagination to regard Omaha as a cesspool of iniquity, for it is given up to lawlessness and is overrun with a horde of fugitives from justice and dangerous men of all kinds who carry things with a high hand and a loose rein. . . . If you want to find a rogue’s rookery, go to Omaha.”—Kansas City newspaper. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Omaha! It’s my hometown. Sadly, when I lived there I was much less interested in its history. History is wasted on the young.

What Worked
David Bristow does a really good job making this book light enough to be popular nonfiction, but also with some historical “crunch” to it. All the stories are well-cited as well as well-written.

There is also a good variation in tales. Omaha began its life with the reputation of being a “wide open” city. Crime of all sorts was rampant. (It could be argued that crime boss Tom Dennison, not covered in this book since he didn’t come into power until post-1900, was at least an organizing influence.) But along with tales of gambling, prostitution, and sadly, a lynching, there are stories of newspaper editor dust-ups, hot air balloon hijinx, the other White City, and (of course) weather.

While the book doesn’t go into a extreme detail, the many first-person accounts quoted give a good idea of what it was like to live in Omaha in the late 19th century.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Caxton Press, 2000
Acquired: Amazon, March 11, 2013
Genre: nonfiction, history

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Review ~ Ghostland

Cover via Goodreads

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

Colin Dickey is on the trail of America’s ghosts. Crammed into old houses and hotels, abandoned prisons and empty hospitals, the spirits that linger continue to capture our collective imagination, but why? His own fascination piqued by a house hunt in Los Angeles that revealed derelict foreclosures and “zombie homes,” Dickey embarks on a journey across the continental United States to decode and unpack the American history repressed in our most famous haunted places. Some have established reputations as “the most haunted mansion in America,” or “the most haunted prison”; others, like the haunted Indian burial grounds in West Virginia, evoke memories from the past our collective nation tries to forget.

With boundless curiosity, Dickey conjures the dead by focusing on questions of the living—how do we, the living, deal with stories about ghosts, and how do we inhabit and move through spaces that have been deemed, for whatever reason, haunted? Paying attention not only to the true facts behind a ghost story, but also to the ways in which changes to those facts are made—and why those changes are made—Dickey paints a version of American history left out of the textbooks, one of things left undone, crimes left unsolved. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I enjoy reading/hearing about hauntings. I was browsing through the library’s audio catalog and Ghostland had a good narrator.

What Worked
Like a lot of folklore, ghost stories are strongly tied to the history and culture of place. In Ghostland, Colin Dickey takes some of the most famous haunted places in the US, fact checks the story’s details (when applicable), and then takes a look at how the setting and history of the location has played a part in the narrative’s current form. There are differences between ghost stories in Athens, GA and Hollywood, CA after all.

Dickey also examines how modern society views ghosts. On one hand, there is a cachet to having a ghost “destination.” Many of the hauntings in Ghostland have been featured on ghost hunting TV shows. In many cases, like the Winchester Mystery house, not-quite-true stories continue because that is the narrative that sells. On the other hand, no one *really* wants to live somewhere they believe to be haunted, even if phenomena can be easily debunked. Ghost are good if you want a tourist trap, bad if you want to sell a house.

What Didn’t Work
The structure of Ghostland was roughly chronological, but also broken into specific types of locations—domestic places (houses), commercial places (bars, hotels), public works places (prisons, cemeteries, parks), and even cities themselves. I probably would have preferred a more strict chronological order.

This is also a popular nonfiction work, not a scholarly work. Some of the tenants of Ghostland aren’t exhaustively investigated. For example, it’s argued that the ghost stories of the American south edit out the horrors of slavery in favor of more romantic stories, like Myrtles Plantation’s Chloe. But a good investigation of such an assertion could take a book itself. Ghostland is a sip from the well instead of a deep dive.

Overall
Overall, thumbs up. It was good to listen to during my reading slump. If you’re a fan of podcasts such as Lore or Just a Story, this is definitely up your alley.

Publishing info, my copy: OverDrive Listen audiobook, Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, October 4, 2016
Acquired: Tempe Overdrive Digital Collection
Genre: nonfiction, pop culture, history

Review ~ Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans

This book was provided to me by University Press of Mississippi via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans: The Life and Times of Henry Louis Rey by Melissa Daggett

Modern American Spiritualism blossomed in the 1850s and continued as a viable faith into the 1870s. Because of its diversity and openness to new cultures and religions, New Orleans provided fertile ground to nurture Spiritualism, and many seance circles flourished in the Creole Faubourgs of Treme and Marigny as well as the American sector of the city. Melissa Daggett focuses on Le Cercle Harmonique, the francophone seance circle of Henry Louis Rey (1831 1894), a Creole of color who was a key civil rights activist, author, and Civil War and Reconstruction leader. His life has so far remained largely in the shadows of New Orleans history, partly due to a language barrier.

Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans focuses on the turbulent years between the late antebellum period and the end of Reconstruction. Translating and interpreting numerous primary sources and one of the only surviving registers of seance proceedings, Daggett has opened a window into a fascinating life as well as a period of tumult and change. She provides unparalleled insights into the history of the Creoles of color and renders a better understanding of New Orleans s complex history. (via Goodreads)

I was attracted to Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans because I hadn’t considered that there might be regional differences in how Spiritualism was approached. I had thought of the rise and popularity of Spiritualism in this era as a mostly homogeneous experience, with at most rural/urban differences. Of course, I was wrong.

At its beginnings, Spiritualism was regarded with suspicion in the Confederate South. It was seen as just another Yankee “-ism,” along with abolitionism and feminism. Spiritualism did notably take hold in the Creole community, especially among free men of color.  Beautifully, from a research point of view, these séance circles kept detailed logs of their sittings. Though written in French, the logs of Henry Louis Rey survived to present day and offer a wonderful primary source. The spirit guides were often important personages  to the community, lost during the war, and their hopeful messages often reinforced the political issues of the day.

Melissa Daggett grounds her look at Spiritualism in the life of Rey and the history of New Orleans. That is this book’s strength, but also its weakness. Occasionally, I felt bogged down in the general history of the era. Additionally, while based on an incredible primary source, no translations of the log were extensively quoted. That seems to me to be a missed opportunity.

Publishing info, my copy: PDF, University Press of Mississippi, Jan. 3, 2017
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: nonfiction

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Generator Points Earned: .5 (I started this book a little early.)
Generator Points Total: 1.5

Review ~ Judas

Cover via Goodreads

Judas: The Most Hated Name in History by Peter Stanford

In this fascinating historical and cultural biography, Peter Stanford deconstructs that most vilified of Bible characters: Judas Iscariot, who famously betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Beginning with the gospel accounts, Stanford explores two thousand years of cultural and theological history to investigate how the very name Judas came to be synonymous with betrayal and, ultimately, human evil. But as the author points out, there has long been a counter-current of thought that suggests that Judas might in fact have been victim of a terrible injustice: central to Jesus’ mission was his death and resurrection, and for there to have been a death, there had to be a betrayal. This thankless role fell to Judas; should we in fact be grateful to him for his role in the divine drama of salvation? “You’ll have to decide,” as Bob Dylan sang in the sixties, “Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.” An essential but doomed character in the Passion narrative, and thus the entire story of Christianity, Judas and the betrayal he symbolizes continue to play out in much larger cultural histories, speaking as he does to our deepest fears about friendship, betrayal, and the problem of evil. (via Goodreads)

I.

Judas Iscariot is mentioned only 22 times in the gospels, which are in essence the four retellings of the life of Jesus Christ. Judas’s involvement within Christianity, though, is pretty important. He was paid to point out Jesus to agents of the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas who turns Christ over to the Romans who execute him. Because of this Judas’s name has become a cultural touchstone synonymous with betrayal and treason. Worse though, Judas isn’t just Judas. For a very long time, Judas has been Judas the Jew.

II.

I was raised Lutheran. Not super conservative evangelical Lutheran, but as more of a tolerant, low-key, benevolent Lutheran. Honestly, until I went to public school in seventh grade, I didn’t realize that there were differences between  sects of Christians. A girl in my gym class took exception to my notion that she, a Catholic, and I were pretty much the same. Regardless, she seemed like a pretty nice person, smart, and a good volleyball player. Nearly 30 years later, I remain unconvinced that there is anything inherently virtuous,  or deplorable, about any particular religious affiliation.

III.

The first book I read by Peter Stanford, a Catholic theologian, was The Devil: a Biography. In it, Stanford provides a look at the Devil using the Bible, but also other literature, visual arts, and a survey pop culture. He does much the same thing with Judas.

The biblical references to Judas are scant, but provide an interesting first evolution in the story. John, the last of the gospels, provides a much more baroque tale than Mark, the earliest of the gospels. With only the Bible as source, Judas is, of course, the betrayer of Christ. But, he may or may not have done the deed out of greed. He may or may not have been possessed by the Devil when he did so. He may or may not have been remorseful enough to try and give his thirty pieces of silver back. He did commit suicide, but his entrails may or may not have burst forth upon his death.

It’s through later writings and art, though, that Judas the betrayer becomes not just a scapegoat (if the entirety of Christianity depends on the death and resurrection of Christ, doesn’t *somebody* have to be the betrayer?), but the template used to condemn an entire religion. If Judas the Jew is a betrayer, isn’t every Jew treasonous? Judas becomes not just a history of Judas, but a history of antisemitism.

VI.

In my initial religious education, Judas wasn’t mentioned overly much. Sure, I knew about his involvement in the events of Good Friday. I knew that calling someone “Judas” was to call them a betrayer, although I think I’ve personally heard Benedict Arnold invoked more.  “Judas the Betrayer == Evil Jews” never occurred to me before reading this book.  That this could be a kernel upon which to grow antisemitic rhetoric is by turns confusing and appalling to me. On a slightly comforting note, Stanford points out that, for most people in the post-WWII world, that connotation is less prevalent than it has been since the gospels.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Berkeley Counterpoint, 2015
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: nonfiction, history

Summer Reading, June 29th ~ The Victorian Internet

SummerMagic2

I’m appropriating Mondays for short reviews of my summer reads (I’m behind in reviewing all the books I’d like to review) and my weekly preview.

What I Read Last Week

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage

Cover via Goodreads

For centuries people communicated across distances only as quickly as the fastest ship or horse could travel. Generations of innovators tried and failed to develop speedier messaging devices. But in the mid-1800s, a few extraordinary pioneers at last succeeded. Their invention–the electric telegraph–shrank the world more quickly than ever before.

A colorful tale of scientific discovery and technological cunning, The Victorian Internet tells the story of the telegraph’s creation and remarkable impact, and of the visionaries, oddballs, and eccentrics who pioneered it. By 1865 telegraph cables spanned continents and oceans, revolutionizing the ways countries dealt with one another. The telegraph gave rise to creative business practices and new forms of crime. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users, and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates and dismissed by its skeptics. And attitudes toward everything from news gathering to war had to be completely rethought.

The telegraph unleashed the greatest revolution in communications since the development of the printing press. Its saga offers many parallels to that of the Internet in our own time–and is a fascinating episode in the history of technology. (via Goodreads)

Oof. This is only my second book of summer! But it was a good one. The perfect lounging-in-the-cool-breezes of San Diego read.

The history of technology is a very cool niche and Tom Standage does a great job wearing both the history hat and the tech guy tie. I read The Turk at the end of 2013 and it shifted the way I look at the history of invention. The Victorian Internet isn’t quite as paradigm changing, but it was still enlightening. Standage provides us with a chain of invention leading from the optical telegraph system through the installation of the trans-Atlantic telegraph lines. The crux of the book is that telegraphy did for the world what the internet continues to do. The electric telegraph allowed for long distance communication to occur quickly, making the world seem to be a much smaller place. There are many other parallels as well. The abbreviations needed to keep messages short. The blind long-distance friendships that blossomed. The prophecies both optimistic (world peace) and dire (the death of the newspaper). I was also struck by how quickly the telegraph came and went, quickly transposed by the telephone within one generation. It makes me wonder how radically different the world will be at the far end of my life.

SmallAce

What I’m Reading This Week

For the first time in a year and a half, I’m behind on Deal Me In stories. I have “The Championship of Nowhere” by James Grady and Stephen King’s “The Tale of Gray Dick” for last week and this week. I’ve also been chipping away at The Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 7. *And* I just remember that there’s a full moon Wednesday! I pick a deuce and deuces are wild. My choice is “When it Ends, He Catches Her” by Eugie Foster.

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