May 11, 2018 § 3 Comments
Reading and Watching
The Cotton Kingdom by Frederick Law Olmsted. It’s not widely known that the author, who became America’s first and most prominent landscape architect and designer of masterpieces such as Central Park in New York and Biltmore Estate, was for years a correspondent for the New York Times. In the 1850’s he undertook a solo tour through the backwoods of the southern states to report on slavery, life in the south, and the plantation economy. This book compiles his reportage, and presents a contemporary panorama of the small landowners, slaves, plantation owners, and their ways of life.
Worse than Slavery by David Oshinsky. From slavery, through reconstruction, through white resurgency, through Jim Crow, through convict labor-for-hire, through the law used as oppression. Oshinsky traces the history of Parchman Farm from its roots in slavery to its founding and evolution through phases of Mississippi history. The author does a masterful job of depicting Mississippi’s brutal racial history.
Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden. Turning points in history are most often identified by historians long after the fact. Some turning points, however, are apparent immediately. Such was the case when the Tet Offensive exploded across Viet Nam in 1968. Before then the Johnson Administration had been manipulating the media, with a few notable exceptions, to promote a rosy picture of military progress in that ill-starred land. Tet proved it all to be lies, and began a u-turn in American public opinion on the nation’s involvement in Viet Nam’s civil war. Bowden’s riveting book tells the story of the invasion and month-long occupation of Hue, South Viet Nam’s cultural capital, by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, the Herculean effort that it took to oust them, the cost in human life and destruction, and the aftermath both in Viet Nam and in the U.S.
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall. An easy-to-digest, thoughtful explication of geopolitics. Marshall shows how geography has dictated history, how it influences current events, and how it will shape the world’s future, region by region.
The Greater Journey by David McCullough. Between 1830 and 1900, waves of Americans took up residence in Paris to study art, medicine, and life. They took what they absorbed back to their young nation and enriched it immeasurably. Through their stories two-time Pulitzer Prize and two-time National Book Award-winner McCullough weaves the history of Paris itself. What results is the mesmerizing sagas of Americans such as James Fenimore Cooper, Mary Cassat, John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Harriet Beecher, Samuel F.B. Morse, and others, all set against war, art movements of the eras, epidemics, and the Haussmannization of the City of Light.
The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. America’s gradual slide into immersion in Viet Nam’s civil war, from Eisenhower, through Kennedy, and to Johnson, with an afterword about Nixon. Halberstam makes a microscopic examination, linking the loss of China to Communism during the Truman years to Kennedy’s obsession with refusing to let the same thing happen in Indochina, to Johnson’s deferral to Kennedy’s “best and brightest” brain trust that he inherited following Kennedy’s assassination. This is a fascinating analysis, done as a character study of all the major — and some minor — players.
The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan. The story of Biltmore Estate and its creator, George Washington Vanderbilt. What do you do when you have inherited more wealth than you can possibly use in twenty lifetimes? Well, if you live in America’s Gilded Age, you build the largest home in the nation, on more than 30,000 acres, for which you employ only the leading architects, craftsmen, foresters, and landscapers. This book traces the development of Biltmore manor and its estate. It’s also the story of his wife Edith’s devotion to the community and her employees, the Vanderbilts’ at-times tenuous financial situations, and the symbiotic relationship of Biltmore, the Vanderbilts, Asheville, and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian Aristocrat is brought before a revolutionary tribunal on charges of being an enemy of the people. He expects to face a firing squad or be imprisoned. Instead, because he is credited with once having authored a famous poem, he is ordered to be incarcerated in the Metropol Hotel for life, on pain of death if he ever sets foot outside it. His story, and that of all the interesting characters, events, and settings in the hotel with which he interacts, make for entertaining reading that one would not expect of a novel limited in scope to one square block of Moscow. Towles is a talented writer whose prose you will enjoy.
Movie Stars by Jack Pendarvis. You need to read more Pendarvis. Do it for yourself.
As for watching, I recommend Filmstruck for those of you who are cinephiles. There you will find a rotating selection of the Criterion Collection and TCM’s vault.