Tag Archives: American history
“Zero Fail – The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service” by Carol Leonnig
Often, I begin by telling you how a book reached me. Zero Fail was positively reviewed and I entered a “reserve” request with my county public library. It was not immediately available, the first book for which I was “waitlisted” in the past year! It took several months for me to get it.
Zero Fail falls into an important target category of mine – books about history I lived through. After a brief prologue, the book begins with the Kennedy assassination. The epilogue ends after the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol. 487 pages of text are followed by acknowledgements, notes and index.
I greatly enjoy well written documentary history. I would put Carol Leonnig in the same class as Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air) and Bricker and Ibbitson, who wrote Empty Planet. This is high praise.
Leonnig began her journalistic career at The Philadelphia Inquirer and has worked as an investigative report for The Washington Post since 2000. She won three Pulitzer prizes, and began publishing books in 2020.
Leonnig is clear about why the Secret Service rose and fell. The Kennedy assassination (1963) was a low point in Presidential protection. Changes were made that probably saved the life of Ronald Reagan in 1981.
What went wrong thereafter? Why was the Secret Service response to 9/11 so badly compromised? Many “near miss” situations are described in Zero Fail.
Leonnig describes a number of problems that are “baked in” for the Secret Service. It has been chronically underfunded. Presidents want to appear “approachable” and confident. They like friendly agents who are flexible, but these are not necessarily the best people to run an agency. Transitions between presidencies are difficult. Likely assassins (most are mentally ill loners) are hard to spot.
Then there is the issue of “political climate”. Barrack Obama was hated by a certain portion of the American electorate. It’s amazing he (and his family) survived 8 years in office. Some of the near misses that took place during his terms are simply terrifying.
A major issue about the Secret Service is it’s workplace culture. It is macho, insular and self serving. At it’s worst, it’s “frat boy culture” of “infighting, indulgence , and obsolescence” (Leonnig p xvii). It’s also profoundly racist and misogynistic. And, ironically, highly patriotic.
This book describes an important agency that is in trouble. NOW. It’s not clear that improvement is underway. I hope Biden and his team are able to stay safe.
“The Darling Dahlias Mysteries” by Susan Wittig Albert.
So far I’ve read two of these novels. I wasn’t at all certain that anything from the “cozy mystery” genre would work for me, but these books are great. Yes, chick lit. Yes, beach reading. Intelligent, lively beach reading!
To clarify, Darling is an imaginary small town in southern Alabama. The Darling Dahlias is a garden club with 12 members of varied ages. The series starts at the beginning of the Great Depression. Times are hard, and no one knows if improvement can be expected.
The Dahlias face a variety of (predictable) challenges and the occasional disruption of their quiet town by murder, embezzlement and organized crime. The local, two-person police force can’t always resolve these issues, but the Dahlias, thinking “outside the box” and using unconventional methods, have remarkable success. At the same time, they have fun and revel in mutual support. Darling is the (imaginary) small town we all wish we could live in!
“The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” by Kim Michelle Richardson
I loved this book! For starters, it has a stunning setting, beautifully described – remotest Kentucky, hilly and wild. The story takes place during the Great Depression.
The “book woman” of the title, Cussy Mary Carter, is part of a tiny and persecuted minority, the blue-skinned people of Kentucky. Victims of an unknown genetic disorder, they suffered persecution because people feared that their strange condition was contagious. Racially, blue people were classified as “colored”.
Cussy Mary’s family is desperately poor. Her father is a coal miner. After her mother dies, her father, trying to protect her, forces Cussy Mary into marriage to a violent, thuggish man who promptly dies. Cussy Mary takes advantage of a New Deal program called the Pack Horse Library Project to earn a much needed salary and satisfy her love of books and reading. She carries books, magazines and even “scrapbooks” to isolated homes and schools, where children and most adults are avidly hungry for the printed word.
Improbably, The Book Woman has an animal as a major character. Cussy Mary inherits a mule she names Junia, that had been starved and beaten by her deceased husband. Nursed back to good health, Junia trusts only Cussy Mary, tolerates women and children and simply HATES men, kicking and biting them at any opportunity. We meet Junia in the first sentence of the book. Cussy Mary takes advantage of Junia’s acute senses and instincts, and together they survive shocking challenges.
Ultimately, Cussy Mary meets a man who sees beyond her obvious differentness and comes to love her. It’s a very bad time and place for the improbable pair.
Amazon classifies The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek as historical fiction, but it could be grouped with action/adventure, as it moves very quickly.
I read The Book Woman fast because the plot captivated me. When I went back over parts of it, I realized it is stunningly well written, crisp and passionate. Maybe this book will be recognized as literature.
I briefly searched on line for information on methemoglobinemia and the blue skinned people of Kentucky and learned that, contrary to what Cussy Mary thought, the “blues” did not die out, and now, in the age of genetic testing and internet genealogy, these people are finding one another and sharing family histories and memories. Most people who show the characteristic blue skin of methemoglobinemia are otherwise in normal health and live an average lifespan. Treatment is now available. Clusters of the people with the condition have been documented in Alaska and Ireland. The recessive (unexpressed) gene persists.
Eight pages of pictures and historical details about the Pack Horse Library Project complete this book. I recommend it without reservation.
“The Indians of New Jersey – Dickon Among the Lenapes” by Mark. R. Harrington (Jiskogo)
This book was published in 1938. It’s about half fiction and half ethnography. The combination works! Amazon lists it as being for ages 9 – 12 years, but I wouldn’t call it a children’s book.
The plot… In 1692, an English ship bound for the Jamestown, Virginia, colony (established only 5 years previously) is struck by a storm and young Dickon is washed overboard near what is now the New Jersey shore. He is found by the native Lenape residents and taken to Turtle Town on the western (Pennsylvania) bank of the Delaware River.
Dickon fears for his life, but the village leaders decide he is human (not a demon!) and keep him alive. His initial status is that of a slave or servant. He is handed over to an old woman who lives alone. She is good natured and instructs Dickon in both Lenape language and a wide variety of skills and chores that are important in the village. Dickon and “Granny”, as he thinks of her, become close, and when she dies, he grieves.
Eventually, Dickon is formally adopted into the community, which numbers (I think) fewer than 100 people. He lives in Turtletown for about two years, before being “rescued” by an English ship.
One thing to keep in mind is how badly the English Jamestown colony was doing at that early date. They were starving on land that supported the native population in good health, and their understanding of the original culture was minimal.
I wondered, as I read descriptions of hunting, gardening and wood gathering, if the Turtletown community described was pushing against its ecological limits.
Dickon Among the Lenapes book is wonderfully descriptive, enhanced by numerous drawings (by Clarence Ellsworth) and maps. Supplementary material includes introductions from 1938 and 1963, plus ten pages of commentary on the Lenape language, with vocabulary. The 1963 introduction was written by Rutgers University scholar Mary Gaver. The curious reader is directed to the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton and institutions in New Brunswick and Newark.
Harrington, who died in 1971, wrote as follows: “To The Survivors and Descendants of the Lenape Who Unfolded to Me Their Heritage, This Book is Affectionately Dedicated”. He names two Lenapes and one Seneca who assisted him in his research and writing. I was surprised that the two Lenapes did not live on historically Lenape land, but rather in Oklahoma and Canada. In addition to the Lenape name “Jiskogo”, Harrington was given names by three other tribes. His field work was extensive and very thorough.
Harrington wrote a second novel describing Dickon’s further adventures among other tribes in the Iroqois Confederacy. I hope to find a copy.
List of posts pertaining to race in America
Hello, dear Readers!
Are you looking for books about race and/or white supremacy? This is what I’ve read (willy nilly) over the past 8 years. Most of these were just lucky finds, often from the New Arrivals shelf at my library. Some of these (towards the bottom) are books I haven’t read yet!
I’m using the term “race” broadly, to include “people of color” and indigenous Americans.
I’ve also written about lectures and personal experiences.
Sorry about the rough formatting. Dates (column two) are given in YYYYMMDD format, which can be used with the blog archive to find my reviews/essays. Or use the blog search function with the author’s name (third and fourth columns). If there’s nothing in the third and fourth column, I am the author.
|“Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher…Edward Curtis”||20130519||Timothy||Egan||biography|
|“The Eve of Destruction – How 1965 Transformed America”||20130603||James T||Patterson||sociology|
|“Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences”||20130804||Richard||Pryor||autobiography|
|“Detroit – An American Autopsy”||20130907||Charlie||LeDuff||urban planning|
|“The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger”||20130915||Richard||Wilkenson||sociology|
|“Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance”||20131004||Carla||Kaplan||lecture review|
|“Playing the enemy – Nelson Mandela and the game that made a nation”||20131016||John||Carlin||political science|
|“My Beloved World”||20131118||Sonia||Sotomayor||autobiography|
|Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) – Rest in Peace||20131206||essay Gitchell|
|“Tangled Webs – How false statements are undermining America: from Martha Steward to Bernie Madoff”||20140108||James B||Stewart||sociology|
|“American Mirror – The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell”||20140205||Deborah||Solomon||biography|
|“Hellhound On His Trail: the electrifying account of the largest manhunt in American history”||20141030||Hampton||Sides||history – recent|
|My Days in Court – Reflections on Jury Duty||20150217||essay Gitchell|
|“Son of the Rough South – an Uncivil Memoir”||20160109||Karl||Flemming||autobiography|
|“The Color of Water”||20160410||James||McBride||autobiography|
|“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption”||20160924||Bryan||Stevenson||sociology|
|Constitution Day Lecture – SU – 2016||20161105||Akhim||Reen||lecture review|
|“Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City” and “Why We Chose This Way”||20161217||Turiya S.A.||Raheem||autobiography & creative non fiction|
|Women’s Protest March (Trenton, NJ) and protest memories||20170122||essay Gitchell|
|Women’s March in Trenton (2) – about Elder Sister||20170125||essay Gitchell|
|Ms. Edith Savage-Jennings – Elder Sister||20170128||essay Gitchell|
|The Central State University Chorus in performance||20170328||concert review|
|Intersectionality – a personal essay||20170525||essay Gitchell|
|In honor of MLK Day (1) – Remembering Lillie Belle Allen and York, PA||20180116||essay Gitchell|
|In Honor of MLK Day (2) – Remembering Lillie Belle Allen and York, PA||20180220||essay Gitchell|
|Having Our Say: Women of Color in the 2018 Election||20181019||Sheila||Oliver||lecture review|
|Drawing Fire – A Pawnee…WW II||20190719||Brummett||Echohawk||autobiography|
|When I Was White – A Memoir||20190827||Sarah||Valentine||autobiography|
|Constitution Day Lecture – SU 2019 – J Biskupic||20190920||Joan||Biskupic||lecture review|
|Say Her Name – Lillie Belle Allen||20200610||essay Gitchell|
|Senator Cory Booker virtual town hall||20200621||essay Gitchell|
|“Race in America” in my blog||20200628||essay Gitchell|
|“Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy”||20201018||David||Zucchino||history|
|“Whistling Vivaldi – How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do” by Claude M. Steele||20201017||Claude||Steele||sociology|
|“Rain of Gold” by Victor E. Villasenor||20200829||Victort||Villasenor||history|
“Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy” by David Zucchino
I should read this book. While a close friend was reading it, he disappeared into somber gloom. It’s bad news, fully documented, and way too close to home.
In 1898, the democratically elected city government of Wilmington NC was overthrown and at least 60 African Americans were murdered. Hundreds of families were driven out of Wilmington.
One Amazon reviewer described the events as “an atrocity against God.” Other descriptions included “depraved” and “unsettling”.
In human experience, evil sometimes triumphs. White supremacy came out on top. Perhaps I’ll read this when I feel stronger.
“English Creek” by Ivan Doig
This is the novel I’ve been waiting for! I mean during this pandemic. I’ve wanted something to get lost in, something not too fraught, something to entertain and distract me. My Library had two of Doig’s many books, so I got this early work of fiction from 1984 and his final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom from 2015, the year Doig died.
English Creek is a coming-of-age story, unfolding in Montana at the end of the Great Depression. The first person narrator is Jick McCaskill, 14 years old, the younger of two boys whose father works for the US Forest Service, ranger and manager of a section of National Forest. Their mother, though cushioned from poverty by her husband’s steady employment, leads the hard and often anxious life of a prairie woman.
As summer unfolds, Jick recognizes that his family of four is changing. His brother rebels against a long-held, carefully laid plan that he should go to college and leaves to work at a nearby ranch for the season. Jick is unsettled. Events cause him to take on increasing responsibilities.
This “set up” of the plot took time, but I enjoyed it because the descriptions of people, land, animals and events were so vivid and meticulous. Two thirds of the way through the book, I realized SOMETHING big was going to happen, but I couldn’t imagine what.
Spoiler alert! I can’t resist sharing the nature of the emergency that slammed the McCaskill family. After weeks of dry heat, lightening started a wildfire that endangered Jick and his father and scores of firefighters.
The parallels with the current situation NOW in the American west are many. Doig writes in detail about fighting a forest fire with the limited resources available in 1939. I couldn’t stop reading.
At the same time, Jick struggles to learn about this family and the people around them. Some situations are clarified. Others remain secret. Just like real life. The narrative ends as World War II breaks out in Europe.
This would make a GREAT book club choice! The parallels to our present situation are many. What is the meaning of community? How does a family navigate change? What pieces of the past should be shared with a child, and when? How do humans live in an ecosystem?
This book reminds me of Badluck Way,. reviewed here., another coming-of-age story.
“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” by Jennifer Chiaverini
This enjoyable historical fiction novel introduced me to Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907). She was born into slavery and purchased freedom for herself and her son. (Her son’s life history would also be worth a novel – he enlisted to fight for the Union in the Civil War by “passing” as white at a time when free African Americans were not accepted into the military. He died in combat.) Ms. Keckley became modiste (we would say “stylist”) and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln herself is an interesting historical figure, mostly because it isn’t clear whether she was sane.
Ms. Keckley was an extremely talented dressmaker, and had the sewing and business skills to support herself and send her son to America’s first historically black college, Wilberforce College in Ohio.
This book gives insight into
- The Civil War, especially as seen by residents of Washington DC.
- The unpopularity and suffering of Abraham Lincoln, now often described as our greatest American president.
- The evolving status of African Americans during the complex process of emancipation.
After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Ms. Keckley published an account of her experiences entitled Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. The book was simultaneously derided as too good (how could a “nigger” have written it?) and too bad (such a disgrace to write about one’s employers). Mrs. Lincoln eventually forgave her, but Ms. Keckley ended her life in straitened circumstances and seclusion.
The historical record of Ms. Keckley’s life in incomplete, so this fictional characterization necessarily contains considerable speculation. Keeping that in mind, I recommend it.
“Courting Mr. Lincoln – a Novel” by Louis Bayard
What was the chance that my restless search for entertaining fiction would lead me to the Mississippi River (in the first half of the 19th century) TWICE in a row? Is there a message here? Time to book a riverboat cruise?
Courting Mr. Lincoln is mostly set in Springfield, Illinois, when that city was being built on the prairie. Mary Todd (eventually Lincoln) arrives to stay with her married, older sister. The family’s intent is to find Mary a husband, preferably with wealth and good manners. We see the courtship of Lincoln and Ms Todd through Ms Todd’s eyes.
The other character used to illuminate Abraham Lincoln is his close friend Joshua Speed. Sections of the novel alternate between the perspectives of Joshua and Mary. In some ways, they compete for Lincoln’s attention and affection.
Abraham Lincoln was… unusual? complex? troubled? So much has been written about him. Mary Todd Lincoln has also been extensively analyzed. The documents available have been thoroughly analyzed.
This book felt like ordinary historical fiction for a number of chapters, then suddenly took flight about 80% of the way through. Took flight, surprised me and romped on to a strong conclusion!
The turning point and surprise, for me, was the account of Abraham Lincoln becoming embroiled in an “affair of honor” which almost ended in a duel, to be fought with (of all things) cavalry swords. High drama, and in the end, no one was injured.
Louis Bayard has written a number of other books, and I’m looking forward to sampling them. One is entitled Roosevelt’s Beast. What on earth?!