Tag Archives: American history

In the City

The Archaeology of Home: An Epic Set in A Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side by Katharine Greider (Public Affairs; $26.99; 352 pages)

Freelance writer Katherine Greider works hard at doing right by her subject, a one hundred and fifty-year-old tenement building in New York City’s Lower East Side where she and her husband, David Andrews, spent several years creating their first real home.   The Archaeology of Home is her second book; however, due to the personal nature of the subject matter, it feels like it is the first.

There’s an almost self-conscious and nostalgic tone to the descriptions Ms. Greider provides the reader about her own experiences in the humble abode.   She emphasizes the overwhelming evidence that we are heavily impacted by the place we call home.   Our daily lives are filled with immediate issues and the layers of other lives lived before our occupancy are quite invisible to us.   This layering of past lives seems novel and foreign to someone who currently occupies a 16-year-old development home in California that was brand new when it was purchased.

Ms. Greider begins the book with a painstakingly constructed history of the geography and populations that inhabited the Lower East Side area where Number 239, East Seventh Avenue now sits.   The reader is made painfully aware of the appropriation of land from the Native Americans who had existed in the swampy area for hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans who imposed their style of cultivation and land division upon the place.   Greider uses a monumental vocabulary that borders on pretentiousness when describing the various waves of inhabitants.   Perhaps it is the source material that’s influenced her voice?   Regardless, the reader may need the assistance of a dictionary or Google to clarify the meaning of some of the oblique words she’s chosen.

The tale warms up as does Greider’s voice when she gets to the relationships that matter most to her.   The two children she and her husband bring into the world during their occupancy of Number 239 are somewhat incidental to the telling.   Rather, it is her marriage and the travails she endures sorting out the meaning of living in a space with others that seems to dominate her personal revelations.

Some years into the author’s occupancy, Number 239 is deemed uninhabitable by building officials as its foundation has crumpled and the damp basement is a harsh reminder of the original swamp where the building was placed a century and a half ago.   Because Greider and her husband are co-op owners, they must deal with the other members of the co-op in order to decide the fate of the structure.   Their struggle is easy to relate to for anyone who has been a dweller in a multi-unit building or planned unit development.   No spoiler alert needed here as a quick search of Zillow will reveal the current status of the location.

The Archaeology of Home is an interesting and admirable, though flawed, effort by a New Yorker who clearly loves the notion of small parts of a city being home in the truest sense.   The reviewer spent the summer of 1968 living at 404 East 66th Street and enjoyed the sense of community found within the enormity of New York City.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Archaeology of Home: An Epic Set On a Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side by Katharine Greider.

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Coming Up Next…

A look at a contemporary classic, The Help: A Novel by Kathryn Stockett, soon to be released in trade paperback form.

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Shelter From the Storm

Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz (Doubleday; 400 pages; $28.95)

Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America is a top-notch, first-class synopsis of Bob Dylan’s career, contributions to popular music, status as a cultural icon, and – to a lesser extent – his place in the history of American commentators.

A person who is taking their first foray into the legend that is Bob Dylan would do well to start here, but the die-hard Dylan-junkies will have encountered much of this material in other familiar works.   In fact, Wilentz himself references as sources books, essays, and compilations that many Dylan fanatics will have already read such as Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary of the same name, Ratsko Sloman’s On the Road with Bob Dylan, much of Marcus Greil’s work, David Gray’s Song and Dance Man III, John Bauldie’s Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan, and, of course, a truly great book, Dylan’s own Chronicles.

In light of this, the natural question becomes, “What actually separates this book from the many other books about Dylan?”   First, it is extremely well written.   But beyond that, Wilentz only partially succeeds in trying to put Dylan’s work and persona in a historical perspective because he spends a great deal of energy recounting familiar territory, rather than, what a person familiar with Dylan’s work might be  led to expect by the title would be the primary focus of the book – the integration of Dylan’s musical genius into the collective consciousness of our shared American experience.

He succeeds to a vastly greater degree in placing Dylan’s music in the context of how it relates to our American musical heritage and traditions.   Somehow, in the process, he also manages to successfully accomplish an almost impossible task: evoking an understanding of how Dylan expands that very landscape and either consciously or subconsciously defines many of these American musical traditions as well as various poetic and literary movements though his steadfast commitment to performing his music live.   Wilentz’s continued reference to Dylan as the minstrel couldn’t be more appropriate.

Additionally, Wilentz manges to refer to Dylan’s music intellectually in context, without over-analyzing it – a trap that many other biographers fall into.   Another highlight is the unique treatment he gives to Dylan’s respects for his predecessors.

Dylan’s forays into art (painting) is discussed as well as his interest in movies and attempts at acting and producing films.   Dylan typically does not come across well in other mediums, but Wilentz rightfully points out that he is more articulate these days, and his movie Masked and Anonymous is a much stronger effort than many assumed it would be.

The more recent parts of Dylan’s career make up some of the most interesting parts of the book, perhaps because there has been less written of them, but the album Love and Theft is a masterpiece, his recent tours have been exceptionally strong as compared to his down period, and Dylan’s book, Chronicles, was extremely absorbing.

Wilentz addressed all of these in an interesting and enlightened manner.   He also emphasizes what many others have as well: the perplexing mystery of the songs that were left off of the 1983 album Infidels (e.g., “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot of Pride”).

Wilentz also discusses Dylan’s ability to incorporate past, present, and future into one as he creates his stories and musical impressions.   Wilentz’s storytelling mimics this to a degree to accentuate the point rather effectively, but he often comes across as having some type of inner knowledge on a topic; only to leave the point unsubstantiated, which is at times both troubling and confusing.

The best advice is to read the primary source, Chronicles, or better yet, go see Dylan perform live.   Then, for a very interesting read for Dylan fans, music lovers, and pop devotees alike, turn to Wilentz.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of Life and Life Only, a novel about baseball and Bob Dylan.   We interpret this review to be the equivalent of a Well Recommended rating.

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When our Capitol Burned

Washington Burning by Les Standiford

This is a beautifully written, and ultimately moving, tribute to the founding and building of the nation’s capitol.   It is also a history lesson on the terrors of war; in this case, the destruction of the Capitol by British soldiers in the War of 1814.   In a brief 24 hours, 22 years of construction was destroyed with major damage to the White House and the Capitol building.

But the author’s key goal, well met, is to honor a man who was without honor in his time, the architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant.   L’Enfant was selected by George Washington to design the new Federal City.   His design worked so well that when, one hundred years later, a panel of the nation’s best architects and planners (including Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr.) was asked to re-design the city, they declined.   These experts affirmed that L’Enfant’s original plan was the perfect one.

L’Enfant is now buried at the highest point in Arlington after dying as a virtually penniless, abandoned, man.   This nation may never adequately repay the Frenchman L’Enfant for his services to his adopted country.   This book is a fine start.Burning 4  Three Rivers Press, $16.00, 353 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Later Than It Seems: Klein on Kennedy

A book that is likely to be significant, Senator Edward Kennedy’s autobiography entitled True Compass: A Memoir will be released on September 14, 2009.   This forthcoming 544 page book, to be published by Twelve, is said to have taken five years to complete.   Contra, a book that I read recently, Ted Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died by Edward Klein does not appear to be as significant.

Back in 2005, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post wrote an article (“Ed Klein, Drowning in Ink and Grasping for Air”) concerning Klein and his then-new book The Truth About Hillary Clinton.   In his article, Kurtz wrote:  “Despite the enormous hype surrounding Edward Klein’s scathing and hearsay-filled book about Hillary Rodham Clinton, the author has been ignored by all but two television shows.”   I’m not positive about this, but Kurtz seemed to find some of the content of The Truth… a bit shaky.

Such is not the problem with Ted Kennedy: The Dream…   Instead, the problem is that most of the interesting things in this “new” biography come from other sources and, to his credit, Klein cites those sources.   It is not the credibility of this account – except in one small instance – that raises questions.   The question is do we really need another biography of Ted Kennedy, an extremely ill man, at this point in time?   If so, did it need to spend just a bit more than 200 pages revisiting ground that has been trod over so many times before?

There’s nothing in here, to these eyes, that clarifies exactly who Ted Kennedy is or what specifically makes the family he came from so unique and/or so significant in American history.   There’s also nothing in this account that is strongly pro- or anti-Kennedy (the author has claimed to be politically neutral).   If dozens and dozens of books about the Kennedys had not already been written, one might find some items of discovery here but – in the words of Jackson Browne – it’s later than it seems.

In one specific instance, Klein does appear to be in error.   He writes, on page 79, of a situation where Ted Kennedy flew back from Alaska in April of 1969 – this was subsequent to the assassination of Robert Kennedy – with other U.S. senators and after possibly having too much to drink repeatedly yelled out that, “They’re going to shoot my a– off the way they shot Bobby…”   Klein calls this ” a particularly revealing – and unreported incident.”   Sorry, but I believe it was reported on back then in the major news magazines.Kennedy Ted 3

If you’ve read nothing about the Kennedys then Klein’s latest might serve as a quick way to learn some relatively recent history.   But there are many, many other choices that will provide you with more information about the three Kennedy brothers and the family itself.   In my view, the two best books about the Kennedys just happen to be two books (both still in print) that focused on Robert F. Kennedy.   The first of these was Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and the second was RFK, A Memoir by Jack Newfield.

Joseph Arellano

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