Tag Archives: American History

Jeffrey Eugenides – Middlesex (2002)


Fictional Memoirs are an interesting genre. The writer must immerse him/herself in his/her character to literally feel and experience everything that that person is going through. For his novel, Eugenides’ character is Cal (Calliope), an intersex man of Greek descent. The novel is a family history, and Eugenides is able to draw on his own Greek heritage to create this spellbinding story.

Eugenides accomplishes an interesting thing. This is not only a story about Calliope’s journey of self-discovery, nor is it strictly a family history: It is in some ways a history of the United States and the “American Dream.” The novel begins with Cal’s grandparents in their village in Greece and recounts their escape from the invading Turkish army. We then travel to Detroit in the 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s. Cal’s father serves in the Pacific during the Second World War and returns to marry his cousin. The family is caught in the middle of the race riots of the 1950s and relocates to the suburbs before Cal’s brother leave for College and gets swept up in the spirit of the 1960s. This is when Cal’s story takes off as Calliope begins to realize she is not meant to be a girl. We learn about medical attitudes of the 1970s and experiences San Francisco as a place where “deviants” were hidden and comforted by the fog.

The story is told from Cal’s point of view and Eugenides uses interesting narrative devices to make this believable. Often times Cal will refer to “Calliope” in the third-person, making sure the reader knows he does not identify as being her any more. Eugenides however, also treats Cal and Calliope as the same person in terms of narrative device. Throughout the novel Eugenides also alludes to aspects of Greek mythology adding a sense of whimsy to the story. Middlesex is not only a beautiful read but also a social commentary. I devoured this book and highly recommend it.

Special Post – Neal Thompson, A Curious Man (2014)


This week I also posted a book review of Neil Thompson’s, A Curious Man, on the University of Toronto Museum Studies’ Blog, Musings. While the book was mainly a biography of Robert Ripley, it still posed some good questions relevant to the Museum community, including, can we consider Ripley “Odditoriums,” both then and now, Museums? There is a debate within the art community over whether mass produced art can really be considered “art”? Ripley entertainment owns 32 Odditoriums worldwide, can a mass produced museum, constructed specifically for tourists be a real museum? Or do our conceptions of what a museum is, dismiss Ripley Odditoriums as simply kitschy and tacky tourist traps? It’s an interesting thing to think about.

Read the whole review here.

Howard Zinn – A People’s History of the United States (1980)


While this book has been sitting in my bookshelf for a while now, I just got around to reading it. When I started, I had a vague idea of what Howard Zinn was setting about to do in this book, and was therefore not overly shocked by anything written. Here, Zinn is attempting to present a history of the United States that deviates from the dominant narrative that so many grow up learning. Beginning with Columbus, Zinn exposes the great myths of the United States detailing the ways in which Indians, African Americans, women, immigrants, and the working poor, have all been oppressed an exploited by the American system, namely middle-class white men and big business.

While as a leftist Professor, and an anti-Vietnam war activist, Howard Zinn is not very objective, it does not matter. In fact the chapters written on the Vietnam War are, in my opinion, the strongest in this book. The great thing is, that Zinn proves that people do not have to be neutral to write history. Historians have this obsession with having an objective eye and remaining unbiased when writing. I, for one, have never understood this, and applaud Zinn’s embrace of his partiality. While Zinn had very string views, and I do not necessarily agree with all of them, it doesn’t matter.

The one problem I did have was that while in his attack on the dominant narrative of American history, Zinn is critical of the focus on the personalities of individual men, he does the same this while criticizing the same men. When speaking about the various Presidents, Zinn relies on their quirks and personality flaws more so than being critical of the office of the Presidency itself. It is clear that Zinn does not think that the system is working, but he puts too much emphasis on the President’s themselves.

Even though Howard Zinn passed away in 2010, this book will remain relevant for many years, and should be more widely read than it already is.

Rick Fontes – The Time of the Preacher (2014)


Rick Fontes’, The Time of the Preacher, will appeal to anyone who has a love of the Western genre. While the book has some issues, it proved to be a fast paced and enjoyable read.

Fontes’ book centers around the character of Brian McFee, an Irish immigrant who get’s mixed up in some questionable dealing in the Western United States before trying to reform himself by becoming a preacher. Unfortunately the Irishman’s past follows him, and he never gains full control of his temper.

While the story is compelling, at times things feel a bit rushed. Fontes definitely could have spent some more time on character development and flushing out the details of the plot instead of trying to make it a fast-paced, like many other Westerns. I would have loved some more information about Brian McFee’s past, and it could have definitely added another dimension to the character. The character of Salome too, who generally plays the role of a victim throughout the novel, could use some more development. There were a number of times when I didn’t really understand the motivations behind her actions.

I did appreciate that Fonte’s did not get too attached to his characters, and acknowledged their flaws. With a bit more editing and time, this novel has real potential to be quite something.

J.B West – Upstairs at the White House (1973)

Upstairs at the White House

In honour of American Thanksgiving, I’ve included one of my favourite books about the Presidency, AND a recipe for apple pie. Enjoy!

It is not easy to write about the Presidency and not get political. West does just that however, and while some might be looking for more of a political slant, West does not, and will not provide it. This book must be read for what it is, an account of the presidents and their families who occupied the White House for the years that West was in service there. West’s loyalty as a White House Butler is to the White House and the Presidency itself, not to the individual men or their families.

West came into service at the White House just as Roosevelt was entering his final years. He then served in the house through the Presidencies of; Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon. Each family getting its own set of chapters with details about their decorations, family traditions, favourite meals, and personalities. West provides charming details into the lives of the families he worked for including how different having the Kennedy’s in the White House was, simply because they had young children, and how Mamie Eisenhower’s style broke with that of earlier first ladies in that she wanted everything to be pink and frilly. Throughout his writing however, West maintains his professionalism and never writes anything that betrays the confidence of the families he worked for.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book was the financial side of things. Presidents have a very limited salary and were always allocated a specific sum to be used to redecorate the White House. I find that even though we see the President as having a domestic life, we don’t always think about things like managing a household budget. The anecdotes that make up West’s work make this book worth reading; he puts a more humane face to the Presidency (even Richard Nixon) and provides and compelling behind-the-scenes look at life in the White House

Serve With

Homemade Apple Pie!

While there are a number of White House cookbooks and websites that provide information about the favourite meals of various Presidents, in honour of American Thanksgiving I decided to make a traditional all-American apple pie.

Lily Koppel – The Astronaut Wives Club (2013)


I was a little shocked to see such negative reviews of this book on Goodreads. Many complaints cited the fact that this was more of a “story” rather than a history. While as a historian I did have a slight problem with the lack of footnotes or sources to back up the stories Koppel tells, over all I felt this was en enjoyable read.

Astronauts during the Space Age were literally larger than life, and their wives often had to keep up the appearance of the nuclear families. While I always assumed the hardest part of being an astronaut wife was dealing with the fact that your husband was continuously in danger, most of these women were previously army wives and were quite used to this aspect of the job. It didn’t necessarily make their lives easier, but they had dealt with the possibility of their husbands not coming home for many years before they became astronauts. The hardest part of the job was the spotlight that these women were inevitably put under while their husbands raced to the moon.

One of the most enjoyable parts of this book was the discussion of how the government and NASA injected themselves into every part of the women’s lives from the way the dressed, where they lived, and even what colour lipstick they wore. In a photo shoot for Life Magazine the wives had all decided to wear pink lipstick, but when the cover was printed the colour was changed to red to symbolize the women’s patriotism.

While overall I liked the book, it got a bit hard to follow since Koppel wanted to talk about all astronaut wives, not just the Original “Mercury Nine.” I began to loose track of the wives and “who’s who.” Furthermore I would have loved to know more about the wives of the Apollo 13 astronauts. This book would have been stronger had Koppel simply chosen to devote all her attention to the original Astronaut Wives Club. I still enjoyed the book and would recommend it; I think that there is a lot more work to be done on the lives of the astronaut wives.

Rating: 4/5

Anne Hyde – Empires, Nations, and Families (2011)

In Empires Nations and Families, Anne Hyde undergoes an incredibly ambitious project; providing a history of the American West from 1800-1860. She does so in an ingenious way, using an original interpretive framework to cope with a large volume of material. By looking at individual family units and tracing their connections over different spaces and at different times, Hyde provides an engaging and interesting look at the history of the American West.

Hyde begins her study of the American West with Part I of her book, “Replacing a State: The Continental Web of Family Trade.” In these chapters, Hyde explores the expansion of the fur trade and how it linked different families in different places. In Part II, titled “Americans All: The Mixed World of Indian Country,” Hyde details the Native American responses to the fur trade, war, and removal, and emphasizes how important Native groups were for business and diplomacy. In Part III, “From Nations to Nation: Imposing a State, 1840-1865,” Hyde moves on to discuss the conquest of the West and the ways in which new ideas surrounding race and imperial power changed the North American West. Overall, Hyde emphasizes the importance of family connections as business affairs were often built on personal relationships. Kinship also helped to protect families against change and even adapt to it. In the end however, kinship networks between Anglo and Native Americans proved to be fatal, as mixed race people in the West were the ultimate losers after the new discourse on race and imperial ideology took over following the Mexican War.

Hyde claims that the task of her book is to “impose narrative and analytical order over such disparate stories and geographic space to build a larger story about the trans-Mississippi West between 1804 and 1860,” (15) and she accomplishes just that. By studying these families Hyde shows how the identities and loyalties of these people living in the West lay more with one another and other families that with any nation or exclusive ethnic identity. Looking at families such as the Chouteaus, Bents, Ballejos, and McLoughlins, Hyde uses a staggering amount of sources including family papers, territorial documents, journals, Office of Indian Affairs documents, Hudson’s’ Bay Company papers, and a wide range of secondary sources. Hyde’s use of sources as well as her framework and analysis of families makes Empires, Nations, and Families a well researched and interesting read. One of the only things missing from the narrative is any sort or discussion about slavery. Westward expansion certainly raised questions pertaining to the transfer and movement of slaves, something that Hyde does not look at focusing mostly on family ties and how expansion effected Native Americans. Regardless, Hyde provides a fresh and new way of studying the American West, one that is highly recommended for anyone seeking to gain a greater understanding of the American frontier.

Rating: 3.5/5