Category Archives: Three Things About

3 Things About: “When General Grant Expelled the Jews”

When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna. Schocken (224 pp.)
  • Brandeis University historian Sarna offers a concise account of a little-known episode of the Civil War: General Ulysses S. Grant’s controversial order expelling all Jews from the territory under his command. The order, issued on Dec. 17, 1862, implied that Jews, who numbered 150,000, less than 1 percent of the population, were a separate “class” of Americans.  Rabbi Wise of Cincinnati called the order an “outrage, without precedent in American history.”  Jewish individuals and organizations marched on Washington. “Some Jews at the time wondered whether their new homeland was coming to resemble anti-Semitic Europe at its worst.”
  • Grant’s ostensible reason for issuing General Orders no. 11 was to stop smuggling and speculation, which were seen as giving aid and comfort to the enemy and prolonging the war.  He specifically indicted Jews for “violating every regulation of trade” and exploiting the miseries of the country.  In fact, writes Sarna, many smugglers profited during the Civil War; some—not many–were Jews.  But during the war, Jews “came to represent malevolent forces harming the war effort,” as demonstrated by the remarks of many army officials.  In one communication, Major General Benjamin F. Butler urged the Secretary of the Treasury to prevent “the Jews from gathering up all the gold in the country to exchange it with the Confederates for cotton.”
  • Grant’s ugly order put off many.  His wife deemed it “obnoxious.”  President Lincoln, then drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, immediately rescinded the anti-Jewish edict upon learning about it. Ironically, General Orders No. 11 wound up strengthening America’s Jewish community, writes the author. Jews had campaigned successfully to overturn the order, and became more self-confident in the process.  Grant not only apologized but, after his election as president in 1868, appointed Jews to prominent government posts, attended the dedication of a synagogue, and intervened on behalf of persecuted Jews in Russia and Romania.

–Joseph Barbato

 

 

3 Things About: “Glock”

Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun by Paul M. Barrett. Crown (291 pp.)

 

  • One day in 1981 a 50-year-old Austrian tinkerer patented an unusual handgun that would make him a billionaire by decade’s end. His name was Gaston Glock.  He called his pistol the Glock 17, because it was his 17th invention.  The Glock had a lightweight plastic frame and large-capacity spring-action magazine, and though it was not pretty (“The gun’s uglier than a sack full of assholes,” remarked one wag), police departments throughout the United State and elsewhere were soon buying the highly reliable, semi-automatic handgun.  Paul M. Barrett, a Bloomberg Businessweek editor and the author of The Good Black, tells the full story of the extraordinary Glock phenomenon in this readable and well-researched book.
  •  Barrett makes clear that Gaston Glock was able to come up with his superior pistol mainly because he had never designed one before. Unlike others, the Austrian worked on a clean slate, and was not trying to improve on existing guns.  He was also smart enough to hire Karl Walter, a savvy gun salesman.  By 1995, more than a half million Glocks were in use in North America, with most sales to civilians.  “It became the handgun of choice for cops and a favorites of some demented mass killers.” The author manages to write a balanced account of this lethal weapon, including stories of the company’s controversies, legal battles, strained relations with the National Rifle Association, and deft “outmaneuvering” of lawmakers and regulators eager to control guns.
  •  In the popular mind, Glocks are everywhere.  Pulled from his underground hideout in 2003, Saddam Hussein emerged with a Glock. In 2011, Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ would-be assassin used a Glock. (The Congresswoman herself owned a Glock.)  The gun made its Hollywood debut in 1990 in Bruce Willis’ movie Die Hard 2.  In U.S. Marshals (1998), Tommy Lee Jones, playing a deputy U.S. marshal, tells a federal security agent toting a stainless-steel PT945, “Get yourself a Glock and lose that nickel-plated sissy pistol.”  A year later, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who always requested his native Austria’s famous export for movie roles, was battling the devil in End of Days. When a priest lectured him on religious devotion, the super-hero actor responded, “Between your faith and my Glock nine-millimeter, I take my Glock.” For better or worse, the gun remains a favorite on both sides of the law.

-Joseph Barbato edits Red Weather Review. He has written about books and authors for publications from America and The Progressive to The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.  

3 Things About: “The Godfather Effect”

The Godfather Effect: Changing Hollywood, America, and Me by Tom Santopietro. St. Martin’s (320 pp.)
  • Growing up in an upper-middle class Connecticut family, Tom Santopietro, author of Sinatra in Hollywood and long-time Broadway theater manager, found himself straddling Italian and Anglo worlds.  His father, Olindo Oreste Santopietro, a physician, was the son of poorly educated Italian immigrants who spoke accented English; Tom felt ashamed of their “foreignness.” By contrast, his mother, Nancy Edge Parker, Mt. Holyoke ’46, was an Episcopalian, junior league president, and a charity leader. Tom, who attended private schools, didn’t identify with the “loud, uneducated, and poorly dressed” Italians portrayed on television and in newspapers.  Then, in 1972, at the age of 20, he saw Francis Ford Coppola’s movie The Godfather, based on Mario Puzo’s novel about a Mafia family. For the first time, he felt good about being Italian.
  • In this sweet and absorbing book—part memoir and part insightful analysis of the Godfather movies—Santopietro underscores the incredible power of movie images.  For him, the overriding image in The Godfather was of nine-year-old Vito Corleone, ne Andolini, staring at the Statue of Liberty as he is about to arrive at Ellis Island and start a new life in America.  “He is my impossibly young grandfather, thirteen-year-old Orazio Santopietro on March 3, 1902,” about to touch American soil for the first time, he writes.  The author felt warmth, a sense of pride, and “fully Italian” from the film’s depiction of a close, albeit criminal, Italian American family. Somehow, it helped Santopietro bridge the gap experienced in Sunday gatherings with both sides of his family: “Church of England and meatballs in the space of a few short hours.”
  • The author blends aspects of the film trilogy with moments in his paternal grandparents’ lives to trace the Italian American experience and reflect on what it means to be Italian American. He offers an excellent succinct summary of that broader experience, explains the “pride in ethnicity” of superstar Frank Sinatra, and describes the many ways in which Italians experienced suspicion and prejudice–from the FBI’s visit after his grandfather subscribed to a socialist newspaper in the wake of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial (the subscription was dropped) to the labeling of thousands as “enemy aliens” in World War II.  Now in his 50s, Santopietro wonders about the mindless “guidos” and “guidettes” of the TV show Jersey Shore:  “Is this how the journey from urban ghetto to suburbia ends?”  His account of his experiences as the son of a mixed marriage will undoubtedly appeal to others trying to understand their own ethnic backgrounds as hodge-podge Americans.

-Joseph Barbato edits Red Weather Review. He has written about books and authors for Smithsonian, The Los Angeles Times, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

3 Things About: “Slots”

Slots: Praying to the God of Chance by David V. Forrest M.D.  Delphinium (208 pp.)
  • Several book editors told the author that slot players don’t read books—and people who do read books don’t play slots. Ha! As one of some 40 million people who play slot machines in the United States each year, we can attest that many are readers and will benefit from this book.  Since most readers are women, and women slot players outnumber men 3-2, there’s little doubt that many people who sit still and perform the repetitive activity of slot plays in a casino also sit still and read.  Alas, bookish folk that we are, we are also dumb enough to help provide 70 percent or more of casino income. Slot players bet more than $365 billion annually; the house keeps about $30 billion.  Some 90 percent of the rest makes its way  randomly to players.
  • A Columbia University psychiatrist, David V. Forrest does not shy away from the psychological aspects of sitting in noisy, smoky rooms pushing buttons, or pulling the arm, on a $12,000 slot machine, hoping for three cherries, or three 7s, or three somethings!  It’s a form of prayer, of course, and the gleaming slot machines have become more and more shrine-like in appearance.  “At times the religiosity is blatant,” writes Forrest.  “One video slot called Pearly Gates is almost mockingly sacrilegious.”  The machine has harps, doves, and Hand of God symbols. On the other hand, some Freudians claim pulling or jerking the lever is symbolic.  The author takes us to slot emporia ranging from underground grottos to the lavish cathedral-like structures of Las Vegas.
  • We have an American, Charles Fey, to blame for the slots.  He invented the slot machine in 1894 and the three-reel bell slot machine in 1898. There’s no way for anyone—not the player, not the casino—to predict the payout schedule on a machine.  It’s all controlled by a random number generator.  And try as we might, we really can’t improve our chances by sitting down at a machine that hasn’t paid off for a long time, says the author.  In fact, a machine that has just paid off may soon pay out again.  There are lots of slot stories here.  And for those seeking them, Forrest even suggests substitute activities, from coin collecting to bird watching. We didn’t bother reading that part.

-Joseph Barbato edits Red Weather Review.  He is a former columnist and contributing editor at Publishers Weekly, a regular contributor to Kirkus Reviews, and the author or editor of seven books.

3 Things About: “Out on Assignment”

Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space by Alice Fahs. The University of North Carolina Press (360 pp.)

 

  • A richly detailed account of the hundreds of young female journalists who entered newspaper work in New York and other major American cities in the early 1900s. Leading independent, urban lives, these reporters and writers brought women into the public eye and “the public space of print,” writes Fahs, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. With the exception of Nellie Bly and a few others, they have been lost to history.
  • Daughters of white, privileged families in the small-town South and West, these adventurous women found in journalism a welcome alternative to teaching and other “women’s” professions.  “I shall never forget my thrill at the phrase cover it,” recalled Zona Gale of her New York newspaper days in the early 1900s.  Known as “bachelor girls,” many were attracted to living in places like the Judson Hotel on Washington Square.  On the job, they covered mainly fashion, beauty, and other “women’s stuff,” and occupied segregated desk space known as the “Hen Coop.” But as the author observes, these young women were writing mainly about women, and their work offers insights into women’s changing lives.
  • Like the rest of American society, newspapers were changing too.  Expanding and seeking new readers, they were glad to hire women to fill the woman’s page.  As the concept of news itself broadened, women were assigned to cover human interest, labor, travel, and “working-girl” stories.  In their search for stories, newspaper women  interviewed men and women from all walks of life, and frequented hospitals, police courts, and city prisons.  Fahs brings many of these intrepid reporters back to life and shows how they created a new style of womanhood.

-Joseph Barbato is editor of Red Weather Review.  A former contributing editor of Publishers Weekly, he has written on books and authors for the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and other newspapers.

3 Things About: “Quiet”

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  Crown (352 pp.)

 

  • Full disclosure: On a report card, a grade school teacher called us “shy and retiring,” and many years later we found ourselves standing painfully alone at a George Plimpton cocktail party. Lawyer and negotiations consultant Cain would place us among the one-third of Americans who are introverts.  These are not the exhibitionists on TV reality shows, the smiling salesmen on showroom floors, or the blowhard politicians who gave us the Iraq War.  Rather, says the author, they are people who find themselves on this constellation of attributes: “reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, soft, humble, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned.” Thank you, Susan Cain.  We have never before felt so good about ourselves.
  •  Indeed, the real pleasure (for the inward-looking) of reading this nicely researched, informative, and entertaining book is that we are living in a culture that overvalues extroverts.  An Extrovert Ideal hangs over all of us.  Schools, churches, businesses encourage it.  Drawing on the latest psychological research and her own visits at a Tony Robbins seminar, the Harvard Business School, and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, Cain shows how society celebrates team work, group study, and the great importance of outer charm.  The gregarious rule! Cain describes how such a society came about, and explores the biological roots of extrovert and introvert. She even explains how introverts can “pass” and act like one of them. (Speak up, fool!)
  •  The parts we liked best say that many CEOs are introverts; that there have been many “limelight-avoiding leaders” throughout history; and that introverts seem to think more carefully and have a creative advantage. Also that introverts listen, think before speaking (imagine!), and are often highly sensitive. In the end, says Cain, be yourself.  Gregariousness is optional. Her 12-point manifesto for introverts ends with a line from Gandhi: “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

-Joseph Barbato edits Red Weather Review.  He is a former contributing editor at Publishers Weekly and writes about books and authors for many newspapers and magazines.

3 Things About: “Why Read Moby-Dick?”

Why Read Moby-Dick? By Nathaniel Philbrick. Viking (131 pp.)

  • You never forget reading Moby-Dick.  Nathaniel Philbrick, a National Book Award winner forIn the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, has read Melville’s masterwork more than a dozen times and says he still discovers new things about it. It is “the greatest American novel ever written” and embodies “the genetic code of America,” he says.  A whaling freak and resident of Nantucket, MA, the author must be forgiven his hyperbole.  But could he be right?  In this slender and absorbing appreciation, he makes a strong case.
  • Although his South Seas book Typee had been a best seller, Moby-Dick went unnoticed upon publication in 1851, sold fewer than 4,000 copies by the time of Melville’s death 40 years later, and did not come into its own until after World War I. For all its darkness, Melville had fun writing the novel; he worked under the strong influence of Shakespeare, the Bible, and his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, writes Philbrick.  Yet the book is pure Melville: a richly detailed, absolutely real rendering of human life and, among other things, of “America racing hell-bent toward the Civil War.” It has “‘one of the most nuanced voices in all of literature—an outpouring of irrepressible eloquence that soars into the stratosphere…” And it contains a fine recipe for clam chowder.
  • In truth, Moby-Dick is so long (135 chapters) and crammed with so much seemingly irrelevant information, that it is “reluctantly read,” says Philbrick.  The reader wants to rush through extraneous sections to find out what happens next to Ahab and the Pequod. But the novel’s genius lies in its disorderliness.  “There is a wonderful slapdash quality to the book,” says Philbrick.  It’s deliberate: Melville is “conveying the quirky artlessness of life through his ramshackle art.”  Reminding us once again of the book’s wonderful characters and riveting scenes, Philbrick will leave many envying the reader who encounters Moby-Dick for the first time.

-Joseph Barbato

3 Things About: “Being Alive and Having to Die”

Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church by Dan Cryer. St. Martin’s (352 pp.)

  • Former Newsday book critic Dan Cryer has written an inspiring life of leading Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church (1948-2009), long-time pastor at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and a widely recognized beacon of liberal religion during several decades of conservative ascendancy. The son of U.S. senator Frank Church of Idaho, who was a noted opponent of the Vietnam War, Church grew up a maverick in a secular humanist household, attended Stanford, and in the late 1960s turned bohemian in his quest to escape the shadow of his famous father.
  • Church found his way as a Harvard-educated minister.  Shortly after his 1975 ordination, he joined All Souls, a liberal church in the nation’s wealthiest zip code, 10021, where he forged his reputation as a preacher, intellectual, and author of 25 books.  Deeply flawed (he was a long-time alcoholic and scandalized his church with a 1991 divorce that freed him to marry a parishioner), Church constantly urged his flock: “Want what you have.  Do what you can.  Be who you are.”  More touched by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Sufi poet Rumi than by theologians, he spread a message of love and forgiveness. Religion, he said, was “our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.”
  • Cryer’s crisply written account of this liberal pastor in the age of Jerry Falwell (“the anti-Forrest Church”) draws on nearly 200 interviews and his own understanding of All Souls as a parishioner.  He writes with admiration and compassion, pointing up Church’s frailties and inconsistencies even as he describes how the minister’s exuberance and embodiment of love made him irresistible to so many readers and listeners.  His book will leave many turning to the writings of this compelling advocate for social justice and the moral teachings of Jesus.

-Joseph Barbato

 

3 Things About: “London Under”

London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets by Peter Ackroyd. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (228 pp.)

  • Novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd (London: The Biography) offers a short, diverting peek at the forbidden world under London’s streets. “Forgotten things, discarded things, secret things, are to be found deep below,” he writes. Oddly, Ackroyd never takes time to visit and report directly on the animals, tunnels, pipes, rivers, Underground, sewers, catacombs, and other subterranean treasures, preferring to cull anecdotes from printed sources. (Couldn’t he at least have left the warmth of his study to explore the mysterious system of tunnels that William Lyttle has been building beneath his property in Hackney?) No matter.  This is a stylish and informative book.
  • “Like the city above, the Underground grew haphazardly and pragmatically; it was not planned logically or as a whole,” he writes.  Amid corporate battles over routes, the width of tracks, and so on, the subway tunneling went on.  The 150-year-old system carried one billion passengers in 2007.  In 1911, the first escalator appeared at Earls Court station.   “This way to the moving staircase!” cried a porter.  “The only one of its kind in London! NOW running!  The world’s wonder!”
  • In the late 16th century, when nitrogen from excrement was discovered to be useful in manufacturing gunpowder, workmen entered any house to remove its excreta.  A member of Parliament complained: “They dig in bedchambers, in sick rooms, not even sparing women in childbirth, yea even in God’s house, the church.” In the 19th century, subterranean “toshers” scavenged in sewers for pennies or sovereigns, sometimes finding the ball of molded coins known as a “tosheroon.” It took the bombing of World War II to fully reveal Roman London and the extent of the great Roman wall around the city.

–Joseph Barbato

3 Things About: “And So It Goes”

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, a Life by Charles J. Shields. Holt (544 pp.)

  • An absorbing and revealing authorized biography of Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), who rose from pulp SF writer to icon of the 1960s youth culture for Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and other novels. Drawing on letters and interviews, Shields (Mockingbird) recalls vividly the author’s German-American youth in Indianapolis, his early writing for the Sun at Cornell (he dropped out), and his POW experiences amid the nightmare 1944 bombing of Dresden, which haunted him for years. A conservative individual most comfortable in a Brooks Brothers suit, Vonnegut is seen as a savvy former G.E. public relations man who tailored his look and stances to the expectations of bookish counterculture youth who sparked his commercial success.
  • Lonely as a child (his father was distant; his mother deemed parenting a “household chore”), he died lonely (and wealthy), mired in a bad marriage to a nasty, manipulative woman, and with many academics still dismissing his work as simplistic. His first wife was a caring sounding board early in his career; his sometime lover and long-time friend Lora Lee Wilson may have loved him most of all.  He treated agent Knox Burger and publisher Sam Lawrence shabbily; both played critical roles in his career. His penchant for the dark side may be explained by his mother’s suicide: “Sons of suicides find life lacking,” said one of his characters.
  • Shields details the chain-smoking Vonnegut’s early scrounging for a living, his fedora-wearing days at G.E.’s Schenectady campus, his teaching and womanizing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his huge popularity as a campus speaker during the Vietnam years. He discusses all the novels, tracing much of Vonnegut’s fatalism to the fiction of Ambrose Bierce.  And he points up Vonnegut’s many contradictory identities: counterculture hero and wealthy investor; champion of family and distant father; satirist of American life and big-time feeder at “the trough of celebrity.”

-Joseph Barbato