Saturday, September 13, 2014


Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization
416 pages
© 2003 Iain Gateley

The age of discovery opened an era of global domination by European culture and power, but in at least one instance, the new world had its own victory. Tobacco, smoked heavily throughout the Americas,  took the world by storm once European sailors started smoking, sniffing, and drinking (!) it. sometimes reaching parts of the planet even before they did in a chain reaction. Tobacco is a straightforward history of the weed's own conque

A native of the Americas, tobacco had many roles in the cultures of the Aztecs, Incas, and more. They smoked the plant, but they also applied its juice to their eyes and skin; the principle use of tobacco was in shamanic ritual and herbal medicine.  Europeans dabbled with this (there is no substance on Earth that has not been championed as a cure-all at some point), but  sailors and conquistadors soon used it chiefly for recreation.  Smoking was a completely new phenomenon to Europe, and neither the Catholic nor later the Islamic powers knew what to make of it. It stunk of the devil, but neither the Bible nor the Koran expressly forbade it, and soon enough even priests were taking snuff during Mass. Everywhere European trade-ships went, they took sailors and tobacco, and the people they met spread the good news of smoking with such profligacy that when European explorers penetrated the heart of Africa, they found tobacco already waiting.

Tobacco offered mental stimulation and relaxation without the drunkenness of alcohol, though there was still vomiting involved if one overdid it.. Tobacco was soon grown worldwide, and formed the basis of much of the colonial American economy.  Cigars, like whiskey, weathered Atlantic crossings far better than raw foodstuffs, and could retain value.  Their use as a trade commodity can't be understated; even well into the modern era, tobacco was used as money. In World War 2, for instance, not only did soldiers and prisoners use cigarettes as currency within their respective institutions, but in financially-stressed Nazi Germany,  cartons of cigarettes were used as stable money when the official currency was being played with. (This, despite the official Nazi forbidding of tobacco!)

Besides recreation and money, tobacco served a multitude of ever-changing social roles. Different types of tobacco consumption marked different cultures, like the cigar's association with power and the pipe with middle-class respectability.  The cigarette began as a French invention, and was resisted for the longest by English tabagophiles, who looked askance at anything French. Initially derided as weak, soft, and effeminate,  cigarettes eventually became the standard use of tobacco for various reasons -- their cheapness, ease of use, and near-immediate addictveness among them.  People embraced the cigarette as a way to spit at traditional values; what Oscar Wilde started, flappers continued.  It helped that cigarettes had an enormous media presence; barred from depicting steamy romance onscreen, Hollywood used cigarettes to establish connections between characters and create imagery thick with innuendo. Even after concurrent skyrocketing rates of cigarette consumption and lung cancer indicated a medical crisis in the making, people continued lighting up. If anything, the warning labels and danger increased their allure.

Eventually in the English-speaking world, at least, governments decided to start taking more strident action;  in the United States,   areas where one may smoke are the exception and no longer the norm. Tobacco's rise and possible fall have both happened with stunning rapidity, and Gately is an entertaining guide to its story; he delivers a bounty of information in one rapidly-moving narrative that doesn't tire. . As with Drink,  Tobacco is globetrotting;  America and Europe get most of the attention, but no corner of the globe goes unremarked on.  Even for a nonsmoker like myself, Tobacco has value as cultural history, if only to demonstrate how quickly entire ways of life can be transformed, repeatedly. (It's one of the reasons I like histories of consumer goods so much -- the human capacity for fads is amazing.)  More importantly, it's fun, a history filled with adventurers, rebels, pirates, and scheming businessmen.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Living Downtown

Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States
© 1994 Paul Groth
399 pages

Although today hotels are thought of as places for travelers, at its most basic level a hotel is simply a rented room; an apartment without a kitchen. For much of American history,  the 'huddled masses' filling the cities found homes not in detached houses, but in residential hotels.  Buildings giant and small, dilapidated and grand, they catered to the rich and poor alike. Living Downtown examines what lives were like, as lived in different classes of hotels, and tracks their struggle through the 20th century as they became the target of reformers.  This is a social history of urban life in American cities' boomtime.

Suburbanized America thinks of apartments and the like as exceptions to the rule of privately-owned homes, but as Living Downtown reveals, communal life has a strong history in the nation. Wealthy families saw in hotels a place to enjoy servants without the bother of managing them; ambitious middle-class couples could claim a fashionable address and the opportunity to network with their betters; and the working class found a certain independence in cheap rents that allowed them to move easily in pursuit of work, or maintain lodgings even if they were laid off for a short time. Hotels ranged from grand palaces to 2-penny a day flophouses that even the indigent could afford, provided they found an odd job now and again. Hotels also offered more inherent opportunities for socialization;  those midrange and above typically came with cafes, restaurants, and shops attached;  the wealthy could even find rooms reserved for smoking and lounging about.  Lowly flophouses wouldn't sport such facilities, of course, but they were enmeshed in an urban fabric that catered to the needs of their guests.

Living Downtown finds in hotels abounding interest. After  discussing the lifestyles and attractions of the different classes of hotels, Groth moves on to hotels' place in the overall American fabric. Hotels attracted negative attention beginning the Progressive era, where helpful reformers took it upon themselves to clean up American cities and inflict morality upon them.  The idea that rich society wives could lounge about in hotel parlors, not even bothering to keep house, was too much for reformers to bear, as was the inevitable use of hotels of all kinds as playgrounds for prostitution. Establishing and advancing the ideal of American society being rooted in privately-held, detached homes,  the progressive era saw hotels first constricted in growth by regulation, then smothered altogether by aggressive zoning laws that would eventually attempt to deconstruct American cities, turning smartly-organized social arrangements into sprawl. Granted, there were areas that needed attention -- especially in the area of waste sanitation in poorer hotels -- but more has been lost than gained by idealistic zeal.  In addition to social history, there's a little discussion of business practices.

In 21st century America, where the market for cheap housing  has been all but obliterated by aggressive Federal support for welfare tenements of the kind that destroy cities, Living Downtown is a vivid reminder of the variety of housing approaches that once existed, and a look back into American cities when they were truly dynamic from the ground up.

Monday, September 8, 2014

This week: hot rocks, war in the east, and Holly Golightly

This week the to-be-read list shrank, as I finished Richard Fortey's Earth -- an introduction to the processes that shape the Earth, while at the same time a travelogue to the planet's most beautiful hotspots.  Fortey is both tourist and technical guide, lingering over settings of Hawaii's lush jungle and shores before traveling to the extremes of Death Valley or Greenland. The picturesque landscape is rivaled only by Fortey's explanation of the principles that are molding the landscape; he likes to use vivid mental images "Imagine a water balloon filled with honey..") to start the reader off. Geology doesn't receive much in the way of popular science books, but Earth was commendable.

Earlier in the week I read through Breakfast at Tiffany's, largely because I rewatch the Audrey Hepburn film every so often and wanted to see how they compare. The story is largely the same, with some film characters having greater roles to play, but the ending is altogether different.  It's not the tidy, neat ending of the movie, and the searching, searching, ever-searching character of Holly is left still craving something more out of life.

Another review is in the works for Drink: A Social History of America, not to be confused with Iain Gately's Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol.  Presently I'm a third of the way into Collision of Empires, a history of the Great War's eastern front.  Within the next few weeks I'll mount an attack on Galileo's Finger, and dispatch this list completely.

To Be Read Takedown Challenge

Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (7/18/14)
The Vikings, Robert Ferguson (6/7/14)
Power, Inc; David Rothkopf (6/14/14)
An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage (7/8/2014)
Small-Mart Revolution, Michael Shuman (7/12/2014)
The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond (5/29/14)
Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton (7/21/14)
Earth, Richard Fortey (9/7/14)
Good Natured, Frans de Waal (6/27/14)
Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins

Thursday, September 4, 2014


Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family
© 1986 Nicholas Pileggi, Henry Hill
256 pages

How does a boy from a nice family grow up to be a gangster? Well, it helps to live across the street from a mob-owned cab stand that needs fleet-footed boys to run errands.  Growing up in poverty,  young Henry Hill couldn’t help but envy the lifestyles of the men who frequented the cab stand across the way, rolling by in luxury cars, dressed in tailored suits, and handing out wads of cash like peppermint candy.  Determined to wield the power they did, at the age of twelve he became a gofer – and once he learned the art of the hustle, he rose through the ranks of gangsterdom to become the Sam Walton of crime. 

If the name sounds familiar, you may have seen the film Goodfellas, which is wholly based on Wiseguy. The film is astonishingly true to the source, because Hill’s life was full of the cheap thrills and casual violence that pervade the movie. Even the scene where Hill wakes up with his wife leveling a pistol at his face is recorded here first. The differences between the film and its text are minor, but both expose the underworld.  Although Hill misses the lifestyle he abandons when he flees into witness protection at the end, he doesn’t romanticize his life during that time.  Hill doesn’t attempt to dress his life up in a pinstriped suit and pretend to be a man of honor; from the start, he says, he was a hustler.  Even as an errand boy, he developed the practice of eking out money whenever he could. Paid to run sandwiches from a shop to card games, young Henry began making the sandwiches at home and pocketing the money.  

Such was the pattern of his life;  the art of the hustle. Even in the Army, Hill found ways to make a buck;  sentenced to the kitchens, he  tucked away extra food and sold it on the side, profiting from Uncle Sam’s excess.  Wiseguy is entertaining in a voyeuristic fashion, but it’s also informative for those who know little about organized crime.  Associates of the Mafia weren’t necessarily on the payroll of the boss;  Hill stopped being a paid employee in adolescence.  Through most of his life, through all of his schemes, Hill was self-employed – a chronic hustler.  He fixed sports matches,  applied for credit cards under assumed names,  bought untaxed cigarettes and sold them on the cheap.   His connection with the Mafia was somewhere between social and ‘political’;  other associates were his partners in various operations, and they all relied on the ‘real’ Mafiosi, made men like Paul Vario to settle disputes between one another, or to keep unconnected hoods from working their turf.   Some of their extralegal activities are in grey enough territory that a reader might be impressed with their creativity energy;  what is the business market if not a larger version of the hustle? But for the most part, Hill and his men take the easy ways out, and they’re not creating wealth so much as repurposing it for themselves. Though their story has legitimate fascination (their tribal relationships are the kind that might have ruled before the creation of law) , ultimately they’re hoods, and when Henry goes down he takes satisfaction in sending some of his lifelong pals to the can.   Hill’s life seems flashy and fun, but ultimately it leads to his and all of his friends and family’s ruin, for their moral bankruptcy is total. 


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Progress of the War (Reading)

The ninth month of the year means ‘tis time to review how my Great War reading is shaping up. The summer has seen not only a terrific book on the Italian-Austrian front (The White War), but at least two books on the naval action, so two-thirds of my target areas have been taken care of. The war in the east is still a dark mystery, but an upcoming read (Collision of Empires) should address that nicely. Little of my reading has come from the possible list I drew up back in January, but  that’s quite all right – so far the year’s best read in this area has been an unexpected one, again The White War.  In the months to come I’ll be reading about the Eastern Front, and taking on The Great War in Modern Memory at the very least.

  1. The First World War, John Keegan
  2. La Feu (Under Fire), Henri Barbusse
  3. The Great War in Modern Memory, Paul Fussell
  4. The Great War at Sea, Richard Hough
  5. To Crown the Waves: The Great Navies of the First World War, ed. Vincent O'Hara et al
  6. Wipers: A Soldier's Tale from the Great War, Jeff Simmons
  7. Forgotten Voices of the Great War, Max Arthur
  8. The Eastern Front, Norman Stone
  9. Rites of Spring: the Great War  and the Birth of the Modern Age, Modris Eksteins
  10. World War 1 Companion, Mathias Strohn, editor.
  11. Collision of Empires, Prit Buttar
  12. Silent Night,  Stanley Weintraub 
Conscience, Louisa Thomas
+  An Ice Cream War, William Boyd
+ The White War,  Mark Thompson
+ Castles of Steel, Robert K. Massie
+ The Red Baron,  Manfred von Richthofen

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Red Baron

The Red Baron
Manfred von Richthofen
© 1969 ed. Stanley Ulanoff
240 pages

The average man on the street may not know the first thing about the Great War, but he'll have heard of the Red Baron. Attribute that to a silly song, or a Peanuts comic trip, but in the Great War Germany had no hero like Baron Manfred von Richthofen, a true knight of the air.  Beginning as a cavalry captain, von Richthofen joined the air service and soon proved a frightful natural. The Red Baron constitutes his memoir through the war, and what cannot be told by his death is told by others, namely his brother and an English pilot.

Owing either to the author's military precision, German directness, or the consequences of translation, The Red Baron is short and to the point.  The memoirs open with reports from his time riding with the Uhlans in Russia before he announces that he is joining the air service.  His reports from time at the front are largely devoid of emotion, but they are aided by interspersed letters to friends at home in which the Baron reveals his joy at flying, his thoughts about his foes, and eventually  his fear about the inevitable. His record was exceptional; before his own death, the Baron was responsible for no less than eighty kills in the air. He expresses little pleasure in this, aside from a hunter's quiet pride in having gone out and gotten his quarry, and never rails against his foes. The French he regards with a little disdain because they prefer ambushes in the air, and experienced pilots are too wise for that approach to work long; the English are far more worthy opponents, even if they enjoy theatrics a little too much. (So says the man with a bright red 'crate').  But having dispatched so many opponents himself, and seeing Germany lose ground and his many friends dead, the Baron could feel death coming for him.   After expressing anxiety about what was to come -- and shoving it out of the way, knowing he must do his duty -- the memoirs end, followed by a narrative by his brother, the account of an English pilot, and an article about his burial.  The appendices are quite good, including diagrams of all the major fighter planes mentioned throughout.

The Red Baron takes a while to warm to a reader, being very staid for the most part and translated imperfectly, but it does have the virtue of being the thoughts of the man himself, and not just speculations and praises of him. That remains its chief selling point, though there are dashes of information that give interested readers a feel for what it might have been like to  fight in the air.

"We found Richthofen. His face, particularly peaceful, had an expression of gentleness, of refinement. Suddenly I felt miserable, desperately unhappy, as if I had committed an injustice. There could be no feeling of joy that there lay Richthofen, the greatest of all!   In my heart I cursed the force that is devoted to death. I gnashed my teeth. I cursed the war!  If he had been my dearest friend, I could not have felt greater sorrow". - Captain A. Roy Brown, RFC/RAF

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Sorrows of Empire

The Sorrows of Empire
© 2009 David Mack
464 pages

In the original series episode "Mirror, Mirror",  Star Trek heroes Kirk,McCoy Uhura, and Scotty inadvertently changed places with their counterparts in a mirror universe, alter egos who were agents of a galactic empire whose standard operating procedures tended more toward murder than peaceful negotiation. Surviving only by pretending to be imperial officers, the four managed to escaped back to their own universe -- but not before leaving an impact on the mirror universe's Mr. Spock, who was tantalized by the vision of a peaceful republic, governed by men of outstanding decency.   Convinced that his empire is rotting from within, being destined for destruction and a dark age, Spock decides to save it by effecting a coup and offering it a saving vision.  The Sorrows of Empire is a masterful introduction to the Mirror Universe books.

The Mirror Universe as seen in the original series and later in Deep Space Nine are worlds apart; in one, humans control a galactic empire; in the other, they are rebels persecuted by the Klingon-Cardassian alliance.   The Sorrows of Empire links the two together, delivering the story of how the Terran Empire came to be defeated in battle, and the humans turned from rulers to slaves. But whereas Deep Space Nine's  take was utterly cynical, advancing the perception that peace and goodwill cannot withstand against tyranny and malice,  Sorrows gives a different interpretation.  Through stages, and aided immeasurably by his soon-to-be-deceased-superior's secret weapon,  Spock rises to power -- first seizing the Enterprise, then building respect and assuming command of Starfleet, then finally eliminating the Empress herself -- and then engages on a long-term plan of Seldonian ambition.  The Empire is destined to fall,  democratic reforms or not -- so he arranges for an intentional defeat of the Empire, done in such a way that will simultaneously undermine its enemies and plant the seeds for the creation of a second Republic -- the realization of the other universe's dream-Federation.

The Sorrows of Empire is impressively executed;  while the Mirror Universe tends toward kitsch, the gratuitous violence and general vulgarity displayed in the Deep Space Nine episodes is absent altogether. Because so much time passes through the plot,  Trek fans will see it mature through several Trek episodes and a few movies. References to the greater universe abound in number, and range from the subtle to the obvious;  only the nerdiest could spot Lieutenent Xon, from the abandoned Star Trek: Phase 2,  but the many connections made to other Trek novels make a superb standalone novel even better. Not only does Sorrows integrate a lot of canon material into its narrative, but there are tie-ins to Trek literature as well, like the Vanguard Project. David Mack's arrangements of plot and characters succeed, too; despite the abundance of minor characters, most of whom are familiar, the tale never loses focus on Spock and his dream.

Although the logical Spock may be confused with the counterpart we know and love, his differences between our universe's Spock go beyond the goatee. The sheer weight of empire molds his character in ways Trek fans wouldn't expect, but  his efforts to avoid becoming the monster he's trying to destroy must be appreciated. Spock is tortured by desiring morality while at the same time having make hard choices, rather like Sisko in "In the Pale Moonlight".

On all accounts, Sorrows of Empire enthralls.