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Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography
Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography
by Sara Lipton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $26.63
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Medieval Views of Jews, December 23, 2014
We are unfortunately familiar with gross caricatures of Jews, and it isn’t just Nazis that promoted them. The images go way back because societies centuries ago found it useful to shun or hate Jews as actively responsible for the death of Jesus, despite the illogic of any such blame on contemporaries centuries later. The usefulness manifest itself in part by assigning visual characteristics to Jews that could be easily recognized. It isn’t surprising that many of these characteristics were worked out during the Middle Ages, but it is surprising (or at least it was to me) that in the early period of the first millennium, there were no visual clues, except context, for picking out a Jew in an illustration. Then over the centuries, starting around year 1000, because of complex changes in theology, economics, and urbanization, you could spot a Jew in illuminated manuscripts or stained glass windows. How did these changes come about, and what were the cues that would let ordinary people know they were looking at a depiction of a Jew? This is the big subject in _Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography_ (Metropolitan Books) by Sara Lipton. Lipton teaches medieval history and seems to have looked over centuries of such illustrations, and in a detailed and compelling book charts a slow course of evolving images that have stayed with us centuries later.

If there were going to be illustrations of Bible stories, Jews certainly had to be in them. They were prophets, soldiers, and kings within the Old Testament, for instance, and initially they looked like the other prophets, etc. There was little derogatory depiction in the early Middle Ages because the Jews were officially valued. They tended, even in crucifixion pictures, to be depicted with dignity and though they might have worn funny hats, they didn’t have distinctive facial or physical features. Things darkened by the end of the twelfth century. There had been images of villains within pictures and stained glass windows; bestiality, brutality, and evil were evident in figures with beak-like or crooked noses, brutish expressions, and shaggy beards. Lipton insists that the big, hooked noses of Jews in the picture were borrowed from previous depictions of baddies, and were not a caricature of any racial characteristic of Jews. The texts of the times may describe the moral and spiritual failings of Jews, and even their crimes, but make no mention of any particular facial characteristic (except for beards, which Gentiles wore as well). That hook in the nose eventually came to be a hallmark. Interestingly, in a chapter on the depiction of Jewish women, Lipton shows how even evil Jewesses were often depicted without any grotesque features; it seems that making them visually attractive underscored how treacherous such women (and women in general) could be. The pictures of Jewish women often showed them wearing earrings, and one fifteenth century preacher said that Jewish women wore earrings in place of circumcision, which sounds a little confused to me. In fifteenth century Italy, only Jewish women and prostitutes could wear earrings. Christian moralists were ready to decry such extravagance and ostentation, and to use the pictures to help do so.

There is ugliness in the many of the images, an ugliness that is sadly familiar from caricatures in our recent times. But Lipton shows this grew slowly and was fed by emphasis on the crucifixion, and the responsibility of Jews for it, along with the horrifying stories of medieval Jews ritually murdering Christian children. As societies became more urbanized, there were worries about surveillance, secrecy, and hiddenness, and the worries were expressed mostly in regard to Jews. Jews were expelled out of countries or into ghettos by the sixteenth century, and were thereby out of sight, except in the pictures that are the subject of Lipton’s book. The pictures could still provoke anger and hostility. There are many, many examples of the pictures given here as Lipton describes them; one quibble about the book is that many of the pictures could use enlargements of the details which she addresses in the text. Lipton has given a fascinating effort to try to understand what people centuries ago would have made of these pictures, while avoiding jumping to conclusions based on how we look at them now. As Lipton says toward the end of her book, her review does not absolve medieval Christians of anti-Semitism, but it does help show that the anti-Semitism was not static, and was, sadly, not even inevitable.


The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War
The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War
by Dick Lehr
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.33
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Cinematic and Racial Milestone, December 18, 2014
Next year will come the centenary of one of the most famous and infamous movies ever made, D. W. Griffith’s _The Birth of a Nation_. The film itself is a cinematic milestone in many ways. It also displays the vilest racism of its times. When it was shown, it created a sensation with audiences and anger among black Americans. An account of the movie and its reception are within _The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War_ (PublicAffairs), by Dick Lehr. Lehr is a professor of journalism at Boston University, and this is mostly a Boston story, about how the town was among the first to get screenings of the film and also the first to get protests against it. Lehr’s fascinating account traces the upbringings of the white, racist Griffith and the black activist William Monroe Trotter, through the clash when the movie came to Boston. It is a great story of racism, censorship, publicity, and free expression, and ought to be required reading for anyone about to view the film in its inevitable commemorations next year.

Because of the fame of Hollywood, Griffith is far better known than Trotter, who had graduated from Harvard and was the first black man named to the fraternity Phi Beta Kappa. He intended to go into business, but found that his superior education had not prepared him for the refusal of businesses to take on a black hire at any upper level. He became the editor of _The Guardian_, a black activist newspaper in Boston. The film was shown all over the US, but the main story here is how it went down in Boston. Griffith was particularly interested in the movie’s fate there, for Boston had an abolitionist heritage and had its “Banned in Boston” reputation for making illegal any performances that might be bad for public morals. He took out ads, gave interviews, and lobbied local politicians in anticipation of the film’s Boston premiere. Trotter used his paper and his notoriety to rally black Bostonians to protest the opening of the film. When the theater refused to sell tickets to blacks, there was a near riot, and Trotter was arrested. Trotter counted on Boston’s mayor James Michael Curley to use his censorship power to shut the movie down. Curley said he would if it violated the laws having to do with morality, but there was nothing he could do if it was only a matter of portrayals of race. There were various attempts by both sides to handle legally the controversy engendered by the film, all of which are recounted here. In the end, the controversy only helped sell tickets, and Trotter the editor found himself on the uncomfortable side of promoting censorship. The movie went on to do great business with tickets at high prices.

This is an important story that has affected us a hundred years later. Trotter failed in getting the film censored, and there isn’t evidence that he felt the quandary of being against the movie’s racist message while also being against the sort of censorship which would horrify him if it were leveled against his newspaper. The controversy, however, nurtured and made famous the NAACP. Griffith was to go on to make other films, including the astonishing _Intolerance_ which in some ways argued against stereotyping, but he never had the juggernaut success of his first film, and the talkies lost him. Living alone in the Hollywood that had forgotten him, he said in an interview in 1941 that his ideas about race within the movie had changed. He said that “the Negro race has had enough trouble, more than enough of its share of injustice, oppression, tragedy, suffering, and sorrow. And because of the social progress which Negroes achieved in the face of these handicaps, it is best that _The Birth of a Nation_ in its present form be withheld from public exhibition.” But he knew also that he had made a great movie, and felt that film experts and film students ought to see it. And this is just what all of us who love the movies ought to do next year. Read Dick Lehr’s fascinating book, and then see the movie as a technical tour-de-force as well as a grotesque backward step in race relations.


Art Deco Mailboxes: An Illustrated Design History
Art Deco Mailboxes: An Illustrated Design History
by Lynne Lavelle
Edition: Paperback
Price: $20.05
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5.0 out of 5 stars Remembering a Lost Art, December 15, 2014
The invention and installation of elevators made skyscrapers possible. All those people and offices up in the air, though, presented a new problem: how to get mail from the offices out to the postal system. There’s a good chance you have never used the gadget invented to solve that problem, the mail chute. Many skyscrapers have in their lobbies, however, the box into which those vertical chutes fed. Because the box was in the lobby and was a point of interest to those going in and out, it was not the sort of mailbox you see on the street, all practical sheet metal painted blue. Instead, sculpted and gleaming, it might have been a point of pride for the managers of the building. Those are the specimens documented in _Art Deco Mailboxes: An Illustrated Design History_ (W. W. Norton) by Karen Greene and Lynne Lavelle, a fine-looking small volume that shows one box after another with polished brass and intricate casting. It was a peculiar small-scale realm for artwork, but the designs reflected the optimism of their times and locales, and it is instructive to see the pictures here.

The inventor who is most responsible for the mail chute was the architect James Goold Cutler (1848 - 1927), who installed the first one in 1884. Its success spread widely. Often the architect of a building would be the one to design the mailbox. A feature included in almost every model here is an eagle, sometimes holding an American or postal shield. It is fun to see how many variations can be made on stylized representations of the bald eagle. The Gothic versions look as if they could have been lifted from the flag of some ancient European sovereignty. There are very few examples of eagles that look as if they were drawn from life. Given that most of the examples here are of the Art Deco style, the eagles are of crystalline triangles and trapezoids. It is amazing how different the Deco interpretations are while still being immediately recognizable as eagles. Some boxes here look as if they could fit into a Greek temple, some into a Dark Ages cathedral, but most express the streamlining and dynamism associated with the buildings that housed them, like the boxes from the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. They are universally handsome, even though they are primarily just functional containers.

Most of the boxes here, though, are right where they are supposed to be, although they no longer do all that they were supposed to do. The chutes are banned from new buildings (fire hazard), and many of the chutes no longer work. The pictures here, though, show their boxes off well, gleaming from the polishing given to them regularly by caretakers that appreciate their importance in their lobbies’ designs. The gallery of photos here is a showcase for Deco design, and is a delightful documentation of a form of corporate folk art that blossomed and is now no more.


Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction
Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction
by Kathryn Gin Lum
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $24.61
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Hell of America, December 15, 2014
To my mind, nothing in the Bible argues so much against the truth of Christianity as the concept of hell. Though it gets approval from the highest authority in The Good Book, the concept of hell as infinite and eternal torture for those who believe the wrong way is not, in my way of thinking, anything that a merciful supreme being would create or tolerate. Of course, my way of thinking is a product of centuries of thought after the Enlightenment, but many of my fellow Americans find hell worth believing in, and worth striving to avoid, and worth warning naughty persons like myself about. And Americans have found hell to be useful, especially in the first century of the republic. That’s the story in _Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction_ (Oxford University Press) by Kathryn Gin Lum. Lum is an assistant professor in religious studies at Stanford, and her engaging look at the writings and beliefs of her chosen time is a sometimes alarming look at how closely America and hell have been entwined.

There was, at the time of the American Revolution, a strong Calvinist component of American theology. People from Adam on down were all inherently depraved, and God had preselected a few to join him for eternity in heaven, and the rest could all just go to hell. Even at the time, though, some were finding these ideas inconsistent with a benevolent God. Methodism started to emphasize free will and the ability of the individual to strive to avoid hell. Then the Universalists claimed that Christ’s suffering had redeemed everybody, and nobody had to go to hell. The response to the Universalists from those who believed in hell was understandable. If you take away the terrors of hell, what is to keep people in the right path before their deaths? It had political overtones. Universalists, the hell-believers said, would be inattentive to social bonds, would not keep their oaths, and would be liars as politicians. Lum’s book is best in its reflections upon slavery and the Civil War. If you were an abolitionist, you knew that slaveholders were going to hell, but if you were a slaveholder, you knew that it was the abolitionists who risked the flames of hell because they sacrilegiously flouted the rules of slavery which the Bible described. Lum quotes from _Sermons Preached on Plantations to Congregations of Negroes_ to show how hell awaited a slave who lied, ran away, or otherwise did poor service to an owner. On the battlefield, chaplains saw the Civil War as a great opportunity for mission work. Both sides considered themselves fighting a just war, and on the holy side as well. The chaplains fretted that camp life, with its gambling, drinking, and other manifestations of male camaraderie, would send an otherwise brave and admirable combatant to hell if a bullet should catch him.

“Hell remained vital,” writes Lum in her epilogue, “because it proved to be a useful concept in a young nation founded on the premise of republican virtue where different religious bodies competed for converts, interest groups vied for sociopolitical influence, and oppressed peoples called for ultimate justice.” She winds up with a few pages about how hell is still with us sociopolitically, with “hell houses” popping up every Halloween and Westboro Baptist Church predicting everyone else is going to hell. Most of my fellow citizens think hell is a real place, despite the humane understanding (which has taken us centuries to develop) that torturing people is always wrong, and some are still using the idea of hell in an attempt to change the behavior (or the votes) of others. The current efforts to bring hell into political discourse are much quieter than the many colorful examples Lum gives here, but hell’s influence on America shows no signs of going away completely.


The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock
The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock
by Lucy Worsley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.13
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The How and Why of Whodunits, December 8, 2014
In the play _Sleuth_ by Anthony Shaffer, mystery writer Andrew Wyke asks, “Do you agree that the detective story is the normal recreation of noble minds?” Noble minds or not, the British and the rest of the world have been singularly interested in murders, real and fictional, for centuries. The fascination has been chronicled by Lucy Worsley in _The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock_ (Pegasus Crime). The book details the entertainment value of murders, and proposes a connection between the real ones and the fictional. Murder in England, it seems, has been a source of mass entertainment long before detective stories were being written. Worsley quotes mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers: “Death seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other subject,” and it is Worsley’s intent to find out why.

Worsley begins with Thomas De Quincey, who wrote the ironic essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” De Quincey might not have been the first to realize that murder had entertainment value, but in the first decades of the nineteenth century, violence and death that had been part of daily life was being ousted by urban civilization. When murders occurred, they could be the subjects of sensational journalism, and readers would sit at their cozy hearths and enjoy gore and scandal. Worsley recounts the nasty sorts of murders De Quincey would have relished, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, the Red Barn Murder, and others. People were fascinated by the sensational accounts of the murders, trials, and hangings. There were pictures, broadsides, ballads, ceramic figurines, and song-sheets. Worsley notes that the murder rate fell in Britain through the 1930s, but after the First World War there was, perhaps correspondingly, a boom in fictional murdering. The “Golden Age” of detective fiction was between the two world wars, with about an eighth of all published books being crime novels, but it was not a time of penny dreadfuls. Their stories were chiefly of domestic matters with plenty of female characters, and often were written by women. Worsley speculates that the novels of these women were welcome because they represented somehow a milder, feminine view of everything after the Great War, and feminine or not, they had great escapist value.

After the Golden Age, something else was needed, and Worsley says that dusk was to settle on the quiet, pretty, but increasingly irrelevant villages and their domesticity where the classic amateur sleuths did their work. Growing out of the detective story was the thriller (“the meaner, younger brother of the detective story”), on the distinction between which Worsley quotes (again) Dorothy L. Sayers: “The difference between thriller and detective story is mainly one of emphasis. Agitation events occur in both, but in the thriller our cry is ‘What comes next?’ - in the detective story, ‘What came first?’ The one we cannot guess; the other we can, if the author gives us a chance.” Having begun with De Quincey, Worsley winds up with George Orwell, who wrote an essay in 1946, “The Decline of English Murder.” Orwell regretted the violence of the thriller, as he regretted that the rampant destruction within the twentieth century made less amusing the pleasure that a murder in a British village once aroused. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple will always remain in print, though, and also in screen versions. The fictional detective is part of our way of seeing the world now, and this is an amusing book to show how our fascination with murder (which we ought to find nothing but repellent) made it happen.


Hello, My Name Is Awesome: How to Create Brand Names That Stick (BK Business)
Hello, My Name Is Awesome: How to Create Brand Names That Stick (BK Business)
by Alexandra Watkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.56
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What's In a Name? Success., November 29, 2014
Among the most interesting of medical surveys I do are the ones about prospective drug names. Such a survey will have a long list of nonsense words, prospective names that someone has come up with for perhaps a blockbuster drug. The companies want to make sure that there are no bad associations to the proposed names, and whether a name somehow abstractly communicates confidence or effectiveness. The FDA has certain rules about drug naming, of course. One is that a drug’s name cannot too closely indicate its action. The rest of the world, for instance, knows the drug Regaine for the purpose of regaining hair lost to balding, but in America it had to be Rogaine. One drug name should not look or sound like any other drug name, of course, although my patients often confuse Zantac and Xanax. I hope that drug companies sending out name surveys will now take advantage of a new tool at their disposal, _Hello, My Name Is Awesome: How to Create Brand Names That Stick_ (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) by Alexandra Watkins. It is a funny book that ought to be used by anyone out to name a new product, and for the rest of us, it is an amusing, quick read about an important part of how products get marketed to us.

Watkins has made her niche as a product namer. She has been an advertising copywriter for twenty years, and she founded the naming company Eat My Words which has clients from Disney to Wrigley. One of the fun parts of her book is the critique of names that are already familiar to us all. It is more fun to read about the bad examples than the good, and the rules of what to avoid are more fun than the ones of what to follow. Watkins asks us to remember first the acronym SMILE for the positive (names should be Suggestive, Meaningful, invoke Imagery, have Legs, and be Emotional). OK, we have the good guys out of the way, let’s have more fun with the villains, which go by the acronym SCRATCH. Don’t get cutesy with Spelling. If you have to spell your name out loud for your customers, you are wasting time; more important, check to see how Siri or your iPhone spells it when you speak it. If you are an organic baby clothing manufacturer, do not call yourself Speecees (now out of business). Don’t be a Copycat; don’t iAnything, or eAnything, or use a fruit as Apple and Blackberry have already done. Don’t have a name that is too Restrictive; the firm Canadian Tire did sell tires, but it is a general store now, which had to have a tagline that apologized for its name: “There’s a lot more to Canadian Tire than tires.” Similarly, Fastsigns does more than signs. Make sure your name isn’t Annoying. An awful name, but real, for a women’s networking organization is Femfessionals. (“Really? Would you want that on a professional résumé?”) And avoid the annoyance of mystery; there is a real company named Vungle, but how the heck can you tell from that what it does? At the same time, don’t take a name that is too Tame or just descriptive; predictable names like Cloud Now are bland and probably someone has taken them already and trademarked them. Avoid the Curse of Knowledge; if only insiders get your name, everyone else is left out. Salonpas, for instance, is an analgesic made of SALicylate which goes ON your skin and can can PASs through it to the site of your pain; you could not tell that from the name, so who cares? And don’t have a name that is Hard to pronounce. Should “Chewes Catering” be pronounced “chews” or “chewies”? The overused “eco-” prefix could be “ee-co” or “echo.”

She also tells her techniques of one-person brainstorming. It was that sort of brainstorming that Watkins used to come up with what is obviously one of her favorite successes in naming, a yogurt chain which the owner thought might best be named Zenyo or Swayo (“Yikes!” says Watkins.) The name she came up with is Spoon Me. It’s easy to say, memorable, cannot be mispronounced, is directly connected to what the stores do, and is charmingly titillating without being offensive. The firm credits the name with being a large factor in its success. Watkins earned her fee on that one. She should also earn it on this amusing book that those who need a company name will find a superbly practical guide.


Mecca: The Sacred City
Mecca: The Sacred City
by Ziauddin Sardar
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.23
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sacred City, Profane History, November 25, 2014
This review is from: Mecca: The Sacred City (Hardcover)
Ziauddin Sardar grew up in Pakistan, and the one bit of decoration in his home was a calendar with a gaudy picture of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, with the cuboid Kaaba within it. It sounds sort of like the first depiction I ever saw of the same scene, which happened to be painted on black velvet and was for sale in a thrift store. I had no idea what that cube was, but Sardar grew up knowing from the picture that “in some special sense the divine power is focused in this one place.” He has been intimately involved in Mecca, not just on his own pilgrimages but in administration, and he is dismayed by the current state of the city. Before understanding why, it is important to understand what has gone before, and Sardar, who has written many books on science and on Islam, has now given us _Mecca: The Sacred City_ (Bloomsbury), a full history of the city. This is a rarity; most books available on Mecca are written about the experience of the Hajj or are picture books illustrating the pilgrimage. They are especially scant in comparison to all the histories available on, say, Jerusalem. This is a vivid history, with plenty of dramatic, funny, or grisly anecdotes, about a place most readers are banned from ever going.

The beginning of the city stretches back to the time of legends, with the Kaaba installed by Adam and Abraham. It was a center for polytheism, and people were making pagan pilgrimages to it before Muhammad received his revelations emphasizing but one god. This did not endear him to those in power, who profited from the pilgrimages. The middle portion of Sardar’s book is mostly a long account of conflict between rich and poor, between families, tribes, religions, splinter sects, nations, and empires. After centuries of fighting within and around the city, contingencies wound up favoring the ultra-puritanical Wahhabi sect and their patrons from the Saudi family. The Wahhabis naturally respect the holy site of the Sacred Mosque and the Kaaba within, but regard any other historical sites within the city as possibly promoting worship of the Prophet himself or his early followers. The Saudi royal family has no interest in history, either, but is interested in making more money, and has turned Mecca into a sort of Muslim Disneyland, where pilgrims can make the Hajj, but also do some fancy shopping and dining. About 95% of the city’s ancient buildings have been bulldozed, with no interest in preserving the city’s cultural history. Khadijah was the first wife of the Prophet, and had a house there, but it was turned into a block of toilets. Sardar expects the house where the Prophet was born to become a car park soon. The cave wherein the Prophet got his revelations may be bulldozed away. “The skyline above the Sacred Mosque is no longer dominated by the rugged outline of encircling mountains. It is surrounded by the brutalism of hideously ugly rectangular steel and concrete buildings, built with the proceeds of enormous oil wealth that showcase the Saudi vision for Mecca.” The absurd clock tower building dwarfs the Sacred Mosque below it.

Sardar has made the Hajj, of course, but more important, he has worked at the Hajj Research Center and has had his suggestions for slowing the Saudi changes ignored. It isn’t a matter of mere esthetics; the center opposed the installation of pedestrian tunnels as dangerous, but the tunnels were dug anyway, and during the 1990 Hajj there was a stampede in which 1,426 pilgrims died. He is obviously angry over the way the city is being treated, but his book is no polemic. Mecca represents an ideal, an aspiration for human harmony, and he is glad to love it in that role. The city may be sacred, but its inhabitants and combatants are only human.


The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution
The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution
by Jonathan Eig
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.12
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How Oral Contraceptives Came to Be, November 21, 2014
We take for granted now that people can take steps to keep pregnancy from happening while they still enjoy all the pleasures of coitus. It is astonishing how recent an idea this is. Using contraception was illegal in most states until after World War I. Under the Comstock Law, just mailing information about contraception could land you in jail, and Anthony Comstock himself considered it his duty to seize not only pornography from the mails but any device for contraception. The American Medical Association did not consider contraception a matter for medical consideration until 1937. Some states continued to make contraception illegal for single women until the 1960s. Married women had few options if they wanted to space children out, so staying home and bearing babies was simply what they had to do. Eventually some dreamers thought this could be changed, and in _The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution_ (W. W. Norton), Jonathan Eig has told how all the anti-pleasure societal forces were eventually thwarted. It is an astonishing story, told with detail and even excitement, of a triumph of idealists who were ready to work hard to make their dreams come true, and it is amazing that their victory came just a half-century ago.

The first, and most famous, of the four dreamers was Margaret Sanger.. Sanger enjoyed sex, and knew that sex without fear of pregnancy was a feminist goal; women needed to take from men the final say about when they would become mothers. She had dreamed of an oral contraceptive for decades, but only in 1950 was she able to contact a researcher that might make it happen, physiologist Gregory Pincus, who, having been shut out of Harvard, was running his own shoestring-budget lab. Sanger had previously allied with heiress Katherine McCormick, who had shown commitment to contraception by smuggling diaphragms from Europe. McCormick poured thousands of dollars into the effort, money that went to buying such things as rats and rabbits for hormonal research, and then eventually to research on humans. Pincus needed a medical doctor’s help in research on humans, and he found it in John Rock. Rock was an expert in fertility, and his research at Harvard was directed at treatments for infertility. He was a practicing Catholic, but he came around to the realization that women could be burdened by having too many children as much as by not being able to have any. Much of Eig’s book describes the complicated process of arranging human testing, and some of what they describe is distasteful now, since there were few rules at the time about medical testing. Test subjects were nurses, prisoners, and especially women in Puerto Rico. Eventually the pill was approved for regulating menstrual periods, but with doctors using it “off label” for contraception, it eventually got that approval, too.

There were hard work and struggles that had to be undertaken to make a now commonplace and trusted medication. Eig does not belabor the analogies to our own time, when some are arguing that IUDs and birth control pills must be outlawed or excluded from medical coverage because they cause abortions (they do not), or simply because of the feeling that any enjoyment of sex must always be linked to a likelihood of pregnancy. It is the same distaste that Sanger faced, with conservative religious people trying to curb the sexual pleasure of others. She’d be delighted that the pill is taken for granted today, and dismayed that the anti-pleasure forces are still strong.


Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life (Ackroyd's Brief Lives)
Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life (Ackroyd's Brief Lives)
by Peter Ackroyd
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.68
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Light and Dark of Chaplin's Life, November 18, 2014
One century ago, the most famous man in the whole world was not a king or a president or a singer or a writer. He was Charlie Chaplin, and he was 25 years old. His fame has lasted; there is no more familiar figure in the movies than the tramp with the ill-fitting suit, a bowler hat, a cane, and an indomitable spirit. There have been many volumes written about Chaplin, including his curiously unrevealing autobiography. Now Peter Ackroyd, novelist, poet, biographer, and critic has weighed in, with a terrific examination of a brilliant life that had more than its share of darkness. _Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life_ (Nan A. Talese) is brief only in comparison to the other heavy volumes that have tried to assess Chaplin the man and the artist. What distinguishes this one is Ackroyd’s sense of place; he has written often about London, and convincingly summons Chaplin’s South London childhood to explain both the light and the dark.

Chaplin was brought up in the music halls of South London, unsure of who his father was. His mother was a performer, when she wasn’t in mental asylums. He lived in one tenement or another, sometimes on the streets. He danced on those streets for pennies, and he was a clog-dancer in the music halls. He eventually joined a mime troupe that traveled to America, and signed with Mack Sennett. The Little Tramp first appeared in a 1914 short, and cracked up Sennett and the technicians while the movie was being made. Ackroyd obviously loves Chaplin’s movies, describing all the hits like _The Gold Rush_ and _The Kid_, and even seeing the good in his late pictures like _The Countess from Hong Kong_. The little fellow’s triumph over hunger, solitude, disregard, and poverty can all be tied to Chaplin’s childhood. Inescapably, Chaplin’s less likable characteristics are tied to his childhood as well. In real life, even when he had millions, he was famously tight with his spending. He was always worried that he was going to lose everything. He had a constant need for power and control, and was known to be tyrannical and unfeeling to the actors and technicians who were working on his films. He got plenty of adulation from crowds wherever he went, but it was not enough. He was a bully in his private life, a role he must have found easier to play with the young women or under-age girls with whom he had affairs.. Then there was the eventual divorce between his adopted country that had given him such success, but didn’t accept his leftist political views during the time of McCarthy’s witch hunts. On a visit to Britain in 1952, he was denied permission to reenter the US, and since Britain had an extradition treaty with America, he settled in Switzerland, which had acceptably low taxes.

In Ackroyd’s account, then, this dislikable little man who made a brilliant screen character is a product of the desperation of his South London childhood. “A great cockney visionary,” Ackroyd calls him, with full appreciation of the visions Chaplin produced for the world to enjoy. We can be grateful we don’t have to work for the man, or share any affair of the heart with him, and we can be grateful, too, that such matters wind up merely as important footnotes in the artist’s life. It’s the universally-appreciated character of the Little Tramp that matters, and shines brighter because of the darkness in the real life of the man who created the image.


Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians (A Merloyd Lawrence Book)
Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians (A Merloyd Lawrence Book)
by Justin Martin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.96
79 used & new from $11.81

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5.0 out of 5 stars Merry at Pfaff's, October 28, 2014
You may well have heard of the Algonquin Hotel, that famous New York meeting place for actors, writers, and wits. Chances are you have not heard of Pfaff’s Restaurant and Lager Bier Saloon. And chances are that if you read _Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians_ (Da Capo Press) by Justin Martin, you will never forget Pfaff’s, and you will wish somehow you might spend a late evening with the brilliant crowd there. As the book’s subtitle suggests, this is largely a story about Walt Whitman, whose career might have been far different had it not been for Pfaff’s; Martin says that the influence of Pfaff’s upon Whitman has been mentioned in previous biographies but not fully appreciated. Whitman may be the star here, but there are plenty of other comets who shone bright in their time and are now forgotten, as well as that ring of those around them like Mark Twain and John Wilkes Booth. This is essential reading for anyone interested the America of the nineteenth century. It is also brightly written, and funny and heartbreaking by turns.

The most important person in this story is not Whitman, but Henry Clapp, Jr., a reporter who gave up teetotaling when he visited Paris in 1849. He embraced the bohemian life there, and when he returned to New York City, he had a plan to begin bohemianism in America. In 1856, he happened upon Pfaff’s, in a basement on Broadway near Bleeker Street, and he began recruiting bohemians for his table. What a curious cast this is. Fellow journalist Fitz-James O’Brien was the first recruit, a hard-drinking Irishman whose writings are forgotten now, but who wrote ghost stories and predecessors of science fiction and magical realism. Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who had enjoyed taking different intoxicants as a teenager and college student, became a sensation in 1858 with the publication of his _The Hasheesh Eater_. Artemus Ward was developing a “humorous lecture” for the stage, and Martin says he was America’s first stand-up comedian, Also at the table were women. They certainly had a place in bohemian life, and the egalitarian Pfaff’s welcomed them when other saloons would admit only men. There was Ada Clare, a wit, actress, and satirist who made arguments that anticipated feminism. Another woman there was Adah Isaacs Menken, who was a poor poet but became notorious for the worldwide sensation she made clothed merely in a bodystocking (or was she?) as she was bound spread-eagled to the back of a horse in the melodrama _Mazeppa_. Then, of course, there was Whitman. Clapp did Whitman and literature a magnificent service by realizing Whitman’s talent early, and when Clapp founded _The Saturday Press_, Whitman’s poems had a place in it, as did lots of reviews of _Leaves of Grass_ when it was published in its monumental third edition. Clapp’s boosting worked. Whitman might justly have become famous without Clapp and Pfaff’s, but that is not the way it happened, and Whitman knew it. He remembered: “Henry Clapp stepped out from the crowd of hooters - was my friend: a much needed ally.”

Whitman, of course, would go on to duties taking care of the wounded in the Civil War, a war which broke up the old gang at Pfaff’s. He lived long and become that Good Grey Poet, and was beloved nationally. The fates of the rest of the gang make sad reading. O’Brien died in battle, Clare was bitten by a dog belonging to her agent and died of rabies, Menken had a rumored affair with Alexandre Dumas _père_ and died of some ailment in Paris, Ludlow lost his beautiful wife to the painter Albert Bierstadt with whom he had joined to chronicle a journey to the West, and died of tuberculosis, and the hugely popular Ward also died of tuberculosis while taking his show on the road to London. The brilliant Clapp made it to sixty years of age, but his later years were a mess of failure, booze, and sanitariums. Oh, well - Thomas Aldrich, a poet that was in the circle, included in his poem “At the Cafè” the line, “We were all very merry at Pfaff’s.” Let us be grateful that _Rebel Souls_ has brought a touch of the merriment back.


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