Worst Neighbors Ever.

I wanted to love The Wordy Shipmates. If there’s anything that speaks to the essence of Me, it’s highly literate, passive-aggressive Puritans with authority issues. Who wouldn’t be into that? I re-read Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation last year, and she has a way of making history so relatable, with real, long-reaching consequences that 21st century Americans feel everyday. The Wordy Shipmates is really no different in that sense. But there’s something missing

 

As to the writing, Vowell’s tongue is lodged firmly in her cheek. No one is safe from her snark. She is most sincere when she discusses what she loves about the Massachusetts Bay Company, acknowledging moments that are of course emotionally manipulative and problematic to our eyes (for instance, John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon, while still celebrating their intent.

 

I found a few heroes here. This book brought back a few latent APUSH/junior year historical crushes on Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. I love cantankerous idealists, and these two fought so hard for their beliefs (including a shared belief in religious freedom), and ticked off so many people, that they went and founded an entirely new state. And then, it wasn’t enough that now THEY had religious freedom; they had to go and guarantee it for others who were escaping religious oppression. It’s a beautiful idea, and it makes me want to visit Rhode Island, which sounds like a utopia of sorts. They make interesting foils for Winthrop, who seems all right himself, at first. If you read the book, read it for Williams and Hutchinson.

 

But of course this is history, and it’s not all freedom from oppression and religious liberty. Other people had to get stepped on to guarantee all that freedom, right? Vowell’s introduction of the Pequot War is ominous, and the book ends on this topic, which is probably why I felt so bad after it ended. I don’t know that I would re-read The Wordy Shipmates as readily as Assassination Vacation, barring an early U.S. history cram session, or participating in a Sarah Vowell compendium. Or maybe just to get reacquainted with Hutchinson and Williams.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!

 

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A Busy Season

Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America in 1927 invites you to the party. Bryson narrates the major historical events of that summer (and there were a lot of them), weaved together loosely with aviation (Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight and its aftermath are recurring motifs) and law and order (multiple murders and executions, including that of the controversial Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti). The book has a freewheeling feel to it that perfectly captures the 1920s and the decade’s major influences. Lindbergh’s nascent airplane with limited forward visibility, propelling through uncharted air. Babe Ruth’s sixtieth home run, hit off Tom Zachary’s arm, hurtling past the outfield. The ingenuity of Mabel Walker Willebrandt, deciding to tax gangsters for their ill-gotten gains.

 

Bryson manages to give an open, unapologetic view of the 20s. This book is neither deluded nor disillusioned, celebrating the optimism of an era where the sky was literally the limit while acknowledging the very real flaws (see: Prohibition, when the government would rather poison its citizens than let them have a drink), as well as hinting at the horrors to come. The book captures a feeling of mania, and that was fascinating to read. So much happened in 1927, that it’s easy to see how intoxicating that summer might have been for American citizens – metaphorically, of course.

 

I really enjoyed this book. It took a chapter for it to grab me, but when it did, I didn’t want to put it down. This is the first Bryson book I’ve read, but if his prose is always this witty (and his other subjects as engrossing), I will definitely be looking into more of his books.

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!

Scandalous!

I don’t remember how I discovered Anne Helen Petersen’s Scandals of Classic Hollywood series over on the Hairpin. But I do remember devouring the latest entries during downtime at my job as a secretary. Petersen let contemporary fans like myself experience the restrictive glamour of stars under the old studio system. She did it with a clever, confidential voice that benefitted from hindsight, and I found the results fascinating. Her blog was a weekly read.

The book is more of the same, which feels familiar but oddly not enough. It’s divided into multiple parts, each focusing on a classic Hollywood phenotype, with chapters about separate stars (in other words, long-format essays akin to one of the Hairpin pieces). Much of it is ground already tread in the Hairpin, which I expected to some degree. However, the book was a quick read, and it left me feeling unsatisfied. Make of that what you will.

This is also pretty obviously going to appeal to a very niche audience (of which I am obviously a member). Petersen approaches gossip that’s up to a hundred years old with an academic’s interest, but a blogger’s voice. That’s appealing to me. While contemporary audiences lap up gossip about today’s stars, it’s easy to assume that I’m not “one of them,” even as I devour a chapter about Mae West’s bawdy career. Again, Petersen is concerned with what this interest in stardom says about the film industry and society at large. That’s certainly a subject worth tackling. However, I found myself constantly questioning my own motives for reading this book. Was I couching my own schadenfreude in academic curiosity? The lives these stars led (at least the ones Petersen focuses on) were pretty tragic. Was I consuming them (again) for further entertainment? The answer is, probably. I do get a vicarious thrill from reading about these stars, much like their contemporary audiences did, much like we get from our own stars today. Gossip is appealing for a reason, and apparently, it’s timeless.

 

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!