History Feed

Music: A Subversive History

Music: A Subversive HistoryMusic: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A really fun read. Gioia advances a few key theses in this history of music--that music is deeply connected to magic, that music is deeply connected to violence, that musical innovations are created by outsiders and eventually mainstreamed by the power structure. The latter means that he doesn't accept some of the standard histories that claim some prominent political or church leader introduced some innovation and he goes looking for where the ideas really came from. He's got a thesis as to why drums were not prominent in early country music, and it ties back to the prehistoric move from hunting to herding cultures. He defends universal aspects of music (arguing with ethnomusicologists) and often the common thread that connects geographically diverse cultures with similar music is the animals they kept. This is full of fun, provocative ideas and stories.

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The International LGBT Rights Movement

The International LGBT Rights Movement: A HistoryThe International LGBT Rights Movement: A History by Laura A. Belmonte
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I met Laura Belmonte when we were both LGBT rights activists on the front lines in Oklahoma in the Aughts. She was a professor at Oklahoma State University who helped organize advocacy organizations in Tulsa and statewide, while I was a pastor and activist in Oklahoma City. She's now the Dean of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech.

This book is the first international history of the LGBT rights movement. And Laura does a marvelous job of covering all the major movements, turning points, and trends. I can imagine she had material for a much larger book than the editors and publishers provided, and that would have been engaging as well.

I've always been very focused on local activism wherever I've lived, rarely engaging much in larger national efforts. So it was insightful to see how the work I've done has participated in and been influenced by these global efforts.

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Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own

Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our OwnBegin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This books is two things at once and does it well, since the one thing is in service of the other. It is a presentation of the thought of James Baldwin in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin's earlier books are his most popular and often read. His later work after the assassinations, the rise of Black Power, and then the conservative backlash has been less examined and has generally been criticized from all sides. Glaude sets about to right these wrongs and demonstrates that Baldwins ideas are rich and fertile.

The second thing the book is is a commentary on our own times and what we need to do to begin again with a more just society. In this goal, the book is one of many books from the last few years attempting to do this work. Glaude achieves this goal through the first goal of the book. Baldwin's later ideas are fertile for helping us to understand America in 2020 and for guiding us in how to begin again.

A worthy read combining literary criticism, historical analysis, social critique, and insights on contemporary public policy.

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Istanbul: Memories and the City

Istanbul: Memories and the CityIstanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have this sense that Istanbul ought to be the great city of the world, based upon its long history and grand location. Pamuk, the great Turkish novelist and Nobel prize winner, instead writes about the melancholy of the city almost two centuries into its decline from being one of the great cosmopolitan capitals of the world.

His tale of the city is highly personal, this book functioning both as a memoir of childhood and adolescence and something of his Ulysses--doing for Istanbul what Joyce's novel did for Dublin. One does feel as is if one has walked along and boated along many of the streets and shorelines after reading this book.

There is also an interesting engagement with the European gaze upon Istanbul, with much attention to 19th century writers and painters who visited the city. Unlike Edward Said's critique of orientalism, Pamuk has a more nuanced and complex interaction with the European gaze, particularly discussing the ways it has shaped him and shaped the city itself, but not fully rejecting it. These chapters form a rather lengthy section at the center of the book.

I delighted in the book at first, but grew weary of it as it continued. I do think it is rather too long, deserving of some substantial editing and condensing. Again toward the end there are some marvelous chapters, such as "First Love."

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Time of the Magicians

Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented PhilosophyTime of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy by Wolfram Eilenberger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A look at German philosophy in the decade of the 1920's, focusing on Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Cassirer, and Martin Heidegger. A well told tale. Eilenberger combines story with acute analysis of these complex philosophers and their ideas. These are some of the most easy comprehended introductions to their thought I've encountered.

Opening in the aftermath of the First World War with its traumatizing scars upon these thinkers, their families, and cultures, and concluding as the horizon begins to darken with the clouds of National Socialism, Germany in the 1920's is fertile ground for new philosophical visions. One wonders what impact our current global pandemic might have in seeding new thoughtforms in the 2020's?

While the stories are enjoyable and the discussions of their philosophies are lucid, I completed the volume unsure of the actual point. What larger lessons was I supposed to draw from the book? Why these four particular thinkers? It didn't seem that the focus on these four and their limited interactions (though much is made of a public debate between Cassirer and Heidegger) generated any overarching takeaways.

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Of Plymouth Plantation

Of Plymouth PlantationOf Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read my first excerpt of Bradford's book in tenth grade American Literature class. It was sitting in Mrs. Douthitt's classroom that I first heard the story of my ancestor John Howland falling off the boat and catching a halyard by which he was pulled back in. I experienced an existential moment, realizing that this story from "literature" affected whether or not I even existed.

So it is odd that I had never ventured to read Bradford's book until now. I've read a handful of other historian's books on the Mayflower and the Plymouth colony. But with this being the 400th anniversary year, I thought I should correct my lack.

But little of Bradford's account contains the vivid story like Howland falling off of the Mayflower. Huge sections of the book go into details about controversies over the later business dealings of the colony. Clearly Bradford was trying to defend the colony to the wider English reading audience, but doesn't make for riveting reading four centuries later. Other than to remind you of how much this was also a business enterprise.

There are vivid moments. like the description of how smallpox ravished Native tribes. And the book is a strong reminder of how harrowing and traumatizing the whole experience was on those original pilgrims.

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Framed: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO, and the Omaha Two Story

FRAMED: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO & the Omaha Two storyFRAMED: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO & the Omaha Two story by Michael Richardson


One of Omaha's most notorious cases. Richardson argues, obviously from the title, that Poindexter and Rice were framed by the FBI for the murder of officer Minard.

This book is not an easy read because the other piles on the facts and long quotes from documents and testimony with little narrative structure. One wishes for this exhaustive research to be shaped with better skill into a story.

I did like learning more about my congregation's role in this story, as First Central had hosted a forum on police brutality directly before the murder and received much criticism for it.

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Cheyenne Autumn

Cheyenne AutumnCheyenne Autumn by Mari Sandoz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sandoz brings her eloquence and attention to detail to the story of the Cheyenne who in 1878 left Oklahoma Territory, where they had been sent, in order to return north, fleeing through soldiers and multiple attacks through a very harsh winter. This is a harrowing story, not for the faint of heart, with much injustice and sadness. There were moments where I questioned whether I could go on, but Sandoz's writing is so beautiful and compelling and she recounts this story with such attention and appreciation for the indigenous people from whom she collected oral accounts.

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Hume: An Intellectual Biography

Hume: An Intellectual BiographyHume: An Intellectual Biography by James A. Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are significant stretches of this book overburdened with details, making it at times a dense read.

However, I did enjoy it. It's best gift is understanding Hume within his intellectual context. At two particular places this was most enjoyable. First in learning more about the philosophical influences upon him, such as Shaftesbury, Mandeville, Hutcheson, and others. Second was learning about the differing understandings of British history in the 18th century, in particular how those different understanding approached the concept of liberty. This was relevant to then understanding what approach Hume took in his own History.

The book had a grand conclusion, stating that Hume had achieved the dreams he set for himself as a young man. Would that more biographies could end that way.

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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of FreedomFrederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I expected to marvel at the story of Douglass, but I never quite expected how good a writer Blight would be. He has a beautiful way with structuring paragraphs and sentences.

And it is intellectually a delight. Really capturing Douglass as thinker, including as a theological one.

And I appreciate the approach to Douglass as a Founding Father of the refounding of the Republic during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

I'm not sure I've read an American biography as well written as this one. So besides Douglass's own works, this too surely will enter the canon of American literature.


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