Tag Archives: literature

Monday Book – The Rituals of Dinner – Margaret Visser

Jack gets to review the Monday book this week –

dinner

This book is both fascinating and frustrating.

Visser chose a strange way to progress her story, not chronologically as might be expected, but by topics. This results in a good deal of repetition – revisiting the Greeks, Romans, medieval Europeans etc in every chapter. Other reviewers have suggested the book could have been a good deal shorter and more readable and I’m inclined to agree.

On the other hand I found it hard to put down because of all the really interesting stuff scattered throughout. Although her specialty is literature, she is clearly a fine anthropologist as well. There are a good few references to folk motifs that I’m familiar with and was a bit surprised to find in a book about table manners. In fact, although the title suggests a fairly narrow focus, Visser ranges pretty widely around the central subject.

You could be forgiven for expecting this book to be about table manners and how to behave at the dinner table. It actually starts with cannibalism, goes through the development of tables and chairs, covers the invention of forks and spoons, deals with social attitudes in different cultures and a host of other loosely food related matters.

I think what was perhaps a bit startling for me was recognizing familiar dinner table and restaurant situations and for the first time understanding what lay behind them – everything from the placing of a knife (blade towards you and not your neighbor) to signaling the time to change courses.

The final chapter examines present day mores including the fast food culture – reflecting another book – ‘The MacDonaldization of Society’ by George Ritzer, but that’s another story – –

I have some reservations about Visser’s book, but if you don’t mind skimming here and there, it’s still fascinating stuff!

 

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The Monday Book: The Last Days of the Sioux Nation.

Jack gets to do the book review this week –

The Last Days of the Sioux Nation – Robert M. Utley

sioux nation

My interest in this subject was sparked by a song. My old singing friend John Watt and I, both from the same small town in Scotland, knew that Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show had played there during its final European tour. He was intrigued enough to do a lot of research and wrote the song.

He discovered that among the performers was a group of Sioux who had been ‘paroled’ from a South Dakota reservation by Cody. I started singing the song a few years ago and when Wendy and I decided to plan a road trip we wanted to include the Black Hills and the Badlands. On that trip we also took in Wounded Knee and the Crazy Horse monument.

More recently we repeated the journey with a couple of Scottish friends and this time added in a visit to Little Big Horn. Along the way, on both trips, we naturally picked up a good few books that filled out our knowledge. In addition, I found an excellent book by the Scottish writer James Hunter called Glencoe and the Indians that added another layer of fascinating hidden history.

Utley’s book is probably the best I’ve come across covering this whole sad period. The period he covers is about ten years around 1890 and takes us from Little Big Horn to after Wounded Knee. His excellent research describes the tensions within the different Sioux sub-divisions as well as the rivalries between the US army and the Department of the Interior. The Sioux were reeling from the many broken promises, particularly around their sacred Black Hills and Badlands. Their final attempt to revive their lost way of life was to embrace the ‘Ghost Dance’ and this was grossly misunderstood by the Federal authorities and particularly the army.

Utley includes a collection of photographs from the period including the main actors as well as notable places such as Wounded Knee creek.

In Hunter’s book he points up the similarities between the experiences of the Sioux and those of the Highlanders who were cleared off their Scottish land. The real irony is that some of those Scots ended up in America and took a leading part in the Sioux clearances!

There’s a well known story that a few of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Sioux left his show in Glasgow and settled there. What we do know is that a popular Glasgow museum recently returned a ghost shirt to the US that they had had in their collection for over one hundred years.

I can thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in this dreadfully sorry period in US history – five stars!

 

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Which Side are You On

Jack scrapes over the wire with the Wednesday post – – –

I’m a week or so late in acknowledging Labor Day I know, but –

On our kitchen wall we have a tea towel with a print of a certificate by the house decorators and painters union dating from the mid 1800s.

towel

It fascinates me for two reasons. It reminds me of a famous book – The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – that describes the working conditions of a group of house painters in England in the early 1900s. The other reason is because I served a six year apprenticeship learning all the skills depicted in that certificate.

The scenes illustrated clearly display great pride in the variety of specialisms involved –

The simple yet carefully prescribed way of painting a paneled door.

The use of color to enhance a classical Greek style cornice.

A cherub studying design and another one lettering a signboard.

A collection of regular paintbrushes and tools and another collection of tools for applying goldleaf.

In the center is a scene showing why the union was so important – a sick painter (maybe suffering from lead poisoning) is being attended by a doctor while his wife and son look on.

In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists the main character is a young man, newly finished his apprenticeship who has a particular talent for design. He spends a lot of his own time, unpaid, making wonderful designs to be used later as part of his work. This reminds me very much of my father who served his time back in the 1920s when the system still included attendance at art college. Truly a marrying of art and craft and the legacy of people like William Morris.

My apprenticeship was served under my Dad in his painting business and I was ‘indentured’. That means that, like all his apprentices, we both signed a legal document that was then torn irregularly in half. At the end of my six years I received his half, which when matched to my half showed I was legally a time-served craftsman (indentured actually means ‘patterned like teeth’).

Everything has changed now. In Scotland there are still apprenticeships but they last just three years and don’t cover the same breadth of skills. Indenturing no longer takes place and DIY has blossomed with the introduction of easier to use materials and tools.

But I learned a lot – not just about craft skills, but also social skills. Not only that but it was the gateway to my college career, so a very good start to my working life.

Finally – I’m a big believer in unions!

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Monday Book – My Song is my Weapon

My Song is my Weapon – Robbie Lieberman (1995)

Reviewed by Jack Beck

Once upon a time (actually about eighteen years ago) Wendy and I were booked to perform at the Orkney Folk Festival off the north coast of Scotland. The festival took place in various venues in Stromness and we were accommodated in a lovely old hotel overlooking the harbor. Not surprisingly the hotel bar was a favorite gathering place late at night after the official concerts and ceilidhs were finished.

stromness-hotel

One night we found ourselves chatting to a young American lassie who said she had published a book we might find interesting! I immediately bought a copy and have now read it for maybe the fifth time –

As a young man in the late 1950s and early 1960s I was developing my left of center political views as well as a strong interest in folk songs. So I was well aware of Pete Seeger, the Weavers, the Almanac Singers, the connections to Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson.

What I didn’t know was what had preceded this in the US and where all these people had in their turn served their apprenticeship, both politically and musically.

my song is

Lieberman’s book was a revelation to me in many ways –

First of all I had no idea how large and popular the US Communist Party was in the 1930s and how well accepted that generally was. Then again, I knew nothing about the ‘popular front’ and was fascinated to see how that had helped generate the ‘folk revival’ of the 1950s and 1960s.

There was much that was familiar too – the ‘redscare’, McCarthyism, the blacklist and so on.

I have to admit that on first reading I found the book pretty dense and hard going. However each time I’ve re-read it I’ve found it not just easier but more enlightening. Each time I find more gems I’d missed before!

I can thoroughly recommend this to anyone with an interest in 1930s US politics, the roots and routes of the 1950s folk revival or all three!

 

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The Monday Book – The Trumpet Unblown

THE TRUMPET UNBLOWN (Doubleday,1955) by William Henry Hoffman

Reviewed by Phyllis Wilson Moore

trumpet

 

Winners Do Not Take All

 

The World War II era novel THE TRUMPET UNBLOWN (Doubleday,1955), by Charleston, West Virginia, native William Henry Hoffman echoes every war. It  is not an easy novel to read and dismiss. It has clout.

Published in 1955, twenty-five long years before Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) became an official diagnosis, it could serve as a template for understanding the condition. Reading it might help families understand why some veteran have difficulty articulating their distress and might help counselors assist veterans in putting the pieces of their lives back together.

It is the story of idealistic eighteen year old, Tyree Jefferson Shelby, III, and his stint in a World War II Medical Corps at war’s end.

Like many high school seniors of the day, Shelby, eager to prove his loyalty and manhood,volunteers to risk his life at the Front defending the United States against Germany and Japan.

A leader and top notch new graduate of a private military high school, Shelby feels prepared for war. After all, he was a cadet officer and many of his ancestors served nobly in previous wars.  A teenager, he eagerly enlists, leaving his proud, religious and wealthy family, his virginal girlfriend, and his plans for college behind. In a few months he is in England, the youngest man in a medical hospital unit waiting for what we now know as the Normandy Invasion.

Being a “third”, and obviously from an affluent family, he is immediately at odds with some of the older more seasoned veterans. He does things by the book. He likes to keep clean and neat, no easy feat with cold water and no soap. He doesn’t drink. He is a virgin and plans to remain one. When his girl’s country club poolside photograph is stolen he finds it soiled and hanging on a support beam in a room the Corps shares. He fights for it and loses.

As they wait for their orders, Shelby goes with the other men as they make the rounds of the bars and brothels. He is goaded into paying a prostitute but can’t perform.

Once in France he learns to hurry up and wait. Disgruntled fellow soldiers and an ineffective commanding officer make matters worse. Setting up the field hospital is grinding work but once  it is done, they wait. No battles ensue. Members of his unit begin to explore the area and visit neighboring villages. From the supply tent they steal canned food, cigarettes, drugs, and army supplies to barter for alcohol, sex, and fresh vegetables.

Finally a major battle occurs and the hospital staff is overwhelmed.The mind boggling carnage and chaos troubles him but he does his job of carrying the wounded to and from the operating arena.

Between battles they wait. Sometimes they tear down the camp hospital and move closer to the action and the carnage begins again.

Each day the Corps proves the opposite of what he expected. He is not fighting the Germans or the Japanese; he is being bullied.

When another young soldier offers two villagers a ride and then rapes the girl, Shelby, in the jeep’s front seat, does and says nothing. He listens as the struggling girl and her now restrained boyfriend beg someone to intercede. Finally,the couple is thrown from the jeep more dead than alive.

Back in camp, Shelby begins to steal from the supply tent. He joins the drinkers in their search for prostitutes and more alcohol. He finds a prostitute and pays her with drugs he steals from the medical supply ten

Eventually, he and his buddies are suspected of pilfering and selling the belongings of their own wounded. When military investigators arrive there is no proof. The Corps reputation, bad to begin with, is further tarnished.

At war’s end his Corps is tangled in a major SNAFU (situation normal, all fouled up). It receives no orders to return from the field and prepare for a return to the United States. Other units do. As the rains set in camp morale plummets and bad behavior goes unchecked. Finally they are given busy work. The useless task of hauling rocks to create an unnecessary road to nowhere only to watch as each day’s rocks sink into the mud.

Shelby, the intelligent, religious, well mannered boy, breaks and is sent to a military psychiatric hospital. Instead of feeling relief he feels shame The physicians have no treatment plan (tranquilizer and mood stabilizers were not invented until 1953) for him except to discharge him. He does not want to go home.

Eventually, he is forced to return home. Home  to his waiting girlfriend, his worried and adoring family, and a world he can’t imagine re-entering. Apathetic, he wants nothing. He finds pleasure in nothing. There is no way he can recount his military experiences around the dinner table. College does not interest him. Invitations to parties or dinners are ignored. He is offered business positions but refused them.

To everyone’s amazement, he avoids his sweetheart. He will not say why. How can he explain his bout of Gonorrhea to his parents or his girl? How can he kiss her? How can he marry her?

In his own home, he is daily unnerved by the wall of military portraits showing his heroic ancestors. When relatives visit to hear of his war exploits he makes himself scarce. What he would like to do is go away, be alone, and sleep.

The book is chilling in its ability to show war at its worst and the effects of what was then referred to as “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” (General Patton called it malingering).  For me, this work explains PTSD better than anything I’ve read on the subject. This haunting novel is relevant today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Monday Book: Race to the Pole – Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Jack is the guest reviewer this week –

This is the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the south pole in 1912.

Scottgroup

I started reading this and almost immediately thought I wouldn’t like it!

Fiennes is clearly an upper crust member of the British establishment with an inflated sense of his own importance. All through the book he compares himself to Scott and a goodly part of it is about his own travels to the south and north poles.

But despite all that he managed to suck me in!

Fiennes really did do good research and approaches the more contentious issues very fairly. He also goes outside of the central story to get different points of view. This was also where I had some questions, though. Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, beat Scott by a month to the pole and is presented here as somewhat devious and a bit of a cheat. I see here Fiennes buying into the old story of the ‘above board’ British against those dastardly foreigners.

What is also well explained is the context of Scott’s doomed attempt – British exceptionalism, Government under-funding, class divisions, civilian/service divisions, limited meteorological knowledge etc. What also comes through clearly, though, is Scott’s abilities as a leader. He made difficult decisions, led by example and persuaded his team to incredible feats of endurance!

So my take away from this book is that Scott really was a doomed hero and Fiennes is a bit of a narcissist!

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The Monday Book: Life without Parole – by Victor Hassine

Jack’s guest post is actually the Monday book so could be on time or not –

life without parole

I have been a regular monthly visitor to our local Federal Penitentiary for nearly five years. Each time I visit with two inmates for around an hour with each and we talk about all sorts of things.

But the hardest thing is to get any idea of their everyday lives before and after the visit!

I got some idea from ‘Orange is the New Black’ by Piper Kerman, but that was from a woman’s perspective. However Wendy gave me Hassine’s book and that really opened my eyes. His experiences were in a state prison but I’m sure they would have been much the same in ‘the pen’.

‘Life Without Parole’ is a series of essays or interviews by an inmate sentenced to life in 1981 who was an educated and thoughtful man. He documents his experiences over time, his conversations with fellow prisoners and his observations on the culture of prison life.

Hassine makes no attempt to excuse his crime or to suggest he doesn’t deserve his punishment. He simply relates his life behind bars.

This book spares nothing and describes a desperate and harrowing world that I have had the tiniest glimpse of. Hassine doesn’t try to excuse either himself or any of his prison community, yet draws us in and shows us a parallel world that ‘there but for the Grace of God’ any one of us could only too easily be part of!

His analysis of the various problems with the prison system is scholarly and erudite and makes for gripping reading. Each chapter features an introduction written by eminent criminologist Robert Johnson, and the book is divided into three sections: Prison Life, which introduces readers to the day-to-day aspects of Hassine’s life in prison; Interviews, which presents a series of candid interviews with Hassine’s fellow inmates; and Op Ed, in which Hassine addresses some of the most significant problems within the current prison system.

The author was an Egyptian born immigrant to the US and a law school graduate. He died in prison in 2008 under unclear circumstances although it seems likely he took his own life following an unsuccessful appeal.

I can thoroughly recommend this book, which is now in its fifth edition, to anyone interested in prison life.

 

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