Category Archives: History

A People’s History – Drawing the Color Line and beyond…

Thanks to Jill and Jenners for hosting this group read.  This is my third reading of A People’s History.  I plan on posting every few weeks.  If this book inspires you please read the books in Zinn’s bibliography.  I will add links to other resources.

When I first read this book I became angry.  I was also disappointed that the teachers I had trusted in high school and college had not been curious enough to dig deep into the history of the United States.  Later, when I returned to school, things had changed.

Now I know this had to do with our  educational system, with textbook publishers, with class, race and political power.  I believe we are undergoing a historic change,  and hope that more people will be curious enough to learn about our history as a country and as a people, but there are indications of a back-lash.  Witness the recent book removal  from Tuscon, Arizona, classrooms.

If this book makes you angry or frustrated or discouraged, please keep reading.  Our posts and discussions are invaluable.

Chapter 2: Drawing the Color Line.  A discussion of the beginning of the African Slave trade in North America and the beginnings of “racism” in the United States.

Some good books:

Rough Crossing – Simon Schama
Many Thousands Gone – Ira Berlin
Narrative of the The Life of Fredrick Douglas
 The Classic Slave’s Narrative – Charles Davis and Henry Louis Gates
Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl – Harriet Jacobs

Racism from modern white (leftist) perspective:

Race Traitor – Noel Ingatiev
The Wages of Whiteness – David R. Roediger
White Like Me – Tim Wise

Tim Wise is one of the best speakers on racism I have had the privilege to see in person.   I find his web site educational and inspirational.

Chapter 3: Persons of a Mean and Vile Condition.  Bacon’s Rebellion ( did you learn about this in high school?) and the conditions of the poor in the colonies.  For me this period marks the beginnings of class divisions in the Colonies.

I’ve read several of Zinn’s chapter 3 references including:

America at 1750: A Social Portrait by Richard Hofstader
Red, White and Black: The Peoples of Early North  America by Gary B. Nash

Here is a link to an online addition of A People’s History of the United States.  And an image passed on by a Facebook friend this week.


Filed under Group Read, History, United States

A People’s History – Columbus, The Indians and Human Progress

For those who are interested in reading along but do not have access to a hard copy of the book   History Is A Weapon has the entire A People’s History of the United States online.

And some relevent breaking newsRethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, a resource book for teachers by Bill Bigelow,  has been banned in Tucson, Arizona schools along with many other books and The Tempest by William Shakespeare.  More here,  here and here.

When I read that Jill and Jenners were doing a group read of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States I thought great, more folks reading Zinn and finding out things they didn’t learn in school.  Then I saw some of the comments and figured I had to jump in.

I felt like I had missed something since I last read this book.  When had people started referring to Zinn as “revisionist”?  Aren’t revisionists those folks who deny the Holocaust or deny the Armenian Genocide?  Then I did a bit of digging and found out there are now two kinds of  revisionism.  Negationism and Historical Revisionism.  I’m not going to define those terms here.  If you are interested follow the links.  My only concern is that people confuse them.

Jill and Jenners have done a wonderful job of writing about the first chapter and quoting from the book, focusing on  Zinn’s reasoning for writing A People’s History and his thoughts on history and education.  I want to do something different.

When I first read this book, 25 years or so ago,  I made every effort I could to read other sources, those that Zinn had suggested and those I found on my own.  For me it was important to find books written by Native Americans,  along with those written by white people.  What follows is a list of some of them, along with a list of  my favorite poets and authors of fiction.  If A People’s History of the United States has peaked your interested, you will find these books invaluable.


All Our Relations by Winona LaDuke

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

Custer Died For Your Sins by Vine Deloria

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen

The Memory of Fire Trilogy by Eduardo Galeano

Killing Custer by James Welch

Lasting Echoes: An Oral History of the United States by Joseph Bruchac

The Founders of America by Francis Jennings

Voices of Wounded Knee by William S. E. Colman

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

Authors – Fiction and Poetry

Sherman Alexie

Jimmy Santiago Baca

Louise Erdrich

Joy Harjo

Thomas King

N. Scott Momaday

Simon Ortiz

Eden Robinson

Leslie Marmon Silko

Gerald Vizenor

James Welch

I hope you have a wonderful  Martin Luther King Day.


Filed under Group Read, History

Underground by Haruki Murakami

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel

Vintage International, New York, 2001

Borrowed from my local Library.

After reading Kafka on the Shore, and not being sure what I thought of Haruki Murakami, I decided to read his book on the 1995  Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo gas attacks.  Murakami says in his introduction that he was motivated to write Underground because he had been living away from Japan, wanted a deeper understanding of his home country and felt an obligation to those who had died in and survived the attack.  He wanted to have their voices heard.

Underground is actually two books that were published separately in 1997 and 1998.   The first part,. Underground, is made up of interviews with survivors of the 1995  attack in the Tokyo subway system, the second part, The Place That Was Promised, contains interviews with people who had been involved with Aum Shinrikyo.

From the interview with Toshiaki Toyoda, a Subway Authority workman.

    There were ordinary passengers who unfortunately lost their lives or suffered injuries just because they were traveling on the subway.  People who are still suffering mentally or are in pain.  When I consider their lot, I don’t have the luxury to keep seeing myself as a victim.  That’s why I say: “I’m not a sarin victim, I’m a survivor.”  Frankly, there are some latent symptoms, but nothing to keep me bedridden.  I’m just glad I survived.

The fear, the mental wounds are still with me, of course, but there is no way to flush them out of my system.  I could never find words to explain it to the families of those who died or sacrificed their lives on the job.  From page 38.

Murakami shows great respect for the people he interviewed, never interfering with their answers and yet drawing them out.  I am deeply impressed by his level of caring and by his commitment to his fellow citizens.  I am also moved by the survivors, their willingness to share their stories and their commitment to their culture and to each other. I find the difference between our two culture profound.

I also really appreciate the depth of Murakami’s intelligence, his clarity of thought and willingness to probe deeply into his own psyche.

From Blind Nightmare: Where Are We Japanese Going?

            …I am a novelist, and as we know a novelist is someone who works with “narratives”, who spins “stories” professionally.  Which meant to me that the task at hand was like a gigantic sword dangling over my head.  It’s something I’m going to have to deal with much more seriously from here on.  I know I’m going to have to construct a “cosmic communication device” of my own.  I’ll probably piece together every last scrap of junk, every weakness, every deficiency inside me to do it.  (There, I’ve gone and said it – but the real surprise is that it’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do as a writer all along!)

So then, what about you? (I’m using the second person, but of course that includes me.)

Haven’t you offered up some part of your Self to someone (or something), and taken on a “narrative” in return?  Haven’t we entrusted some part of our personality to some greater System or Order? And if so, has not that System at some stage demanded of us some kind of “insanity”?  Is the narrative you now possess really and truly your own?  Are your dreams really your own dreams?  Might not they be someone else’s visions that could sooner or later turn into nightmares?  From page 233.

The second part of this book is made up of interviews with people connected to Aum Shinrikyo at the time of the attacks.  It is chilling how easily these people, all of whom seem intelligent and humane, were disconnected from their families, their peers and any sense of empathy or compassion.  They became “mindless” but sincerely thought otherwise.  Read that quote from Blind Nightmare again.

I will definitely read more of Murakami’s work, even as I struggle to make sense of it.

Other reviews:


Dolce Bellezza


The Parrish Lantern

things mean a lot

Thyme for tea


Filed under Culture, History, InTranslation, JapaneseLiteratureChallenge 5, Nonfiction, Review

A Rift in Time by Raja Shehadeh

A Rift in Time by Raja Shehadeh

OR Books, NY, 2011

Borrowed from my public library.

Raja Shehadeh was awarded the Orwell Prize for his book Palestinian Walks, which I read a couple of years ago.  I have to thank Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog for introducing me to A Rift in Time.  Stu posted a wonderful interview with Shehadeh here.

When Raja Shehadeh, a human rights lawyer and author living in Ramallah, started digging into his family history he discovered a great uncle who was also an author.   Najib Nassar, who lived in Palestine, under the control of the Ottoman Empire, during the beginning of the 20th was a supporter of that empire and let it be known that he opposed the participation in World War One.  A death sentence was issued and he was forced to leave his home and family and live on the run, relying on strangers, for three years.

Raja traces Najib’s footsteps, running up against political boundaries that didn’t exist during his Uncle’s journey.

The land is now the outcome of a planned vision that has been in the making since the start of the twentieth century, an ideological dream that has been forcibly realised, transforming the land, redividing it, changing farming methods an exploiting every plot available, redistributing it all on an entirely new basis…Najib was one of the first people to pay attention to what was going on, to try to describe it, to warn about its consequences for the arab community and to document it.  From page 38.

Following the Great Rift from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, along the Bekka and the Jordan Valley, Raja discovers that it is nearly impossible to travel from the walled in state that Palestine has become.  Most of the country’s history, and the people’s lives and memories, are buried in the ground, destroyed by the ever spreading state of Israel.

Gone is the mix of  people that existed in Najib’s time.  In their place a large variety of Jews from Arab countries, Eastern Europe and from the west, along with those Palestinian Arabs who managed to stay, now share the land unequally.  But gone are most of the Bedouin tribes, Palestinian Arabs and Arabs from various parts of north Africa and the marsh Arabs who lived in the Huleh region with their water buffalos that are now extinct here.  From page 44.

Following Najib’s route is impossible so Raja makes do as best he can.  Along the way he visits lost villages, places erased from maps, and talks to people who retain memories and carry stories of the past.  Raja follows Najib’s trail and travels into Lebanon to learn more about his Mother’s family.  He find’s that Najib

One beautiful thing I took away from this heartfelt book is the fact that the Great Valley runs unimpeded from Lebanon, down through the Arabian Peninsula, across the Red Sea and into Africa, to the place were our earliest ancestors began to walk upright.  It is a wonder to read of those who still believe we can tear down the boundaries that separate us and live in peace.

The best antidote to the claustrophobia we Palestinians feel while attempting to cross the many borders Israel has created is to focus our attention on the physical expanse of the land.  Israel is attempting to define the terrain, to claim and fragment it with wire fences, signposts, gates and roadblocks staffed by armed soldiers backed up by tanks.  I am but one of the millions of travellers who have passed through over the ages.  I lifted my eyes and beheld the wonderful valley created eons ago as it stretches far and long, north into Lebanon and south to the Red Sea and Africa, utterly oblivious of the man-made borders that come and go.  From page 55.


Filed under Current Events, History, Memoir, Nonfiction, Palestine

In An Antique Land – Amitav Ghosh

In An Antique Land,  History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale by Amitav Ghosh

Vintage, New York, 1992

I own this, found it in a thrift shop.   Amitav Ghosh is a favorite of mine,  and with the events in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East over the last few months I decided it was time to read it.

In An Antique Land is an interesting combination of history, sociology and memoir that reaches back into the twelfth century and connects it to our own time.

In the winter of 1978 Ghosh was studying for a degree in social anthropology at Oxford when he came across a book of translations titled Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders by Professor S.D. Goitein.  The letters came from storage chamber known as the Geniza, attached to an ancient synagogue in Cairo.  One of them, catalogue number MS H.6, was written in  1146 AD  by a merchant named Khalaf ibn Ishaq to a trader named Abraham Ben Yijû.  At that time Ben Yiyû was living in Mangalore, on the south-western coast of India.  The letter mentions a certain slave and sends him “plentiful greetings”.

Ghosh was hooked and soon found himself in Tunisia, learning Arabic.  In 1980 he traveled to Egypt, living in a small village called Lataifa, and getting to know the Egyptian people.

From there the author traveled to another Egyptian village, Nashawy and then on to Mangalore, India, living with and getting to know the people in the towns and villages.  He was attempting to track the travels of  Ben Yijû and of his slave, a man Ghosh began to think of as Bomma.

What I found most fascinating was the interweaving of the time lines, Egypt and the Middle East in the 1100’s and in the late twentieth century, the mingling of history and social anthropology, Ghosh’s openness with the people around him and his awareness of the pressures of modernization.  I admire his observation skills and his clarity.  Here is his description of the village during Ramadan.  He had wanted to join in but everyone had said he could not – he was not Muslim.

From the very first day of the lunar month the normal routines of the village had undergone a complete change: it was as though a segment of time had been picked from the calendar and turned inside out.  Early in the morning, a good while before sunrise, a few young men would go from house to house waking everyone for the suhûr, the early morning meal. After that, as the day progressed, a charged lassitude would descend upon Lataifa.  To ease the rigours of the fast people would try to finish all their most pressing bits of work early in the morning. while the sun was still low in the sky; it was impossible to do anything strenuous on an empty stomach and parched throat once the full heat of the day had set in.  By noon the lanes of the hamlet would be still, deserted.  The women would be in their kitchens and oven-rooms, getting their meals ready for the breaking of the fast at sunset.  The men would sit in the shade of trees, or in their doorways, fanning themselves.  Their mouths and lips would sometimes acquire thin white crusts, and often, as the hours wore on, their tempers would grow brittle.  From page 75.

Ghosh threads history throughout this memoir, how the trading in Northern Africa was dependent on many items from India.  How people worked, traveled and lived.  How even the word “slave” had a very different meaning during that time. Reading this book was a  reminder of  how that  area of the world was once,  peacefully, inhabited by people of different races and religions.  Why did that change?  As he reaches the end of his journey along the west coast of India, Ghosh presents a theory.

The journey ends on a beach between ‘Fandarîna’ and Calicut, at a small fishing-village, hidden behind the shelter of a sand-dune.  It is a quiet spot: a few catamarans and fishing-boats lie in a great crescent of sand, a vast beach that is usually empty, except when fishing boats come in.  The village is called Kappkadavu an on one side of it beside the road is a worn white marker which tells the passer-by that this was where Vasco da Gama landed, on his first voyage to India, on 17 May 1498 – some three hundred and fifty years after Ben Yiyû left Mangalore.

Within a few years of that day the knell had been struck for the world that brought Bomma, Be Yiyû and Ashu together, and another age had begun in which the crossing of their paths would seem so unlikely that its very possibility would all but disappear from human memory.  From page 286.

There is an  interesting connection between this author’s fascination with the slave Bomma, the historical trading  between India and Northern Africa and his novel Sea of Poppies. I cannot wait for the second book in the Ibis Trilogy, River of Smoke.


Filed under History, Memoir, Review

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss

By Edmund de Waal

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2010

Borrowed from the library.  I may have first read about this on the Guardian website, then Nancy Pearl’s comments on NPR made it a must read.

What really drew me to this book was the collection of netsuke that is at the center of the story.  When I lived in Cambridge I used to visit the Boston Museum of Fine Art and became totally enthralled by the tiny carvings in the Asian collection.

Having inherited a collection of  264 netsuke that has been in his family since the 1870s, Edmund de Waal decides to find out where these wonderful objects came from, who has owned them and where they have been kept.  He has written a memoir about the Ephrussi family, drawn from interviews,  journals, memoirs, newspaper clippings and history book that starts with a great-great uncle who lived in Paris. The Hare with Amber Eyes reads as if De Waal had lived through all this history,  shared meals with these people, visited art galleries.  He has gotten to know them.

Though the Japanese were extremely rare in Paris in the 1870s – there were delegations and diplomats and the odd prince – their art was ubiquitous.  Everyone had to get their hands on these japonaiseries:  all the painters Charles was starting to meet in the salons, all the writers Charles knew from the Gazette, his family his family friends, his lover, all were living through this convulsion.  Fanny Ephrussi records in her letters shopping trips to Mitsuu, a fashionable shop in rue Martel that sold Far Eastern objects, to buy Japanese wallpaper for the new smoking-room a guest bedrooms in the house that she and Jules had just finished building in the place d’Iena.  How could Charles, the critic, the well-dressed amateur d’art and collector, not buy Japanese art.  From pages 48/49.

De Waal, an artist who works in porcelain, takes just as much care with this story as he does with his artwork.  This is his family and he treats them with honesty, care and respect.  Some of this history is sweet and rich like a fine pastry, some of it is filled with horror and loss.

It is on this visit that I go to the Jewish archive in Vienna, the one seized by Eichmann, to check up on the details of the marriage.  I look through the ledger to find Viktor, and there is an official red stamp across his first name.  It reads “Israel”.  An edict decreed that all Jews had to take new names.  Someone has gone through every single name in the lists of Viennese Jews and stamped them`Israel’ for the men, `Sara’ for the women.

I am wrong.  The family is not erased, but written over.  And, finally, it is this that makes me cry.  From page 259.

But it is De Waal’s passionate love of these objects and the tactile sensations his wonderful writing brought to my reading that makes this book a favorite for 2010.  Edwurd de Waal is an artist, he builds objects with his hands, he has built a beautiful memoir with words, tender and filled with love.

You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start.  You begin to tell a story.

When I hold them I find myself looking for the wear, the fine cracks that run alongside the grain of some of the ivories.  It is not just that I want the split in these wrestlers – a tangle of hopelessly thrashing ivory limbs – to have come from being dropped onto Charles’s golden carpet of the winds by someone famous ( a poet, a painter, Proust) in a moment of fin-de-siècle excitement.  Or that the deeply ingrained dust lodged under the wings of a cicada resting on a walnut shell comes from being hidden in a Viennese mattress.  It probably doesn’t.  From page 349.


Filed under Art, History, Memoir, Review

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Twelve, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

This book as won multiple awards and been on many Notable and “Best of”  lists.

I waited a long time to read this book.  Even though I had no desire to revisit this horrible event I kept hearing and reading about Dave Cullen’s in-depth study of the 1999 Colorado high school shootings.  I finally borrowed a copy from the library and discovered that Columbine is so well-written and well-researched that I couldn’t put it down.

I remember Columbine, I remember the two shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the horrible images that came over the television.  The stories of how these two students snapped and went after jocks, seeking revenge for bullying and harassment and how the “Trench Coat Mafia” was the group behind the murders was all over the media.  Turns out everything they told us about the Columbine shootings was wrong.

Dave Cullen,  reporting for Slate.Com, first visited Columbine High School at around noon on April 20th, 1999, the day of the shootings.  He spent 9  years researching this book, listening to tapes, watching videos, reading journals and conducting interviews. Talking to students, parents and teachers, investigators and police.   He dug deep and his reporting shows it.  It come across as clear and balanced.

Cullen gives us background on Harris and Klebold, in a way he makes these “monsters” human.  Reading their journals and listening to their friend,s investigators on the case believe Eric Harris was a psychopath and that Dylan Klebold suffered depression.  Reading their backgrounds and histories gives a very different view from the one the press reported.  The things I found most interesting in Columbine are Cullen’s analysis of the media circus surrounding the incident and the fact that the police covered up information they had on Harris and Klebold.  It turns out that this incident could have been avoided if certain people had communicated with other people, including some student who had hints of what was going on but never took the boys seriously.  Isn’t that always the way?

Columbine is not easy to read, the descriptions of the shootings and the suffering of the victims is intense, but I found it very worthwhile.

Other review:

Reading Rants

start narrative here

Have you read and reviewed this book?  Leave a comment so I can link you.


Filed under History, Nonfiction, Notable Books, Review

The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers

The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers

William Morrow, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

A quirky, fact-filled book that is just exactly what it claims to be.

Chris Lavers traces the history of the Unicorn from ancient Jewish texts, differing translations of the Bible and Greek and Roman writings through to the present-day by digging into ancient writings and drawing connections between the beginning understanding of natural sciences and the diffusion of information throughout the classical world.

Over time people have drawn conclusions about this creature through the amalgamation of fact and hearsay.  Lavers shows how descriptions of  Tibetan Antelopes, Indian Rhinoceros and an animal called a Kiang become a one-horned Ass, and how the Unicorn become an icon in the Middle ages.

Whether you are a believer or scoff at the idea of unicorns and fairies this is a fun and fascinating little book.  And I love the epigraph.

There are two things to avoid when dealing with a legend.  The first is to make too much of it, the other is to disbelieve it entirely.

Harold Mellersh (1967)


Filed under History, Random Reading, Review