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It's been a snowy winter here in New England.

This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's been following the news; the entire East has been getting hammered by severe cold weather (don't even ask about my heating bill for January) and severe snow storms, and the ones in the last couple of weeks have been reasonably horrible.  As I write this, I'm contemplating the joys of taking a couple of pain pills and heading to bed early, since I'll need to be up early tomorrow to shovel out the bottom of the driveway.

The joys of home ownership, let me tell you.  Is it any wonder my next home will be a condo?

Snowstorms aren't unique to Massachusetts, of course.  Atlanta's been getting its share lately thanks to that lovely little phenomenon known as "climate change," and a monster storm a couple of years ago in Washington, DC, led directly to a massive flash mob snowball fight at Lafayette Circle.  There was even snow in Baton Rouge a couple of weeks ago, or so I was informed by a charming lady I had to call about a work-related matter.

And then there was the Blizzard of '78, better known in Bashor/Evans family lore as "the year of the buried Christmas tree."

Now, before anyone gets the idea that Mum and I practiced some arcane form of nature worship that required us to rent a backhoe, dig a huge hole in the front yard, and inter the prickly Scotch pine that we'd acquired and set up in the front window during most of December, let me assure that this was not the case.  The Christmas tree had been taken down on or about Twelfth Night, in accordance with long custom, and left at the bottom of the driveway for the trash collectors to haul away in mid-January, also in accordance with long custom.  We'd had a little snow that covered the stiffly dry branches and made them look pretty again, and that was that.

Then came the great storm.

We got off relatively lightly, at least as compared to New England.  My ex, Wingding, was living in the suburbs of Boston when the mightiest of blizzards came roaring down on Boston, and he assured that the stories of buried cars, the state police arresting anyone caught driving without a really good reason, and pack ice clogging Quincy Bay and Boston Harbor were no exaggeration.  He'd actually ventured out during the storm to see what was going on, and realized only the next day that he'd accidentally wandered onto the pack ice because visibility was so poor.  How he avoided falling through the cracks and being swept out into the cold and angry waters of the North Atlantic, ne'er to be seen again, is still not quite clear.

Compared to that, the heavy snow that blanketed Pittsburgh was small beer indeed.  Oh, we got some time off from school, and my long suffering uncle Lou had to shovel out both his own and our driveway sans snowblower, but we didn't lose power or heat, we had plenty of food, and once the streets were clear it was actually rather jolly.  It wasn't until a day or two had passed that I noticed the huge pile of snow at the bottom of the driveway, right where we usually left the trash cans.  

It also where we'd left the Christmas tree.

I mentioned this to Mum when we were backing out of the driveway on our way to the grocery store to buy dog food, toilet paper, and other sundries.  Mum, who was short enough that she was having trouble seeing past the snow pile to back out, snorted slightly and shook her head.

"Don't be silly.  The garbage truck got it a few days ago."

I peered at the mound of snow and ice chunks thrown up by the borough's plows.  It was approximately the size of Mum's old Buick Skylark, and clearly there was something underneath its majestic bulk.  "Are you sure?  That looks tree-shaped to me."

"I'm sure.  Now, watch the other way and tell me if you see a car - "

The days went by, and turned into weeks.  And into months.  And still the Snow Pile That Would Not Die remained at the bottom of the driveway, large and rounded and looming higher than the yew bushes by the lamppost.  I commented on it more than once, only to be told, with increasingly impatience, that I was imagining things, that it was just snow, not a layer of frozen water covering a dessicated Scotch pine.  Mum finally told me to cut it out, that she knew it wasn't the Christmas tree, and that this was yet another case of me having an overactive imagination.

So I shut up and was a good little girl.  I walked the dog, waited to hear if I'd gotten into Smith, went to school, dodged the bullies, played the piano, wrote crappy fanfiction, walked the dog....

And then came the gorgeous, clear, warm April day when the SPTWND melted enough to reveal the crisp, dry, but still dark green branches of what had been a well shaped and serviceable Scotch pine Christmas tree.

I'd like to tell you that I didn't gloat.  That I didn't point at the evidence that I'd been right all along and hoot triumphantly while Mum gaped.  That I didn't take every opportunity to inform my aunt, my uncles, and random strangers that we'd gotten so much snow that it had buried the Christmas tree until April.

I'd like to you this.  But you know, Mum and Dad always told me not to lie....

As you might have gathered from the above anecdote, the winter of '78 was unusually snowy, and unusually cold.  You'd be correct, too.  It was probably the single snowiest winter of my childhood, and of my life until the winter of '94-95, when the weather was so bad and the storms so persistent I quite literally had a screaming fit in the driveway where I expressed my desire to move to Florida instead of spending one more minute in !#@!$@!$#@!@! Massachusetts.  This month hasn't been great, but it hasn't been even close to a year where the snow was so deep that the Globe finally gave up on conventional measurements and simply printed a picture of Celtics center Robert Parrish on the front page with a caption noting that the snow was now up to his hip, or his chest, or the tip of his nose.

As awful as winters like this can be, they do have their charms:  steaming mugs of cocoa, beautiful white landscapes glittering in the sun, fluffy cats curled up on the bed...

And of course, good books to read on those days when it's too cold to go outside.

Tonight I bring not bad books, but books that are perfect for a snowy winter day.  The following selections are all books that chronicle some sort of history, either personal or general, and several haven't received nearly the attention they deserve.  Some are old, some are new, but all are worth the time and effort:

My Twice-Lived Life, by Donald M. Murray - one of the best parts of reading the Boston Globe back in the day was turning to the Living section and seeing the "Over 60" column.  These beautifully written essays, which touched on everything from the tribulations of aging to memories of growing up during the Depression, were a real treat for anyone regardless of age; Murray, who'd won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing in the 1950's, had the same sort of lucid, graceful prose style as mid-century giants like E.B. White and Malcolm Cowley, and I dreaded the day when age would finally force him to stop writing.

That day came over a decade ago, but fortunately for all who love good writing, Murray published a memoir that drew upon much of the same material as his columns.  There's much to savor here:  moving references to the death of Murray's beloved daughter, descriptions of the changes that illness brought to his wife Minnie Mae, tales of his days as a reporter and then as a writing teacher.  Best of all are the columns where Murray, who grew up in a poor Scotch-Irish family, reminds anyone who's nostalgic for the Good Old Days of how much human potential was lost to racial and ethnic hatred, women being forced into the role of housewife, and male domination that frequently led to abuse.  Highly, highly recommended.

Sundown Towns, by James Loewen - Loewen, best known for Lies My Teacher Taught Me, is a historian specializing in post-Civil War race relations.  Among his other works are The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader (a treasure trove of primary source documents) and this searing examination of the all-white towns that sprang up after Reconstruction.

Ethnic cleansing of African-Americans from the new suburbs, Native Americans, Mexicans, and Chinese in the West...the Tulsa race riots...the deliberate hollowing out of industrial cities like Detroit as whites fled for the suburbs...the continued honoring of blatant racists like the former Mayor of Dearborn, Michigan (a sundown town that is now, ironically enough, largely Arab-American)...this book will open your eyes just why America is so segregated, and how very little choice has to do with it.  

Best of all is a list of known sundown towns, and information for contacting Loewen with more town names.  I sent them the name of my hometown, which may not have been a de jure sundown town but sure was one, and believe me, I never once thought I'd have to do that when I was growing up.

We Shook the Family Tree, by Hildegarde Dolson - Dolson, a magazine writer and mystery novelist, grew up in Franklin, Pennsylvania during the early years of the 20th century.  Franklin is near the tiny farming community where my mother spent her teen years, and this memoir, written in the 1940's, is a delightful look at the area that shaped my mother and her sister.  

Two highlights:  an account of Dolson and her siblings breaking into an abandoned house and finding an amazing bathtub (which they called a "yachitt," and you'll have to read the book to find out why), and "How Beautiful With Mud," the saga of Hildegarde's adventures when the "Beauty Clay" facial mask she'd acquired from a mail order house wouldn't wash off.  Of course she'd left it on twice as long as recommended....

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough - Cornelia Otis Skinner became an actress and monologist.  Emily Kimbrough became a writer.  But before that, before either had done more than peek their noses out of their respective familial bosoms, they were two college girls on their way to Europe the summer after college to romp, play, and learn about life in a way that only be described as "delightful."

Cornelia coming down with measles on the cruise ship to Europe and having to fake her way through customs...Emily forgetting the seam allowance when she made an evening gown out of drapery fabric...Cornelia's father being reduced to incoherent laughter at the sight of the girls smothered in rabbit fur cloaks that shed, and shed, and shed...attempts at flirting with an impressively uniformed sailor who turns out to be the married leader of the ship's orchestra...a bedbug infestation before a date...being trapped in the bell tower of Notre with HG Wells...Cornelia and Emily did all that and so much more.  One of the loveliest, funniest books I've ever read.

Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis - another book about women, but completely different from Cornelia and Emily's sunny adventures, this is a serious look at the lesbian subculture in pre-war Buffalo, New York.  Tough bar butches (some of whom cross-dressed), their femmes (some of whom had, or would, or were still dating men while being protected by their butches), strict gender roles but a surprising amount of freedom...this is a fascinating history of how one group of lesbians defied societal norms, police raids, familial disapproval, and everyday life in an industrial powerhouse to create as safe a world as they could.  

The Golden Age of Quackery, by Stewart H. Holbrook - Stewart Holbook is almost forgotten today, but this native of the Pacific Northwest was a prolific magazine writer and popular historian for over thirty years.  This book, a wry examination of the snake oil salesmen who sold Indian bitters, highly alcoholic cure-alls, and remedies for catarrh, "female complaints," and all varieties of consumption in the years before truth in packaging laws, is still entertaining and surprisingly current; sharp-eyed readers will spot plenty of similarities between the marketing of, say, Hadacol or Lydie E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound and whatever combination of herbs and vitamins someone touted on The View last week.

Of particular note, at least to me, was the section on the now-vanished nostrum called "Peruna."  My grandmother, a lifelong teetotaler, swore that two tablespoons and a nap were good for what ailed you, at least until my aunt picked up the bottle and noticed that it was 28% alcohol!  She tried to point this out, only to be met by a terse, "You don't know what you're talking about" as Grandma flounced out of the room, Peruna bottle in hand....

American Phoenix, by Sarah Skinner Kilborne - I freely admit that I have an ulterior motive in recommending this book.  William Skinner was a remarkable man who rose from the slums of Spitalfields to success in the United States, then had to do it all again at the age of 49 after a devastating flood destroyed his business and the village that had grown up around it, but that's not why I recommend it.  Nor am I telling you to read it because of the wonderful details of life in a mill village in the mid-19th century, or the family anecdotes about William Skinner and his children, or even the story of the silk industry in the United States.

No, the reason I read and enjoyed this book so much is because I lead tours at the Skinner mansion, Wistariahurst, on the weekends.  The house, a 20 room Victorian mansion with a mansard roof and gorgeous woodwork, survived the flood that forced the Skinners to relocate to Holyoke from Williamsburg, and has been the jewel of Holyoke ever since.  Knowing the story of the family has only made my tours better, and I invite any and all Kossacks who are in Western Massachusetts to come on down for a tour some Sunday afternoon.

The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance by Joscelyn Godwin - I've always been interested in what Dame Francis Yates called "the underground stream" of esotericism and barely disguised paganism in European culture of the Renaissance and early Baroque.  Godwin, originally trained as a musicologist, is an expert on this fascinating but little-known subject, and this lavishly illustrated volume is a treat for the eyes and the mind.

Godwin also translated a strange, dense, and extremely influential book, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili:  The Strife of Love in a Dream, an early Renaissance novel that is part dream narrative, part courtly romance, part architectural inspiration and archive.  Godwin's done his best to make the deliberately opaque text comprehensible to modern readers, and I can't  recommend  his work highly enough.

The Knights Next Door, by Patrick K. O'Donnell - as faithful readers of these diaries know, I'm a long-time member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a re-creation/re-enactment group that's devoted to "the Middle Ages as they should have been, not as they were."  O'Donnell, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, first became enamored of medieval re-enactment on an assignment, then went on to join the SCA as an embedded reporter to see exactly why ordinary people would want to devote so much time and effort to researching and living in a version of the past.

The answer to that question is only part of this book, which also follows a fighter named Valheric in his quest to become a king, a knight, and ultimately a better man; British groups such as the Ermine Street Guard and Regia Anglorum; serious live action roleplayers like Dagorlad who also dip into the SCA; and the conundrum of how to honor the past while still living in the modern age.

Wonderful Blood, by Carol Walker Bynum - Bynum's book, which I picked up at the Kalamazoo Medieval Studies Congress a few years ago and read on the plane home, is a scrupulously researched, somewhat dry, but nonetheless fascinating examination of the eucharistic blood miracles of medieval Germany.  These tales of bleeding Hosts, usually involving perfidious Jews who stole and then damaged the consecrated wafers out of their blasphemous hatred of Jesus, all too often resulted in violent pogroms against the local Jewish populations.

Bynum concentrates on the blood miracles of Wilsnack, a now-obscure German town that was once a pilgrimage center that rivaled Compostela and Canterbury in the medieval Catholic world, as well as remarkably similar if less popular cults in other towns.  Seeing the relics of the cult (if not the actual miraculous Hosts, which were destroyed during the Reformation) is not a look into the past, but a chilling reminder the European anti-Semitism had very, very deep roots, and that the blending of hatred and faith is a poisonous brew indeed.


Do you have a favorite history book?  A favorite memoir?  Have you used Beauty Clay?  Ever been to Wilsnack?  Ever mistaken the name "Wilsnack" for a brand of junk food?  Did you grow up in Western Pennsylvania?  Now's the time to 'fess up and pass the talking stick to the next person....


Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
2:00 PM What's on Your E-Reader? Caedy
2:00 PM Bibliophile's Wish List Caedy
4:00 PM Political Books Susan from 29
Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery michelewln, Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM All Things Bookstore Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
alternate Thursdays (on hiatus) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
alternate Fridays 8:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht
Fri 10:00 PM Slightly Foxed -- But Still Desirable shortfinals
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 12:00 PM You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews pwoodford
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Feb 15, 2014 at 06:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Have heard about the "Sundown Towns" one (18+ / 0-)

    will have to add it to my frighteningly large "to-read" stack.

    I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his payroll. - Edna St. Vincent Millay

    by Tara the Antisocial Social Worker on Sat Feb 15, 2014 at 06:04:33 PM PST

    •  It's really good, but harrowing (14+ / 0-)

      Seriously.  It's one of those ones that needs to be read in small bites because you'll be so very, very angry.

      This isn't freedom. This is fear - Captain America

      by Ellid on Sat Feb 15, 2014 at 06:11:32 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I've heard about it, haven't read it, but (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        llywrch, Ahianne, RiveroftheWest

        have seen enough summaries and excerpts to get the gist.

        It really brings out the irony in the last verse of Randy Newman's "Rednecks"

        Now your northern nigger's a Negro
        You see he's got his dignity
        Down here we're too ignorant to realize
        That the North has set the nigger free
        Yes he's free to be put in a cage
        In Harlem in New York City
        And he's free to be put in a cage in the South-Side of Chicago
        And the West-Side
        And he's free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
        And he's free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
        And he's free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco
        And he's free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston
        They're gatherin' 'em up from miles around
        Keepin' the niggers down

        We're rednecks, we're rednecks
        We don't know our ass from a hole in the ground
        We're rednecks, we're rednecks
        And we're keeping the niggers down
        We are keeping the niggers down

        "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

        by xaxnar on Sun Feb 16, 2014 at 06:38:41 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Not sure if it was Sea Girt or Sea Bright NJ (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest, Ahianne

      And don't know if this is mentioned in the book, but the story was mentioned in a history of the Ku Klux Klan I read years ago.  In the early 1920's the Klan won the local elections, so the cops and the mayor were all Klansmen.  In 1924 the Democratic convention went 104 ballots after they were split down the middle on whether to condemn the Klan by name.  Al Smith wanted the Klan condemned by name, William Gibbs MacAdoo did not.  Wall Street lawyer John W. Davis got the nomination by default after 104 ballots.  He was advised to keep his mouth shut about the Klan.

      Either Sea Girt or Sea Bright (I'm thinking Sea Bright) had one of those signs on the edge of town and 2 blacks in a model T ignored it and drove into town, where they were stopped by a Klan-cop and a mob gathered and they were lynched with the connivance of the Klan police.  The next day John W. Davis was to give a speech in nearby Asbury Park and he was so outraged at the lynching he tore up his speech and delivered a strong condemnation of the Klan.  His angry  handlers said he just lost any chance of being elected President but Davis said he didn't care.  The Republican convention, and their candidate Calvin Coolidge - both maintained their silence about the Klan and tacitly accepted Klan endorsement.

      "Corporations exist not for themselves, but for the people." Ida Tarbell 1908.

      by Navy Vet Terp on Sun Feb 16, 2014 at 03:14:37 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I first read Cornelia Otis Skinner,at thirteen, (14+ / 0-)

    when I ran across 'Madame Sarah'.Later,I picked up my own
    copy of that, and 'Family Circle'.Have you read either? So

    Conservatism is killing this country. Jayden

    by swampyankee on Sat Feb 15, 2014 at 06:14:00 PM PST

  •  Lydia Pinkham (15+ / 0-)

    When my Dad was pastor of a small rural parish in southeastern Wisconsin, (about 30 miles from where we live now, in fact), the church property had a good-sized chunk of wilderness which my Mom set about, little by little, turning into a garden.  One year, in cleaning out one corner of the area, we found an old rubbish pile with several old glass bottles in it.  They had no labels, the name of the product was molded into the glass.  One of them was for Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound.  The other, intriguingly enough, was labeled: "Magnetic Oil for PAIN."

    But speaking of historical novels, I'm currently working my way through Umberto Eco's Baudolino, the adventures of an engaging young liar living in the 12th Century who becomes the confidante of Frederick Barbarossa and whose life-long quest is to find the Kingdom of Prester John.  There are places where it seems like Eco is going out of his way to insert all the cool stuff he's found in his research, but as it's all interesting, I can forgive him

    Read my webcomic, "Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine" at

    by quarkstomper on Sat Feb 15, 2014 at 06:25:21 PM PST

  •  I was at Penn State that year (12+ / 0-)

    but to be fair, I don't remember PSU's main campus NOT having huge amounts of snow every year.

    Loved the Skinner. Lost my copy decades ago, but it's definitely one I'd get and reread if I find it in a used bookstore.

    English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education - sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across the street. E. B. White

    by Youffraita on Sat Feb 15, 2014 at 06:44:46 PM PST

  •  I must read ( among others) the SCA book.... (11+ / 0-)

    My son was a member, and I often took my young daughter to events, as well. Wonderful memories!
     My son of course was always in character, but my daughter and I dressed for the events as well.It made it all much more fun and interesting.
    An excellent organization. My son made some of his best friends there, a very fine group of people.

  •  The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is quite a book. (9+ / 0-)

    I have Godwin's translation and also a facsimile of the first edition, Venice 1499. There's been endless controversy over the identity of its author.

    A few years ago there was a novel "The Rule of Four" by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason centred on the "Hypnerotomachia".

    We're shocked by a naked nipple, but not by naked aggression.

    by Lepanto on Sat Feb 15, 2014 at 07:23:39 PM PST

  •  I've read a lot of history ... (12+ / 0-)

    ... but not all that many where I felt that the book was as important as the story it told.

    Barbara Tuchman's Guns of August and A Distant Mirror were two exceptions. It also took years of growth before I appreciated the true qualities of Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, beyond the grim story it told.

    I'm afraid to say that I hated Plutarch -- actually I'm not afraid at all, but I'm still resentful that my experience with that thing delayed me reading the brilliant Herodotus or the even more brilliant Thucydides.

    One odd and surprising discovery was Jean de Sismondi's single-volume History of the Italian Republics. The translation I read was vivid and exciting, despite lapses of over-romanticizing on the author's part.

    A few months later, I stumbled on a book by Ashley Cherry-Girard called The Worst Journey In The World, about the fatal Scott Expedition to Antarctica and the South Pole from his point of view as a junior officer.

    It contains a certain amount of Imperial B.S. and appallingly bad science, but the imagery and sense of being in that dreadful place is pure communication. Doris Lessing herself explicitly used it as a model for one of her S-F novels in the mid-80's.

    Millions of us – the majority – must come together to insist that President Obama and the Democrats stand up and fight for the things we sent them there to do ... Michael Moore

    by MT Spaces on Sat Feb 15, 2014 at 09:29:37 PM PST

  •  "Sarum" by Edward Rutherfurd. (8+ / 0-)

    A well-crafted novel of the history of England, from the Ice Age to modern times.

    Sarum is an early name for the place that anchors the book -- present-day Salisbury.

    I have rarely been so engrossed in a book, or so sorry when the story ended. I read it years ago, but it made a huge impression on me. When I finally was able to visit Stonehenge, and Salisbury and its cathedral, I felt like I was walking through the pages of Sarum.

    The book has the panoramic sweep of a James Michener novel -- but it's better written. Anglophiles and British history buffs should search it out, if they've not read it.

  •  Anything by Srewart Holbrook is worth a read (6+ / 0-)

    The man deserves a diary both about his writings -- one of the most memorable books I read as a teenager was his Dreamers of the American Dream -- & about his life, as a logger-turned-author. (The man knew more about pre-Prohibition bars, life in the Deep Woods, & the Wobblies at first hand than most history professors from endless reading. and who probably read his writings on the sly.)

    A good introductory collection of his writings is Wildmen, Wobblies, & Whistle Punks -- which according to Amazon is still in print. It contains a generous selection of his shorter articles, of which the two best known subjects are the following:

    * "The Affair at Copperfield" -- how Governor Oswald West cleaned up one of the most lawless & corrupt communities of the Old West by sending his secretary, Miss Fern Hobbes, to close it down. And she did. (The impatient can learn the outline of the tale from the Wikipedia article on Copperfield.)

    *"Opal the Understanding Heart" -- the story of a woman who grew up in a series of Lumber Camps (that's a step down from the reviled company town of the times in terms both of social & economic status), yet claimed that as a child she wrote a diary full of child-like wonder & fantasies that became one of the best-sellers of the early 1920s. And probably qualifies as a "book so bad it's good" candidate. As for Opal the woman... well, Holbrook doesn't say it this way (I doubt Carrie Brownstein or Fred Armisen were even born when Holbrook died), but she was very Portlandia long, long before Portland was ever Portlandia. (I think even Reed College was respectable in those days.) Holbrook ends her subsequent history with the report of Opal in distant India, passing herself off as a member of the House of Bourbon-Orleans. (According to the Wikipedia article, she spent her last days in a London asylum known as "the Princess".) Her book, Opal: the Diary of an Understanding Heart is also in print for the curious.

    And Holbrook has written countless more tales of other people just as eccentric or unusual, some of whom don't live in the Pacific Northwest.

    •  Opal Whitley? (6+ / 0-)

      I've heard of her but haven't really considered her for a diary because I have a rule against featuring child authors.  They're only kids, after all, and as tempting as it is to cream the likes of Ally Sheedy's She Was Nice to Mice, her youth gives her a pass.

      OTOH, if Whiteley was still involved in various shenanigans as an adult....

      This isn't freedom. This is fear - Captain America

      by Ellid on Sun Feb 16, 2014 at 04:27:52 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  There's question about when she wrote the diary (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        As early as when the book was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly, some doubted this was the actual writings of a child, due to word choices & other elements of style. (The editor of the Cottage Grove newspaper spent an incredible amount of effort investigating her story & found sufficient evidence to support the claim she wrote the book as an adult. On the other hand, she has her advocates who insist a little too passionately the book was the work of a child.

        (Disclosure here: I haven't read this book, although I encounter essays about Opal in the local press from time to time. She still gets far more attention than, say, Fern Hobbes.)

        Holbrook's point in writing the article was simply to tell the story of an odd, yet memorable, individual. Opal might have been an eccentric who presented symptoms of mental illness, but she caused far less harm to others than some individuals mentioned here at DKos.

    •  I love Stewart Holbrook; he's the Real Thing. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      llywrch, Ahianne

      He seemed to know endless stories of the interesting people and places in the Northwest, and wrote about them in a most readable way. I don't think I ever heard of him before moving north to Oregon in 1961, but he was a prolific writer and well worth reading.

      There was an interesting group in Portland about twenty years ago, whose name I unfortunately can't bring to mind; they made noble efforts to preserve the work of some of Oregon's lesser-known writers, poets and feminists -- I recall two early female photographers who worked together and were ranked quite highly for their pioneering work. The eccentric Opal Whitley was among writers those whose work was featured by the group.

      •  I used to read Holbrook's articles (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest, llywrch

        in American Heritage.  Excellent writer, deserves to be better remembered.

        This isn't freedom. This is fear - Captain America

        by Ellid on Sun Feb 16, 2014 at 03:14:43 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Are you thinking of Walt Curtis? (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest, Ahianne

        He's a Portland street poet best known for his semi-autobiographical novella "Mala Noche". (And playing himself in Penny Allen's indie movie "Property")

        Back in the 1980s, he advocated for the lesser-known Oregon writers. Well, when you consider the list of well-known authors from before WWII basically begins & ends with Harold L. Davis -- who won the Pulitzer in 1936 -- he was promoting almost everyone who lived in Oregon & wrote then. Some deserve to be better known, like Stewart Holbrook (& the poet Hazel Hall). Some deserve to be forgotten: Frederic Homer Balch's Bridge of the Gods, a 19th century example of White Americans retelling traditional Native American folklore, I understand is unreadable.

        But Walt spent a few years of his life trying to preserve their legacy & memory, & not a few locals know of these writers either directly or indirectly due to his efforts back then.

        •  Thank you! Yes, Walt Curtis was one of the group. (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Sharon Wraight, Ahianne, llywrch

          I met a few others too but unfortunately it's been too long. Walt was one of the group who came to The Dalles to dedicate a marker at Davis's home, which still stands; there was a reception at the Museum afterwards.

          Frederic Homer Balch's work is old-fashioned and out of favor, though from what I've read his interest in learning and preserving Native American stories and legend was quite sincere. I don't find him unreadable at all, but I probably have more interest than most in old "historical fiction."

          Walt and a few others (I can't recall the name of their organization either) worked very hard to retrieve and preserve from obscurity the work of some of Oregon's pioneer writers. I appreciate their efforts. Thank you for refreshing my memory!

        •  Frederic Homer he worthy of a diary? (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          This isn't freedom. This is fear - Captain America

          by Ellid on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 03:32:15 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Based simply on his writing, perhaps so. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            It simply isn't what people want to read now. But from what I remember (I read a couple of his books 25 or 30 years ago, and I've forgotten a lot) he had an obsession with the stories of the Native Americans of the Columbia Gorge, and spent quite a bit of time learning about them.

            I consider him a tragic figure, based just on what he wrote, especially in his book Ginevra or Genevieve, in which he renounced the love of a girl for religious reasons, and then when she died very young it fell to him to officiate at her funeral -- by which time, of course, he realized that he'd never love anyone else. True, so far as I know. He died of TB at thirty.

          •  Based on what I've read... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            (Which I have to qualify the following because what with all the other things I could read, I never really had the desire to even open the book. Hey, I've read Spencer's Faerie Queene; I've paid my dues for my Bachelor's in English.)

            Balch's Bridge of the Gods has been compared to Cooper's Last of the Mohicans because of its ponderous & wordy narrative. And probably share a common romanticized White man's view of Native American history. But where Cooper actually has an entertaining story in his novel -- the movies based on his book have all been successes, to the best of my knowledge -- there is no such tale inside Balch's book.

            My impression is that people buy Balch's book at the usual NW gift shops, & end up decorating their bookshelves with it. No one except for the unfortunate graduate student in need of a subject for her/his thesis manages to get past the first few pages.

  •  Favorite History Book (6+ / 0-)

    "A World Lit Only by Fire" by William Manchester

    It tells about the 1400s to about 1520, including Martin Luther, the Borgia Popes, Henry VIII, Columbus, and ends with Magellan.

    It's told with an eye to what it might have been like to be a peasant, a courtier, etc, and how eccentric the various historical characters were.

    After my wife (a Catholic) read it, she said "Now I understand why there are Protestants".

    I have read it twice, and will do a third time sometime.

  •  Lempriere's Dictionary (4+ / 0-)

    It's a novel, by Laurence Norfolk, and people need to know it's a novel, and a very particularly exacting form of postmodernism, but there is a great deal of history in there. I recommend it, myself, over An Instance of the Finger Post, which had too much modern preconception in it. Similarly, Neil Stephenson's The System of the World first volume has exceptionally vivid descriptions of what Restoration London would have been like and a good explanation of Newton, but its interloping rogue and courtesan are just too irritating, and they become the books. (Norfolk's The Pope's Rhinoceros has adolescent distortions in it, in my view, and too much projection overlain on the history.)

    For best memoir, though, and view of history, I have to do a separate comment.

    Everyone's innocent of some crime.

    by The Geogre on Sun Feb 16, 2014 at 05:52:47 AM PST

  •  Stop Time, Frank Conroy (5+ / 0-)

    It's an amazing, lucid, and elegant memoir. I'm glad to see that it's still in print and for sale. I had a high school teacher tell me about the novel as one of the greatest things she'd ever read -- the same one who gave me her copy of Franny and Zoey.

    For history writing, I think Rising Tide is kind of amazing.

    Everyone's innocent of some crime.

    by The Geogre on Sun Feb 16, 2014 at 05:56:26 AM PST

  •  Railroads in the African American Experience (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    llywrch, Ahianne, Livvy5, RiveroftheWest

    "A Photographic Journey" by Theodore Kornweibel is a fascinating book. It covers the history of railroads in America from the earliest lines up to the present and how that history is linked to African Americans in ways that have not  gotten such a detailed examination till now.

    Some of it's pretty harrowing: the lines in the south where they used immigrant labor to build them instead of slaves - because the mortality rate from disease was too high to waste such valuable property on; the heavy racism in the labor movement that kept blacks out of certain jobs; the Jim Crow cars that forced black passengers to ride in dangerous conditions.

    On the other hand, there was the creation of the black middle class through the jobs they were able to get. The  railroads became an escape route from the southern states after the Civil War, and part of black culture. The book  concludes in the modern era, where the railroads - now much diminished - still are a place where African Americans make a living.

    The book has many photographs; rail fans will enjoy the book for those alone. Kornweibel notes that some modern railroads are still reluctant to acknowledge that lines they use today were originally built with slave labor. It's a window on a part of American history most of us have probably never even suspected existed. It's a tour de force of history, and not a book that can be exhausted at one sitting.

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Sun Feb 16, 2014 at 07:07:08 AM PST

  •  For something different, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Geogre, RiveroftheWest

    try 1923: A Memoir: Lies and Testaments by Harry Leslie Smith. I ran into the author on a Guardian comment thread, liked his writing enough to look up who he was, and found this book and the two sequels. It really gives an insight into growing up on the bottom rungs of the English cultural ladder. It's expensive as a paperback, but cheap on Kindle.
    One of the best memoirs I've read.

    "The 'Middle' is a crowded place - that is where the effective power is - the extreme right and left might annoy governments, but the middle terrifies them." Johnny Linehan

    by northsylvania on Sun Feb 16, 2014 at 10:10:16 AM PST

  •  I live in southern Ohio, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ..about as far away from Cleveland as it's possible to get and still be in the same state. Still, for me part of the pleasure of reading The Knights Next Door was the frequent mention of friends and acquaintances.

    Also read Our Hearts Were Young and Gay in my teens, and I think several others by Skinner, though I can't recall titles offhand.

    Cogito, ergo Democrata.

    by Ahianne on Sun Feb 16, 2014 at 10:42:33 AM PST

  •  My dad worked for a company (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, Ahianne

    That had once been the largest Real estate firm inside Chicago. While working there in the Seventies, he found a file with letters and other documents relating to how the firm's owners had decided around 1900 that it would be "best for all concerned" to sell homes to people in the African American community only on the far South side of Chicago.

    There was also at least one article in a Chicago newspaper, circa late 1970's,  about how people moving into newer residential areas of Downers Grove were parking their cars in the street overnight, only to find them fallen into deep trenches that buried the cars by the next morning!

    On researching the problem, someone discovered that in the area that is now Downers Grove, there had been several farmers who had been part of the Underground Railroad before the  Civil War, and they had dug out extensive trenches and tunnels. The farmers reasoned that these tunnels would prevent   escaping African Americans from being detected by vigilante posses who would capture the people and take them back South were they could be sold once again into a life of slavery.

  •  Favorite history book... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, Ahianne

    I have been reading mostly history for entertainment for the last fifteen years or so. Here are a few that stand out in my memory.

    The last one that I read was Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (the Robinson Crusoe guy). It is a fictional account of the last great plague in London, which happened some 50 years before. It gives great insight into daily life in London in the 17th Century.

    Gibbon is great fun to read. His rather snarky take on the ongoing religious disputes in the Byzantine Empire are hilarious.

    Anabasis by Xenophon. This is his memoir of accompanying a group of Greek mercenaries on an expedition in Persia. They were hired by a claimant to the throne who wanted to oust his brother. They were rolling over the Persian army when their prince challenged his brother to a duel and lost. Oops- no more war and no one wanted the Greeks around any more. The king invited the Greek officers to dinner to discuss options and had them all killed. Xenophon was just a kid, but he was noble, so he took command. Getting home is one of the most amazing adventure stories ever.

    The Secret History by Procopius. Imagine Rush Limbaugh working in the White House in the 1990s and writing down all the things about the Clintons that he couldn't say in public. Lies, innuendo, sex, slander, more sex, betrayal, and sex. Justinian and Theodora emerge as fascinating characters (Procopius was a minor noble who was appalled that these two commoners have taken over the empire). Even better than Suetonius, although he had less to work with.

    Commentaries on the Gallic War by Julius Caesar. Somebody up above dissed Plutarch. Read what JC said about himself and then read Plutarch. JC has a modern sensibility while Plutarch is full of omens and mystical crap. 400 years of decline in scholarship and style is evident.

    The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin by ibn Shaddad, a personal remembrance by one of his closest advisors. This is one case where the good guys won. And no, it was not our side.

  •  A few of my favs from 40+ years of reading history (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, Ahianne

    The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro.  This was required reading in an urban planning class I took as an undergrad in architecture.  Fascinating study of how Robert Moses shaped NY City in the 40s and 50s.  If you've ever driven on the BQE, thank him.  Another NYC history is
    Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante.  Basically a description of street life in lower Manhatten from about 1840 thru WW1, including all the cons and scams of the day.
    Speaking of WW1,  three books are among my favs: the aforementioned Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, Somme by Lyn Macdonald, and The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Sir Alastair Horne.  Somme is a description from the British soldier's point of view of the 1916 Somme campaign.  Horne's book is a more of a classic narrative from the commander's POV.  Both books describe battles that were, well, horrific.  The essence of WW1.
    After you finish those, try The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham.   Not only an excellent history of the Boer war (with the introduction of concentration camps and smokeless gun powder), but also provides some insight on the early careers of some of the WW1 British commanders (French, Haig).
    OK, last military history book: Dispatches by Michael Kerr.   Best book, IMO, of the Vietnam experience. Just read it.
    Staying in the WW1 time period,  try The Great Influenza by John Barry.  It's really a story of both the 1918 flu and the state of medicine at the time.  If you can, get the paperback version, as the Afterward section differs from the hardcover and has some pretty interesting info regarding our (United States) readiness to combat another pandemic.
    And finally, Accidental Empires by Robert X. Cringely.  A somewhat snarky book of anecdotes about the evolution of the computer industry.  The description of the investigation of bad chip yields at Intel in the 1980s being caused by a clerk  counting silicon wafers as they arrived from Monsanto (they gotta be dust free and he was counting them on his desk) is classic.

    Hope these help!

  •  Thanks so much for the suggestions! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, casey570, Ahianne

    I'm especially interested in checking out the James Loewen books.

    •  I can't recommend Loewen enough (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ahianne, RiveroftheWest

      Lies My Teacher Told Me, Lies Across America, Sundown Towns, and The Confederate and Neoconfederate Reader are real eye-openers.

      This isn't freedom. This is fear - Captain America

      by Ellid on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 03:33:56 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

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