Freedom Journey: Black Civil War Soldiers and the Hills Community, Westchester County, New York
More and more localized histories are being written about the Civil War. Focusing on either particular regiments, or even specific communities, as this book does. It brings this great conflict down to a more local level than it has before. This book examines the role that the black Civil War soldiers of The Hills community in Westchester County, New York, played during the conflict. It first takes a look at how people came to settle in The Hills, how they lived, and what they did. The next part examines in detail the three regiments the men from this community joined and what those three regiments did, and how they fared during the Civil War and after the Civil War. From the one regiment that actually got into combat, while the other two suffered through occupation and fatigue duty. The final part looks at the aftermath, and the decline of The Hills community after the Civil War; and its eventual disappearance.
The writing in this book is uneven. It starts off fairly strong, but slowly it does not get better. The author goes into to much conjecture, and rhetorical questions that just distract from the overall narrative; especially in the middle portion.
Edythe Ann Quinn
The Ancient Near East, Greece and Rome, A Brief History
When it comes to reading textbooks or primers on particular subjects, the key really is that the writing keep the reader’s interest, otherwise their mind is likely to wander and/or become bored with the subject matter they are reading about. Thankfully, Jack L. Schwartzwald’s brief history on the ancient Near East, Greece and Rome has an interesting and engaging voice that grabs the reader’s attention right from the beginning and keeps them going for the whole book.
This “brief history” is still a good 190-odd pages of informational text, along with an extensive bibliography and thorough index, giving the reader quick references at their fingertips. For those readers looking to read it cover to cover, the book is divided into three chapters: “The Cradle of Civilization: The Ancient Near East,’ “The Cradle of Western Civilization: Ancient Greece,” and “The Cradle of the Nation-State: Ancient Rome.” While it seems like heavy reading to digest the entire book with just three chapter breaks, especially on this none-too-easy subject, each chapter is subdivided into sections with titles to allow for breaks and digestion of the material. The shortest chapter is the first one at 30 pages, which is sad, because it is such an import period in history that lead to the foundation and creation of so much that came after, nevertheless it is clear that while Schwartzwald knows plenty about the ancient Near East, it is ancient Greece and Rome where he dedicates his true knowledge.
The history telling is straightforward, with lots of names and dates throughout the text, as the author lays out the history and events and happenings in succinct paragraphs. There is not a lot of discussion or synthesis here, as this is a “brief history” after all and nothing more. Schwartzwald is giving you the quick history of these times and places so that you can speedily digest and understand it. If you are looking for further, deeper material, that is what the bibliography is for. But in this way the book also serves as an excellent reference tool, along with the index, so that if the reader is tackling something in depth, but wants a quick refresher on a specific period in the ancient Near East, Greece or Rome, this book does the job well.
What is perhaps surprising about the book is that it is all text, with not a single picture, table, graphic, or depiction of a graphic source. While, again, it is a “brief history” and meant for a quick and thorough reading of the time period, one would expect maybe a photo or two, a Roman statue or Greek piece of architecture, or even Hammurabi’s code of laws; something to break up the text and help make it all the more real for the reader. Nevertheless, the book does its job of providing a “brief history” of the ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome, where the reader will not become lost and overwhelmed by too much, but able to digest everything in titled sections. It is an ideal book for someone taking an ancient history class and looking to get a feel for the history they are about to learn about or for the average reader wanting to learn more about the period, but not having to absorb a heavy and overwhelming tome. The people, dates, and events in the book are all laid out in chronological order, allowing the reader to take it all in swiftly and comprehensively.
ClanDonnell: A Storied History of Ireland
David McDonnell tells Ireland’s history through a unique lens, tracing the history of the original Clan Donnell (Donald in Scotland) and offshoot clans (McDonnells, McDonalds, O’Donnells, etc.) that dominated the Hebrides Islands, Highland Scotland, and much of Ireland, until the English subjugated the island in the 17th century.
McDonnell has a story-teller’s voice, though his richly textured and layered 900-plus-page book is factual. Familiar historic figures star in this story, but the author shows a Donnell, a Donald, or a McDonnell on the scene at every turn, including “The Troubles” of the 1900s. It’s a mesmerizing book that feels like a personal journey through Ireland’s history.
In the Clan Era, there was much travel between Scotland and what was Ireland at that time: not a nation, but an amalgam of small kingdoms headed by clan leaders chosen by their clan members and associated clans. The McDonnell clan was predominant in the north but migrated south as well. “Redshanks” and “Gallowglass warriors” (well-trained Scots mercenaries loyal to McDonnell clan in Northern Ireland) could be rented out to other clans in both places, which gave the McDonnells more power and land for their clans. (The English were terrified of these warriors.)
Early Scots who immigrated assimilated easily into the Irish clans. Viking invasions of the 8th and 10th centuries also assimilated into Celtic clans. The Celtic clan culture worked for more than a thousand years, and author McDonnell raises a good question: Who really is Irish? Ireland was invaded over centuries by many different groups — all of whom wove themselves into the culture and became part of the Ireland we know today.
A clan leader’s first concern was to provide what was best for the clan. That changed with the Norman and English invasions in the late 12th century. Clan leaders who made peace with the invaders became earls instead; their clan members became tenants. Later, English colonizers turned this to their own advantage: when these Irish earls were recalcitrant, they were replaced with English landlords, most of them absentee landlords. The subjugation of Ireland became complete under Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, James I (who encouraged Protestants from the Scottish lowlands to immigrate into what is now Ulster), and Cromwell, whose system of forfeiture reduced most Irish to subsistence or homelessness long before the potato blight of the 1840s. James I and Cromwell set the scenes for “The Hunger” and Diaspora of the 1840s, and the horrendous “Troubles” in the 20th century. At every event in this absorbing book, one meets a McDonnell or two — some on one side, some on the other. There were McDonnell landlords and earls, McDonnell members of the IRA. Some fought for England in WWI.
As promised, McDonnell doesn’t litter pages with footnotes, claiming they make for a tedious read. I do think the book could have benefitted from appendices in the back with more timelines and maps. An index would have been helpful, too. I had to do a lot of re-reading and page-turning to keep track of events. That said, this is a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in Irish history.
Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure
Sweetest Day, Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Graduations, Weddings, Birthdays all are celebrated with candy. Candy is so ubiquitous that it lurks in our vending machines, ready for purchase any time one needs to satisfy the cravings of a sweet tooth. It is used to celebrate friendship, love, or job well done. It is so much a part of not only our diet, but also our culture that it is difficult to imagine life without the sweet decadent candy.
Part personal memoir and part history of candy, this book traces the origins and development of candy – both chocolate and non-chocolate – primarily in the United States. It starts with the Native American Indians who needed the sugary treats as a means of nourishment and survival to the early twenty first century where it is intertwined with American popular culture (imagine Halloween without candy).
The historical narrative is chronological, easy to read and filled with factoids that would delight readers interested in historical trivia. The historical narrative sometimes digresses to vignettes of incidents from the author’s life. While how connected these incidents are to the overall narrative is questionable, these events do relate (at least peripherally) to candy. The text is adorned, rather than enhanced, by greyscale pictures. These pictures would benefit from a description, photo editing (some are low resolution, and others need to be rotated), and color. In one instance, the same low-res image is duplicated. Some of the websites in the reference are now dead links. This review is based on an advanced reading copy, not the released publication. The centerpiece of this book – the historical narrative – makes the book, despite its flaws, a worthwhile read.
Jewels of Allah
Is there any subject of which the average Westerner harbors more misconceptions and false assumptions than the role of the Middle Eastern woman? Dr. Nina Ansary tackles these misconceptions directly in her book Jewels of Allah, explaining that the history of women’s rights in Iran isn’t as simple as we assume. In fact, what is surprising is how women have found methods of liberation through their oppression. Two prominent examples are the mandated wearing of the hijab and the institution of single-sex education. Ansary explains that with the institutionalization of both the hijab and single-sex education, many conservative Muslim families felt more comfortable sending their daughters to school. Additionally, girls attending an all-girl school flourished more and were more comfortable voicing their opinions than they had been in the coeducational schools of the Pahlavi monarchy.
The Pahlavi era was one of rapid social progress. Too rapid, perhaps: Centuries of custom and tradition were ousted almost overnight, including the role of women. During the Persian centuries, women played a subordinate role, but with the advent of the Pahlavi era, women were allowed to hold political office, become lawyers, obtain divorces, and dress how they pleased. The hijab, however, was outlawed, and many Iranians believed the Pahlavi were mere puppets of the Western powers. In 1979 the pendulum of progress swung back with a vengeance, as the revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini ousted the Pahlavi regime and the era’s hard-won social progress. Women were once again forced to play a subordinate role. Yet as Ansary shows, there was and continues to be a thriving women’s rights movement despite the oppressive patriarchal laws and regulations. During the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, for instance, women filled many of the jobs left vacant by men fighting in the war, not unlike women during World War II. Ansary also cites the numerous women’s magazines and periodicals in post-revolutionary Iran as an impetus and outlet for women’s concerns, and devotes an entire chapter to the women’s magazine Zanan and its founder, Shahla Sherkat.
One of the most important revelations of the book is that there is not just one type of Iranian woman. Even within the progressive women’s movement there are differences. There are devout Muslim women who seek to reconcile and reinterpret the Koran more favorably for women, and there are also secular women who believe no such reconciliation is possible and work for a complete break with tradition, yet despite their differences both camps work together for the advancement of women’s rights. Nina Ansary’s book is a must-read for anyone hoping for a fuller understanding of the role of women and the women’s rights movement in Iran. It is a much-needed antidote to Western misconceptions
Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill
Rough Riders is not just another biography of Theodore Roosevelt as much as a biography of a rag tag group of men gathered out of a sense of patriotism to fight against a natural enemy, in this case, Spain. Teddy Roosevelt had a cross to bear as his father had skipped out on service in the Civil War, calls of entitlement had dogged him throughout the years. He became Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897, but would seek active service in the US Military as the country girded for war against Spain, especially after the sinking of the Maine in 1898. Roosevelt would become a Lt. Colonel in the First US Volunteer Cavalry that would set out for Cuba.The mass of volunteers would be hindered by the limited amount of space in the regiment. Colorful characters from NY all the way to Arizona would merge into a cohesive group that would face limited supplies, hazardous weather conditions, food-borne illness, and still manage to triumph in Cuba and defeat the Spaniards. Rough Riders is an examination of soldiers fighting for their country, led by an intrepid adventurer with something to prove. Teddy Roosevelt loved his country and longed to prove his mettle. His men loved him, his leadership wasn’t perfect, but he was effective and knew when to take chances. Mark Lee Gardner’s trip back into the turbulent 1890s conflict illustrates Roosevelt as a natural born leader who would be march from leadership of the Rough Riders to running the United States only 3 years later. It would be a stepping stone that he wouldn’t take for granted. A great, must read about a fascinating individual.