Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ian Williams' "Rum: A Social and Sociable History"

While there is nothing original about the commodity history, there have been dozens of book in the last decade that chronicle the fate of just one commodity in history, Rum is a particularly fun spin on the genre and has the added benefit of providing some little known facts about the history of this delicious libation. One distinct advantage that Rum has over other books in its genre is its subject matter tends to be connected to more colorful historical incidents and characters than other commodity books have dealt with (Salt, by Mark Kurlansky, leaps to mind with its interminable chapter on Gandhi.)
Rum charts the history of the spirit from its invention to the present and all throughout presents the standard thesis of the commodity book, "man, Rum sure was important at many different times and places." What is nice is that in this case the thesis has the virtue of actually being valid. It seems that without the high demand for sugar, most of it in the form of rum, the slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean Islands would never have reached its height, and the histories of at least two continents would be very different today.
Williams also places rum in its proper place in American history, as perhaps the most distinctly American spirit. While whiskey, particularly bourbon, may have surpassed rum in the modern mind as the American liquor of choice, it was rum that was quite literally the "Spirit of '76" when America's founders were known for quaffing the stuff quite liberally.
Rum is exactly the kind of history that most people want to read, straddling the line between gossip (Washington had an entire cellar for storing his rum?) and hard history. At the same time it shares the flaw of almost all commodity histories in that it often tries to overstate its own case for the distinctive importance of its subject, which can mean that it loses some of the power it might have had. If anything rum provides an entertaining foray into a little known branch of history, that shouldn't be missed.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Sudhir Venkatesh's "Gang Leader for a Day"

If you've ever wondered what it's like to deal crack cocaine on the Southside of Chicago, this is the book for you. For most people the war on drugs is a pretty remote reality. Newspaper articles and T.V. reports come and go, but none of these ever really communicate what the drug economy is actually like, or indeed what the lives of dealers and users consist of. In what can only be described as a suicide mission into gang culture Venkatesh successfully infiltrates and gains the trust of a number of crack dealers all with the goal of documenting what live in the projects is really like. While he had already written several academic books on his research, Gang Leader for a Day represents his first effort writing for the general public, and it is a complete success.
Venkatesh has an uncanny understanding of what kinds of questions people have about gangs and he is very good throughout the book of explaining not only how a gang operates but what the internal structure is like, as well as depicting the home live of the average gangster. What the reader sees in Venkatesh's book is perhaps one of the few honest attempts at describing America's ghettos, one that doesn't villify or lionize the residents, or indeed the government and police force, but instead tries to describe the often complex relationships between gangs, government and civilians.
Gang Leader is a quick read, but requires a fair amount of attention as it contains a lot of research and meaty details. It does drag in some places though, as the author sometimes takes digressions into memoir and self-analysis that are less interesting than his descriptions of gang life. This lapses are easily outweighed by the general quality of the book and its fascinating subject.

Gore Vidal's "Narratives of Empire"

It's probably not really necessary to encourage people to read Gore Vidal, seeing as he is already a best-selling author and has wide critical acclaim, but it is probably worthwhile to talk about Vidal's Narratives of Empire as a unit, and say that anyone with a genuine interest in U.S. history or politics should think about reading or re-reading them. From 1967 to 2000 Vidal worked on and off on writing a history of the United States from 1836 to the 1950s (With a coda that takes place in the year 2000.) Over 7 books Vidal traces America's path from fledgling nation to burgeoning power to hegemonic superpower, introducing many of America's most important historical figures along the way. This is, of course, a terrible way of introducing the books as it makes them sound like the same dry textbook you read in high school, when in reality not only does Vidal bring a great deal of literary flair to American history, but he also presents the sainted men of America's past in a radically different light.
The real genius of Vidal's historical fiction is that he avoids focusing the books on his creations and instead uses them as a way to listen in on the dining room conversations of Presidents and Senators. There is a certain voyeuristic thrill in the way that Vidal relays these conversations, that while apocryphal, often ring true to historical fact. Vidal revels in telling us the secrets of President's private lives and at times the drama rivals any televised serial. At the same time Vidal never sacrifices his overall agenda which is to show the degree to which America has always been a nation controlled by Washington insiders who tended to have imperial aspirations. While this particular reading of history may turn some people off Vidal's own politics are never overt enough to make the books feel like a polemic, rather the overall message is more a theme that keeps reasserting itself throughout the books.
Of the seven Burr and Lincoln are probably the two essential reads. Burr is probably the best written and indeed has the most interesting cast of characters to work with. While some of the other books focus on historical figures that are less familiar to most people, Burr follows the lives of America's founders, of course highlighting Aaron Burr as well as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, and in part revising their respective roles in early America. Lincoln is also fascinating, if perhaps a little less shocking, but still is probably as interesting as any pure biography you could read about Possibly America's greatest president.
The other five, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington, D.C. and The Golden Age are all worth reading especially considering the fact that all the books contain the same family of protagonists, giving the series the feel of a sweeping Russian novel covering the ebb and flow of generations. The only real let down is that Washington, D.C. and The Golden Age cover mostly the same period of time, and the resultant overlapping of story lines is slightly distracting. Perhaps somewhere done the line an ambitious editor will combine these two into a single novel and give the series a little more finality. Otherwise the experience of reading all seven is exciting from beginning to end, and has the benefit of making one revisit their previous knowledge and assumptions about American history.