Tag Archives For: history

13 Jun, 2017

Book Versus Movie – How to Survive A Plague

/ posted in: Reading Book Versus Movie – How to Survive A Plague How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France
Published by Knopf on November 29th 2016
Genres: History, Nonfiction
Pages: 640
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Goodreads
Setting: New York

A riveting, powerful telling of the story of the grassroots movement of activists, many of them in a life-or-death struggle, who seized upon scientific research to help develop the drugs that turned HIV from a mostly fatal infection to a manageable disease. Ignored by public officials, religious leaders, and the nation at large, and confronted with shame and hatred, this small group of men and women chose to fight for their right to live by educating themselves and demanding to become full partners in the race for effective treatments. Around the globe, 16 million people are alive today thanks to their efforts.
In dramatic fashion, we witness the founding of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), and the rise of an underground drug market in opposition to the prohibitively expensive (and sometimes toxic) AZT. We watch as these activists learn to become their own researchers, lobbyists, drug smugglers, and clinicians, establishing their own newspapers, research journals, and laboratories, and as they go on to force reform in the nation s disease-fighting agencies.
With his unparalleled access to this community David France illuminates the lives of extraordinary characters, including the closeted Wall Street trader-turned-activist, the high school dropout who found purpose battling pharmaceutical giants in New York, the South African physician who helped establish the first officially recognized buyers club at the height of the epidemic, and the public relations executive fighting to save his own life for the sake of his young daughter.
Expansive yet richly detailed, this is an insider's account of a pivotal moment in the history of American civil rights. Powerful, heart-wrenching, and finally exhilarating, How to Survive a Plague is destined to become an essential part of the literature of AIDS.


Think back to a time not that long ago when:

  • The New York Times banned the use of the words gay and lesbian in the newspaper
  • Hospitals and funeral homes turned away people they suspected were infected with AIDS
  • Weekly meetings of gay activists included a list of names of people who had been at the last meeting and who had died since

This book tells the story of ACT UP.  This was a group founded to pressure scientists, politicians, and drug companies to increase the number of drugs being investigated for possible treatment for AIDS.

One of the main problems in the beginning, besides a lack of funding, was government scientists’ insistence on doing double-blind controlled studies.  They weren’t wrong from a science perspective.  These trials have patients in two groups.  One group gets the treatment and the other gets a placebo.  Neither the patient or the doctor knows who is in each group.  The problem was that people with AIDS were dying so quickly that being in a placebo group for a few months, especially if you were required to go off all other medication, was basically a death sentence.  There are stories of trials in this book where all the placebo group died in the course of the trial.

Without these studies to cover them from liability no one was willing to go on record and recommend using drugs off label.  Doctors in the field, especially if they didn’t handle many AIDS cases, then didn’t know that giving a common antibiotic decreased the chances of patients dying of opportunistic pneumonia, for example.  This was the leading cause of death in AIDS patients.  It was almost entirely preventable and no one would officially say so.  ACT UP worked to streamline and humanize the drug trials.

They were able to:

  • Stop people having to go off all other medications (like antibiotics to prevent pneumonia) to be in the trial
  • Allow drugs to be tested on women and people of color
  • Allow a parallel track where sick people who couldn’t wait for formal drug approval could try the drugs in the trial at their own risk and data could be collected about their experiences
  • Get drug companies to stop increasing prices of the drugs as demand went up. 

I don’t remember hearing anything good about ACT UP at the time.  I only knew of them from news coverage that was always negative because of their dramatic demonstrations.  The first time I ever heard of ACT UP in a positive light was when I started watching Gay USA on TV.  One of the hosts talked about being in ACT UP.  Her name is Ann Northrup and she is in the movie a lot more than in the book.  The associate producer of Gay USA is named Bill Bahlman.  I know that because he does the intro to the podcast that I listen to now.  What I didn’t know is what all he did during the early days of the AIDS epidemic to reach lawmakers.

This book is a long, slow read.  It is very densely packed with names and actions and committee meetings.  The author was a young, gay journalist reporting on AIDS in New York at the time.  It is very focused on New York.  Occasionally it talks about San Francisco but you could get the sense that except for occasional mentions of Africa, that AIDS was only a New York/California problem.  It is also focused primarily on white gay men.  This was one of the criticisms of the drug trials.  They wouldn’t enroll women, people of color, or drug users.  Although ACT UP seemed to give equal representation to women, those women aren’t discussed much in the book with a few exceptions.

When I was almost finished with the book I watched the documentary that the book came out of.  It is also called How To Survive a Plague and is available on Netflix.

 

How-to-Survive-a-Plague

I don’t think that I would have understood the documentary as much if I didn’t already know what they were talking about from the book. Especially at the beginning of the documentary, there wasn’t a lot of context given for the video being shown. I understood where they were and what they were protesting from reading the book. It was interesting for me to see what I had read about but I don’t think the documentary did a good job of really explaining all the issues that they were fighting for.

This book is a must read for anyone interested in the history of medicine or the gay rights movement in the United States.  It is heartbreaking and inspirational.  This is civil action on so many levels.  It is interesting to look back now and see how far the United States has come in just the last 30 years – even when we feel like there is so much that needs to be better.

Other books that I like on this subject are And The Band Played On and My Own Country.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in North America
  • LBGTQ authors/characters
02 Feb, 2017

Black Titan – The Story of A.G. Gaston

/ posted in: Reading Black Titan – The Story of A.G. Gaston Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins, Elizabeth Gardner Hines
on December 2003
Genres: 20th Century, Biography & Autobiography, Civil Rights, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 330
Format: eBook
Source: Owned
Goodreads
Setting: Alabama

The grandson of slaves, born into poverty in 1892 in the Deep South, A. G. Gaston died more than a century later with a fortune worth well over $130 million and a business empire spanning communications, real estate, and insurance. Gaston was, by any measure, a heroic figure whose wealth and influence bore comparison to J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. Here, for the first time, is the story of the life of this extraordinary pioneer, told by his niece and grandniece, the award-winning television journalist Carol Jenkins and her daughter Elizabeth Gardner Hines.


I had never heard of A.G. Gaston before this book showed up on Book Bub last year.  I’m glad I found out about him.  He had a remarkable life.

A.G. Gaston’s grandparents were slaves.  His grandfather worked with horses and his grandmother was an accomplished cook.  These were considered “privileged” positions.  When slavery ended they stayed on working for the family that previously owned them.  His grandmother taught his mother to cook and she also earned a living working for wealthy white families as a live-in cook and as a sought after caterer.  This put A.G. in contact with wealth at a young age.

When he was young there were two broad schools of thought about black advancement.  Booker T. Washington believed that black people should stay where they were and work hard to advance economically before looking for social equality.  W.E.B. DuBois believed in fighting for social equality and letting the “talented tenth” of black elites raise up the rest of the community.  A.G. Gaston spent his life firmly in Booker T. Washington’s camp.

After serving in WWI, he returned to Alabama and couldn’t find a good job.  He had to take work in the mines.  He saw widows begging for money to pay for their miner husbands’ funerals.  He started a burial insurance business.  From there he bought funeral homes.  Eventually he started a bank for black people and a business training school.

He was in his seventies and wealthy when the civil rights movement game to Birmingham.  He owned the only black hotel so Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference set up shop there.  I got the impression that he thought they were young radical whippersnappers.  He argued for moderation.  He wanted to negotiate instead of marching.  But, he was the person that repeatedly bailed them out of jail – whether they wanted bailed out or not.  He also argued vehemently against involving children in the marches and then secured the bond for the release of all the children jailed.  People spoke of him as being too deferential to the white businessmen, especially if they didn’t know that he was bankrolling a lot of the protests.

His hotel was bombed.   His house was bombed.  (He said he couldn’t be sure if it was white or black people who wanted to bomb his house.)  Bombs were set at other of his properties but were found before they went off.  He let the marchers on the way to Selma camp on one of farms one night.  He was even kidnapped.

After the protests moved away from Birmingham, he stayed and continued to serve the community.  He was a philanthropist.  Eventually he sold his business empire to his employees for a tenth of its worth to maintain local black control.

A.G. Gaston died at the age of 103.  His story is amazing.  He should definitely be better known.
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Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Backlist Books
  • POC authors
23 Dec, 2016

Hidden Figures

/ posted in: Reading Hidden Figures Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on December 6th 2016
Genres: 20th Century, Biography & Autobiography, Civil Rights, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 368
Format: Paperback
Source: Book Tour, From author/publisher
Goodreads

“Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.
Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.
Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.”


In the 1940s airplanes were being studied in Virginia. Wind tunnels were built to evaluate minute changes in plane design in an effort to help win WWII. Large amounts of data were being collected. In order to process the numbers female mathematicians called computers where hired do crunch the numbers. Because Virginia was a segregated state, the women were kept in two areas. The East Computers were white and the West Computers were black.

A job as a computer was a step up for women with advanced degrees whose only hope for a job before this was teaching. This book covers the years from World War II to the beginning of the space age when Langley’s operations moved to Houston.

The author’s father had worked at Langley. The author grew up knowing several of the women but did not realize what they had done for space research. Most of the women were uncredited although several managed to get papers published over the years.

Eventually, women were absorbed into the labs that they had been supporting and the East and West Computer sections shut down. As machines became able to calculate faster than they could, they had to adapt to survive. Some moved more into research. Others became computer programmers to teach the machines the jobs that they previously did.

Among the women’s contributions were:

  • Calculating the time and location for a rocket to take off in order to have the capsule splash down near the Navy ships waiting to rescue the astronaut.
  • Calculating all the variables involved in getting the lunar landing module off the moon and able to meet up with the orbiting ship for the return to Earth.
  • Imagining the need for and then designing response scenarios for a systems malfunction like what happened on Apollo 13.

The scientific achievements of the black women profiled in this book were set against the backdrop of segregation and discrimination that they faced when they weren’t at work.  A good companion book to this would be Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County about the shut down of all schools by a county that did not want to integrate them. Many of these very educated women were from this area and/or had families affected by the shut down of the schools.

I enjoyed this book.  I’m looking forward to seeing the movie also even though it appears that it will be focusing mostly on the John Glenn orbital flight.  Read the book to find out the whole story.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins
| Amazon
| Barnes & Noble

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About Margot Lee Shetterly

margot-lee-shetterly-ap-photo-by-aran-shetterly Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where she knew many of the
women in Hidden Figures. She is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and the
recipient of a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant for her research on
women in computing. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Find out more about Margot at her website and connect with her on Twitter.

02 Sep, 2016

Neither Snow Nor Rain

/ posted in: Readingtravel Neither Snow Nor Rain Neither Snow nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service by Devin Leonard
Published by Grove Press on May 3rd 2016
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 288
Format: Audiobook
Source: Audible
Buy on Amazon (affiliate link)
Goodreads
Setting: United States

“The United States Postal Service is a wondrous American creation. Seven days a week, its army of 300,000 letter carriers delivers 513 million pieces of mail, forty percent of the world’s volume. It is far more efficient than any other mail service—more than twice as efficient as the Japanese and easily outpacing the Germans and British. And the USPS has a storied history. Founded by Benjamin Franklin, it was the information network that bound far-flung Americans together, fostered a common culture, and helped American business to prosper. A first class stamp remains one of the greatest bargains of all time, and yet, the USPS is slowly vanishing. Critics say it is slow and archaic. Mail volume is down. The workforce is shrinking. Post offices are closing.”


I’ve always been fascinated by the workings of the post office.

I’ve never understood how they can sort all that mail and get it to where it is going.  If you told me that this was involved, I’d believe you.

That why I was so excited to listen to this book about the workings of the post office. I also had just visited the Smithsonian’s Post Office museum in Washington D.C. when I started the book. In all my visits to D.C. I had never known about this museum. It is right next to the train station.

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Did you know?

  • Many of the major roads of the United States were laid out by mail carriers
  • Mail used to be delivered up to four times a day in U.S. cities
  • There have been a few times when mail volume got so high that the system collapsed
  • It was illegal for anyone other than the U.S. mail to deliver letters
  • The United States Postal Service is now an independent company that reports to the government instead of a government department

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The Post Office is required to deliver everywhere. At times that has required mule trains to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, sled dog teams, and even reindeer.  Mandatory rural delivery allowed farmers to get daily newspapers.  This kept them informed of the best time to sell crops for the highest profit.  It kept everyone in the country informed about events.  The United States mail has helped to hold the country together.

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I particularly liked learning about the mail trains. Specialist clerks rode these mobile sorting cars, picking up letters at high speed and getting them sorted before the next town. There was one of these mail cars in the museum and a video of former clerks showing their system of sorting. It was amazing. I also learned about Owney, the famous mail dog.

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Technological advances have helped the mail be delivered faster and faster. Optical scanners were developed to read printed labels of bulk mailers and now can even read handwriting. After a few passes through the scanners, mail can be sorted into the order in which each carrier will deliver it. I think that’s just magical.

One thing that wasn’t covered at the museum but was well covered in the book was the Comstock Era.  This is a time of strict censorship of the mail.  Items that were judged to be obscene were not allowed.  This included information on contraception.  There was a lot of entrapment by postal inspectors who would order an item and then arrest the person who sent it.

Also not covered in the museum but talked about in the book was the wave of violence at post offices in the 1980s and 90s leading to the phrase “Going Postal.”

We all know the Post Office is having problems. First class mail is down as most people send emails instead of letters. The Post Office is not allowed to get involved in electronic forms in the U.S. by law, unlike in other countries. Amazon’s new partnership with them to deliver mail on Sundays is helping as is a renegotiation of the labor contracts of Post Office employees.

Those of us who love getting mail hope that they will find a way to survive and thrive.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who love learning about how everyday things work. The audio narration was very well done. The story moved quickly enough to keep my listening interest.

 

26 Apr, 2016

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sophia?

/ posted in: Reading How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sophia? Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand
on January 13th 2015
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Great Britain, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 416
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (affiliate link)
Goodreads
Set in England and India

In 1876 Sophia Duleep Singh was born into Indian royalty. Her father, Maharajah Duleep Singh, was heir to the Kingdom of the Sikhs, one of the greatest empires of the Indian subcontinent, a realm that stretched from the lush Kashmir Valley to the craggy foothills of the Khyber Pass and included the mighty cities of Lahore and Peshawar. It was a territory irresistible to the British, who plundered everything, including the fabled Koh-I-Noor diamond.
Exiled to England, the dispossessed Maharajah transformed his estate at Elveden in Suffolk into a Moghul palace, its grounds stocked with leopards, monkeys and exotic birds. Sophia, god-daughter of Queen Victoria, was raised a genteel aristocratic Englishwoman: presented at court, afforded grace and favor lodgings at Hampton Court Palace and photographed wearing the latest fashions for the society pages. But when, in secret defiance of the British government, she travelled to India, she returned a revolutionary.
Sophia transcended her heritage to devote herself to battling injustice and inequality, a far cry from the life to which she was born. Her causes were the struggle for Indian Independence, the fate of the lascars, the welfare of Indian soldiers in the First World War – and, above all, the fight for female suffrage.


Ranjit Singh was the last ruling emperor of the Punjab.

Mahraja-Ranjeet-Singh

After his death, the British used the confusion surrounding his heirs’ succession to move into the area. Most of the adult heirs died suspiciously. When it was over, the ruler of this prosperous area was an 1o year old boy, Duleep. His mother was very politically astute so the British had her exiled from the country and then forced the child-king to sign over his lands and the symbol of his rule, the Kor-i-Noor diamond.

Maharaja Duleep Singh, c 1860s

Duleep Singh was then raised by British people until Queen Victoria decided that he was really cute and wanted him to go to England. She lavished attention on him and considered herself to be his best friend. He was not reunited with his mother until he was an adult.

Eventually Duleep married a woman from Egypt and had six children. The children were known as Princes and Princesses. Princess Sophia was his youngest surviving child from this marriage. Arrangements were made with the India office to provide for the family because they did not want them going back to India and stirring up trouble.


Sophia grew up in luxury until her father’s debts became too much.  He then tried to return to India with the family but was taken off the ship at the Suez Canal.  The family was sent back to England but Duleep Singh did not go with them.  Instead he publicly disowned them and started another family while trying to get back to India.  He never did.

Sophia and her sisters were able to get to India as adults. The experience of meeting people fighting for Indian independence awoke the political consciousness of Sophia. She returned to England and threw herself into the fight of Women’s Suffrage in the 1910s.

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh selling Sufragette subscriptions in 1913

I love this picture. Sophia lived across the street from the gates of Hampton Court Palace in a grace-and-favor house. That meant that she was allowed to live there as a favor from the monarch. She protested in front of the tourists coming to Hampton Court and sold suffragette newspapers to them. Despite being involved in many of the major protests of the era and even attacking politicians, she was never sent to prison like her fellow suffragettes.  She even refused to pay any taxes in an attempt to get arrested.  The spectacle of putting a Princess in prison was too much for law enforcement.

World War I curtailed the suffragette movement.  She became a nurse for Indian soldiers brought back to England for rest.


While I was reading this book, the Indian solicitor-general came out and said that India should not try to get the Kor-i-Noor diamond back and said it was “neither stolen nor forcibly taken”. It was a present.  Yeah, because a 10 year old with no friendly adult counsel can make those kinds of gifts.
AlexandraKohinoor

The Kor-i-noor is the diamond in the center of the front cross on this crown.  This is what reading nonfiction gets you.  It gets you yelling at the news in an very angry, yet informed, way.


The part of the book I found the most touching was a memory of the daughter of the elderly Princess’ housekeeper.

“We’d be walking, and she’d be telling me about the world and elections and how important they were.  And then she would kneel down in front of me, looking me right in the eye and say ‘I want a solemn promise from you’ even though I don’t think I knew what a solemn promise was at that stage.  She would say ‘You are never, ever not to vote.  You must promise me.  When you are allowed to vote you are never, ever to fail to do so.  You don’t realise how far we’ve come.  Promise me.’ For the next three years, Sophia made Drovna promise again and again.”

Drovna has kept her promise to the woman who fought hard to win the right for English women to vote.

15 Jan, 2016

Ada’s Algorithm

/ posted in: Reading Ada’s Algorithm Ada's Algorithm by James Essinger
on September 28th 2015
Genres: Biography & Autobiography
Pages: 272
Format: eBook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (affiliate link)
Goodreads
Set in England

Over 150 years after her death, a widely-used scientific computer program was named "Ada," after Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of the eighteenth century's version of a rock star, Lord Byron. Why?
Because, after computer pioneers such as Alan Turing began to rediscover her, it slowly became apparent that she had been a key but overlooked figure in the invention of the computer.


Ada Lovelace’s life sounds like it was made just for the tabloids.

Her father was the poet Lord Byron.  He was famous in England for his legendary affairs as well as for his poetry.  He decided to marry when he was in need of a major influx of cash to keep up his lavish lifestyle.  He married a heiress and soon fathered his only legitimate child, Ada.  His wife soon found out that he was still carrying on affairs, including one with his half-sister.  (Apparently, it didn’t count as real incest because they didn’t share the same mother.) She took Ada and left when the baby was one month old.  Lord Byron left England soon after, never to return.

Ada’s mother was determined not to let her child fall victim to the overactive imagination that she thought plagued the Byron line.  She had her schooled in mathematics.

Two events focused the direction of Ada’s life.  First, she learned about the Jacquard Loom.  This was an automated loom that used punch cards to tell the loom what threads to raise and lower.  Very complex patterns could be made this way.

This is considered the first computer program.

Secondly, she met Charles Babbage.  He was working on machines that could do complex mathematical problems.  She was fascinated by his work and started to help him figure it out.  She was also able to imagine the implications of the machine.  Her vision eclipsed anything Babbage had considered.  She published a translation of an article on Babbage and added extensive notes that explained what a future with computing machines could look like.

The combination of the “overly imaginative” Byron line and her mathematical education created a visionary.

However, as a woman, she knew she wouldn’t be taken seriously.  At first she didn’t even want to put her name on the article that became known as her Notes.  Babbage persuaded her to at least put her initials.  Over the years, her contributions to his work were downplayed.  Letters written late in her life when she was heavily drugged against the pain of terminal uterine cancer were used to claim that she was a madwoman.  However, letters to and from Babbage show that she was highly involved and that he valued her work.

Alan Turing referred to her work in the 1940s and 1950s when he was laying out the foundations for modern computing.  He called it the Lovelace objection.  She wrote that machines can only do what they are programmed to do.  He said that she meant that computers can’t take us by surprise.

Babbage ended up rejecting a proposal from Lovelace where she offered to essentially be his spokesman for his analytical engine.  She knew that he didn’t have the people skills to get it the exposure that she could.  She was right.  He never got it made.  Some historians now think that if he had listened to her about its potential that England could have had a technological revolution in the mid-1800s. This model was made later.

My favorite quote from this book sums up Babbage.  In college he and a group of friends “… founded a club which they called The Extractors, designed to help its members should any of them be the subject of a petition to get them sent to a lunatic asylum.”  Planning ahead is important.  It doesn’t seem that they never needed to invoke it.

This book is an excellent look at the life of an extraordinary woman.  She died at the age of 36.  Imagine what she could have accomplished had she lived longer.

The featured image at the top of the post is Ada’s Algorithm that she developed when working with Babbage.  My only issue with this book is that I found myself skipping over long passages quoted from her writing on mathematical theory.  My brain doesn’t like that kind of thing.

13 Nov, 2015

Suffragette: A Movie Experience With The Clueless

/ posted in: Entertainment

One of the nice thing about having a scheduled day off during the week is ability to see matinees. (Since this was my first day off in three weeks, I was celebrating. I had moved on from yelling, “Dobby is a Free Elf!” like I was when I got home the night before.)

The problem with going to matinees is that other theater goers are also people who can go on a Friday afternoon. That is mostly retired people. I have nothing against old people. I’m going to be one soon. But, the sight of two elderly ladies entering a movie theater terrifies me. They have a tendency to not understand the plot and to discuss their misunderstanding loudly during the movie. They also have a tendency to sit right behind me.

I will admit that I’m a person who probably takes movie going too seriously. Nevertheless, I truly believe that no one should ever speak while a movie is playing unless you look like this.

From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MST3K_%2813729279755%29.jpg

I went to see Suffragette. It is only playing in one theater in the entire metro area. It is in a small room. I was pleased to see it well attended but I was worried because everyone was old and sitting close together. I was in a row with a group of two elderly women and a man. I told myself not to stereotype. It was going to be ok.

The previews started and one of was for Race, the upcoming Jesse Owens biopic. At the end of the trailer that is all about Jesse Owens, the man says to the woman next to him, “I think that movie is going to be about Jesse Owens’ life.” I knew we were doomed.

The next trailer was for The Danish Girl, a story about the first sex change operation. We were 3/4 through that one before the woman said, “Hey, that’s the same guy playing a woman!”

Suffragette is the historical fiction version of the British fight for women’s right to vote. It has been highly criticized for having an all white cast and for having the stars appear wearing shirts with Emmeline Pankhurst’s quote “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”.

The movie does not attempt to tell the whole story of the suffrage movement. This is a story of a few women in one neighborhood. They are not historical characters with 2 exceptions. They are the foot soldiers with the expendableness that that implies.

The movie shows all the problems that women face from domestic abuse to sexual harassment to unequal pay. The main character, Maud, gets into the movement and ends up estranged from her family. The man at the end of my row wasn’t having it. He launched into a rant about how she was a wife and mother and she shouldn’t be sacrificing that for any cause. He was echoing the words of the men on screen but sadly didn’t seem to see the irony.

Meryl Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the leaders of the movement. At the time of the movie she is in hiding from the government. She appears once to give a speech. She is referred to often though. There are many newspaper headlines about her. The woman are derogatorily called “Panks”. It is even graffitied on a wall once.

When the credits were rolling, the man said, “Meryl Streep was in this film?”

The woman replied, “Yes, she was the one that gave the speech on the balcony. I don’t remember her name though.”

Oh. My. God.

Hopefully, other people who see this movie will get more out of it. It isn’t perfect history. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t try too. It introduces a time period of women’s history that a lot of people don’t know about. “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”? Hear it in context before making judgements.


 

Want more info?

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, RevolutionarySophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand

 

In 1876 Sophia Duleep Singh was born into Indian royalty. Sophia, god-daughter of Queen Victoria, was raised a genteel aristocratic Englishwoman: presented at court, afforded grace and favor lodgings at Hampton Court Palace and photographed wearing the latest fashions for the society pages. But when, in secret defiance of the British government, she travelled to India, she returned a revolutionary.

Sophia transcended her heritage to devote herself to battling injustice and inequality, a far cry from the life to which she was born. Her causes were the struggle for Indian Independence, the fate of the lascars, the welfare of Indian soldiers in the First World War – and, above all, the fight for female suffrage.

Something a bit lighter?

The Suffragette Scandal (Brothers Sinister, #4)The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Miss Frederica “Free” Marshall has put her heart and soul into her newspaper, known for its outspoken support of women’s rights. Naturally, her enemies are intent on destroying her business and silencing her for good. Free refuses to be at the end of her rope…but she needs more rope, and she needs it now.

05 May, 2015

The Residence

/ posted in: Reading The Residence The Residence by Kate Andersen Brower
on April 7th 2015
Genres: History, Nonfiction
Pages: 320
Format: Paperback
Source: Book Tour
Goodreads

America's first families are among the most private public figures on earth. From the mystique of the glamorous Kennedys to the tumult that surrounded Bill and Hillary Clinton during the president's impeachment to the historic yet polarizing residency of Barack and Michelle Obama, each new administration brings a unique set of personalities to the White House—and a new set of challenges to the fiercely loyal and hardworking people who serve them: the White House residence staff.No one understands the president of the United States, and his family, like the men and women who make the White House run every day. Now, for the first time, their stories of fifty years, ten administrations, and countless crises, large and small, are told in The Residence. Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews with butlers, maids, chefs, florists, doormen, and other staffers—as well as former first ladies and first family members—Kate Andersen Brower, who covered President Obama's first term, offers a group portrait of the dedicated professionals who orchestrate lavish state dinners; stand ready during meetings with foreign dignitaries; care for the president and first lady's young children; and cater to every need the first couple may have, however sublime or, on occasion, ridiculous.In the voices of the residence workers themselves—sometimes wry, often affectionate, always gracious and proud—here are stories of:

The Kennedys—from intimate glimpses of their marriage to the chaotic days after JFK's assassination

The Johnsons—featuring the bizarre saga of LBJ's obsession with the White House plumbing

The Nixons—including Richard Nixon's unexpected appearance in the White House kitchen the morning he resigned

The Reagans—from a fire that endangered Ronald Reagan late in his second term to Nancy's control of details large and small

The Clintons—whose private battles, marked by shouting matches and flying objects, unsettled residence workers

The Obamas—who danced to Mary J. Blige on their first night in the White House

And just as compelling are the stories of the workers themselves, including Storeroom Manager Bill Hamilton, who served eleven presidents over fifty-five years; Executive Housekeeper Christine Limerick, who married a fellow residence worker; Chief Usher Stephen Rochon, who became the first African American to hold the post; Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier, who feuded fiercely with Executive Chef Walter Scheib; and Butler James Ramsey, who made friends with presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and whose spirit animated the White House through six administrations before his death in 2014. Working tirelessly to provide impeccable service and earning the trust and undying admiration of each new first family, these extraordinary White House workers served every day in the midst of history—and lived to tell the tales.

The Residence is an interesting look into the life of The White House. It is a subject that has always interested me. I’ve read books about the lives of the First Ladies by Margaret Truman and watched an old mini-series on White House staff. This book only covers the time served by living members of the White House staff.

You get the impression that they are trying not to come right out and say bad things but they let it be known who they liked and who they didn’t.

It is a quick and entertaining read for anyone who likes history. The husband is currently reading and enjoying it and he is planning on passing it on to a friend.

tlc tour host

About Kate Andersen Brower

Kate Andersen Brower spent four years covering the Obama White House for Bloomberg News and is a former CBS News staffer and Fox News producer. She lives outside Washington, D.C., with her husband and their two young children.

27 Apr, 2015

Plain Vanilla?

/ posted in: Reading Plain Vanilla? Vanilla by Tim Ecott
on 2005-03
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 278
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (affiliate link)
Goodreads

From the islands of Tahiti to the botanical gardens of London and Paris, "Vanilla traces the story of the vanilla plant and its secretive trade, from the golden cups of Aztee emperors to the ice-cream dishes of U.S. presidents. Vanilla has mystified and tantalized man for centuries. The only orchid that porduces and agriculturally valuable crop. vanilla can mask unpleasant tastes and smells, but also makes pleasant tastes stronger, smoother, and longer lasting. Because of its over four hundred separate flavor components. choosing premium-quality vanilla beans is as complex as judging the aroma and taste of fine wine. Vanilla finds its way into over half of all dessert products sold worldwide, from ice cream to chocolate mousse, as well as the finest perfumes., well-known brands of rum and vodka, and even Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Americans consume more vanilla than anyone else on Earth--a fact that has helped drive the price of vanilla beans and flavor extracts to an all-time high, and forced growers and traders to mount armed guard over their plants in the tropical jungle. The traders who travel the world in search of America's favorite flavor are a small and secretive elite. From Papantla in Mexico--"the city that perfumed the world"--to the South Seas, Madagascar, and the Indian Ocean islands, "Vanilla is a globe-trotting adventure that follows buccancers, aristocrats, and gourmets. all in search of the ice cream orchid.

Vanilla is my favorite scent.  I choose it for candles and air fresheners and perfumes and body washes.  I love vanilla flavored food and drinks.  My mother used to laugh at me because I’d go to ice cream parlors and pick vanilla out of the all the flavors.

Did you know:

  • Vanilla was first used in Mexico to flavor chocolate drinks?
  • The vanilla orchid can only be fertilized by a specific bee species in central America which made growing it anywhere else impossible until a young slave boy in Reunion figured out how to fertilize it by hand?
  • Vanilla is hard to grow but the real art comes in slowly drying the pods after they are picked?
  • So much money can be made selling vanilla that warehouses where pods are kept have to be constantly guarded so people don’t steal it?
  • Buying vanilla is mostly a cash business so it is not unusual for buyers to be robbed or murdered sort of like drug dealers?

My vanilla is from Madagascar, where most of the commercial crops comes from now.  In honor of this book I made some vanilla chia seed pudding to enjoy and added some extra vanilla to really appreciate the flavor that is so difficult to make.

About Tim Ecott

“Tim Ecott grew up in Ireland, the Far East and Africa. He studied Social Anthropology and then worked in the film industry before joining the BBC World Service. As a programme maker and correspondent in Africa he specialised in reporting from the Indian Ocean islands for more than a decade.

Based in London, Tim Ecott continues to contribute to BBC programmes, and his journalism has appeared widely in British and international publications.” from his agents’ website

29 Nov, 2014

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

/ posted in: Reading

“..epidemics create a kind of history from below:  they can be world-changing, but the participants are almost inevitably ordinary folk, following their established routines, not thinking for a second about how their actions will be recorded for posterity.  And of course, if they do recognize that they are living through a historical crisis, it’s often too late – because, like it or not, the primary way that ordinary people create this distinct genre of history is by dying.”  page 32

The Ghost Map is the story of the Broad Street cholera epidemic in 1854.  I knew the basic story.  There is an outbreak of cholera in London.  They trace the source to a well.  They removed the handle from the pump of the well and the outbreak stops.  It is one of the first epidemiological studies done.

I didn’t know the deeper story.  John Snow was a scientist who had been working on proving that cholera was waterborne and not a result of foul air for years and was just waiting for the perfect outbreak to prove his point.  Henry Whitehead was a local pastor who initially didn’t believe the water theory and opposed the removal of the handle from the well known to be the cleanest in the area.  In the aftermath of the epidemic they were on the same committee charged with compiling the data.  Whitehead knew everyone around and was able to hunt down people who had fled the area to see why they had survived.

The book highlights the challenges of epidemiological studies.  People have to remember what common things they did in the last normal days before a disaster.  They found the key was asking the children.  That made me laugh because that is still true.  A lot of times I’ll be asking questions about a sick pet and will ask if he got into anything recently and the adults will say no and the kids will say, “He ate a pack of crayons and the leg off my Barbie.”  Or they know that the cats have been fighting.  They know all the dirt on everyone.

The book also looks at the history of cities as breeding ground for epidemics.  At the time of this cholera outbreak, London was the largest city and experts thought it couldn’t get any bigger without systemic collapse.  Epidemics and city growth were linked.

“The dramatic increase of people available to populate the new urban spaces of the Industrial Age may have had one other cause:  tea. …

… Brewed tea possesses several crucial antibacterial properties that help ward off waterborne diseases:  tannic acid released in the steeping process kills off those bacteria that haven’t already perished during the boiling of the water.  The explosion of tea drinking in the later 1700s was, from the bacteria’s point of view, a microbial holocaust.  Physicians observed a dramatic drop in dysentery and child mortality during the period.  (The antiseptic agents in tea could be passed on to infants through breast milk.) Largely freed from waterborne disease agents, the tea-drinking population began to swell in number, ultimately supplying a larger labor pool to the emerging factory towns, and to the great sprawling monster of London itself.”  pages 94-95

The last part of the book looks at the development of sewer systems that happened afterwards and how that saved London from other outbreaks.  It also looks at modern mapping and how it benefits cities.  The most interesting example was New York City’s 311 system that is designed to give people a place to talk to authorities about non-emergency matters but is also designed to track calls to let officials find out about local concerns.  After a major power outage they got a lot of calls about insulin not being kept cold so information about shelf life of insulin is now part of their emergency briefings.

 

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