Category Archives: artists and books

Book Review: Standing on a Volcano: The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis (Harper Barnes 2001)

Rating: 5/5

David Rowland Francis was mayor of St. Louis and governor of Missouri, the only man to have done both in a state that distrusts its urban centers. When Academic Hall burned down at the University of Missouri, he kept the university in Columbia. Francis brought the 1904 Olympics and World’s Fair to St. Louis. From 1916 to 1917, Francis was the US Ambassador to Russia, serving through the February Revolution and the October Bolshevik Revolution. In its first half, Standing on a Volcano details Francis’ family life and career in Missouri; in its second half, it details his service in Russia. In Missouri, Francis is a man in his element, a man who knows how the machine whirs; in Russia, we see Francis struggle to grasp the mechanisms of a society whose machine has gone haywire. It’s a fascinating biography and a fascinating history of St. Louis and the Russian revolution.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I attended the University of Missouri. I’m a St. Louis native, and I love Russian history. The quadrangle at Mizzou is the Francis Quad, but I didn’t learn about David R. Francis until the 250th anniversary of St. Louis exhibit at the Missouri Historical Society. I bought this biography in the gift shop.

THE GOOD

  • Volcano (like so many St. Louisans) discusses why Chicago boomed and St. Louis didn’t. We often blame the Civil War, but Barnes suggests the steamboat. Chicago developed rail, while St. Louis languished.  A rail route crossed the Mississippi west of Chicago before the Civil War; the St. Louis Eads Bridge was completed in 1874, well after the contest was lost. Barnes also argues that the St. Louis business community was more conservative in an era that, overall, rewarded risk. After learning about the St. Louis business community in Veiled Prophet and the Chicago business community in Death in the Haymarket, this feels true.
  • Philip Jordan was a light-skinned black man from Jefferson City, an orphan or something close to it, a street fighter with a drinking problem. He became Francis’ indispensable companion, accompanying him to Russia. We so rarely learn about the support staff of our famous antecedents, and Jordan is fascinating. He became fluent in Russian, expertly navigating the food shortages of conflict-ravaged Russia. In Russia Jordan was perceived as native, but perhaps from the south. In the United States, he was often mistaken for white, but subject to the discrimination of the era whenever his race was known.
  • Volcano indirectly reveals how women and people of color get written out of history. Francis wrote little of Jordan, his companion, caregiver, and even partner of many years. A Russian woman, Matilda de Cramm, also occupies much of the book, and was a close friend to Francis during his time in Russia. Francis mentions her once in his book about the revolution. If we were to use only documents from Francis, we would see very little of Jordan or Madame de Cramm.
  • I enjoyed the examination contrast of diplomatic veterans with Francis. Although history has sometimes been unkind to Francis (Russia didn’t turn out so well, after all), Volcano makes the case for Francis.

 THE BAD

  • It’s great that Volcano includes Matilda de Cramm, a Russian woman whom many suspected to be a German spy. Francis had some level of inappropriate relationship with her during his ambassadorship, which elicited a lot of gossip. But we learn little about her. The book includes dozens of contemporary speculations and frettings about de Cramm. It was a big part of Francis’ time in Russia, but ultimately, there is very little of substance. She doesn’t seem to have been a German spy. It was hard to track and boring after a while.
  • Francis’ Kentucky childhood and family genealogy was dull and I would have preferred less of it.

 

OVERALL

If you have an interest in St. Louis history or Russian history, at least half of this book is worth your while. I’ve never read a nonfiction book with such contrasting halves, but I really enjoyed it. The contrast made for an interesting human study as well. We see a man working in his element, and the same man struggling to tread water. We see 19th century American wheeling and dealing, and we see foreign policy. Francis was a free-market enthusiast, but saw the argument for socialism in Russia. The reader sees Francis’ thinking evolve with his experiences; he wasn’t an ideologue. I enjoyed Standing on a Volcano as a history and as a biography.

Beautiful poster books

I love colorblock poster art. My living room is decorated with National Parks travel posters and my bathroom bears WPA hygiene posters (which are available free online from the Library of Congress!). In my guest room, I display JPL’s Exoplanet Travel Bureau posters. What can I say, I have a passion!

So I also collect books of such posters. In recent travels, I’ve found two great specimens!

Intergalactic Travel Bureau Vacation Guide to the Solar System

Great art and great science! Each planet has a poster, and often one or two extras. Each section also has info on atmosphere, year length, and more. Great for kids and adults!

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A few of my favorite illustrations:

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See America

A collection of posters for National Parks and historic sites, with posters of places like Big Bend National Park and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (i.e., the Gateway Arch in St. Louis). Check out the Creative Action Network website, too, which has posters on all kinds of cool topics and projects.

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Book review: Forty-Seventh Star: New Mexico’s Struggle for Statehood (David V. Holtby 2012)

Rating: 3.5/5

David V. Holtby’s Forty-Seventh Star is about New Mexico’s struggle for statehood. The land of New Mexico (mostly) entered the United States with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. (The southernmost chunk of the state was acquired in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase.) New Mexico petitioned for statehood in 1848 and 1850, but waited until 1912 to be admitted into the union. In the intervening 64 years, 15 states joined the union. By contrast, California, also obtained at the end of the Mexican-American War, became a state in 1850 (gold helped); Colorado became a state in 1876. So why was New Mexico’s wait for statehood among the longest?

After reading about the Mexican-American War, I would have guessed racial issues. Even by the time of statehood, New Mexico was not majority Euro-American. Forty-Seventh Star argues for a variety of causes—petty politics at the national level, bad luck, local corruption, incompetent petitioners, and racial and religious issues all contribute.

Forty-Seventh Star is rife with scoundrels of New Mexico. There’s Thomas B. Catron, member of the powerful and corrupt Santa Fe Ring. Catron, “the largest individual landholder in the history of the United States,” fought for statehood on the theory that it would raise land prices; highly indebted, he needed that land to grow in value. Republican Catron was long suspected in the death of Francisco Chávez, the former sherif of Santa Fe and powerful Democrat. Albert B. Fall is another jerk from New Mexico. Most famously, Fall was Warren Harding’s secretary of the interior responsible for the Teapot Dome Scandal, which concerned the corrupt leasing of federal land for oil extraction. Before Teapot Dome, Fall busied himself with shenanigans in New Mexico; for three months, he was the state attorney general until President Roosevelt insisted upon his removal. He also served as a judge, a state representative, and another stint as attorney general. When New Mexico became a state in 1912, the august persons of Catron and Fall became its first two senators.

President Taft and his Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock deserve the most credit at the federal level for bringing statehood to New Mexico. Taft was willing to cajole and convince senators to see his point of view. Roosevelt, who wished for statehood,  didn’t confront senators who opposed admission for political reasons. Taft is not particularly well-remembered today, but the more I read of him, the more interesting he sounds. Taft went on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which was his true passion. His passion for the law shows in his handling of New Mexican statehood.

WHY THIS BOOK?

As a new resident of New Mexico, I want to learn more of the history of my new home. I read Amy Greenberg’s A Wicked War about the Mexican-American War and Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, about the history of water in the west.

THE GOOD

Holtby is the former editor in chief of the University of New Mexico Press. Forty-Seventh Star is a meticulously researched and well-sourced book, relying on primary documents in both English and Spanish. Holtby takes pains to include the Nuevomexicano perspective on statehood, and addresses the lives of natives, blacks, and asians in the territory as well.

There’s a ton of interesting tidbits in Forty-Seventh Star. As I mentioned, there are plenty of 19th century schemers and scoundrels. The role of various federal figures in the fight is interesting as well; there’s McKinley and Roosevelt, each with New Mexican counties named for them, and Taft, who despite bringing statehood has no namesakes in the state. There are senators like Albert Beveridge of Indiana, who hammered against New Mexican corruption not for ethical reasons but for partisan gain. There’s Nelson Aldrich, grandfather of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, Republican Rhode Island senator who had grown tired of his political power being diluted by the admission of often-Democratic western states.

I particularly enjoyed the section of the book devoted to nuevomexicano and minority interests in the territory. We learn about Chinese workers who are smuggled across the border at El Paso in violation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. We learn about the ghost town of Blackdom, founded by Francis Boyer, as a town for black people in southeastern New Mexico; it’s so lost to history that it doesn’t even appear on my 2 foot by 3 foot map of New Mexican ghost towns. We learn about nuevomexicano settlements in the Rio Puerco Valley, which fulfill McKinley’s exhortation for more people and more irrigation, but probably not with the people he’d imagined.

We also get a peek into turn-of-the-century partisan squabbling. The more American political history I read, the more I understand its ubiquity. The tools and individuals vary, but the goals and motivations are essentially the same.

THE BAD

There is one tremendous flaw in Forty-Seventh Star—it’s hard to read. The timeline is a veritable zig-zag, following one story for three years, then jumping back two years, then following that for 15 years then jumping back 12 years. If I were more familiar with the players of the story, I might not have minded this so much. But one contentious senator in 1894 is much like a contentious senator in 1905 to me. Keeping track of senators and New Mexicans and newspapers and litigants as the narrative zig-zagged across the decades was frustrating. When it came time to summarize this book, I had to review pretty extensively; I ended up having to make a narrative for myself because the author didn’t provide one, he provided several dozen. Holtby is clearly a knowledgable editor and historian; perhaps this is closer to historical academic writing. As a casual reader, it was not a plus.

Contributing to the first flaw, Holtby’s characterizations of the players in his story could be stronger. Scoundrels like Catron and Fall are memorable because Holtby gives them time on the page. I remember little about the more neutral individuals such as Miguel Otero, Solomon Luna, George Curry, and others. Many of Holtby’s quotes come from local newspapers, but again, I had trouble remembering which was which and what they stood for, and thus they blended together.

OVERALL

Forty-Seventh Star is a worthwhile read if you have an interest in statehood, New Mexican history, or historical politics. For these topics, it’s excellent and meticulously researched. Otherwise, it probably isn’t worth reading. I’m glad to have read it, but I’m very glad to be done; it took me over four weeks. This is not a poorly written book, it just lacks a narrative for the novice reader and it covers a variety of really challenging topics.

Book review: Prague Winter (Madeleine Albright 2012)

Rating: 5/5

Madeleine Albright’s Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 is about the history of Czechoslovakia, but most especially the turbulent times around and during WW2. Madeleine Albright, born Marie Körbelova in Czechoslovakia, was the first female US secretary of state. I remember as a kid wondering why Missouri’s secretary was such a big deal, and in misunderstanding the meaning of “state,” I became a bit fascinated with her.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Only when this book came out did I learn that Madeleine Albright was Czech, as I am on my father’s side. I spent a summer in Prague listening the stories about the communist period from my host, a professor who was not viewed favorably by the communists. I learned a lot about the Prague Spring in 1968. This book was an opportunity to learn more about another piece of Czechoslovak history.

Also, a substantial portion of the book is devoted to the Czech Jewish experience. Albright lost 3/4 grandparents to the Holocaust, and dozens of other relatives. Albright only learned of her Jewish heritage in her 60s. Genetic tests revealed that my family has Jewish ancestry. Both my Czech roots and my Jewish ancestry are far more removed than Albright’s, but still, learning about her experiences and heritage felt like honoring my own heritage.

THE GOOD

Albright skillfully weaves personal experiences with history. This history occurs at three scales—the global/European context, the Czech perspective, and her father’s experiences in the Czech government and the Czech government in exile. We skim Czech history from ancient times until the end of World War 1, when Czechoslovakia became an independent nation. After WW1, Czechoslovakia flourished for 20 years under the first president, TG Masaryk. The cowardice of England and France led to the 1938 Munich Agreement, which ceded Czech land to Nazi Germany to temporarily appease Hitler. Her father, Josef Korbel, served the exiled Czech government; he was the secretary to Jan Masaryk, son of TG Masaryk. She describes the strengths and the weaknesses of the various leaders, and what she thinks she would have done in their place.

Albright interlaces her family history with the prison camp of Terezín where many of her relatives died. A strong community tried to survive within Terezín’s deadly walls, with education and theater and art. She discovered her Jewish ancestry in 1997, and only then learned of the fate of the bulk of her family. I visited Terezín in 2008. It was the prison camp the Nazis used to deceive the Red Cross. It contained no gas chambers, but was deadly enough with disease, lack of food, and deportation to death camps.

Most valuably, from my perspective, she gives the Czech perspective on the various triumphs and catastrophes in the first half of the 20th century. She illuminates a people between a rock and a hard place, with a dream of centuries crushed after only 20 years. She describes the brave and costly assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, achieved by Czech parachuters trained in England.

And finally, despite 400 pages of length, this is a quick read. It’s very well written, and the details that could get overwhelming, such as the details about various Czechs with difficult names, are broken up with personal stories and reactions. It’s a lovely blend of family and national history, which, given Albright’s father’s prominence, is very appropriate.

THE BAD

  • All Czech names are presented without instruction for pronunciation. Having lived there briefly, I was used to it, but this book might benefit from a pronunciation guide.
  • Albright is extremely willing to volunteer the brave things that she would have done. She qualifies this with some uncertainty. While I appreciate this in a way, as she’s one of the few people who could even possibly make an educated statement about such things (she has a doctorate in political science studying the role of journalism in the Prague Spring of 1968), it does happen numerous times. She always picks the most dangerous, egalitarian and brave option. It felt like 20/20 hindsight.

Pop-ups: Water Polo

I recently resumed my fascination with pop-up art. It’s fun to abstract the world to a system of interacting planes. I’ve created cats at play, architecture, and hot air balloons. It was inevitable that my play would turn to water polo, and so it has. I wondered how I would depict a goalie blocking a ball or a player swimming down the pool. I cannibalized some poster designs from a few months ago and was off to the races.

Below is my water polo pop-up book! I’m already scheming on new ideas, but I’m very proud of my first foray.

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Mimbres Pottery

Although we think of the west as new, it’s only new to the United States. Many native cultures and the Spanish Empire traipsed across the Southwest for centuries and millennia before it was the American frontier, and their legacy remains. As an easterner, nowhere I’ve ever lived had that depth of surviving history. I still have a lot to learn.

 

The Mogollon (roughly pronounced MUH-guh-yun) Culture was one of three ancient cultures in the southwest, along with the Pueblo and the Hohokam. The Mimbres branch of the Mogollon lived in southwest New Mexico. The people of the Gila Cliff Dwellings only lived there for about a generation, likely driven there by desperation. Compared to Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, the Gila Cliff Dwellings are quite small. The culture disappeared from the region shortly thereafter. But their pottery remains influential today, over 500 years after the culture that produced it collapsed.

Mimbres pottery is astonishing. Many southwestern cultures have beautiful pottery with rich design and symbolism. Mimbres pottery is different. It depicts compelling geometric abstractions of animals and people, employing artistic devices not seen in European art until this century.

The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque has a nice collection; I picked up a great book of designs in the gift shop, Mimbres Classic Mysteries by Tom Steinbach Jr. Most books about Mimbres pottery show photographs of the works. This book shows the designs themselves, which are brilliant. All images in this post are from that book.

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Sandhill crane design, almost like something from the art deco movement.

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Humorous design featuring a great blue heron, with the fishes hiding in the one place the heron’s neck cannot reach.

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Intertwined ram’s heads

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Man/crane design. The author suggests it looks like a Picasso. I am struck by the use of negative space.

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Bat design

Great Pop-up books

Last week, I wrote about my own pop-up work. I’ve admired pop-ups since I was a kid, although I had only one pop-up book throughout my childhood. It was called Les Dinosaures and it was in French. I don’t read a word of French, but I examined the book until I shredded it. I suppose after my parents saw the wreck I made of that book, I never got another one until I started buying my own in adulthood. Below are a few of my favorites. As you can see, pop-ups cover any topic, from the literary to the historic to the nerdy. Pop-ups convey wonder and humor. I’d love to hear pop-up suggestions, too!

The White House: A Pop-Up of our Nation’s Home

Hot off the presses, a 2016 pop-up book. In my favorite page, opening a tab opens a curtain, but a photo would hardly do it justice. Little delights abound in this book. I found my copy at the LBJ presidential library in Austin, Texas.

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Moby Dick

I found this lovely pop-up at the Kansas City Art Museum. Their gift shop had dozens of pop-ups, and in a frenzy, I had to choose one. This book has ships with riggings, pull tabs, and twisting whirlpools. It’s cartoonish and I love it.

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Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy

I have a habit of finding my pop-up books in strange places; my Star Wars pop-up book came from the Denver Museum of Miniatures, Dolls and Toys. The museum contains numerous lovely dollhouses, historic and modern, in southwestern styles, Victorian styles, and more. It’s also full of Star War toys. This pop-up book is so jammed full it can be hard to open. The back panel features Luke and Vader facing off with lightsabers, which light when the page is opened. My favorite page shows Anakin Skywalker in the Vader mask–as you open the page, his face disappears into the mask. A true nerd’s pop-up book.

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America’s National Parks: A Pop-Up Book

Perfect for the 100th Anniversary of the Park System, it’s the National Park pop-up book. This book alternates between pop-up pages and flat pages, which is a great way to fit a little more information into the book. The Yellowstone geyser page is lovely, but so tall it was tough to capture photographically. Appropriately, I got this book at Rocky Mountain National Park.

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