Saturday, January 14, 2017

Book Review - The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City

The idea of a World’s Fair seems anachronistic today. These events, which showcase things like technology, science, and architecture, seem dated at a time when you can circumnavigate the globe in a day and the Internet can virtually take you to the ends of the earth. It was not always so. The Eifel Tower debuted at Paris’s World Fair in 1889 and the Space Needle in Seattle was unveiled during the 1962 World’s Fair. Erik Larson’s book about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair - The Devil in the White City, is a sort of Dark Side of the Moon of the literary world, sitting on the best seller list for more than a decade.

So it is no surprise that the 1901 World’s Fair held in Buffalo, New York, forever infamous for the assassination of President William McKinley, would get its own treatment. Margaret Creighton’s book, The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City, examines McKinley’s untimely demise along with the sometimes seedy world that emerged in the Queen City for six months at the turn-of-the-century. While the Buffalo World’s Fair is occasionally interesting, Creighton’s book is ultimately not worth the price of admission.

If people think of Buffalo these days, it is likely in connection with its eponymous chicken wings or maybe its long suffering football fans, but 116 years ago, Buffalo mattered in this country. It was one of the ten largest cities in our nation and a major hub for commerce. Town fathers were very keen on replicating the success of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition eight years prior and positioning Buffalo as a place of importance as the country climbed out of recession and emerged into the 20th century.

Creighton offers a workmanlike account of the planning and implementation of this major event, but ultimately, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The McKinley assassination has been written about numerous times and nothing in Rainbow City sheds any new light on the incident. Part of what made Larson’s book such a phenomenon was his discovery of a lost piece of American history – that a serial killer lived among, and murdered people at, the Chicago World’s Fair – but there are no revelations of the sort here.

McKinley’s shooting and the nearly two week drama that followed before he finally succumbed act as the anchor for Rainbow City but because the story is already well-known, Creighton must lean on thinner material to fill the remainder of her 274 pages. She focuses primarily on several thrill seekers who go over Niagara Falls in wooden barrels (one dies, one survives) and Frank Bostock, the purveyor of an animal and human oddities exhibit who treats his four-legged troupe as poorly as he does Alice Cenda (aka Miss Chiquita), who, at two-feet tall, he bills as the world’s smallest woman. Bostock’s callous treatment of his menagerie (including Jumbo II, an elephant he attempts to electrocute publicly) made me cringe, while his de facto imprisonment of Cenda (keeping her from another performer she would ultimately marry) made me sad.

With enough human (and animal) suffering in the world, I am not particularly interested in reading about its historical antecedents. This extends to the exhibits featuring cultures from other countries (invariably portrayed as wild savages) and an antebellum display with a pro-slavery slant on pre-Civil War plantation life. And in a world where Jackass has lowered the common denominator for what amuses us, it was difficult to muster much interest in people doing a header over a 165-foot waterfall for the sake of public notoriety.  

One bright spot is the story of Mabel Barnes, a twenty-three year-old second grade teacher from Buffalo who kept a meticulous diary of her thirty-three visits to the fair. Barnes can almost be thought of as a blogger from another age (although her journaling took several years to complete) and imagine that had she lived in our time, her exploits would have been plastered all over social media. As a sort of tour guide for the common man, Barnes is more than able and her unabashed joy at the spectacles and sights she sees does lend the book a happy gloss.

Creighton does try to reach for some larger themes – while there is wanton animal cruelty, there are also SPCA workers monitoring the treatment of the animals. Racial attitudes at subsequent expositions were more nuanced and less rose-colored when it came to the treatment of slavery, and women’s suffrage would of course become a cause celebre, resulting in the passage of the 19th Amendment less than two decades later. McKinley’s assassination sent shockwaves through the nation, but his successor’s advocacy for the environment, dislike of corporate trusts, and his muscular foreign policy were so profoundly influential TR is one of four Presidents honored on Mount Rushmore.

Ultimately, whatever “fall” Buffalo suffered had little to do with its ill-fated World’s Fair. The city continued to prosper for decades after, but began its decline when alternate sea routes opened and steel manufacturers shut down their plants and moved their production to other countries. But for McKinley’s assassination, the entire thing would have been a footnote in history, but as it is, not substantive enough for a book-length treatment.

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Book Review - The Emotionary

Language is the way we express ourselves. It is the cornerstone of society, the way we relate to one another, and how we define and describe our experiences. Part portmanteau and part Rich Hall’s vintage Snigglets series, Eden Sher’s The Emotionary defines feelings we experience but for which no word exists. Whether we “losstracize” (loss + ostracize = rejecting the support of others during a time of grief) or erect a “vulnercade” (vulnerable + barricade = creating a barrier around our heart so we cannot accept love), Sher mines these dark corners of our psyche in a highly relatable way. 

The Emotionary is, to borrow Sher’s conceit, “spithy” (smart + pithy) in devoting chapters to things like “Annoying Shit People Do” - I mean, who cannot relate to “inapolotence” (apology + incompetence = the inability to admit wrongdoing, which describes my ex-wife to a “T”) or the more modern annoyance of “inattextive” (text + inattentive = incessant phone use during social situations) which are brought into sharper relief through Julia Wertz’s comics, which are interspersed throughout the book. Another section simply title “Rage” had me nodding my head when I got to “strull” (stressful + lull = an escalating period of passive-aggressive tension between two people that leads to a massive eruption, again, my marriage to a “T”) and “discredulous” (disappointed + incredulous = shocked/confused when a love one fails to understand something you value).

What I enjoyed most about The Emotionary is how unafraid Sher is to touch on these many emotional third rails. I do not think it is coincidental that the majority of the book is focused on negative or difficult emotions. It is not until the last of the book’s eight chapters that we get to words that relate to happiness. And while we all strive for “solidation” (solace + validation = the relief of feeling wholly understood by another) you feel Sher working out a lot of her emotional turmoil in the other seven chapters. 

The book’s “spithiness” is its one drawback. It is a written and visual bag of potato chips you can mindlessly consume in large chunks, and since the book has just one word on each of its 181 pages, it can be finished in less than an hour. In the balance, it is easy to lose the forest for the trees. The emotions Sher highlights are big and complicated and tend to revolve around wounds that take a long time to heal and people in our lives (family members, loved ones) who inflict that damage, yet if you do not pause to consider them, they are quickly forgotten in the inexorable motion of flipping to the next page. My best advice is to take your time in considering what Sher has to say; you will surely find much you can relate to, laugh about, or even shed a tear.

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Book Review - Prisoners of Geography

An introduction to foreign policy masquerading as a book about maps, Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography - Ten Maps That Explain Everything About The World scans the globe to discover that the 21st century looks a lot like the latter half of the 20th - a three-way dance between the United States, China, and Russia for world supremacy. 

But it is less in his chapters about these three powers than it is in those that touch on the rest of the world - from the Arctic Circle to Africa - that Marshall truly shines. Prisoners is an invaluable resource for understanding the nuance and subtlety of international relations and is even more important considering that for the first time since the end of World War II, Americans have no earthly idea how our President and his foreign policy team will handle our diplomatic, economic, and military relations with the rest of the world. 

Marshall makes clear China is deeply invested in spreading its influence primarily through its economic might - the sheer force of more than one billion people can do that, and China is spending on everything from a canal being constructed in Nicaragua to compete with the one in Panama to any number of African countries larded with natural resources necessary for China’s continued expansion. The consequences of these investments is not yet known, but what Marshall highlights is the vast number of investments China is making; not all will pay off (there is, for example, a question whether the Nicaraguan Canal will succeed) but China does not need them to in order to expand its influence. At the same time, China is spending on its military closer to home to firm up a zone of influence that radiates out into the Pacific Ocean, with potential consequences for our allies like Japan and South Korea. Taken together, Marshall sees a rising China competing with America throughout the world in the decades to come. 

On the other hand, Russia is playing a weak hand strongly. It has resources (oil/natural gas) that many European nations rely on but an economy that wobbles because of its corruption. Russia leverages its still powerful military to bully its neighbors, constantly pressing to see how far it can re-extend its reach before getting slapped by its Western neighbors. Its discomfiting enough but with our President-elect’s shameless flirtation with Putin, the consequences could be far more dire. Like China, Russia is keenly interested in a wider buffer zone between it and Western nations. We see this in its retaking of Crimea and war in Eastern Ukraine. Each small conflict comes with the reward of reasserting Russia’s influence and requiring it be treated as closer to an equal on the world stage. 

And that is the key takeaway from this book. While second-tier players like the United Kingdom and France lurk in the background, much of what is happening today is informed by China’s desire to become co-equal with America on the world stage and Russia’s desire to regain what it lost when the USSR crumbled in the early 1990s. These longer term goals are playing out in myriad potential flashpoints across the globe that require deep thinking, an understanding of history, and experience to properly balance these interests, risks and rewards. Handling the on-again/off-again tensions between India and Pakistan or the simmering frustration South American countries feel toward the United States require a deft hand, any mole hill could quickly turn into a mountain and a mountain into a mushroom cloud. President-elect Trump may not appreciate the gravity of what a random tweet or phone call can do, but the rest of the world surely does and the speed and ease with which something he says or does could lead to dire consequences cannot be understated. 

While much of the book focuses on strategic decisions countries make in contemplation of potential wars with adversaries (see, e.g., the Korean Peninsula, India/Pakistan, basically the entire freaking Middle East) the difficulty in predicting the future is how often writers get things wrong. Japan was ascendant in the 1980s but is now hobbled by an aging population and a decade of limited growth. Some argued the oil crunch of the 1970s would lead to America’s demise, but today, we are about to become the largest producer of energy in the world thanks to natural gas. Regardless, readers will be informed by Marshall’s knowledge and understanding of international relations and be left pondering how different the world will surely look in the years to come. 

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Monday, January 2, 2017

Book Review - Table Manners: How To Behave In The Modern World & Why Bother

It was not until the final page of Jeremiah Tower’s Table Manners: How To Behave In the Modern World And Why Bother that the need for this slim, but engaging book on etiquette was necessary. As Tower writes, “The more you think about those around you and the less you think about yourself, the more likely you are to behave well.” As a culture renowned for its self-centeredness and narcissism, and, at least in some quarters, its rudeness, Americans are particularly in need of basic rules of the road when it comes to the simple act of manners. 

Of course, we all understand what manners are, it is why we instinctively ask someone to pass the salt or pepper when it is out of reach (per Tower, whenever either is more than a forearm’s distance and will require you to extend your arm further; if the “passer,” send over both to avoid a second request) or bring a bottle of wine when invited to a friend’s house for dinner (a tradition Tower disfavors based on its simplicity and discomfort it gives the host, who must decide whether to serve, reserve, or discreetly regift at a later date). 

But because manners require that the interests of others be considered before our own, most Americans surely find these rules stilted and prescriptive. What Tower does is provide answers in nice little bite-sized portions, perfect for a culture now hooked on BuzzFeed “listicles” and articles that rarely extend past 500 words (admit it, you’re ready to bail already, right?) Be it dinner parties or nights out on the town, Tower has you covered - from how to graciously exit dull conversation (offer to get the group another round of drinks) to when requesting a doggie bag is appropriate (in all instances other than a formal or business dinner) and he does it all in a tidy 135 pages, most of which are spaced generously and can be read in large chunks without much effort. 

Of particular relevance is the chapter on technology. It is remarkable to think that 10 years ago, smart phones did not exist and today a whole lingua franca, not to mention set of rules have cropped up in their wake, but be it whether to Instagram your food (ok if done quickly and not with offense to others) or take a call at the table (a definite no no), these practical tips are themselves worth the price of admission.

You can imagine Tower is the kind of person whom you would want hosting a dinner party or attending as one of your guests. No, it is not because he knows how to devour an artichoke (leaves pulled off one-by-one and eaten by hand) or that he admonishes against acting like the grammar police in casual conversation (no one cares that you know whether “and I” or “and me” is correct), but because his writing reflects a bit of the raconteur - this is a man who can tell a great story *and* pick the right bottle of wine. His humor is droll and a bit ribald, the type of person who knows how to read a room and its sensibilities while enlivening it without offending. 

We should all aspire to this level of etiquette and civilization, but even if we cannot reach Tower’s level of sophistication, his book is a valuable guide and a recommended addition to your book collection.

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