Thursday, July 11, 2024

Venice: The Remarkable History of the Lagoon City (Dennis Romano)

As one of the world's UNESCO heritage sites for its combination of preservation and architecture, Venice is a city that is visited and studied by many. Dennis Romano's exhaustive history of the city is captured in the aptly titled Venice: The Remarkable History of the Lagoon City.

Venice is protected by barrier islands in the northern Adriatic Sea, making it a near ideal location to develop as a naval seaport. With vast quantities of salt nearby, the city-state developed in power over several centuries and became one of the world's leading centers of trade. Romano discusses the rise of Venice, its status as a leading Italian city-state, and its gradual evolution into a tourist mecca. References to tourist visits compared to the city's population help show its growing tourist vibe. Romano also highlights the city's struggles with its evolution into tourism, with climate change, and with demography at large as it grapples to maintain its population and address immigration. 

Romano's sourcing is top-notch, and he keeps the book interesting despite its length (over 600 pages). Venice is suited for those with an interest in Italian and European history, as well as in learning how cities evolve over centuries.

MY RATING: 4.5

Thursday, June 27, 2024

A Paradise of Small Houses: The Evolution, Devolution, and Potential Rebirth of Urban Housing (Max Podemski)

Max Podemski's A Paradise of Small Houses: The Evolution, Devolution, and Potential Rebirth of Urban Housing is a refreshing read into the evolution of how major cities have defined housing and how those cities have changed over time in response to demographic or societal trends.

From the bungalow (which was common in many Midwestern and Western cities in the early 20th Century) to the Philadelphia rowhome to the modern townhouse in Houston, each city's housing is given a brief history into its use and how it has evolved over time due to population trends, demographic shifts, or reforms in housing codes. Podemski writes this book from a place of urban renewal and positions it as a call for better creativity in addressing housing shortages (specifically more affordable housing) in a number of cities throughout the country. The author does not, however, overly enforce any hard advocacy and speaks from a storytelling perspective, making for an enjoyable read.

My only gripe with the book is not with content but design. The photos are all in one section in the middle, so when Podemski references images throughout the book, it makes for constant flipping back and forth to reference them. This minor inconvenience aside, the book is interesting reading into architectural and land use history in North America.

MY RATING: 5

Monday, June 17, 2024

Patriot Presidents: From George Washington to John Quincy Adams (William E. Leuchtenburg)

In Patriot Presidents: From George Washington to John Quincy Adams, author William E. Leuchtenburg highlights the first six presidents of the United States, each of whom charted a critical role and course in America's history as well as the office they were elected to. Leuchtenburg crafts his research into an effective narrative showing how the Presidency evolved over the first 40 years of the office after the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

The first six presidents were deeply involved in the American Revolution and sought to preserve its ideals. While they all had a different vision on how America should evolve, they each gradually changed the scope of how the president should function. However, each held strongly to the ideals of the Constitution without giving them too much executive power.

Patriot Presidents is an important read in discovering how America's executive branch changed over the early decades of America's history and how far the Office of the President has evolved since its formation in the late 18th Century.

MY RATING: 4

Monday, June 10, 2024

The Deerfield Massacre: A Surprise Attack, a Forced March, and the Fight for Survival in Early America (James L. Swanson)

James L. Swanson has written several historical books, most notably Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer. Having read a few of Swanson's books in the past, I was looking forward to The Deerfield Massacre: A Surprise Attack, a Forced March, and the Fight for Survival in Early America. While the book is still a very good historical account of the town of Deerfield, I found myself learning more about the town and myth of Deerfield and its role in colonial history than I did about the massacre itself.

Deerfield was founded in the late 17th Century and was initially a frontier outpost in the Connecticut River Valley, with Native Americans populating much of the region to their west and north and coming into conflict with colonial settlers. A first attack of settlers and militia in 1675 nearly caused the area to be abandoned, but the town gradually resettled. Conflict between France and England in Europe spread into frontier areas separating French Canada and New England, helping lead to the attack by Native American and French forces in 1704.

Much of the book is devoted to the stories of Deerfield residents that survived the conflict, along with the town's history as shaped by the attack. Deerfield, along with many neighboring towns, have become more symbolic for heritage tourism in helping show what life was like in colonial times, perhaps a bit sanitized, but showing early American colonial life as a means of storytelling. 

As I said above, much of The Deerfield Massacre is about the town and those who were shaped by its place in history and less about the event itself. But Swanson does a good job of sharing why the town's evolution is important.

MY RATING: 4.5 

Monday, June 3, 2024

A History of Fake Things on the Internet (Walter Scheirer)

Conspiracy theories and "fake news" have long lurked in the shadows of our mainstream, even before the Internet was created in the late 20th Century. But this new creation allowed for a proliferation of fakery that has become an everyday part of our culture. In A History of Fake Things on the Internet, author Walter Scheirer discusses how technology has played a role in the advances of memes, deep fakes, and other falsehoods to the point where it's sometimes impossible to separate fact from fiction.

Hoaxes and fake imagery have a long history, predating modern computing, beginning in the 19th Century. As technology advanced and the ability to communicate electronic messages developed, sending out fake information became much easier. Creating memes, pranks, hoaxes, and hacks all gradually developed into small cottage industries, and soon bot farms and nations also engaged in the act of spreading false information.

Scheirer makes an effective argument that fake content is less the fault of advancing technology than it is human behavior. However, as technology continues to advance and AI especially continues to grow, the ability to rein in the crazy and imaginary will become ever more difficult.

MY RATING: 4

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Age of Revolutions: And the Generations Who Made It (Nathan Perl-Rosenthal)

Between 1760 and 1825, much of Europe and the Americas went through a series of revolutions that ushered in new countries and an increasing use of democratic republics. Two generations of revolutionary leaders made their marks in Europe and the Americas, transforming the lives of millions and leading to significant change in government and history. These leaders and the revolutions they helped incite are the focus of Nathan Perl-Rosenthal's book The Age of Revolutions: And the Generations Who Made It.

England, France, and Spain controlled the vast majority of the Americas in the 1750's. But within 75 years, colonial possessions of the three nations had dramatically changed. Canada was wholly taken over by England, and much of the rest of the Americas became a series of independent states or federations. France also dealt with internal revolutions of its own -- with the monarchy deposed before a short-lived republic, the era of Napoleon, and a return of the monarchy after Napoleon's downfall. Other attempts at republican forms of government took place in the Netherlands and parts of Italy. 

Perl-Rosenthal does an artful job of bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic numerous times, sharing the backgrounds of pivotal individuals such as Adams, Bunel, Bolivar, and of course, Napoleon. Each had an impact on their country and changed it dramatically. Each generation of changemakers learned from a prior generation, but the era of 1760-1825, in the author's eyes, was arguably one of the most transformative in world history.

MY RATING: 4

Monday, May 20, 2024

The Real Hoosiers: Crispus Attucks High School, Oscar Robertson, and the Hidden History of Hoops (Jack McCallum)

Basketball in Indiana is often described as a religion of sorts. The state's tournament, which was a single class of all high schools for over 50 years, brought together small towns, big cities, parochial schools, public schools, and everything in-between. The tournament was opened up to private and Black high schools in the 1940's, with Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis becoming the first Black high school to win the state championship in 1955, repeating the next year.

The movie Hoosiers is largely based on Milan High School, which won the title in 1954, beating Attucks in the semifinals. However, Attucks' back-to-back state championships were largely more transformative for Indiana basketball. Jack McCallum highlights Attucks High School's basketball program in The Real Hoosiers: Crispus Attucks High School, Oscar Robertson, and the Hidden History of Hoops.

In the book, McCallum talks about the history of race in both Indianapolis and Indiana generally, where racism dominated much of the landscape. The book weaves between the rise of Attucks as a basketball powerhouse and how the state of Indiana reacted to it.

Attucks, coached by Ray Crowe, played dominant and inspired basketball, with a young Oscar Robertson leading the team in those days. Even though Robertson declined to be interviewed for the book, press accounts and stories by his fellow teammates help provide a strong narrative of Attucks breaking barriers and winning with class. 

MY RATING: 4.5