Archive for the History Category

Book Review: If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley

Posted in History, Literature, Non-Fiction, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 12, 2012 by JE Cornett

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home is the kind of book that’s perfect for reading during your lunch break or while waiting at the doctor’s office — light, engaging non-fiction full of obscure facts and entertaining history that’s great for passing the time without wasting it.

The author, Lucy Worsley, is a chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity organization responsible for such British treasures as the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and Kew Palace in Kew Gardens.  In If Walls Could Talk, Worsley employs the trivia gleaned from her work to a history of each room of the home and the way these rooms have evolved in use and appearance throughout history.

An excellent example that encapsulates the scope of If Walls Could Talk is Worsley’s description of the humble bedroom closet over the course of several centuries. Since the bedroom was, for centuries, a combination office, library, sitting room and sleeping area, closets often served as a private area where one could pray, read or study, and store art, valuables, or other items not intended for public viewing. Only as the bedroom evolved to a more private space did the closet evolve into mere storage space, or, as Worsley points out, disappear altogether, as the closet did in many British homes from the 17th century to the late 20th century.

Worsley covers each room in the home in such a manner, exploding square footage into the larger historical and social context. A discussion of the bathroom includes the history of indoor plumbing in Britain, while the history of the bedroom includes everything that went on in the bedroom, from sex to childbirth to medical treatments.

If Walls Could Talk is the best example of non-fiction-as-entertainment. Trust me when I tell you that it will be ages before you look at your closet or flush your toilet without thinking of this book. Which is a good thing.

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home

By: Lucy Worsley

Hardcover: 368 pages

Publisher: Bloomsbury/Walker & Company

U.S. Release Date: February 28, 2012

Book Review: Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear – How He Changed the Face of Rock and Roll by Rich Poldosky

Posted in History, Music, Non-Fiction, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on February 4, 2012 by JE Cornett

This semi-biography of Don Kirshner by Rich Poldosky led me to identify a whole new genre of non-fiction: when mediocre books happen to stellar stories.

The story Poldosky tells in Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear – How He Changed the Face of Rock and Roll should, by all rights, be riveting. Don Kirshner’s role in the development of rock and roll has long been neglected; for almost thirty years, Kirshner was at the helm of some of the most interesting ventures in rock music. From his pivotal role in the Brill Building pop songwriting scene, to his early melding of music and videos with the creation of the Monkees and his long-running TV show Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. 

Unfortunately, Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear only tells part of that story. As such, it’s erroneously named; a book about “how (Kirshner) changed the face of rock and roll” would spend more time with the Monkees and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.  Instead, Poldosky focuses on Aldon Music, the publishing company Kirshner formed with Al Nevins in the late 1950s, and therefore is more about how Kirshner changed the sound of rock and roll.

Since Poldosky’s work is actually about Aldon Music rather than Don Kirshner, per se, what we get is a vivid picture of the Brill Building songwriting scene of the early 1960s, where pop songwriters like Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weill, Neil Sedaka and Carole Bayer Sager created some of the most memorable songs in pop music history, standards such as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “On Broadway” and “Up On the Roof.”  What’s more, the book reads like a who’s who of big names in early 1960s pop —  Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, Tony Orlando, Bobby Vee, Gene Pitney and the Shirelles all make cameo appearances,

For anyone who enjoys rock music, the pages Poldosky devotes to the halcyon days at Aldon’s Brill Building offices are the highlight of the book, offering  great insight into the way that pop music was written and marketed in the early 1960s. While Kirshner and Nevins’ song factory set-up was hardly unique, originating in Tin Pan Alley a generation before, it’s still fascinating. Poldosky describes some of the era’s most celebrated songwriters hammering away at their craft in cubicles separated with paper thin walls, writing songs on pianos. This close proximity bred fierce if friendly competition between songwriters, especially the husband/wife duos of Carole King and Gerry Goffin and Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann.

This section, however, is the high point of a book that is frustratingly uneven. While Poldosky’s interviews with Gerry Goffin, Jack Keller, Kirshner and others involved with Aldon Music paint a fascinating picture of how the songwriters worked, and provide creditable veracity to the narrative, Poldosky shortchanges his own accomplishment by offering distracting — and frankly unflattering — information about all the interviews he could not get. Instead of adding a few lines at the outset of the book explaining that Carole King, Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann (among others) declined to be interviewed, Poldosky inserts long, wandering asides throughout the book explaining the circumstances of each interview he did not get, and, in many cases, those he did. It’s distracting, to say the least, and interrupts the flow of the book.

Add to this numerous spelling mistakes, a final third of the book that feels rushed and incomplete, and Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear becomes a flawed, but nevertheless interesting account of one of rock music’s most influential characters.

Hardcover: 304 pages, including many photographs

Publisher: Hal Leonard (March 1, 2012)

Studs Terkel – 1912-2008

Posted in History, Literature, Uncategorized with tags , on November 1, 2008 by JE Cornett
Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel

Some people seem perennial, ageless, as though they have been around forever and will continue to be around forever. Like Gore Vidal. And Henry Kissinger. And Studs Terkel.

It would be trite to say that Studs Terkel is an icon, such an ubiquitous part of America that his death seems impossible, but there it is.

I don’t ever remember not knowing the name “Studs Terkel,” but I was in college the first time I picked up a copy of his 1974 book Working. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t interviews with hotel maids, prostitutes, cabbies, or any of the many other people whose voices comprise Working.

I was not unfamiliar with oral history, but Working was oral history that I had never heard or read before – that of everyday people, people whose 15-minutes of fame were no doubt contained within the pages of Working, people most of us had never heard of before or since, and people that most of us could never imagine wanting to hear from in the first place.

Working, which Modern Library ranks as 54 on its list of the 100 best English-language works of nonfiction of the 20th century, was the essence of Studs Terkel’s desire to capture the experiences of the people whose histories are usually lost to history – those that he called the “non-celebrated.” Working told the stories of everyone from hookers to traveling salesmen to executives. Hard Times documented the Great Depression from the perspectives of politicians, agitators, Okies, a panorama of a time in American history that many would as soon have forgotten. In Division Street: America, he captured both dire poverty and great prosperity in mid-century Chicago. He collected oral histories about race relations, aging, and death, and in doing so, let Americans without voices contribute to the history of their country.

With one of the most important elections in American history just a few days away, it will be interesting to see how attention the press will pay to Terkel’s passing. For those who are interested in tracing our journey to this point, the story is in Terkel’s books.

For more information about Studs Terkel and his books, visit Conversations With America.