It’s Monday, it must be . . .

 

 

Belgium, Italy, Ireland, France, Scotland, maybe China or Vietnam.  My last trip abroad was Italy in 2014, the first year of retirement.  I’ve traveled on an airplane once (to Washington State) since my surgeries and ongoing medical issues.  I often wonder can I, will I, when will I travel out of the United States again.  Maybe, until then I can enjoy reading about places I would like to go.

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I recently reread “The Pipes are Calling: our jaunts through Ireland” by Naill Williams and Christine Breen.  A Dublin born writer and American writer-painter, they moved to Kitumper, County Clare, Christine’s grandfather’s cottage, on the west coast in the 1980s.  They wrote several books, including “Oh Come Ye Back.”  I read “The Pipes” a few years after we traveled in Ireland.  It is a journal of their explores or “jaunts” around the country by auto, on bicycles or on foot,  with their young daughter, Deidre.  Many of the places they visit were on our five week iternary around the country.

 

I remember the beauty of the Dingle pensuila which they visit.  And we took a carriage ride in Killarney Park; but did we go to the medieval city of Kilkenny, part of their tour.  They also mention unforgettable places like the Cliffs of Moher, Croagh Patrick, and the  Giant’s Causeway.  It also brought back memories when they write about the tense, even frightening, atmosphere in Northern Ireland, young soldiers, machine guns, signs and graffiti documenting the struggles, the troubles.

 

I enjoyed reading about Donegal where my grandfather Gallagher’s family lived.  I think we went to the Abbey Theatre there.  Since I did not know the exact location or town, I visited my friend Bill Gallagher’s relative (in a pub of course).   Niall and Christine describe places I didn’t visit or don’t remember, Bunratty Folk Park, Knock Shrine, Moore Hall, Cuil Aodha, Ennis, Newry, and West Mayo to name a few.

We like them spent several days in Dublin. The University of Dublin and Guinness Brewery were destinations for us but I don’t remember other specific streets, shops or churches.  Maybe a bookstore near the University.  Throughout the trip they mention Irish poets and writers. Dublin there are traces of George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan  Swift,  and Sean O’Casey.  Christine like me graduated from Boston College with a B. A. In English.  I graduated in 1969; she in 1976.

 

For me “The Pipes are Calling” evoked the Irish countryside, small roads lined with hedges, wind and rain, rocky fields, peat moss, warm knit sweaters, pubs, friendly shop keepers and tidy bed and breakfasts, small villages, thatch roofed cottages, Irish music and of course step dancing.  And so many shades of green.

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But it’s another day and I just finished “The Sweet Life in Paris: delicious adventures in the world’s most glorious — and perplexing City,” by David Lebovitz.  Diane spent significant time in Paris after graduating from college.  I’ve enjoyed her stories but have never been there.  I was familiar with Lebovitz through his book, “ The Perfect Scoop.”  But I was drawn to “The Sweet Life” because it was a memoir with recipes.  How delightful.  David Lebovitz got his start in Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse.  He became a well known pastry chef.

In 1999 he decided to leave San Francisco and move to Paris to live, cook and write.  Each chapter explores an aspect of living in Paris.  As much as he loves the city, Lebovitz is quick to point out how the culture is different, better sometimes, perplexing, even frustrating other times.  The French don’t like to wait in line but will jump ahead and push behind you but then they always dress correctly, no sweatshirts and flip flops in public (at least among proper, traditional Frenchmen).  Supermarkets are awful but the open air markets and speciality shops are fantastic. He describes his difficulty with language.  Life in Paris is sweet but not always easy.

 

To really experience the city, David works for a while in poissonnerie or seafood market.  But how to remove the every present stain, smell of fish from body and clothes.  He has his favorite boulangerie to buy his morning baguette.  Unfortunately he claims that French coffee is awful, make it yourself (or drink tea).  Lebovitz real passion is chocolate and he takes another job, volunteer, in Patrick Roger’s, one of the best chocolate shops in Paris (and there seems to be many).  But dealing with customers is more than he can handle. He is more into making and eating all forms of chocolate.

 

“The Sweet Life” explores to ins and outs of ordering in a French restaurant, do you want water?  Why aren’t there enough public rest rooms?  The lack of service in department stores, while clerks gossip and smoke.  And then there are what he calls “Les Bousculeurs” — people pushing on the streets — not in all France, but Paris.  At times I wonder why anyone would move to Paris.  But then there is the wine, the cheese, the chocolate, a politeness, well dressed, friendly, once you’ve been around for some time, people, the Seine, the speciality shops, cafes and restaurants.  David has stayed.

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I’d like to go to Ireland again.  I need to get out my photographs and check my journals to recall more of out trip in the 80s.  It might be fun to read another one of Naill and Christine’s books.  And then Paris.  I’ve wanted to visit.  I do plan on trying some of the many recipes in “The Sweet Life.”  Many are desserts, many chocolate.  I already ordered several pounds of chocolate from King Arthur.  When I get freezer room I’ll make some Lebovitz ice cream.

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And of course there are other books I can read or reread about Paris, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, India.  So many places; so many dreams.  And maybe, just maybe I can still board that plane.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rush

 

My granddaughter, Vivienne, was reading “Fever 1793” by Laurie Halse Anderson.  It’s the story of the worst yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia history.  About 5,000 people died; that was 10% of the population.  Years ago I read J. H. Powell’s “Bring Out Your Dead: the great plague of yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793” (1949).  It was a gripping story.  Many of the better off fled the City.  African Americans led by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones cared for the sick and buried the dead. It was mistakenly believed they were immune.   The cause, infected mosquitoes,  was unknown.  As were medical cures.  Several doctors offered their best theories.  One of the most active was Benjamin Rush who advocated purges and blood letting.  Some thought Rush’s blood letting was excessive and may have actually led to deaths.  I mentioned Allen, Jones and Rush to Viv.

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I didn’t know much about Rush.  He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and there’s  a State Park and a high school named after him in Northeast Philadelphia.  In addition there is a Benjamin Rush elementary school in Bensalem.  I visited the park once expecting to find a Rush house but there wasn’t any.  I was curious to know more.

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Stephen Fried to the rescue.  I ordered his 2018 book, “Rush: revolution, madness & the visionary doctor who became a founding father.”  Fried felt that founding father Rush had been somewhat ignored considering the attention given to Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and Franklin.  He used many  papers in several libraries, particularly letters that had never been catalogued or read academically.  What emerges is a well written, entertaining story of an interesting character.

As a young man Benjamin decided on medicine and was sponsored at the University of Edinburgh medical school.  On his return to Philadelphia he was appointed a professor of chemistry at the College of Philadelphia, later the University of Pennsylvania.  Rush also became associated with Pennsylvania Hospital.  Like Franklin he was extremely active in the social, political, and medical life of Philadelphia. He was born in a house on Red Lion Road in the Northeast.  But  he lived in several homes downtown (one on the corner of Third and Walnut).  He also had a house outside the city located today in Greenwood cemetery.

At the Pennsylvania Hospital, Rush became an advocate for the mentally ill who were frequently chained in a basement level.  He lobbied for a separate building with private cells, more humane treatment.  Throughout his life he attempted to understand the reasons for madness and develop and promote treatments.

He was particularly against the use of strong spirits, not wine and beer, but hard liquor which he believed led to madness and other disorders.  This interest was reinforced when his son John became mentally ill and was hospitalized (John killed a close friend in a duel).  Rush writes about a variety of medical topics including mental illness. He designs a restraining chair.

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Rush was active politically during the Revolution which he actively supported.  He wrote and encouraged Patrick Henry to publish “Common Sense.”   Fried explores Rush’s relationship with his contemporaries.  He is very friendly with Franklin.  Although he had a slave for some time he became active with Franklin in the Abolition Society and would champion the rights of blacks, writing about abolition.  He also took an interest in education which he felt was essential to a true democracy.

Despite his teaching at the medical school and his many students who respected him, he does not get along with several leading doctors — John Morgan and Edward Shippen Jr.  During the war, Rush is critical of Washington, and their relationship never recovers.  He is however good friends of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  He corresponds extensively with them.  Although he disagrees politically with the Federalists, Hamilton and Adams, he likes to engage in discussion.

Abigail and John Adams and the Rush family become personal friends.  Rush is married to a young Julia Stockton, the daughter of Richard Stockton, Princeton, NJ, and signer of the Declaration.  The Stocktons lived on the outskirts of town at Morven.  Julia would sometimes retreat there when Rush was too engaged.  Morven is a museum today.  They had many children, several died young.

Although Rush signed the Declaration of Independence, he wasn’t there for its ratification but was appointed a PA representative later.  Although his role in the 1793 yellow fever epidemic was memorable, he contributed much more to life in Philadelphia and the new United States.

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Benjamin Rush is buried in Christ Church cemetery near Benjamin Franklin.  He attended several churches, was very pious, but like Franklin may have been a Dieist at heart.  He liked discussing religion with Jefferson, who edited his own version of the Bible.

 

I almost feel I will need to reread “Rush” to retain a bit of the detail.  It would also be fun to visit the sites associated with Rush.  I’ll call it on the trail of Benjamin Rush.

 

 

 

 

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French in the American Revolution

When I taught the Revolution as part of an American History course, I always focused on events in New England and the mid-Atlantic.  The Stamp Act (1765), Boston Massacre (1770), Boston Tea Party (1773),  First Continental Congress (1774), Paul Revere and William Dawes rides, Lexington & Concord, Fort Ticonderoga,  Second Continental Congress, Bunker Hill (1775), British sail out of  Boston and the action moves to New York, Declaration of Independence, Battle of Long Island, Washington escapes across New Jersey into Bucks County, Battle of Trenton (1776), then Princeton, Battle of Brandywine, Saratoga, British occupy Philadelphia, Valley Forge (1777),  British abandon Philadelphia (it’s 1778).  There were other battles in the South and West but the real action seemed to happen in Boston, New York and Pennsylvania.  Then in 1781, Cornwallis surrenders in Yorktown, Virginia.  What happened?

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Part of the missing story is found in Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Hurricane’s Eye: the genius of George Washington and the victory at Yorktown.”  Philbrick is a favorite author.  He is from Nantucket and I first read was “Away Offshore: Nantucket Island and it’s People.” I’ve also read “Mayflower,” “Why Read Moby Dick,” “Abram’s Eye: the Native American legacy on Nantucket Island,” and  “In the Heart of the Sea”  (the story of the ship Essex, inspiration for Melville’s “Moby Dick”). I saw Philbrick speak on Nantucket several times.

So what happened between 1778 when the British leave Philadelphia and Yorktown, the battle that ended the war.  The simple answer was the French.  In 1778, Franklin ended successful negotiations and the French became allies in the American war for independence.  We’ve all heard of the young Lafayette.  But far less of the role played by the French Navy.

I’m amazed at the historical detail in “In the Hurricane’s Eye.”  There are about 40 pages of notes and a 20 page bibliography.  Philbrick deals with the main issues, when will the full French fleet arrive and where will they take on the British?  Washington was hoping for a New York engagement, much of the British fleet and Clinton was there.  The French wanted the Chesapeake where Cornwallis had an army.  The French prevailed.

Philbrick documents the movements of armies and fleets.  There are a number of encounters before the final assault on Cornwallis at Yorktown.  We learn naval tactics, the number of cannons, different types of ships, and the strategy of each side, the relationship between Washington and Rochambeau, the French commander.

Yorktown is located at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay where the York and James rivers empty into the bay, then ocean.  The French were able to control entrance into the Bay; American and French forces conducted a siege.  Cornwallis realized it was the end and surrendered after 21 days.  The thirteen colonies would become the United States.  Washington would become its first President under the Constitution.

And the French?  They had 28 ships in the Bay.  And their ground forces may have been about 10,000, more than the Americans. If I taught the Revolution again, I think I’d need to revise my story. I can thank the research of Nathaniel Philbrick.

 

 

 

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Salmon

6B211778-7BC7-4CDE-84CF-2E8660D27224Do you consciously buy wild salmon instead of farm raised?  “Wild” will probably be more expensive;  but will probably taste better;  with less fat, it will need more careful cooking to avoid drying out.  It probably comes from Alaska.  We’ve lost Atlantic salmon.  And catches are down in the northwest — Oregon, Washington.

 

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I recently re-read “Mountains in the Clouds: a search for the wild salmon,” by Bruce Brown.  Originally published in 1982, it’s outdated but is still an interesting environmental history.  I probably originally bought and read it while visiting my sister, Marylee, and her husband Norval, when they were living on a beautiful coastal property overlooking the Pacific, near Tahola and working on the Quinault Indian Reservation.

Salmon are born in rivers, they spend their lives in the ocean and return to their home river to spawn. Different species have characteristics associated with their river.  There are several Pacific types, Chinook (King) is sometimes considered the best.  You might also find Sockeye (red), Coho (silver), Pink and Chum.  I don’t remember seeing the last two but will pay more attention now. Last night we had some delicious Sockeye ($19.95 a pound).

“Mountain in the Clouds” documents the decline in the Washington State salmon fishery.  Today most commercial wild salmon come from Alaskan waters; although there is tribal and recreational salmon fishing in WA.  The decline of wild salmon is another chapter in the story of our destruction of the natural world.  Think American bison, passenger pigeons, Atlantic Cod.

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The decline of the Pacific salmon is the result of several factors.  Intensive logging on the Olympic Peninsula poisoned streams and rivers.  Runoff from clear cut slopes, logging roads, and sawdust polluted waterways eliminating oxygen.  I saw the landscape devastation from logging on the Quinault Reservation; I need to pull out the photographs of those trips.  I have a book from the period about logging in the Gray’s Harbor area.

Dams on various rivers have cut off salmon spawning.  Although laws may have required fish ladders, they were not always built.  Courts sometimes allowed hatcheries instead of ladders.  But hatchery fish may compete with and negatively impact wild fish.

0D122480-3CF5-4057-999B-2E0765D892B5Nuclear power plants have had an impact.  Increased, more efficient fishing, may have contributed to fewer fish spawning, living and growing.  A side issue is the conflict between Native American fishing rights and white sportsmen recreational fishing.

I always like single food books, caviar, blue fish, salt, tomatoes, cod, lobster, and now  a salmon re-read.  My sister now lives outside Olympia.  Norval buys local salmon and smokes and dries it, I’ve thought about doing that.  We like smoked salmon.  I also will be more conscious about the salmon we buy in the market.  Not just wild or farmed?  But the species?

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History and David McCullough

 

Senator Margaret Chase Smith had a backbone and stood up for what she believed was right. “I speak as a Republican. . . I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American. I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.”  Smith’s Declaration of Conscience speech wasn’t made this year.  She wasn’t talking about a current political situation.  It was 1950 and her speech was aimed at Senator Joe McCarthy, who saw communists behind every bush in Washington and in every major government agency.  Enemies of the people.

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I recently read the Smith/McCarthy story in David McCullough’s “Brave Companions” (1992).  McCullough is an excellent historian, writer and I suspect teacher.  My son-in-law Rob was in his class at Cornell.  In a graduation speech at Middlebury he said, “We appear to have an unending supply of patriots who know nothing about the history of this country, nor are they interested. We have not had a President of the United States with a sense of history since John Kennedy — not since before most of you were born. It ought to be mandatory for the office. As we have a language requirement for the Foreign Service, we should have a history requirement for the White House.”

McCullough encouraged the graduates to see the country — the strip mine coal fields  in Kentucky, Antietam battlefield, Monticello and it’s gardens, the heartland.  In one chapter he revels in all that Washington, D.C. has to offer.  For McCullough, “If nothing else, seeing the country should lead you to its past, it’s story, and there is no part of your education to come that can be more absorbing or inspiring or useful to your role in society, whatever that may be.  How can we know who we are and where we are going if we don’t know anything about where we have come from and what we have been through, the courage shown, the costs paid, to be where we are?”

In “Brave Companions: portraits in history,” McCullough tells the story of interesting, sometimes forgotten Americans but it’s always a biography, a personal story in context, in a specific place.  The setting is as important as the person.

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I think “The Johnstown Flood” (1968) was the first McCullough book that I read.  It was a great story, dramatic, really riveting, so well written.  Many years later a Holy Family College graduate student used it as the basis for a history unit.  She traveled to Johnstown and created a great teaching unit.  The trip is still on my to do list.

 

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A few years later I read “The Great Bridge: the epic story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, (1983). I remember a great, dramatic story.  It was also very long.  John Augustus Roebling of Trenton died from an accident.  His son, Washington took over supervision; and he became incapacitated with the bends, which effected many workers who were construcing the huge piers underwater, reaching for bedrock.  Then there were the cables manufactured in Roebling’s Trenton factory.    A story of tragedy and determination. A great read.

In “Brave Companions” we read about the forgotten South American explorer, Alexander von Humboldt; Harriet Beecher Stowe (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”);  Frederick Remington (western artist); Louis Agassiz (Harvard scientist); aviators, Charles and Anne Linberg, Beryl Markham.  Of special interest was Harry Caudill, a Kentucky lawyer who awakened the country to the tragedy of strip coal mining, black lung,  and the poverty of Appalachia. I also liked reading about photographer David Plowden, until recently I  had his book, “Commonplace,” a midwest tribute.

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I particularly liked McCullough’s chapter, “Washington on the Potomac,” a homage to our Capital, it’s old hotels, monuments and plaques, government buildings and institutions, the books written about and films made.    He writes, “What I am drawn to and moved by is historical Washington, or rather the presence of history almost everywhere one turns. It is hard to imagine anyone with a sense of history not being moved. No city in the country keeps and commemorates history as this one does.  Washington insists we remember, with statues and plaques and memorials and words carved in Stone, with libraries, archives, museums, and numerous, magnificent old houses . . .”

He is captivated by images of Washington characters, Truman who is the subject of another one of his books, but also Lincoln who he senses throughout the city.  McCullough also asks (relevant today), “Why do so many politicians feel obliged to get away from the city at every chance? They claim a pressing need to get back to the real America.  To win votes, many of them like also to deride the city and mock it’s institutions.  They run against Washington, in the shabby spirit made fashionable in recent presendential campaigns.  It’s as if they find the city alien or feel that too close an asssociation with it might somehow be dishonorable.  It is if they want to get away from history when clearly history is what they need, they most of all, and now more than ever.”  Could that have been written today instead of 1956 when it was first published.

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McCullough suggests politicians spend time on the Mall, in the National History Museum, or the National Gallery. “This is our capital. It speaks of who we are, what we have accomplished, what we value.”  It was Capre corn but the bus ride Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) takes through Washington, D.C. in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” echoes McCullough.  “Prize tolerance and horse sense. And some time, somewhere along the way, do something for your country.”

I like David McCullough’s sense of history, his interest in individual “brave” stories and his emphasis on background and place.  I’ve read a few other McCullough books (“1776” and “ Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.”) but I want to read “ John Adams” and “Truman.”  “Morning on Horseback,” about Theodore Roosevelt and “The Wright Brothers” are also on my list.

But like McCullough.  We need to know our history.

 

 

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The Fearless Benjamin Lay

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For years I taught a high school local history course, Philadelphia and Bucks County.  My Teaching Social Studies course at Holy Family College was sprinkled with local history material. For several years I wrote a local history column for the Yardley News.  My personal library has hundreds of books related to Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Bucks County history.  And when I travel I like to read local books.  Although I am trying to limit the number of books I buy, it’s still hard to resist new local books.

EA0CB15E-2B17-42FB-B425-920F954086E3I recently ordered “The Fearless Benjamin Lay: the Quaker dwarf who became the first revolutionary abolitionist,” by Marcus Rediker.  I sometimes told a story about Lay in my classes.  Rediker opens his book with the same story.  Lay enjoyed shock theatrics with his protests. In 1738 he attended Burlington, NJ Friends meeting.  He stood up and began to condemn slavery, particularly railing against Quakers who kept slaves or profited from the slave trade.  He invoked God and the Bible.  Drawing a sword, he plunged it into a Bible that he held aloft.  Blood spurted from the Bible wound.  Lay had carved out the Bible and inserted a bladder filled with red pokeberry juice.  Rediker provided more details, Lay, a pacifist, wore a military uniform.  He proclaimed that the Almighty God respected all people “rich and poor, men and women, white people and black alike.”  The meeting broke into chaos and several Quakers lifted the calm Benjamin and carried him from the meeting.  He had made his point; he did not object.

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Benjamin Lay would continue his guerilla war on slavery, particularly a war on Quakers who practiced, condoned or supported it.  Benjamin was born in England where he had become a Quaker but his strong anti- slavery stance distanced him from other members of his hometown and London meetings.  When he asked for papers testifying to his character to take with him to America, he was refused.  He left for the colonies anyway, eventually settling in Philadelphia and later Abington.

His theatrics continued and he was thrown out of both Philadelphia and Abington Meetings.  Benjamin lived a simple life.  Over the years he was a shepherd, sailor, glove maker and book seller.  He had little formal education but he read extensively, of special interest were the writings of early Quakers. His radical abolitionist position was formed after witnessing the horrors of slavery in Barbados.   Rediker labels him an antinomian, a belief that the law, the formal church, does not determine morality, the spirit in each individual did. Benjamin published a book, “All Slave-keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates,”  however, it was somewhat disorganized, almost a commonplace book of slavery.  Another Benjamin, Franklin, published it.

Benjamin suffered ridicule throughout his life due to his short, deformed body.  He became a vegetarian, animal rights advocate, he made his own clothes from flax which he grew.  He married but his wife died early. He never stopped his crusade to end slavery in the Quaker community and his unrelenting approach antagonized (intentionally) the wealthy Quaker elite.    His final home was in a cave in Abington.   When he died there in 1759, he was buried in the Abington Friends School cemetery in Jenkintown.  Rediker spoke of Lay and his legacy in April 2018 when Abington Friends unveiled a grave marker for Benjamin and Sarah Lay. I’d like to visit the cemetery and cave some day.

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Lay probably inspired later abolitionists. Rediker mentions Anthony Benezet and John Woolman.  I like to imagine Benjamin Lay, radical activist, today, defending the rights of not only the descendents of slaves but all people of color. He’d defend Muslims, Jews, and other persecuted minority religions.   He’d be vigorously defending the rights of immigrants and pleading compassion for rufugees.  He’d champion the rights of women, the handicapped, and those in the gay-lesbian community.   He’d demand fair equal treatment for the poor, middle and working class.  He’d speak out against tax cuts and special privileges of the usually white, wealthy, typically male, elite in American society, be they Democrat, Republican, conservative or liberal.  He’d condemn corporate greed, the destruction of the environment, and the exploitation of animals.  He’d support quality health care and education for all.

Reality check: one person, one Benjamin Lay can’t be expected to do all that, certainly not alone.  Each of us need to be inspired by the Benjamin Lays in our society.  I think they exist.  We need to look for them; recognize them.  The plain people, even dwarfs, sometimes outspoken, maybe theatrical but those who model revolutionary activism.

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A Gentleman in Moscow

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What would it be like to live in a hotel for a month, a year, decades.  Not just any run of the mill hotel, but the best.  The Bellevue in Philadelphia; Copley Plaza in Boston; The Plaza in New York City.  Remember Eloise?  Count Alexander Rostov shares his experience with us. For decades, under house arrest, he lived in the Hotel Metropol in Moscow.  “The Gentleman of Moscow,” by Amor Towles is a novel but reads as non fiction. You feel like you are in the Hotel with Count Rostov.

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During the revolution Rostov was in Paris but he was determined to return to the motherland.  In 1922 he is back but he is an aristocrat and is convicted of writing subversive poetry (ironically much later we learn the poem was written by a close friend).  At the time of his arrest, the Count was occupying a large, elegant suite on the third floor of the Metropol, the finest hotel in the city.  Instead of banishment to Siberia, the authorities decided a life confined to the hotel would be a suitable punishment for an unrepentent aristocratic, enemy of the people.

Sasha (as he is sometimes called, a nickname for Alexander) accepts the move to a sixth floor small, cramped attic room.  He must leave behind many of the expensive personal furnishings in his suite but moves a family desk, a portrait of his sister Helena and a few other treasures.  We will learn that the hollowed out legs of the desk are filled with gold coins.

The Count settles into a routine; a delivered breakfast; morning newspapers in the Lobby; meals in the Boyarsky (restaurant) or the more formal Piazza;  drinks in the Shalyapin; reading while leaning back in his chair (he was a lover of books and brought many to his attic room); interactions with the staff, a fantastic ensemble of characters, an evening aperitif, usually just one.  The life of a “gentleman.”

Two events alter his settled life.  He discovers a door in a closet that leads to an adjacent room.  He empties the room, there is a lot of storage in the attic, and creates a sitting room for himself, entry through the closet.  When visitors show up he guides them through the closet into the sitting room.  The second event is his meeting and eventual friendship with the precocious Nina Kulikova, a young girl who also lives in the hotel.

Nina had secured a pass key and guides the Count through the hotel.  They hide in a balcony, watch and listen to party committee meetings.  They visit the Count’s former suite, still furnished with his family heirlooms and there are the cellars, that area devoted to wine is of particular interest to the Count. They dine together and have all kinds of experiences.

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The years pass, Stalin dies, who will take over?  Towles provides just enough local color and history to root his story in Russia, the Revolution, later World War II and the Post War period.  To keep busy and be purposeful, the Count becomes the hotel’s  headwaiter.  Nina grows up, leaves the hotel and becomes associated with the party.  Traveling, she leaves her daughter, Sophia, in the Count’s care and the young girl, even more than her mother, becomes his constant companion and is often called his daughter. Like her mother, she is talented, clever, a delightful child.

Count Rostav becomes part of a Hotel Triumvirate with chef Emile and Andrey, the maitre d.  They meet regularly to plan menus, seating arrangements and any other important restaurant matters.  Ocassionally they must foil the attempts at control by the Bishop, a party functionary, appointed manager, who does not understand or believe in class.  One on the Bishops first actions (to Rostov’s horror) is to strip all labels from wine bottles.  Order white or red; no class pretensions.  The “three” however resist his leveling, and in one conspiracy, collect ingredients (some difficult to obtain) and create a magnificent bouillabaisse which they share in a two hour euphoric meal.

There are many other characters and subplots in the 30 years the Count lives in the Metropol. There are hotel staff including  Audrius, the bartender, Marina, the seamstress, and Victor Stepanovich Skadovsky, the orchestra conductor in the Piazza.  All play a role in the Count’s life; most have long Russian names.    Anna Urbanov, a former actress comes and goes and eventually becomes a lover.  Mishka, an old friend visits and it’s revealed that he wrote the poem that was the immediate cause of the Count’s arrest and confinement. There are years of activity as Sophia grows into a young lady.

There is a climatic “happy” ending, references to “Casablanca,” Sophia on a concert tour in Paris, and Count Rostav escaping the confines of the Metropol.  I recommend you get a copy of  “A Gentleman in Moscow,” and read more for yourself.

Diane originally got the book for a discussion group.  It’s not something I would typically read.  But reading is my escape to different times and different places.  I meet people not in my 2018, American, east coast orbit.  “A Gentleman in Moscow” was all those things.  Again, get a copy.

 

 

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