Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Flesh & Blood So Cheap

Flesh & Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy
by Albert Marrin

182 pages
published by Alfred A. Knopf

Publisher's description:

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City burst into flames. The factory was crowded. The doors were locked to ensure workers stay inside. One hundred forty-six people—mostly women—perished; it was one of the most lethal workplace fires in American history until September 11, 2001.

But the story of the fire is not the story of one accidental moment in time. It is a story of immigration and hard work to make it in a new country, as Italians and Jews and others traveled to America to find a better life. It is the story of poor working conditions and greedy bosses, as garment workers discovered the endless sacrifices required to make ends meet. It is the story of unimaginable, but avoidable, disaster. And it the story of the unquenchable pride and activism of fearless immigrants and women who stood up to business, got America on their side, and finally changed working conditions for our entire nation, initiating radical new laws we take for granted today.

My comments:

While this book does cover the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, that many pages are actually devoted to the fire itself. Instead, much of the focus rests on immigration and workers rights; two larger issues that have a great deal to do with the fire. Most of the workers who died in the fire were immigrant women, and unsafe working conditions are responsible for their deaths.

The legacy of the fire was a greater awareness of worker safety. Frances Perkins, a champion for workers' rights, was spurred into action by the fire. h eventually served as Secretary of the Department of Labor for FDR.

I have mixed feelings about the design. The size, shape, and heft of the book is somewhere between picture and coffee table book. The bright gold cover is attention grabbing, but the safety-orange end papers inside hurt my eyes. The text is large and is arranged in two columns per page with a lot of white space on the side.
There are many great images included in the book, including several from Jacob Riis' groundbreaking 1890 work How the Other Half Lives.

Prominent figures like Perkins and Riis get extra coverage.

Back end materials include a bibliography, source notes, picture credits, and index. The notes are numbered in the text and organized by chapter at end. The clear organization, generous text size and spacing make them easy to use. The picture credits, on the other hand, are cramped into a small block. There's also no information about photographers.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Many Faces of George Washington

The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon
by Carla Killough McClafferty
120 pages
Carolrhoda Books

Publisher's description:

"No picture accurately resembled him in the minute traits of his person . . . there was an expression of his face that no painter had succeeded in taking." --London's New Monthly Magazine (1790). George Washington's face has been painted, printed, and engraved more than a billion times since his birth in 1732. And yet even in his lifetime, no picture seemed to capture the likeness of the man who is now the most iconic of all our presidents. Worse still, people today often see this founding father as the "old and grumpy" Washington on the dollar bill. In 2005 a team of historians, scientists, and artisans at Mount Vernon set out to change the image of our first president. They studied paintings and sculptures, pored over Washington's letters to his tailors and noted other people's comments about his appearance, even closely examined the many sets of dentures that had been created for Washington. Researchers tapped into skills as diverse as 18th-century leatherworking and cutting-edge computer programming to assemble truer likenesses. Their painstaking research and exacting processes helped create three full-body representations of Washington as he was at key moments in his life. And all along the way, the team gained new insight into a man who was anything but "old and grumpy." Join award-winning author Carla Killough McClafferty as she unveils the statues of the three Georges and rediscovers the man who became the face of a new nation.

My Comments:

McClafferty tells duel stories with her book: the fascinating modern process of creating lifelike figures of Washington, and Washington's own life story. The art and science of the modern "Bones-ish" storyline are what initially attracted me to the book.

The three new likenesses of Washington are all based off of the work done by Jean-Antoine Houdon. The French sculptor visited Washington in his home to create a plaster life mask. Washington posed for Houdon at age 53, so it took scientists and artists a lot of work to accurately depict him at ages 19, 45 and 57. Many color photographs of the creation process are included, along with captions that provide additional information about how it’s done. A great deal of care went into details like his hair, eyes and clothing. Washington was known for being an excellent horseman, so it's fitting that his horse, Blueskin, was also recreated to go along with his 45-year old figure.

McClafferty's rendition of Washington's life focuses on exciting incidents, such as young Washington's role in the French and Indian War and middle-aged Washington's role in the American revolution. Photographs of Mount Vernon and other important historical sites such as Fort Necessity are plentiful, and well-captioned. The history sections are well-written overall, but I found one erroneous date (on page 35) that muddles the story. In the middle of a section on Washington's time spent with General Braddock in 1755, the text suddenly claims that he fell ill on June 14, 1754.

The design of the book is very attractive. The trim size is very similar to Houghton Mifflin's "Scientists in the Field" series, and the look and feel of the pages is typical of National Geographic's work. Dark red text boxes and bars contrast nicely with off-white backgrounds. The text is divided into two columns, and the font that's used is not quite so big as to seem childish.

Back end materials include a note from the author, a very useful George Washington timeline, source notes, a bibliography, further reading and an index. The note thanks many of the people involved in the creation of the statues who shared their insights with McClafferty. To research the book, she spent time at Mount Vernon and the studio where Washington's likenesses are "freshened" each year. The source notes are not very useful because they are not individually numbered. Only page numbers are included, so that you have to guess at what portion of the text the note is referring to. The bibliography is extensive, and includes books, articles, primary sources, interviews, a couple of DVDs and even a master's thesis on Washington's dental history. The further reading section includes several websites.

A little text box on page 117 promotes complementary educational resources available through the publisher's website: What the text box doesn't tell you is that you must register with Lerner in order to access the downloadable materials. Fortunately, registration is free. The downloadables turned out to be nothing too exciting: a list of some additional websites, a journal assignment for anyone wishing to burden young readers with homework and a photo slideshow. Okay, the slideshow is pretty cool.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal
160 pages
Flash Point

Publisher's Description:

It began with the best of intentions. Worried about the effects of alcohol on American families, mothers and civic leaders started a movement to outlaw drinking in public places. Over time, their protests, petitions, and activism paid off—when a Constitional Amendment banning the sale and consumption of alcohol was ratified, it was hailed as the end of public drunkenness, alcoholism, and a host of other social ills related to booze. Instead, it began a decade of lawlessness, when children smuggled (and drank) illegal alcohol, the most upright citizens casually broke the law, and a host of notorious gangsters entered the public eye. Filled with period art and photographs, anecdotes, and portraits of unique characters from the era, this fascinating book looks at the rise and fall of the disastrous social experiment known as Prohibition.

My Comments:

First of all, this book is very well-written. Blumenthal draws readers in immediately with an account of the St. Valentine's Day murders and then shoots back in time to describe the people, ideas and events that led up to it. In addition to introducing readers to the major players like Morris Sheppard, the "father" of Prohibition, she traces the roots of Prohibition all the way back to the pilgrims without letting the story get bogged down in the minutia of the past. If you'll pardon the expression, I never found the writing to be "dry." It helps that the book covers such a fascinating segment of American history, full of larger than life characters like Carrie Nation and Al Capone.

The overall design of the book is nothing special, but the wealth of images are a great strength. From a beer advertisement featuring a toddler (p. 28) to a full-page photograph of labor union members marching with "We Want Beer" signs and miniature flags (p. 107), the pictures alone tell a compelling story. A pair of photographs on page 68 comparing prohibition agents Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith in and out of costume had me giggling for several minutes.

Blumenthal makes a point of mentioning in her bibliography and source notes that there is great wealth of primary sources on prohibition available to anyone willing to dive in. She describes her trips to university libraries with entire sections on temperance and prohibition. In addition to library research, she also contacted famous people born just before 1920 to request interviews. Jean Craighead George (p. 75) and John Paul Stevens (p. 126) were two of the people who responded. The bibliography is nicely organized into subject categories (i.e. cars, Al Capone). Source Notes are organized by chapter, and while a little guesswork is needed to pair sources with quotes, I still found them to be helpful. Also included in the back is a useful Prohibition and Temperance Glossary. It's worth browsing for the definition of "ombibulous'" alone. Picture credits and an index round out the end materials.

The lessons learned during Prohibition (the problems with single-issue politics, the need for compromise, the consequences of changing the Constitution) are pertinent in today's political climate and ripe for discussion. Ken Burns' 3-part Prohibition documentary just debuted this week. In his Sept. 28 interview with Stephen Colbert, the reasons for Prohibition, the problems with the Volstead Act, and the era he describes snugly with what Blumenthal described in her book. Historian David Okrent, author of recent adult title Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, figures prominently in Burns' series. These two books may pair well for a teen-adult book discussion.