On Monday I attended a writing group where the leader prompted us to write about the shootings last week in Colorado. Below is what I wrote.

When I heard about Colorado and what had happened, at first I didn’t really focus. When I finally comprehended what had happened my first thought was why aren’t people be nicer to people? Why do we live in a world where such horrible things occur?

I had just finished reading Little Bee by Chris Cleave. The book is about a Nigerian refugee. Horrific things happen to her. Again why do these things, these bad, bad things exist? The holocaust was over seventy years ago but the world keeps doing the same terrible things over and over. Not letting people in, not rescuing people, and not treating people how you would want to be treated.

If the Colorado shooter was Islamic or a person of color he would be called a terrorist. Because he is white he is just a killer. What did he do but cause terror? Can people go to the movies again without fear? Can the people of Aurora go about their business without fear? The world should be safe place. Safe from violence. Safe from crime. Safe from hunger.

The gun rights people, the NRA, say guns don’t kill people, people do. Doesn’t having easy access to guns make killing easier? Of course there are other ways to kill, to cause terror. On 9/11 they used planes. The person in Colorado could have used a bomb. His apartment was booby trapped with explosives. Still does anyone besides the police or the military need an assault weapon?

The person from Colorado is obviously mentally ill.  A sane person could not knowingly harm so many people. If he knew what he was doing though, he may not be found legally insane. Recently I listened on cd to Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. Charles Guiteau was completely crazy and delusional. He believed that people would be happy that he had killed the president. He was not found to be legally insane. He was found guilty and executed. There is a huge stigma in this society against mental illness. Many, many people who need help do not get it.  Although the Colorado terrorist apparently showed no sign of disease something was obviously terribly wrong.

A society where we cared for one another and found peaceful ways to resolve conflict would be beautiful place.



Book Review: Gilded: How Newport became America’s richest resort

Gilded: How Newport became America’s richest resort by Deborah Davis is a history of Newport Rhode Island with a focus on its wealthy inhabitants. In many very short chapters she tells interesting anecdotes about some of the famous and not so famous people who passed through Newport.

I read this book because I am always looking at popular non-fiction to see if there are ways to make the book I am working on more marketable. The book was easy to read but it was a little light on substance.

I didn’t really know that much about Newport before I read the book. I have been there once and saw the Touro synagogue (which she doesn’t talk about) and one of the Gilded Age mansions – the Breakers I think.

Her narrative goes from the colonial period to the present. Newport gained its identity during the Gilded Age. Davis’s depiction of twenty-first century Newport does not seem that different from the nineteenth century period. She describes opulent, extravagant parties in both eras. The book is similar to taking a tour of one of the mansions where you get to peek in on the lifestyles of the rich and famous.


Book Review: Revolutionary Road

Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road, published in 1961, examines the post war suburban life and its conformity. In particular, he focuses on marriage. His main character, April Wheeler is deeply ambivalent about motherhood. The novel takes place in 1955, and describes the lives of April and her husband Frank both before their marriage and after. She is pregnant three times and wishes to abort two of the pregnancies. This is, of course, when abortion is not legal and for dramatic purposes Yates has her rely only on advice from a friend rather than seek medical help. Middle and upper class women were able to access abortions despite its illegality.

Yates portrays April as someone who pregnancy traps. Her first pregnancy propels Frank into a job he hates and eventually they move to the suburbs of Connecticut. They have a second child without comment but a few years later April feels completely suffocated by her life and plans an escape. They will move to Paris and she will work while Frank decides what great thing he will do. April needs to feel there is a point to her life; working in a foreign country appears to fulfill that need. Frank is more ambivalent about this plan but they proceed.

Before they can bring the plan to fruition, April is pregnant again. This third unwanted pregnancy propels the story to a tragic denouement. Throughout the whole story it is clear that April desperately wanted to determine her own life and have autonomy over her decisions.

Although abortion was illegal in all states and only two states allowed therapeutic abortions in the interest of the women’s health, many women received abortions every year. The largest group of women who sought abortions were married and already had children. Thus, Yates’s portrayal of April Wheeler was a very representative one. One fifth of the women Alfred Kinsey interviewed for his study of sexual behavior had had abortions. Middle class women, in general, had access to services including abortion that poor women did not.

When April is pregnant for the third time and wishes, once again, to abort, Frank wages a fierce battle to prevent her from doing so. Eventually he persuades April that she needs psychological help. Although Yates has Frank somewhat cynically use this argument to prevent the abortion, the portrayal of a woman who did not wish to have another child as mentally ill was a very prevalent idea in the 1950’s. Popular psychology decreed that if a woman wanted to both work and be a mother she had to be in conflict. A woman who denied procreation was denying pleasure.

The book is very well written. It has many fans; one is Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men. In2008 a movie version of it with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett opened. No one in the book is very likeable but he is trying to show you the trap that the characters are in. In the movie which must externalize much of the novel’s internal drama,  April does become more sympathetic because Frank is such a dog.


Better Late Than Never

The current issue of The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs has a review of Brewing Battles. The book was published over three and a half years ago but such delays are fairly common in academic reviewing.

If you want to read the full review you must be subscribed to the journal. If you have any interest in the topic I would encourage you to do that.

Martin Stack reviewed both Brewing Battles and Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew. Here is an excerpt:

“Mittelman’s approach is quite different. She provides a more complete chronological overview, beginning decades before Ogle does. While she doesn’t spend as much time as does Ogle in connecting changes in the beer and the brewing industry to broader cultural and social developments, she is excellent on two key topics that Ogle downplays, regulation and worker-brewery relations. Mittelman examines thoroughly the history of the complex regulatory environment connecting beer, breweries, and the state and federal government, highlighting how and why this set of interconnections has changed over time. … Mittelman makes a significant contribution in her detailed discussions of how breweries and the federal government set about to develop a post-repeal regulatory system. …

Another topic Mittelman handles very well concerns worker-brewery relations. This discussion draws from some of her earlier work, and she provides some excellent analysis here. Of particular import is her discussion of brewery workers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; she notes that brewery workers, as did workers in many industries, focused too much on their internal struggles. For brewing this proved particularly short sighted, as workers and owners did not ‘form a self-conscious alliance … to combat prohibition forces … until 1913.’ (p. 61)

Together, the Mittelman and Ogle books bring much needed attention to an understudied topic. … As a student of this industry, I greatly prefer Mittelman’s book.”

It is never too late for such praise.


Beer Cookery

While doing some research for my new book, I came across a review, in the New York Times of Beer Cookery by Michael Harrison. It was  published in 1954. “From England comes, not so oddly, “Beer Cookery.” There recipes are inclined to be of the squeeze-of-this and a pinch-of-that variety. They sacrifice accuracy to breeziness. And I believe than most people are looking for improved techniques rather than warmed-over witticisms.”

Obviously, the reviewer did not like the book very much. I thought it was interesting that the cookbook is from 1954 since, at least in America, we think of that period as the dark days  before craft beer appeared. Cooking with Bud is not appealing. If anyone has a copy of the book let me know.

Book review: Amy Bloom

A few weeks ago, I read a review of Amy Bloom’s Where the God of Love Hangs Out in the New York Times. The review said the book was a collection of related stories about academic couples. I decided to read it since I am using literature in Dames, Dishes, and Degrees.

A collection of two interrelated sets of short stories and four unrelated stories, Bloom’s work is only tangentially about academia. Despite this, I really enjoyed reading it. I have been reading so much nonfiction, watching reality television, and listening to the news that it felt like a real treat to enter the world she created.

Fiction, if well done, can be more realistic than reality. I thought the stories about William and Clare, a middle-aged couple who briefly find love, were the best. The people in Bloom’s stories are often deeply flawed but manage to survive.

Joy in the Morning: Book Review

Betty Smith wrote Joy in the Morning in 1963. She was the author of the very well known, A Tree Grow in Brooklyn. Joy in the Morning is about Annie Brown and her first year of marriage.  Only eighteen, she moves from Brooklyn to marry Carl Brown who is a law student at a midwestern state university.

The book is semi-autobiographical. As a newlywed, Betty Smith moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan where her new husband was studying law at the University of Michigan.

I was interested in Joy because the book I am working on looks at the wives of students, both graduate and undergraduate. The University Of Michigan had a National Association of University Dames (NAUD) chapter well as a Faculty Women’s Club, which still exists.

Annie does not belong to any of these groups but Smith movingly conveys her sense of being an outsider. Annie, like Smith, wants to write and eventually audits a playwriting class.

The book is lovely and very sweet in a non-sentimental way. Smith depicts the struggles that Annie and her husband Carl have, dealing with money, adjusting to marriage, and the birth of their son, honestly, in an authentic voice.

Carl eventually gets a job as a night watchman at a nearby factory.  He is able to get this job because the previous guard died. Annie feels badly about their good fortune resting on the death of someone so she decides to write about it.“

Annie spent the night writing the story. She wrote under great compulsion. She couldn’t stand it that a human being had lived and died and that there was no record that he had ever been. She felt that writing about him she was establishing the fact that he had lived and walked the earth and had once been a man.” 1

The women I am writing about had families and people who knew and now remember them, yet this sentiment spoke to me because I want to give then back their identity and humanity.

Betty Smith
Betty Smith


I just finished writing a review of Garrett Peck’s The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet. You will have to wait to read the review in its entirety until The Historian is published. The book is an interesting survey of the current liquor industry. One thing that stood out in the book was how much the liquor industry is using tourism as a way to promote itself.

Wine tourism, particularly in California, is very big business. One could make the case – Peck does not – that the best aspect about the liquor industry for the American economy is that they produce their products in America. They make something and offer traditional, well paying unionized jobs, particularly at the macro brewing level. If the industry shifts its’ focus toward tourism and away from production, these jobs will be replaced by lower paying service jobs, a familiar story for much of American industry.

Of course many places want to become tourist attractions. As part of the Little Berks, on Saturday I went on a  walking tour of Florence, Massachusetts. Florence use to have some industry; Pro Brush was a big employer. It closed in 2007. The David Ruggles Center is trying to restore and promote the history of the village. Florence was involved in many of the reform movements of the nineteenth century including the water cure, abolitionism, and the underground railroad.

Sojourner Truth Statue Florence Massachusetts

Sojourner Truth lived in Florence for a while and there is now a beautiful statue of her there. The house she lived in still exists but looks completely different. Local historians would love to be able to restore the house. If they do, it will certainly be a tourist attraction. Many of the places we have gone this year while traveling also hope to have something that will produce a steady stream of visitors.

Book Review: Good Morning, Miss Dove

Frances Gray Patton published Good Morning, Miss Dove in 1954. It was an immediate success. Prior to writing this novel, she had published short stories in various magazines, including Harpers and the New Yorker. Patton was also a faculty wife who lived her whole adult life in Durham, North Carolina.

I read this book because I thought I might do research on Patton when we went to North Carolina. Duke had several faculty wives organizations including Law Dames (wives of law students) and the Reviewers Club. The Faculty Wives of NCSU occasionally had joint luncheons or meetings with wives clubs from the surrounding area.

Good Morning, Miss Dove is not about a college town or an academic instruction. Liberty Hill is not even a southern town. The book is about learning and the role of teachers.

Good Morning, Miss Dove is very sentimental and somewhat unrealistic.  Patton’s portrayal of Miss Dove borrows from other literary figures, including Mary Poppins. One character in the book even remarks on Miss Dove’s similarity to the British nanny.

The two characters share certitude and high self-esteem. Miss Dove does not possess any of the whimsy or magic of Mary Poppins. They also share an ability to transform the lives of their charges. Patton does capture the phenomenon that teachers can sometimes be the most important figure in a student’s life.

The book is dated both in use of language – “colored” and in the portrayal of the relationship between nurses and doctors. Although it is set in the present, 1954, it has an old time feeling. The only modern element is her discussion of World War II and the fate of some of her students.

The plot, if you could call it that, revolves around the sudden onset of paralysis for Miss Dove.  Her hospitalization and surgery allows Patton to explore and elucidate Miss Dove’s character and memories. The outcome is unsurprisingly positive. Both the town and Miss Dove have gained greater appreciation of the meaning of her life.

In 1955, Jennifer Jones starred in the movie version of Good Morning, Miss Dove. I wish I could see the movie because Miss Dove was not supposed to be a beautiful woman. So far, I have been unable to find the movie in either VHS or DVD format, which is surprising.

Movie Poster Good Morning, Dove
Movie Poster Good Morning, Miss Dove

Book Review: “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant

The Wettest County in the World, by Matt Bondurant, (Scribner:New York, 2008)is well written. The device of placing Sherwood Anderson within the story is more problematic. Anderson does serve to frame the story as a mystery. Under the guise of writing a story about the Bondurant boys and moonshine, Anderson’s character helps guide the reader through the narrative maze. It is interesting that Bondurant starts his story of hardship for the family in the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919. This certainly gives his book a timely feeling.

Bondurant presents illicit distilling or moonshine production as occurring because of both hard times and thrill seeking. Moonshine, governmental corruption, and tax evasion have a long history, dating back to 1862 and the creation of the Bureau of Internal Revenue to finance the Civil War.

Until the passage of the Volstead Act, which established enforcement procedures for Prohibition, the federal government had a limited view of its proper role in the regulation of the liquor industry. From 1862 on, officials conceived of liquor taxation as an easy, painless, and morally expedient way to raise revenue. High excise rates led to speculation, corruption and illegal distilling, significantly reducing the amount of money the government received. The Internal Revenue Act of 1862 created many new patronage positions and new opportunities for spoils. Because officials established a bureaucracy but paid little attention to administration, time honored patterns of political appointments and gain continued.

Despite reform efforts by David A. Wells and others, the combined forces of speculators and government spoils men dominated the federal tax policy and its administration. In the generally lax atmosphere of the Grant presidency, corruption reached new heights. Using the need for funds for Grant’s reelection as a pretext, mid-level revenue officials in St. Louis and other Mid-west cities set up a collection ring that cost the federal government millions in revenue from St. Louis alone.

Following the breakup of the Whiskey Ring, the administration of the Bureau of Internal Revenue stabilized. Although fraud by licensed distillers did not disappear, the Bureau shifted its attention to moonshine, particularly in the South.1 These unlicensed distillers are the characters in The Wettest County. During Prohibition, any production of alcohol for commercial purposes was illegal but the Virginia distillers in the book had a history of illegal production dating back to the nineteenth century.

After Repeal, widespread illicit distilling subsided but Southern moonshine has remained a perennial problem for the federal government. Federal legislation prohibits distillation of spirits for home use. Distilling sprits always requires payment of taxes and filing of paperwork prior to beginning production. In the early twentieth-first century, the ATF was the lead agency in Operation Lighting Strike, formed in Virginia and North Carolina to fight the big business of illicit distillation of alcohol. In a first, Operation Lightning Strike used federal money-laundering legislation to combat moonshine.2

Jack Bondurant is the chief protagonist; the author does not fully develop his character. The epilogue, which ends the book, although factual, is the least developed aspect of the book, particularly because the author does not really explain why Jack left the family business. Overall, The Wettest County is enjoyable to read and provides some, good historical information.

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