July 31, 2014

Book 17: Last Call

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Daniel Okrent

I've been meaning to read this since a coworker recommended it to me about two jobs ago, and now that I've finally gotten around to it I must say that it was worth the wait. There's nothing earth-shattering about Daniel Okrent's thousand-foot view of Prohibition- which covers the early marginalized social movements that cascaded into a constitutional amendment, the culture and characters spawned by that legislation, and some of its lasting effects (suffice it to say that the law of unintended consequences plays a significant role in that particular chapter)- but he has successfully distilled his subject, locating and elaborating on both its most fundamental elements and those that persist in the popular imagination. Al Capone and Joe Kennedy naturally make cameo appearances (how could they not?), but the narrative (rightfully) focuses on some of the forgotten characters who defined the era in its own time, such as Mabel Willebrandt and the Bronfman family. There's an entire chapter devoted to the cultural impact of Prohibition (my personal favorite part of the book) that hews closely to the established modern perspective of the era, but Okrent focuses his book not only on the speakeasies and bootleggers but also on the (legal!) cider and "sacramental" wine that also helped to saturate the dry-in-name-only 1920s United States. This marriage of the known, the assumed, and the vital-but-nearly-lost-to-the-dustbin-of-history helps to create one of the most enlightening, yet entertaining, popular histories I've ever encountered, to say nothing of Okrent's wry sense of humor and his always sarcastic, often hilarious, and rarely intrusive asides.

Okrent's account of Prohibition is at once accessible and academic; he does not sacrifice substance for style and doesn't dumb down some of the more arcane aspects of his subject as much as relate them to the casual modern reader. A basic understanding of the constitutional history of federal versus state power, individual rights versus the government's interest in protecting the people at large, and other ongoing conflicts is crucial to fully appreciating the scope and impact of Prohibition; Okrent ignores the temptation to gloss over these battle and describes them by placing them within the context of the events in his book, illustrating both the issues themselves and the shape of the era. The result is a lucid account that informs without adopting the posturing so common to written histories, even from those that claim to appeal to the masses, and a book that meets its target readers- the casual history buff- where they are without imposing judgment. The research behind the book is evident in its thoroughness and its lengthy series of endnotes, but it permeates the book without any of the snottiness that often accompanies such books. Last Call is a rare popular history that is amusing and educational, an enjoyable book that has left me with a sense that I have a much better grasp on the Prohibition era than I did before: and, after all, what more could you possibly want from this book?

Grade: A

July 10, 2014

Book 16: Rally 'Round the Flag

Rally 'Round the Flag: Chicago and the Civil War
Theodore J. Karamanski

Though it has recently become apparent that I will soon be leaving my recently adopted town, I still feel a strong connection to Chicago and its history. After attending a library-sponsored event about Camp Douglas and realizing that I should keep up on my American history, I picked up Rally 'Round the Flag. All told, I wasn't really disappointed, which is kind of an endorsement. Though the book does have some fundamental flaws (alas), it doesn't fall prey to many of the pitfalls of that particular brand of nonfiction that aims academic inquiries toward the general public. What author Theodore J. Karamanski does is make the war era accessible, conjuring the muddy streets of Chicago and its people despite focusing on a few standout themes and individuals. Though he spends quite a bit of time focusing (probably unnecessarily so) on the Republican Party convention of 1860 and the kind of favors and bargaining that drove mid-century, he manages to do so in a way that is interesting and more or less understandable to the uninitiated. Throughout the book, Karamanski's descriptions of war-era Chicago are vivid and accessible, and he is always careful to attempt to place the people and events of his narrative in their proper historical context.

It is a shame, then, that Karamanski allows the book's thematic organization to overshadow some of the narrative threads he so carefully develops. The book is littered with non-sequiturs occurring both after and without section breaks; whether the printers simply missed a few page-ending breaks is unknown, but as a result the book often becomes choppy and confusing. Its most egregious error comes at the end of the Camp Douglas chapter, where Karamanski builds suspense (yes, nonfiction historical accounts can thrive on suspense (and the good ones often do!)) only to dissipate it by shifting abruptly away into another chapter. His thematic organization is a great idea given his general audience and does follow a general timeline that serves his story, but here he strangely adheres to chronology where he could have continued the story within the chapter or moved the chapter entirely- after all, it and the opening installment are the pieces that stand strongest on their own. Nonetheless, Karamanski is an academic who is refreshingly aware of his audience without condescending to him, and his history is explanatory without being condescending. If even I am on board with the descriptions of economic affairs, you know the author is doing something right. All told, Rally 'Round the Flag is, apart from a few non-sequiturs, a well-researched and engaging history of one of the country's fastest-emerging cities during its most troubling times.

Grade: B+