Category Archives: History

You Can Keep Thanksgiving, I’m Taking Channukah

Of all the holidays that I don’t like Thanksgiving has got to be one of my least favorites. This year I’m grateful that my least favorite holiday overlaps with my favorite- Channukah. Now when everyone is happy and wishing each other a happy holiday I can join in all the fun, plus I get to do it for eight days so that’s nifty.

When it comes down to it I’m a traditionalist. I like like ceremony and repetition and ties to my history and so while I’m a firm agnostic you can still find me singing hymns and lighting menorahs and doing all the other stuff that my religiously polyglot family has been doing for centuries. My issue with Thanksgiving is that all of its traditions seem to come back to the same place- the fact that we committed genocide and then turned the start of this genocide into a lovely myth about how self-reliant and hardy and inherently good our ancestors were.

Maybe I’m cynical horrible person who takes joy in being miserable but I’m also not a fan of current attempts to focus Thanksgiving away from whitewashing our national history towards a day that we focus on being grateful for the blessings in our life. Rather than actually addressing the blood that our flag covers we’d rather direct our attention to nice things that don’t make us think of the violence our nation sits up. I’m all for a holiday when we share our love and count our blessings and give thanks to those that bring us joy but I’d rather not have that holiday come at the expense of forgetting about, you know, fucking genocide. If we’re going to have a holiday to give thanks let’s pick a day that doesn’t erase our blood soaked history (I’d like to put forward January 25th as a nice option.)

Let’s burn down “Native American” holiday decorations. Let’s yell at people who try to use today to propagate a history that makes white cishet landowning men look good. Let’s actively try to make today a day of solemn remembrance.

But I realize that this isn’t something that’s going to happen over night. I’m still going to sit down tonight and eat turkey because I do it for a family that loves me. I’m going to practice self-care and try to avoid getting myself into situations that could ruin the holiday for others sitting around my table.

What I will do is politely speak up and remember that I have 364 other days to be rude and angry about Thanksgiving because these are the compromises we make for our immediate loved ones. And I’m going to regularly look at the menorah and take strength from the three lights I’ll see glowing at the dark window.

So I wish you a Happy Channukah with a reminder to remember our dark history that America so happily tries to forget.

Speedy Book Reviews

(In an effort to improve my book reviewing skills I’m trying to post a review of every book I read. Right now I’m a bit behind so instead of three long reviews I’m going to do three shorter reviews.)

Moab is my Washpot 

Stephen Fry has been fairly well cemented as a secular saint and if you’re reading my blog you’re probably familiar with him. Moab is a moving autobiography  and Mr. Fry’s love of language makes it such a joy to read. Even if you’ve never heard of Stephen Fry I still highly recommend reading his autobiography. Do it, you’ll be thrilled with the results.

Stephen Fry, copyright 1997, Arrow Books

Shooting Victoria

When I first saw Shooting Victoria I immediately thought, “520 pages about the eight attempts on Queen Victoria’s life? Well that’s probably over-kill and only going to be interesting for a very narrow audience.” My second thought was, “I need this book more than I need my lungs.” Yeah, it turns out that I’m not bad at predicting things because my first thought was actually really wrong. Yes, this book is big enough to kill a child but it’s definitely not over-kill. Paul Thomas Murphy took the eight assassination attempts and used them to show how Queen Victoria’s reign began the transition into the modern monarchy. Well written and accessible and an all around wonderful read. Particularly recommended for fans of the British monarchy, European history and the Victorian era.

Paul Thomas Murphy, copyright 2012, Pegasus Books LLC

America Again

Friends, you know that I’m not Stephen Colbert’s biggest fan. Actually, you probably don’t know that. I’ve got nothing against Mr. Colbert, I’m just am not a huge fan. Reading America Again  was like watching an episode of his show. Yes, there were some moments that made me laugh pretty damn hard (which Americans he would eat if he needed was one of my favorite sections) but for the most part I found it to be mildly amusing. If you’re a fan of Stephen Colbert then yeah, I’d recommend it.

Stephen Colbert, copyright 2012, Grand Central Publishing

Review: “The Abacus and the Cross”

Pope Sylvester II (Gerbert) doesn’t have time for your lack-of-science-and-math bullshit.

Remember when I very enthusiastically reviewed Nancy Marie Brown’s Song of the Vikings? Well during the papal elections (I’m a not so secret Vatican/Pope fanatic. Not in the sense that I’m Catholic but in the sense that I am in love with the crazy shit that the Bishops of Rome used to get up to.) I picked up one of her older books, The Abacus and the Cross, which bills itself as “the story of the pope who brought the light of science to the Dark Ages.” Yes, this book is a biography of Gerbert (later known as Pope Sylvester II) but it’s more than the life of one man. In the same way that Song of the Vikings was a biography of Snorri that also told a grander story of Icelandic history and culture this biography uses Gerbert’s life to tell the story of the end of the first century in Christian Europe.

Gerbert is the sort of person who you have to feel bad for.  A peasant born monk who probably could have spent his life happily working away on various scientific and mathematical problems in the libraries of Europe Gerbert ended becoming involved in some of the big political kerfuffles of his time. The reader watches as the somewhat (Well, maybe more than somewhat) naive Gerbert is forced to learn the diplomacy needed to interact with kings and empresses and men with big tempers and even bigger armies. As Gerbert attempts to reunite the Holy Roman Empire it’s impossible not to want to hug him and say, “It’s alright, honey, you tried your best.”

Song of the Vikings helped provide a nuanced and more realistic portrait of Viking Iceland and The Abacus and the Cross does similarly for Plutarch’s “Dark Ages.” Following Gerbert’s travels to Spain we see the multicultural city of Corboda where Jews and Christians could advance to the upper levels of government in this Muslim city. There is no sugar coating in this book, no attempt to make the Dark Ages look like a “Kumbaya” singing group of multiracial people holding hands but it does put a clearer perspective on the cultural politics before the early 1000s.

Ms. Brown also preforms a service by reminding us of the importance of Muslims in not just preserving Greco-Roman science and culture but in adding to and advancing them to new heights. Indeed, Gerbert’s own achievements would have been impossible had it not been for the teachings of Muslim scientists and mathematicians. (Ms. Brown’s writings on the political motivations behind the demonizing of non-Christians that would follow only a few years after Gerbert’s death are also particularly interesting.)

The subject of the Church and its relationship with science and math and logic and reason (I’m working really hard to keep my agnostic evidence based snarky bastard side in check right now.) isn’t a new discussion but Ms. Brown provides more context by discussing how a Gerbert, a scientist who would become pope, found his faith and his science came together like one big happy family. By using him as an example for the more traditional faction of the Church that viewed science and math as forms of better understanding God versus those who were beginning to look at arithmetic as Devil worship Ms. Brown describes the contrasting sides quite nicely. The look at how this scientist pope was treated after death when those that disagreed with his views on science and math became the dominant voice is a fascinating way of understanding the shifts that occurred with the Church.

The Abacus and the Cross might not be as accessible as Song of the Vikings (I mean, the latter is about Vikings and who doesn’t love Vikings?) but if you give it a chance I think that most readers will find themselves engrossed in this book. This book could also be perfect for any reader who is looking for a solid history that provides nuances to their understanding of the history of the Catholic Church.

The Abacus and the Cross; Nancy Marie Brown; Basic Books, copyright 2010

Sod Off (Give Away)REMINDER: I’m giving away two copies of this print for free. Details are here.



Review: “God’s Secret Agents”

I’m going to lay this out right here and now: God’s Secret Agents is the best non-fiction book that I’ve read this year (Song of the Vikings is an exceedingly close second) and this review is going to be heavy on the praise. The Cliffnotes version of this post reads something like this: You should read God’s Secret Agents.

In God’s Secret Agents Alice Hogge has produced a book that hits full marks for every aspect I judge history books on. Text is accessible and engaging? Yes. Presents a point of view that is as objective as possible/acknowledges potential biases? Yes. Offers a new interpretation or understanding of subject? Yes. Provides insights into modern culture? Yes. 10 out of 10, you go Alice Hogge.

God’s Secret Agents follows Catholics in England from the early years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign when Catholicism went from the state religion to the religion of traitors up until the extremely unsuccessful Gun Powder Plot that made Guy Fawkes so famous. Though the book’s cover implies that it is focused just on the Catholic priests who fled England to study in Europe and then risked their lives to return to England in an attempt to bring their home back to what they saw as the true and proper faith the book’s subject is far more expansive. While the narrative of these priests would be fascinating by itself Ms Hogge goes above and beyond by providing a history that puts the idea of the “revolutionary priests” in the context of its time and lays out the driving forces of all parties involved.

There are two points that I feel Ms Hogge deserves extra praise on. The first is that she takes apart the whole concept of the Catholic priest plotting to kill the Monarch and bring the Roman Catholic faith back into England. Priests in elaborate hiding holes and Guy Fawkes (who wasn’t a priest) style agents dominate our notion of this time period but Miss Hogge explains how this notion is rooted in the English government’s propaganda which was itself rooted in paranoia and not so much in fact. Yes, there were certainly some who did want to kill Elizabeth (and later James) but from the accounts of the active Catholics themselves these seem to be a minority. Despite a Papal decision that could be interpreted as allowing the assassination of Elizabeth most of the priests who traveled incognito throughout England were more concerned with the spiritual salvation of their countrymen than with Elizabeth’s life. Indeed the idea that a Catholic could not be a true Englishman loyal to his country was much more firmly held by the English government than the Catholics, many of  whom didn’t see such a firm contradiction between holding onto the old religion and supporting their Queen. This is not to say that all was peaceful but it was certainly more complex than we like to imagine. Another important distinction that we tend to forget is that it wasn’t just Catholic priests (Jesuit or otherwise) who were active in trying to restore the Catholic religion to England.

The second point that I thought Ms Hogge addressed very nicely was how violent and terrifying this period could be. While the reign of Bloody Mary is well remembered for the persecution of Protestants and Puritans the reign of Queen Elizabeth has been more sanitized (I have two pet theories on why this is: Our desire to remember elevate Queen Elizabeth to impossibly high standards and the fact that Catholics never returned to power.) Ms Hogge introduces us to an England where suspected Catholics faced not just financial persecution but also gruesome tortures and executions. Indeed this is an England where one nobleman felt that if his friend had been a murderer or thief or pirate or anything other than a Catholic he would be able to ask for leniency from the courts but since his friend was accused of being a Catholic he would be risking his own life in asking for leniency that would not be served. This book is an important and strong reminder that even golden ages can be filled with horrific details that we try our best to forget.

Ms Hogge’s final chapter is a particularly important aspect of this book as it presents one of the best connections between the past and present that I have ever seen. She first dismantles the connections frequently made between this period and modern events and then offers up more reasonable ones that actually, you know, make sense. Her history on the evolution of Catholic identities in England from the Tudor/Stewart era to modern politicians is also highly fascinating.

God’s Secret Agents is a thorough and comprehensive history that brings light into an aspect of history that has been obscured by retention to the propaganda of the time and should engage even the most casual student of history.

God’s Secret Agents; Alice Hogge; HarpersCollins, 2005

Sunday Steals: History Songs

There are so many wonderful History Songs out there are this is just a small sample that I’ve drawn from YouTube but I hope you enjoy it. All of these songs are completely enjoyable not just as aids in learning history but just as great music to listen to. I’m always looking for more history themed music so please send me names and links to any songs you enjoy.

It’d be a bit much to say that Horrible Histories has the market cornered on History Songs but they’ve definitely got a pretty big share of the market. Their show is broken up into sketches, both musical and non-musical, and there are some great videos floating around YouTube from them. Here are some of my favorite.

“The Tudors Song” is super fun and bouncy. It might be a bit harsh on Elizabeth but I really enjoy how this characterization of her.

“The Wives of Henry VIII” Yes, yes, yes more Tudors! Their Henry VIII is such a big teddy-bear and I just wanna give him a platonic cuddle.

“The English Kings and Queens Song” From the Conqueror to Elizabeth II this is a great way to refresh your memory of which monarch fallowed which.

“Dick Turpin Highwayman Song” Yeah, I’ve got a crush on this Dick Turpin, go ahead and judge me, I don’t care.

I first discovered History for Music Lovers when my friend linked me to their great French Revolution video. This channel is run by an actual history teacher so there’s a strong emphasis on accuracy. Probably a useful classroom tool but I don’t know, I’m not a teacher.

“The French Revolution (‘Bad Romance’ by Lady Gaga)” Such fun!

“William the Conqueror (‘Sexyback’ by Justin Timberlake)” Whenever I try to sing “Bad Romance” I end up singing the French Revolution version and now when I sing “Sexyback” (Hey, it happens.) I end up singing this version. It’s just as well as these are all far superior to the originals.

“Henry VIII (‘Money, Money, Money” by ABBA)” Tudors and ABBA? It can’t get much better than that.

Soomo Publishing only has two music videos and they’re both pretty cool.

“Bad Romance: Women’s Suffrage” This is probably my favorite History Song out there. I’m a little put off by their all-white cast (particularly in the section showing modern women voters) but over-all this song is really amazing and the choreography is fantastic.

Alright so Boney M wasn’t a history themed music group but they did make this amazing gem:

“Rasputin” About as accurate as, well, as most popular accounts of Rasputin’s life but one of the best songs out there. Whenever I’m bopping around my room to this song I’m happy.

Samuel’s 2013 Great Baking Escapade!: Virginia Woolf’s Cottage Loaf

February 13th, 2013; Preferment:

Well I’m happy to say that the first part of my first escapade of Samuel’s 2013 Great Baking Escapade! is done and sitting quietly in my refrigerator.

For my first baking escapade it seemed only right to start with something that combined my favorite writer and one of my favorite baked items: Virginia Woolf and bread. When I found Paper and Salt‘s post about this cottage loaf I was happier than a Tea Party Representative at a 15th century witch burning. I knew that I had to bake it.

After several weeks of putting off any large baking ventures (waaah, I’m moving in, waaaah, I’m looking for a job, waaaah, I have to start the Common Application, waaaaaaaahhh) I finally forced myself to buckle down and get started. I’m giving my friend a birthday dinner on Thursday (home-fries, nutmeg-cinnamon pancakes, scrambled eggs, ginger spice cake) and this seemed like the perfect time to offer up a Virginia Woolf bread (they’re fans of Ms. Woolf as well.) Despite having baked very few breads before, and none on while unsupervised by my mother, I set my mind to getting my ingredients and getting this bread baked. After all, the whole point of this Escapade! is to challenge myself to get comfortable baking items that I’m unfamiliar with.

There's nothing like switchell to make your roommates want to vomit.

Make your roommates vomit!

Like any good Vermonter feeling under the weather I made certain that I had my mug of switchell close at hand while I began to prepare the preferment. The first trouble that I ran into was when I realized that I didn’t have a shifter. Damn it, I knew I should’ve stolen my parents when I moved down here. Being the resourceful Yankee that I am I ended up using a fork and I think that it came out just grand.

When I say that not having a shifter was my first problem what I meant was, “The only problem that I ran into…” Honestly this part of the baking process was fairly straight forward and I think I can safely say (knock on morning wood) that I nailed it. It was wonderful to knead the preferment as I haven’t had to knead dough since… well, the day before Christmas I punched down my mother’s babka dough for her and that’s the closest I think I’ve gotten to kneading dough in years. I’d forget how much I love working my hands into the dough. It’s different than working out cookie dough as the bread dough feels alive. Maybe it’s the yeast or the way it clings to your hands or some cosmic force (I like to think that if there is a/are deity(ies) out there they’re bread bakers, it just fits perfectly in my mind.) but it’s hard not to think of bread as sentient as you work the dough.

It's alive! Quick, Spock, concuss it with the wooden spoon before it eats Checkov!

It’s alive! Quick, Spock, concuss it with the wooden spoon before it eats Checkov!

Here’s a brief intermission where I tell you a yeast anecdote. I went through a pretty intense militant animal rights phase when I was in sixth grade. My passion for the rights of our oppressed brethren knew no bounds (except, you know, not eating them) and I was a real dick about it. During some science class our teacher brought up the fact that yeast is technically an animal (I don’t know, that’s how sixth-grade me processed it), forever changing my life.

Horrified that we would keep a living animal in the cold of our fridge I went home and immediately liberated these little fellow from their frigid entrapment. Commandeering a small bowl for my purpose I added warm water and then released the yeast! I was a hero! All I needed to do was make certain that their water was nice and warm and I would have my own yeast sanctuary. Bonus: I’d also have my own pets to talk to and play with! I was a very lonely child.

My pets lasted for several hours and then while I slept their water temperature dropped. Whichever parent was up first that next morning tossed out my bowl of now dead friends (probably while wondering what my resale value was) and then I woke up and ate breakfast and went to school and didn’t think about the yeast again until just a few years ago. Wow, who wouldn’t want me as their child?

I'm a good Vermonter.

I’m a good Vermonter.

I’ve mentioned this before but I get anxious pretty quickly. The instant I reached the step where I was told to let the dough rest at room temperature for an hour I started to think of everything that could go wrong. Maybe I used the wrong yeast. What if I was too rough with the kneading? I’d probably destroyed everything with my improv shifter. It was at this point where I  realized that if my dough didn’t rise than I’d been a terrible parent.

My dough did rise. Not as much as I was expecting it to but it did rise. So I guess I’m not a terrible parent. With that weight off of my shoulders I put saran wrap over my baby and placed it gently into the fridge. Someone get me a parent of the year mug!

SUCH a good Vermonter!

SUCH a good Vermonter!

February 14th, 2013; The Baking:

Producing bread is one of life’s miracles. What else can you call the rising of bread from just flour, salt, water and yeast? The part of this miracle that I love the most is the fact that it’s a day-to-day miracle. You don’t need to wait for divine intervention or take a pilgrimage to a far-off location, you only need grains and heat.

Forgive me if I wax poetical but the bread that I baked was just that good.

Down you miserable peasants! I will beat you down!

Down you miserable peasants! I will beat you down!

During the mixing and kneading I was entirely in control. My kitchen was my kingdom and no peasant was going to challenge my right to rule. Might is right! MIGHT IS RIGHT! Vive le feudal system! Feudal power relations, these are the things that I think about while kneading bread. Relaxing.

7The peasant uprising came when I had to let the dough sit. Do you know how hard it is for me to sit back and let the natural process of yeast reacting to warmth work on its own? It’s fucking hard. It doesn’t help that I have basically no spatial relationships so when I’m told to let the dough rise to twice its original I get easily frustrated. The dough could quadruple in size and I’d still be wondering if it was really any bigger. In the end I had to make an executive decision allowing me to make my own decision as to what “double in size” actually meant. The only thing that got me through my harrowing adventure in nerve-wracking fear was how pretty the cloth covering the dough was.

My executive decision made I broke the dough into two balls, approximately 2/3 and 1/3 of the total dough (and when I say approximately I mean really badly approximated) and stacked them.With a prayer and a kiss and a shot of switchell for my nerves I put the dough into the oven and then promptly panicked until it was done. My oven’s a bit funky so I had to put the bread back in a few times but soon it was ready. The result of my not so accurate measurements for making the stacked balls ended up with the top ball becoming top-heavy and rolling off. I ended up with two loafs of bread, not that bad at all.

The finished bread was eaten warm and with soft butter. Six of us tore into it, cracking the solid crust to get at the soft center. At first I afraid that the rigidity of the crust was a result of my over-cooking it but I think that’s the way it was meant to be. I adore a good crust on a bread and this one was supremely satisfying. Here’s some photos because I’m a proud parent:

8 9 10

We also had cake.


Samuel’s 2013 Great Baking Escapade! is my adventure to explore new recipes that I haven’t tried before.

Review: “Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths”

The line between a good, or even great, biography and a really excellent biography lies in the biographer’s ability to tell their subject’s story and also connect it to the larger world. Nancy Marie Brown’s biography of the Icelandic poet and political schemer Snorri is an excellent example of biographies that tie together people and the times they lived in. Not only a biography of a Snorri Sturlason this slim book (It’s only 208 pages in the hardcover.) covers Iceland’s history and lore. Using the arc of Snorri’s life as her guide Ms. Brown tells the story of Iceland’s and continues to the cultural impacts of Snorri’s tales in the 20th century.

It’s refreshing to read a biography that wasn’t written by a sycophant. Ms. Brown addresses Snorri’s numerous flaws (primarily his self-serving nature) but she doesn’t try to explain them away or turn him into an overblown characterization of a villain. Her treatment of the Icelandic culture is similarly fair. Carefully making the point that the Icelandic Vikings were not the horned-helmet-wearing, looting and ravaging hordes that we remember them being she doesn’t hide their darker sides. Along with stories of Icelandic law courts and justice are stories of a six-year old smashing his playmate’s head open with an ax after losing at a ball game and the joy that this brings to his mother, glad that her son will be a true Viking when he grows up.

The legal and political life of 13th century Iceland is carefully explored in Song of the Vikings and it may just the be the political nerd inside of me talking but it is absolutely fascinating. Ms. Brown takes us from the first days of Iceland’s founding by Scandinavians who chaffed under the rule of a king to the arrival of Christianity to the domination of Norway. She adeptly breaks down the legal system that allowed this small island to maintain its unity so that even a complete novice such as myself feels that I understand. As a strict agnostic with an interest in how Christianity spread and its interactions with the native religions I was delighted when Ms. Brown addressed this very topic. The frustrations of the Bishops who tried to maintain a Christian attitude over a population with a very strong “Don’t Tread On Me” mentality provided a nice example of the outside world trying to exert its control over Iceland.

Snorri wasn’t the rough and tumble Viking that one sees in popular culture. A portly writer with dreams of becoming the “Uncrowned King of Iceland,” a strong goal for a Chieftain living in a country ruled by a strong oligarchy that prickles at the idea of a one-man rule. His constant struggle to achieve greatness makes a fascinating tale and one that takes the reader from the intricacies of Icelandic local politics to the court of the young Norwegian king. Unlike his more aggressive neighbors Snorri uses his control over language to work toward his end. In his attempts to court the teenage king of Norway Snorri repackages the old myths of Iceland to make them Christian friendly and presents them as a symbol of his intelligence and craft.

Ms. Brown’s prose is clear and crisp with few unnecessary flourishes. This does not mean that the book is cold or stiff. Rather it is has the comfortable warmth that the Icelandic sagas also hold. Song of the Vikings makes the reader feel that the author understands them and wants to engage them. Ms. Brown even acknowledges the sexual allure of the Vikings, using descriptions such as, “we can imagine his long blond hair loose over his shoulders, his massive chest and manly thighs bared.” Wooof! You can see the grin that must have been on Ms. Brown’s face when she wrote this, a grin that’s quite similar to the one I had when reading it. I would suggest that if you, like I, don’t have a great head for proper nouns then you might want to keep a pen and paper handy to keep track of all the characters in this book. Not only are the names unfamiliar and somewhat similar sounding to an American like me there are also a fucking lot of important people.

The final chapter of Song of the Vikings links Snorri and the myths he preserved to major cultural and philosophical ideas today. Unlike some who make rash comparisons and stretch connections Ms. Brown puts together a thorough chain from the 13th century to the 21st and goes through the chain link by link. She uses concrete evidence to put together her claims and, in my opinion, does so very well.

Song of the Vikings is an entertaining book that adds dimension to a period of European history that has been flattened by simple stereotypes of Vikings. Not just a cultural history, not just the biography of a man who you can’t stop reading about, not just a political intrigue, not just an overview of Icelandic lore, Song of the Vikings is a comprehensive read that covers a wide variety of topics. Yes, the history buff and the folklore buff will devour it but so will the casual reader, who will discover a new interest in Iceland and might just pick up a copy of Snorri’s writing.

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths; Nancy Marie Brown; Palgrave Macmillan, copyright 2012.

Review: “Dreaming In French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis”

The primary myth of self-identification that we Americans have created is one of independence. Despite the fact that our nation and its culture are drawn from nations and cultures around the world we like to see ourselves as self reliant, the shining city on an isolated hill, a group of hard-up settlers who transformed the wilderness in paradise with nothing but our own hands. While most of us can probably agree that this myth holds little truth it can be disturbingly easy to lose ourselves in this myth. If Alice Kaplan’s new book achieves only one thing it is that this book reminds us that our intellectual and cultural leaders do not exist in an America-only vacuum. The book is divided into three biographies that explore the relationship between their subjects and France, specifically focusing on the year or two that each spent in La Belle France.

The American notion of France is divided. We have, among others, the glittering lives of the 18th century nobles (and their subsequent bloody end); the easily dismissed effeminate French with their black and white striped shirts and the men sporting ridiculously thin mustaches; the Paris with panache; the France of Jean-Paul Sartre and the France of Julia Child. Of course these attempts of reducing a nation, a people, to such simple strokes is obviously absurd. France, like America, like Guinea, like every nation in the world, is a complex mixture of culture and history that can only be fully described in a 2,000 page tome*. Ms. Kaplan’s choice of subjects helps to show the diversity of the French identity. Yes, Ms. Sontag and Ms. Davis both are notable social commentators (although this is only one part of each of their identities) but Ms. Kennedy? (One can almost hear, “One of these things is not like the other,” playing in the background.)

The France that Ms. Kennedy arrives in is rebuilding after the horrific Nazi occupation. Not only is the nation rebuilding itself structurally and economically but also socially as it tries to figure out what sort of nation it now is. Ms. Sontag’s Paris is the Paris of the great American expatriates who spoke English in their tiny flats and over cheap croissants. Her Paris is not the more chic Paris that Ms. Kennedy experienced but it is the physical location of an American counter-culture. It is the France of Ms. Davis that I found most fascinating as it is the farthest from the France that I’m familiar with. When she first arrives she enters into the world of existential philosophers but soon she is caught up in the French-Algerian dynamics that would influence her revolutionary ideals. Ms. Kaplan deftly shows  how Ms. Davis’ experiences with the race relations of a foreign culture would become useful not only in forming her ideas on society but also useful in her activism.

Readers who pick up this book looking for standard biographies of these three remarkable women will not find what they went looking for. Rather they will find Ms. Kaplan putting forth (and persuasively arguing) a thesis on how Paris helped to shape the lifestyles and politics that Ms. Kennedy, Sontag and Davis would become known for. If I was forced to pick a fault with this book, to lay out a major critique, it might be that Ms. Kaplan’s thesis is grander than the argument she puts forward. Except, except that might be the exact reason why this book is important. In our hero worship of our American Greats we dismiss the possibility that they relied on others (particularly foreign others) to help them form their identities. We need to be reminded that even our 20th century cultural and intellectual leaders did not spring fully formed from their mothers’ wombs.

Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis; Alice Kaplan; The University of Chicago Press, copyright 2012

*I believe you can see the hyperbole in this statement. It doesn’t necessarily need to be 2,000 pages or even a written tome but I think you get the idea. Nations aren’t simple, folks.