Nonfiction reviews (#SFWApro)

A NEW ENGLAND TOWN: The First Hundred Years by Kenneth A. Lockridge looks at the Massachusetts town of Dedham from the 1630s to the 1730s to see how a town that launched as a utopian, communitarian Puritan project where even the rich were just rich subsistence farmers gradually lost its utopianism and began slowly to shift into a more familiar, less-unified society with greater stratification between rich and poor. Lockridge concludes that along with the classic problem of later generations not sharing the founders’ vision, other factors in the change including the town’s growth (several outlying areas seceded to set up their own townships), specialization into different careers and the luck of the draw leading to some families growing richer while others tanked.The author says part of his interest was to see whether this sort of town represented (as New England is often portrayed) the roots of American democracy or a radical break with European tradition. His conclusion is that the town was fairly close to a European peasant lifestyle, and that the initial emphasis on community harmony made it closer to a Marxist commune than anything else.
1929: The Year of the Great Crash by William K. Klingaman actually starts in 1928, looking at the White House transition from Coolidge to Hoover and the sunny optimism that the Coolidge bull market would rise forever. What follows is unsurprisingly and depressingly familiar as lax regulation, Wall Street greed, clueless but optimistic investors and supportive government players combine to create a financial meltdown (while insisting the bubble will never burst). Klingaman also does a good job bringing in various figures of the era (the Marx Brothers, FDR, JP Morgan, Hitler, Ghandi) though that reminded me of my friend Ross’s point that you can designate pretty much any year of the 20th century as The Year Everything Changed—I imagine someone could make just as good a case that whatever Ghandi or Hitler did in 1931 was game-changing. Still, a good read.

6387125Likewise I wondered as I read THE ATMOSPHERE OF HEAVEN: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr. Beddoes and his Sons of Genius by Mike Jay (all rights to cover image with current holder) if there’s any time in the past 200 years or so that couldn’t be written about as a turning point in scientific progress. To Jay’s credit he doesn’t try to claim Thomas Beddoes as a fundamental figure in scientific history (his theories about the power of gases to cure disease were off-base, though he had some good insights into the future of medicine as a whole), simply as a representative figure of an era (late 1790s) when science was overturning established truths about the universe just as the French and American Revolutions changed the way we thought about government (Beddoes was a strong supporter of both). Overall a good look at chemistry finding its footing and Beddoes as both misguided visionary and mentor to greater talents (Coleridge and the great chemist Davies being among his proteges).

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