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Saturday, July 01, 2017

Review: One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Audiobook: Bill Bryson is a national treasure. I have read all of his books except the most recent and that problem will be remedied shortly. My wife and I especially enjoy listening to Bryson read his own work while driving; Bryson never fails to entertain and inform, the best combination ever.

This book is no exception. He uses the year 1927 as a springboard to recount events and people that defined early 20th century culture such as Lindbergh’s flight, Babe Ruth’s prowess, Tilden’s unusual skill, and Herbert Hoover’s self-aggrandizement. Some of the events have been forgotten and startled me. I don't remember ever hearing of the Bath Massacre. Andrew Kehoe was about to lose his farm to foreclosure and he blamed the school district taxes for his dilemma (ironically he was school board treasurer who had just been defeated for reelection). He packed hundreds of pounds of explosives in the basement of a local school and then watched from his car as children’s body parts were hurled into the air from the massive explosion. 38 elementary school children and six adults were killed with over fifty others injured. That the death was not higher was only because the explosives under other wings of the building did not ignite. More people were killed when he blew up his shrapnel-filled truck with himself in it while rescuers were trying to get children out of the destroyed building. It was shortly discovered he had murdered his wife who was dying of tuberculosis and set fire to all his farm buildings. Sandy Hook pales by comparison.

Another interesting tidbit. When Lindbergh made his famous flight, no one was quite sure how he would be received. The United states was hated by most of Europe, but France and Britain in particular, as they had been forced to take out loans to aid Austria after the war. Congress had forbidding American money to be spent on current or former enemies, so this was a way around that prohibition. Austria then defaulted on the loans, but Congress insisted that France and Britain repay the loans, with interest, even though the U.S. had prospered since a requirement of the transaction was that all the money had to be spent in the United States, a clever form of double-dipping.

Prohibition was one of those curious American phenomena and probably the only case in which of government deliberately poisoned its citizens. Because of the nature of alcohol being used for so many different other purposes besides drinking Industrial alcohol was often denatured and adulterated by the government with all sorts of these are poisons including strychnine so that those people who drank it illegally would suffer the consequences. It was another interesting fact was that many states were upset about the Volstead Act because they lost so much revenue in fact New York's revenue was cut in half when they lost the tax revenue from the sale of alcohol. It made criminals out of honest people, too. (War Against Drugs, anyone?) Churches had an exception (of course) and one church in California offered fourteen different vintages of communion wine. Doctors could prescribe whiskey and it’s estimated that loophole brought them some $40,000,000 in revenue. And, it was dangerous. The murder rate went up by 30%. The revenue agents themselves killed 23 innocent bystanders in a short period of time.

Henry Ford is highlighted. Brilliant in some ways, obnoxious and bigoted in most, he was the only American to have been mentioned favorably in Mein Kampf. Among his more interesting failures was Fordlandia, an attempt to build an all-American city in the middle of the Brazilian jungles. Those who worry about Amazon’s desire to control, will only marvel at Ford’s obsession to control all aspects of his care production so as to keep costs to an absolute minimum in order to produce the best car for the least amount of money. (Part of the reason why he invented the forty-hour week and double his workers pay was to help keep workers from leaving but also so they would have enough money to be able to buy his cars.) Fordlandia was an effort to return Brazil to its former glory as a rubber producer. Ford, the largest consumer of rubber in the world, wanted to control prices. He failed miserably. His manager was a thug, diseases and noxious animals were rampant. Greg Grandin has written a history of the city, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, which I have acquired and look forward to reading.

Another fascinating section discusses the development of radio and television and that greatest of unknown 20th century inventors Philo Farnsworth who came up for the idea of using a cathode ray tube to display images while plowing his father’s field. Ironically, it was a businessman with no inkling of the mechanics of radio that made it ubiquitous. David Sarnoff’s genius was making the connection between content and device. Who would buy a radio if there was nothing to listen to? The first public demonstration, a broadcast of a boxing match turned out to be a fraud as a technical difficulty prevented the live broadcast, but the huge crowd in Times Square listening on speakers to an imaginative reader of ticker tape thought it was live, and that’s all that mattered. Soon NBC was having to create all sorts of expensive content to be delivered for free to radio listeners. Enter advertising.

Bryson’s writing is a delicious melding words and phrases together that routinely bring a smile to your face (the Tribune’s lawyers revealed the shallow waters of his mind - re Ford). Or after talking about the number of flying accidents he mentioned the man who was injured by a whirling propeller being hit on the head and having his arm sliced off, “leaving him much diminished.”

Bryson’s audio narrative whets the reading appetite.

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