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Remembering the Ladies

Remembering the Ladies

posted by:
August 1, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for Dear AbigailWhen the name Abigail Adams is mentioned it generally conjures up an image of an iconic American figure, primarily known as the wife of President John Adams and mother of President John Quincy Adams. However, before she assumed either of these roles, she was a daughter and sister in a very extraordinary family. In Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters, Diane Jacobs introduces the reader to the woman who became the icon and the family relationships that shaped her.
 

Born the middle of three daughters to William and Elizabeth Quincy Smith of Braintree, Massachusetts, Abigail and her sisters Mary and Elizabeth were clever girls who managed to supplement their limited formal home education by reading any book they could get their hands on. Often using excerpts from the lifelong correspondence between the three sisters, Jacobs has meticulously pieced together the lives of these women in great detail. In an era where women had few legal rights and very few career options outside of wife and mother, Abigail, Mary and Elizabeth aspired to make their voices heard outside their family circle. While Abigail seems to have achieved the most success, her sisters were able to make their marks during the Revolutionary War era and beyond.
 

For those who either think they know the story of Abigail Adams or have enjoyed such books as David McCullough’s biography John Adams or are interested in early American history, this book is a must read. Jacobs is not only a thorough scholar but she has a delightful and engaging narrative style. 

Regina

 
 

Between the Covers with Michael Olesker

Cover art for Front Stoops in the FiftiesLocal author and news commentator Michael Olesker knows his Baltimore as well as anyone. For a quarter-century, the former News American and Baltimore Sun columnist has captured the changing pulse of the flawed hometown he loves, illuminating countless important issues along the way. Olesker's latest book, Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age, is a nostalgic-yet-edgy look back at a time of relative innocence for Baltimore and the country. Join him as he discusses this latest work on Tuesday, August 5 at 7 p.m. at the North Point Branch. The program, the third in the “Dundalk Dialogs” author speaker series, will include a book talk, signing and light refreshments. Recently, the author answered questions for Between the Covers about his new book.   
 

Between the Covers: You have been a longtime chronicler of Baltimore’s history. How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Michael Olesker: I’ve always felt that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a real dividing line in American politics and culture, as well as the real dividing line between the 1950s and ’60s. We recall the ’50s as an innocent time. We recall the ’60s as a time of social chaos: assassinations, wars, riots, terrific upheaval, some good, some bad, much of it quite difficult. But a lot of the ’60s changes were bubbling just beneath the surface in the ’50s. Several years ago, with the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaching, it occurred to me that quite a few Baltimoreans had a profound effect on the nation’s history, and they’d come of age here in the ’50s. Having grown up here in that era, I’ve always felt a real connection to that time.
 

BTC: You tell the stories of many of Charm City’s personalities, including Nancy Pelosi, Thurgood Marshall and Barry Levinson, coming of age before the complicated 1960s changed the way people looked at themselves and their country. Why were these stories important to share?
MO: As a product of the Baltimore City public school system, I always felt we were taught the Great Man theory of history. That is, presidents and prime ministers and kings change the world. But I think a lot of great change comes from the ground up. Nancy Pelosi’s father was mayor, but her mother ran an army of political women in a time when women were still political non-entities. That was a profound lesson. Thurgood Marshall was the product of a segregated school system and couldn’t get into the University of Maryland Law School because of his skin color. That was a profound motivator as he went on to change the nation’s schools. Barry Levinson was a kid soaking up movie and TV culture and knew that it didn’t reflect the world as he knew it. That was a great motivator for him.
 

Image of Michael OleskerBTC: What made you begin and end with the Kennedy assassination?
MO: My previous book, The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the Fifties, was a 50th anniversary look back at the legendary 1958 Colts who won pro football’s “greatest game ever played.” The response to it was so overwhelmingly heartfelt that the Hopkins Press folks suggested the 50th anniversary of Dallas was another real emotional hook for many people. I wanted to profile not only those people who went on to change the country but the Baltimore of that era — the working class town, the sixth biggest city in the country, the city of neighborhoods and people sitting on front stoops to catch up on the world — but a town on the verge of so many profound changes.
 

BTC: Why did you decide to write in the present tense?
MO: In my mind, the past never entirely goes away — it still flutters around us, still moves the world in ways we don’t always notice. I felt, from the very first sentence I wrote, that the ’50s were still alive and that, by writing in the present tense, I’d give my narrative a greater sense of immediacy.
 

BTC: You write that, for newspapers, the Kennedy assassination signaled the “opening moment of long decades of coughing and wheezing their way out of existence.” You have lived through a lot of changes. Where do you see the news gathering business in 10 or 20 years?
MO: We’re currently in a shaking-out period where even the brightest people haven’t figured out where journalism is heading. What’s become clear to me — from years at newspapers, from years on nightly TV news and from years teaching at one of our local colleges — is that a lot of people don’t have the attention span they once had, nor the patience for long-form reading. They want instant gratification, easily digestible bites of information, and then they move on to the next amusement. Millions of us now live moment-to-moment lifestyles but don’t know the history of the last 10 minutes, much less 10 years. I hope my book is a chance for people to see, in an entertaining way, how we began to get where we are.
 

BTC: Do you think there is any charm left in Charm City?
MO: Absolutely. I think the city’s best years are still ahead of it. Are we losing some of our inimitable “Bawlamer” uniqueness? Sure. But change is always inevitable. What’s shocked all of us is the speed of all this change.

Cynthia

 
 

The War to End All Wars

Cover art for World War I: The Definitive Visual HistoryCover art for Dark InvasionCover art for The Harlem HellfightersToday marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the moment that set the history of the rest of the 20th century in motion. Believed at first to be a war that would take weeks or months to settle, the war dragged on for four long, tragic years until the armistice was signed in 1918. Many new titles have been written that bring a better understanding of this period and the catastrophe of the war.

 

R.G. Grant’s World War I: the Definitive Visual History, from Sarajevo to Versailles is a terrific introduction to many facets of the conflict. DK Publishing, partnering with the Smithsonian, brings manageable text and countless period photographs here to best explain the personalities, weapons and cultural artifacts of the time period. In The Long Shadow: The Legacy of the Great War in the Twentieth Century, David Reynolds discusses the ramifications of the war, and rethinks some of the theses that have become too-easy explanations for its causes and results. He also looks at its decades-long impact on the art and literary world and how it brought about Modernism. Howard Blum’s Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Tale in America is a fascinating tale of espionage and intrigue is. New York City and other American cities were targeted by German spies to discourage munitions and other supplies from going across the Atlantic to the Allied forces, long before United States troops became officially embroiled in the conflict itself.

 

Novels set in the time period are perennially popular, such as the Maisie Dobbs mysteries. Now, that series’ author, Jacqueline Winspear, returns with the elegiac and stunning The Care and Management of Lies. Two very different young women come together in the backdrop of the war that has taken away the men in their lives. And Max Brooks’ graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters is fiction rooted in the heroic tales of the famous African-American 369th Infantry Regiment who fought for France due to antiquated, racially-motivated rules within the American Expeditionary Forces.

Todd

 
 

A Complicated Man

Cover art for Clouds of GloryIn Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda, the reader learns a lot about Lee’s life and the events that would lead to him becoming the leader of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Born into Virginia aristocracy that included direct links to George Washington, Lee was destined for a distinguished life from birth.  Still, Lee had some major obstacles on his path to military fame, including a less than idyllic family life. His father, ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee, fought alongside Washington in the American Revolution, but sank into a life of dissipation fueled by alcohol. Eventually, he abandoned the family. Thanks to his mother’s guiding determination, young Robert was able to succeed both scholastically and socially, and achieved prominent positions in both the United States and Confederate States armies.

 

Lee attended West Point and graduated second in his class without ever receiving a single demerit – not an easy feat in those days when moral rectitude and scholastic discipline were equally valued. As Korda notes, Lee held himself to a very strict code of moral conduct, perhaps due in part to his father’s poor example. Yet, Lee did not exactly impose his strictness to either his family or the soldiers he led.  Although he could be a disciplinarian, he preferred to lead by example. He felt that his subordinates should know instinctively the correct choices. According to Korda, Lee’s inability to effectively communicate his wishes to his troops was a major factor in determining the outcome of the Civil War.

 

Whether you view Lee as a hero, villain or somewhere in between, Korda does offer some interesting perspectives on a very complicated man. While Clouds of Glory may not change your mind about Robert E. Lee, it does illustrate what a complex and sometimes contradictory character he was.
 

Regina

 
 

A Doughboy's Best Friend

Cover art for Stubby the War DogCover art for Sergeant StubbyTo commemorate the centennial of the outbreak of World War I this summer, many new books have been and will continue to be released. They range from new analyses of battles, biographies of personalities of the era and wide-ranging assessments of how the ‘War to End All Wars’ set the history of the 20th and 21st century and its continuing conflicts in motion. A furry character study for young readers comes in Ann Bausum’s Stubby the War Dog: The True Story of World War I’s Bravest Dog. As the United States was at last pulled into the war in 1917, a stray, brindle-colored Boston Bull Terrier wandered onto a soldiers’ training ground at Yale University. The soldiers all took a liking to this sweet, short-tailed dog, but none more than enlisted man James Conroy.

 

Training complete (for both men and dog), the soldiers were sent to sea, and Conroy smuggled the pup onto the ship bound for France. Now considered a mascot, Stubby had been taught to stand on his rear legs and lift his right paw to salute high-ranking officers. This endeared Stubby to all he met, including women of the French resistance, who sewed him a natty uniform. The dog turned out to be a valiant and useful addition to the men in the trenches, as he aided with rat removal, alerted the men to enemies approaching and was even temporarily wounded in action while helping to discover landmines. Bausum illustrates the history of the four-legged hero with plenty of period photographs from the Conroy family collection and other ephemera of the WWI era. Her impeccable research is outlined in endnotes and an extensive bibliography. She also tells of this famous dog in Sergeant Stubby: How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation, written for adult readers. This title covers even more of Stubby’s exploits during and after the war. Both books are published by National Geographic, and are excellent avenues into this period. They will be enjoyed by dog lovers as well as by history buffs.
 

Todd

 
 

Between the Covers with Elaine Eff

Cover art for The Painted Screens of BaltimoreMaryland folklorist Elaine Eff is a champion of local culture and traditions. In her new book, she sets her sights on a much-loved Baltimore icon: the painted window screen and the artists who created them. Eff will discuss her latest work, The Painted Screens of Baltimore: an Urban Folk Art Revealed, on Tuesday, July 1 at 7:00 p.m. at the North Point Branch. The program, which is part of the branch’s “Dundalk Dialogs” local author speaker series, will include a book talk and signing. Eff recently answered questions for Between the Covers about her new book.

 

Between the Covers: How did you become interested in the history of Baltimore’s painted screens?
Elaine Eff: Serendipity. Two coincidences that changed the course of my life: As a Baltimore girl, I was expected to be an authority on our local folk art – which I was not. In fact, I knew nothing on the subject. When I arrived at graduate school, I found a 19thcentury – not Baltimore, but New York State – painted screen in our museum’s collection, and that started my journey. I needed to learn what history, if any, the two might share.

 

BTC: Can you share how you conducted your research for this project?
EF: Face-to-face, person-by-person. Visiting artists, walking the streets of East Baltimore, talking to strangers, traveling to libraries, museums and archives nationwide, international research and casting the net wider and deeper as the subject became richer and more fascinating.

 

BTC: What do you want readers, who may not have any knowledge of this Baltimore tradition, to take away from your book?
EF: Painted screens are a response to a community’s need for privacy. Row houses demand them, and they had the extra bonus of being downright beautiful. “You see out. No one sees in,” and “They used to be everywhere” is what you hear all the time. The book is as much about Baltimore and neighborhood building. It has something for everyone and can be appreciated on many levels: as a whole, in small bites or tastes here and there. Appreciate what an incredible city of resourceful people can make happen.

 

BTC: Among the painters you researched were there any who were as colorful as the art they created?
EF: Every single one. That is why I first made the film The Screen Painters.  Every painter is a movie in him or herself. They needed to tell their own story and did. They are an incredible group of creative individuals who changed the face of a city. Not bad for a bunch of local untrained artists! The book gives you a glimpse into that wonderful era when the sidewalks told a very different – an incredibly colorful —story, in many ways.

 

BTC: What were some of the favorite images seen around town?
EF: The Red Bungalow was it. Everyone wanted to have the red cottage with a winding path, a pond and swans. Ninety percent of the windows had that scene as interpreted by hundreds of different hands. Today things are very different — strangely, now we see a lot of local landmarks, like the [Patterson Park] Pagoda. One house in Highlandtown even has Formstone painted on the window screen! Big difference is it used to be EVERY window and door — front and back. Now we see the front window and little more. Times and tastes have changed. And that is wonderful.

 

Readers who would like to learn more can also visit The Painted Screen Society of Baltimore website.
 

Cynthia

 
 

Murder, She Cried

Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America“Oh God, he stabbed me! Help me!” was the cry eventually heard around the world. In Kew Gardens, Queens, on Friday, March 13, 1964, this shout for help was heard by 38 bystanders, all of whom watched a young woman being killed and did nothing. Or so The New York Times reported. In Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America, award-winning author Kevin Cook brings fresh perspective to a case and story which grew and has remained in the public mind as a cautionary tale of urban decline and apathy.

 

Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender who lived in the Kew Gardens neighborhood, was coming home from a shift that fateful early Friday morning when she was stabbed by an assailant who ran off but then came back and attacked her a second time. As the legend which grew around the crime reports, 38 residents in nearby apartment buildings all watched the attack, more than half an hour long, and did nothing to help. This crime prompted sociological research about when individuals were most likely to help, leading to a theory known as the “bystander effect.” It also encouraged the establishment of a national 911 number so people could more efficiently report crimes.

 

As Cook reveals, the story, which has been countlessly retold, is not the full story of what happened that morning. There were several individuals who police did consider to be true villains for their apathetic response. However, others saw only a glimpse of what had happened and were unaware that a crime had occurred. Other concerned individuals did phone the police. Covering more than just the crime, Cook explores the vibrant life of the young victim, the cold-blooded calculation of the killer Winston Mosley and the restlessness and explosive nature of the city and country in the ’60s. Alternately dramatic and sobering, this book is a must-read for anyone who remembers this story from the newspapers or a social psychology textbook. Ultimately, in a city that appeared on the brink of social crisis, there were still individuals who did good.

Melanie

 
 

Discomfort Zone

Cover art for StringerHow does a young mathematician on the cusp of a Yale doctorate end up as a journalist in one of the world's bleakest places? For Anjan Sundaram, it was a desire to experience firsthand the sights, sounds and emotions of a tormented and misunderstood country he only knew from passing news briefs. His story, recounted in his new memoir, Stringer: A Reporter's Journey in the Congo, calls attention to a region of the central African continent often on the world's radar for the wrong reasons.

 

Sundaram times his arrival well.  It’s 2006, and there is cautious interest in the country's historic elections. Settling into the home of a friend's family in the lower class section of Kinshasa, he soon lands a job as a stringer for the Associated Press.  Through his experiences, he conveys the turbulent, repressive history of this beautiful, yet troubled land beset by sexual violence, killings and mutilations.  Despoiled by corrupt companies and governments, its abundance of natural resources has also cost the Congolese dearly. It is a place where death, as a rule, makes news only if it involves villages and armies or the U.N.  Sundaram raises inexplicable contradictions as well, like a boy who dies of typhoid because his family had no money for treatment but whose elaborate, expensive funeral draws hundreds.

 

For a reporter with no previous journalism training, Sundaram tells a good story with his sharp first-hand narrative and careful observations, especially of children. He acknowledges missteps along the way, and his vulnerabilities become part of the journey. The author, who currently lives in Rwanda, turned down a lucrative career at Goldman Sachs to tell us about this downtrodden African nation, long gripped by civil war. For readers interested in world politics and humanitarian crises here is a rare look by someone determined to tell the story.

Cynthia

 
 

Between the Covers with Deborah Rudacille

Cover art for Roots of SteelDeborah RudacilleFor local writer Deborah Rudacille, writing her latest book was a personal odyssey. The daughter of a Bethlehem steelworker knows the heart and soul of the Dundalk community she called home for many years. It's fitting that Rudacille will kick off  the North Point Branch’s “Dundalk Dialogs,” the new adult speaker series that takes place this summer. Rudacille will discuss her latest book, Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town that chronicles the rise and fall of the Sparrows Point steel mill and the neighborhoods in its wake. The program, which includes a book talk and signing, will be held Tuesday, June 3 at 7 p.m. Rudacille recently answered questions for Between the Covers about the genesis for her story and her personal connection to Dundalk.

 

Between the Covers: Your book, Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town, conveys a powerful message about what happens when the American dream fails right in our own backyards. What drove you to tell this story of the former Bethlehem Steel plant and the local community it shaped?
 

Deborah Rudacille: I grew up in Eastfield, and my family, like many of our neighbors, owed their homes and their livelihoods to Bethlehem Steel. When my parents bought their house on Harold Road my dad worked in the tandem mill at Sparrows Point and my mother worked as a secretary for United Steelworkers Local 2610. Most of the men in my family worked at Sparrows Point. So the rise and fall of the American steel industry wasn’t just theory for me — it’s the story of my own family and community.

 

BTC: You present an objective look at an industry in decline. Did the fact that the story was so close to home make it difficult to write at times?
 

DR: Yes. The reporting was easy and fun because I got to hang out with people who were much like the folks I had known growing up and to listen to their stories. But the writing was more challenging because I had to figure out a way to weave together their stories with those of workers who had very different experiences in a way that didn’t skirt the less savory aspects of the narrative — the systemic racism at the Point, for one — and situate them in the broader history of the American steel industry.

 

BTC: You use personal narrative along with workers’ interviews. Can you talk a little bit about how you conducted your research for this project? Were people open to talking about their experiences?
 

DR: Absolutely! Sparrows Point was more than just a job for most of these folks so they loved reminiscing about their experiences there. I started with family members and then worked outward, attending monthly retiree meetings at the union hall and luncheons at various senior centers and churches around town. I like to say that you can’t throw a stone in Baltimore without hitting someone with a Sparrows Point connection, which made it very easy to find folks to tell their stories — not just workers themselves but also family members, and of course people who had been raised in the company town. I also did quite a bit of archival research at the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society, Baltimore County Historical Library, Museum of Industry and other archives.

 

BTC: There are so many threads running through your book — the danger of the mill work itself, the labor unions, racial tensions, safety and environmental issues, the “company town”  concept  to name a few. How did you go about framing your narrative?
 

DR: Well, as I said, that was the greatest challenge in writing the book. There were all these disparate threads and themes, and I knew that I had to include all of them to provide an honest and objective look at life on the Point. Ultimately, I decided to tell the story chronologically but focus each chapter on a different issue using the voices of my sources to carry the narrative forward. Once I settled on that structure, the writing of the book became much easier.

 

BTC: Roots of Steel, published in 2010, was your third book. Your previous books were science-focused. Can you tell us what is next for you as a writer? What else are you doing professionally?
 

DR: I’ve been working as professor of the practice at UMBC for the past couple of years, teaching journalism and science writing. I’ve also done some preliminary reporting for my next project, a kind of Catholic “Roots of Steel” which tells the story of the post-Vatican II church from the perspective of lay Catholics. I’ll be talking with people who have left the church as well as people who remain about their feelings on the sex abuse scandal, the status and role of women in the church and the struggle of LGBT Catholics and divorced and remarried Catholics to remain part of an institution that (officially at least) does not consider them worthy to receive the sacraments. As with Roots of Steel, it will tell a big story through the lens of individual experience.

Cynthia

 
 

Between the Covers with Rob Kasper

Rob KasperBaltimore Beer: A Satisfying History of Charm City BrewingBaltimore author Rob Kasper will discuss his book Baltimore Beer: A Satisfying History of Charm City Brewing, at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, May 6, at the Perry Hall Branch. This program is sponsored by the Friends of the Perry Hall Library. Kasper, who also had a prolific career as a writer and reporter for The Baltimore Sun, recently answered questions for Between the Covers about his book.

 

How long had the idea for Baltimore Beer been, well, brewing, before you put pen to paper? At what point did you decide to make a serious study of Baltimore beer and the history of local breweries?

 

About 10 years. One day at The Sun I got a call saying National Premium was no longer being bottled (it has since been revived). Reading the clips to write the story, I realized there was no current history of Baltimore breweries. Originally I had a contract with the publishing arm of Bibelot bookstores to write the book. They went bankrupt and the project lay dormant, then I got a contract with History Press and finished the book.

 

What was the most interesting or the oddest piece of information about Baltimore beer or breweries that you discovered in your research?

 

Three things come to mind that show how breweries were a major part of Baltimore’s social fabric. One, how German the city of Baltimore was. In addition to all the breweries, city council notes were printed in German and English until World War I. Two, how the Lone Ranger’s silver bullet and some National Premium executives coaxed the owner of the Washington Senators into letting the Orioles move to Baltimore in 1954. Three, when a fisherman caught Diamond Jim III (a rockfish tagged by American Brewing Company) and won $25,000, the fisherman argued that catching the fish was civic achievement and therefore tax free. A judge was amused but said the fisherman owed $6,000 in taxes.

 

For more than three decades, you were a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun. What are a few notable moments or highs from your career with the newspaper?

 

I won a handful of national writing awards for my columns which buoyed me, but the most gratifying part of the job was the feedback from readers – phone calls, letters and comments from folks I bumped into who had read something I had written. Mostly they liked what I had written, but sometimes not.

 

You’ve made a career in Baltimore, but you grew up in Kansas. How did you find your way to the East Coast?

 

All the great seafood lovers grew up in the Midwest. That is because when folks out here were eating rockfish on Fridays, we were chewing on fish sticks. When I came to Maryland to work at The Sun, (after a five-year stop at the Louisville Courier-Journal and Times and a one-day – yes, one-day – stint at the National Observer) I tasted crab soup, crab cakes, steamed crabs and soft crabs. There was no going back. I once beat Brooks Robinson in a celebrity crab picking contest – not bad for a guy from Dodge City. But I later got demolished by Shirley Phillips, of Phillips Seafood. She used a knife to slice up the steamed crabs. The way she wielded that knife, you wouldn’t want to cross her.

 

Okay, we need to ask: Your favorite beer?

 

Well, like Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, the girl who cain’t say no, my favorite depends on whom I am with. At Brewer’s Art it is Resurrection; at Union Craft it is Duckpin; at Heavy Seas it is Loose Cannon; at Pratt Street Ale House it is Extra Special Bitter; at DuClaw it is Black Jack Stout; at Flying Dog it is Snake Dog. The beer I still pine for is pilsner from the long-gone Baltimore Brewing Company. That was exceptional. I make do substituting with Victory Prima Pils and the Pendulum Pilsner from RavenBeer.

 

Tell us a little about Baltimore Beer Week, a nonprofit that celebrates local brewing, which you helped to found.

 

My contributions to Beer Week pale compared with those of Joe Gold and Dominic Cantalupo and the late Mick Kipp. But basically it is a 10-day celebration in October of all things beery in Baltimore. There are tastings, beer dinners and tours of breweries, including the classic old American Brewery, now home to the nonprofit Humanin. I try to provide historical background and remind beer drinkers that the good stuff they are enjoying today was built on the shoulders of generations of brewers before them.

Melanie