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The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

posted by: October 21, 2015 - 7:00am

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage coverAutomatons! Higher mathematics! World domination! The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua contains everything inquiring minds could ask for. A history of the nascent development of computing, it contains a detailed and thoroughly researched account of the collaboration between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in their creation of the Analytical Machine (now known as a computer). Not limited to just explanations of the mechanical and theoretic processes, Padua also delves into contextualizing the machine’s creation with profiles of the people, culture and time period that had an influence on its formation. Any dryness you might expect of such subject matter is diverted by speculation of what Sherlockian adventures could have happened if the groundbreaking machine actually managed to be produced in the Victorian era of its imagining.

 

Padua’s zeal for her subject is infectious and her research has yielded amusing vignettes of the characters who were involved in the creation of computation, including cameos by George Eliot, Lewis Carroll and Queen Victoria. Despite her frequent demurrals to expertise, she concisely breaks down the complex engineering of her subject (with diagrams!) so that it is understandable for those of us who aren’t engineers, mathematicians or wizards. Be warned: It is text heavy for a graphic novel, primarily because the number and density of footnotes rivals those of the late Terry Pratchett. Like The Great Pratchett, however, the footnotes contain amusing digressions whose levity make them worth the effort. 

Liz

Liz

 
 

Cover art for Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black PressEye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press by James McGrath Morris is the biography of a groundbreaking reporter who covered seminal events of the civil rights movement. Morris, a former journalist himself, writes about Payne’s work in journalism which forged a new path, as a woman and as an African American.   

 

Ethel Payne, born in 1911, was raised in Chicago’s West Englewood area—one of the few enclaves in Chicago which permitted  African-Americans to live outside the racially segregated “Black Belt” neighborhoods. By 30 years old, this granddaughter of slaves was reporting for one of the nation’s preeminent African American newspapers, the Chicago Defender. Her trajectory continued as Ms. Payne reported on civil rights issues domestically and abroad. She investigated the state of black soldiers stationed in Japan and interviewed Vietnam’s General Westmoreland about the treatment of black troops fighting in the war. As a member of the White House Press Corps, she won accolades from Clarence Mitchell after she questioned the Eisenhower administration about discriminatory practices. Payne was present for the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, rubbed elbows with presidents (even entertaining Richard and Patricia Nixon in her home), met with foreign leaders and traveled with Winston Churchill in Africa. Her efforts to end apartheid allowed her a private audience with Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Eye on the Struggle chronicles Payne’s illustrious career, made all the more remarkable by Payne’s unswerving approach of recording events both important to and from the perspective of black Americans. 


 
 

The Great Divide

posted by: June 4, 2015 - 7:00am

The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a NationWhen considering our founding fathers, we often think of them in grandiose terms; great men of sterling character who rose above petty conflicts in order to form a perfect union. Thomas Fleming presents a portrait of these men as all too human in The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation.

 

The creation of this new nation weathered a major storm between two factions: the Federalists, who believed that in order to survive we must have a strong central government to unite us, and the Democratic-Republicans, who feared the engulfment of the states into a dictatorship. Serving as a constant reminder of previous servitude was the British government’s policy of kidnapping American sailors and impressing them into Great Britain’s Navy. Another source of controversy was the ongoing revolution in France, with the Democratic-Republicans rejoicing over the “triumph of the people” and the Federalists aghast at the liberal use of the guillotine. 

 

Thomas Fleming’s brilliant portrait of the men and their times serves as a reminder of the miracle of independence, self-governance and the balance of powers. He explores the evolution through the eyes of George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson as their friendships ebb and flow with the political tide. These are not the stiff portraits hanging in the White House, rather, they are all too human, replete with petty jealousies, personal agendas and political ambitions. The origins of their arguments still resonate in our political landscape today. 

 

A prolific writer, Fleming’s works include Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge, Now We Are Enemies and A Disease of the Public Mind. He has also contributed to PBS series The Irish in America and Liberty: The American Revolution. He has served as president of the Society of American Historians and is an honorary member of the New York State Society of the Cincinnati.


 
 

Finding Zero

posted by: May 29, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Finding ZeroFinding Zero: A Mathematician’s Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers by Amir Aczel is about a man’s love of numbers. Actually, it is much more than that, but numbers are at the heart of this story. Aczel is not just your average mathematics scholar. He's an adventurer, part Indiana Jones and part Isaac Newton, who is relentless in his pursuit of the origins of numbers. While most of us probably have not considered just how our numeric system — particularly zero — came to be, Aczel has been obsessed with numbers since he was a young boy.

 

Aczel’s odyssey began when his teacher asked his first grade class what they would like to learn in school. His response was “Where numbers come from,” which set him on a course that would take him around the world. For the most part, Aczel’s narrative is aimed at the average person, and he limits the use of mathematical jargon to terms that most anyone can understand. While Western society uses what are commonly called Arabic numbers, Aczel points out that this name is misleading. True Arabic numbers do not resemble our digits ranging from 0 to 9. (You can view an illustration of Arabic numbers.)

 

So, how did our modern Anglo-European numbers evolve and where did they originate? While Aczel attempts to answer these questions, he encounters some interesting obstacles along the way. His odyssey is an intriguing one and, at times, seems to involve more questions than answers. Still, for anyone who enjoys a book that gives the reader ideas to ponder, Finding Zero offers plenty of mental exercise.

 


 
 

Brother Against Brother

posted by: March 18, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Man Who Would Not Be WashingtonCover art for Marching HomeOne of the great paradoxes of history is Robert E. Lee’s decision to fight for the Confederacy rather than defend the Union. Jonathan Horn explores the great battle Lee fought within himself in The Man Who Would Not Be Washington.

 

Robert E. Lee was the son of a renowned Revolutionary General, the son-in-law of Washington’s adopted child and the keeper of the flame of Washington’s legacy. He graduated second in his class at West Point, fought for his country during the Mexican-American War, and was considered the natural choice to command the Union Army. Despite a lifetime defending the Constitution against all enemies, he could not bear arms against his neighbors. Horn’s extensive research follows Lee through his personal and professional life, illuminating the deep ties of family, affection and history that bound the Washington and Lee families. It is this one, fateful decision that has shaped our perception of Washington and created the American story.

 

Our nation’s story is not simply about the generals, but also the private soldiers. In Marching Home: The Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, Brian Jordan shatters the legend of the constantly faithful, overly sentimental soldier who attends reunions and speaks fondly of brothers-in-arms. Rather, the soldiers were tormented by wounds and memories. A new fight began after the war — the fight for dignity, fair compensation and recognition of their accomplishments. Determined to put the war behind them, civilians were unprepared for the return of shell-shocked veterans and unwilling to deal with their needs. Using pension records, diaries, letters and regimental histories, Brian Matthew Jordan has brought into stark relief the needs of veterans and the vast gulf between the home front and the battlefront.

 

Two great reads for Civil War devotees — from one Civil War nut to another!


 
 

It’s a Dog’s Life

posted by: November 14, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Great GrisbyMikita Brottman may be a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, but she clearly has a greater passion in her life. In The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals, Brottman shares not only her love for her French bulldog but how dogs have been a major sources of inspiration to people throughout history. Grisby, the titular dog, was the influence for Brottman’s book which explores many human-canine relationships, both fictional and real.
 

While each chapter is ostensibly about such pairings as Prince Albert and his dog Eos or Charles Dickens’ character Dora and her beloved dog Jip, Grisby does turn up throughout the narrative in asides and anecdotes. The stories run the gamut from heartwarming to heartbreaking as Brottman relates tales about the very peculiar bond that exists between people and their furry friends. Just be warned that some of the dogs did meet untimely and even grisly ends which are told in graphic detail.


 
 

Using English Good (Or Is It Well?)

posted by: November 7, 2014 - 6:00am

Cover art for Bad English by Ammon SheaHave you ever wondered if you are using a word correctly? Or what exactly a split infinitive is anyway? In Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, author Ammon Shea sets out to explore and explain how English has evolved and why we use (or misuse) certain conventions in our language. Told with a great mix of insight and humor, Shea’s topics include semantics, grammar and even the evolution of certain common words.

 

For instance, in the chapter “221 Words that Were Once Frowned Upon,” Shea explains how people were advised by Frank Vizetelly in 1906 that the word ‘kid’ was “a common vulgarism for ‘child’ and as such one the use of which can not [sic] be too severely condemned.” Alfred Ayres told his readers in 1894 that “there are many persons who think it in questionable taste to use thanks for thank you.” While modern readers may be surprised to discover that certain words we use today were once considered improper, it does make one wonder which words we currently use will evolve to mean something very different in the future.

 

Whether you are interested in the evolution of English or just enjoy absurdity, Shea’s book offers plenty of both. One of the funnier parts may be the Shakespeare quote or rap music lyrics quiz which is not as easy as it sounds!


 
 

Between the Covers with Gary Krist

posted by: October 28, 2014 - 7:00am

Empire of SinThis fall, Maryland author Gary Krist will take readers into a little-known chapter of New Orleans history with his new book Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans. Krist brings to light the social and political struggles that New Orleans faced at the turn of the 20th century. Focusing on events from 1890 through 1920, Krist tells a tale of vice, politics, economic development, crime, jazz, racism and murder. The most shocking thing about this story is that it’s all true! This engrossing book is a must-read for anyone who enjoyed Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.

 

Krist recently answered some questions about Empire of Sin for Between the Covers. Read on to learn more about the city’s politics, its remarkable residents and the Axman, a serial murderer who terrorized New Orleans for 18 months.

 

Between the Covers: Why New Orleans? Was it the story or the city that first captured your interest?

Gary Krist: It’s hard to separate story from city, but I’d say it was a desire to write about New Orleans that first attracted me. For an urban historian, New Orleans is a particularly attractive subject, primarily because of its unique history. As a place with French and Catholic roots, it has a culture very different from that of other American cities. (My favorite observation about New Orleans is that it was the first major American metropolis to build an opera house but the last to install a sewer system.) So it was fascinating for me to see how this unique place weathered the great transition to modernity in this era.

 

BTC: I suspect that many of our readers don’t know a lot about this chapter in New Orleans history. Will you describe the social and political climate of the city at the turn of the 20th century?

GK: The last decades of the 19th century were difficult for New Orleans. The city’s prosperous antebellum days were long past; years of civil war and reconstruction had been hard on the local economy, and the city had become hopelessly backward in terms of urban development (hence that much-delayed sewer system). Northern capital investment was desperately needed to modernize the city’s infrastructure, but Northern capitalists were reluctant to invest in a place with such a bad reputation for vice and crime. So the city’s “better half” decided that it was time to clean up New Orleans, which meant doing battle with the city’s long-entrenched underworlds of vice and crime. Basically, they wanted to make New Orleans “respectable”—and that was going to be quite a job.

 

BTC: During this time, a red-light district called Storyville was created in New Orleans. Tell us a little bit about its development.

GK: Interestingly, Storyville began as part of this clean-up campaign. Reformers knew that abolishing prostitution entirely would not be feasible in a city like New Orleans, so they tried instead to isolate and regulate the trade. An alderman named Sidney Story identified a particular 18-block neighborhood and wrote an ordinance making prostitution illegal everywhere EXCEPT in this one, out-of-the-way area. Reformers figured that this would be a good way of lowering the profile of vice in the city. But the plan backfired, and Storyville (as the district came to be called, much to Alderman Story’s annoyance) soon was making New Orleans world-famous as a virtual supermarket of sin. And when reformers decided that they needed to close the district after all, it turned out that Storyville was a lot harder to kill than it had been to create.

 

BTC: Another notable thread of the story is the Axman murders, a series of grisly murders that took place from 1918-1919 and remain unsolved. What impact did these events have on the city?

GK: The Axman appeared at a critical time, just when the champions of respectability thought they had won their battle for New Orleans. Storyville had finally been closed in 1917, and the city’s crime problem seemed to be under control at last. But then an anonymous murderer dramatically upended this sense of victory with a series of bloody nighttime ax attacks that terrorized the city for 18 months. With each succeeding murder, panicked New Orleanians became increasingly paranoid and irrational. Then an open letter—purportedly from the Axman himself—appeared in The Times-Picayune, claiming that the murderer was a devil from hell with a liking for the new jazz music. He threatened to kill again on St. Joseph’s Night, promising only to spare any household in which jazz was being played. And, well, I don’t want to reveal too much, but you can just imagine what a night of music and dancing took place in New Orleans that night.

 

BTC: Empire of Sin is filled with unbelievable characters, and the most amazing thing is that they were all real people. Do you have a favorite? Which person in this book will stick with the reader the longest?

GK: Oh, I could probably name a dozen—like Josie Arlington, the wealthy brothel madam who for decades kept her sinful life a secret from her beloved niece; or Buddy Bolden, the almost-legendary cornetist who is credited with being the inventor of jazz music; or Tom Anderson, the poor kid from the rough Irish Channel neighborhood who rose to become one of the most powerful (and strangely likeable) vice lords in the country. But my favorite character is probably Louis Armstrong, who grew up in the hardest and most degrading circumstances imaginable, but whose unfailing good-heartedness and matchless musical gift allowed him to rise above his harsh childhood to become one of the great artists of the century.

 

BTC: What is the most shocking thing that you learned in your research?

GK: Some of the beliefs of the so-called reformers shocked me. For instance, one of the leaders of the anti-Storyville campaign was a woman named Jean Gordon. She was firmly convinced that she was on the side of virtue, but as with many self-styled moral champions, her idea of “virtue” was often distorted by class and racial prejudice. So while she fought hard for female suffrage and child labor regulation, she also lent her support to the rise of Jim Crow discrimination and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Even worse, she held some astounding beliefs about eugenics, advocating for the forced sterilization of children who showed signs of a future in crime, prostitution or alcoholism. “Took Lucille Decoux to the Women’s Dispensary July 17 [for an appendectomy],” Jean once wrote in her diary. “This was an excellent opportunity to have her sterilized…and thus end any feeble-minded progeny coming from Lucille.”

 

BTC: What are you working on next?

GK: My fascination with cities in the early 20th century hasn’t gone away, so I’m working on a book about Los Angeles in roughly this same time period. The book will center on the Hollywood of the silent-film era and weave in a few other elements. But the idea is still taking shape in my mind, so it’s probably too early to talk about it.


 
 

A Star-Spangled Celebration

posted by: September 3, 2014 - 7:55am

Cover art for What So Proudly We HailedCover art for Star-Spangled BannerSeptember 13-14 marks the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key writing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Author Marc Leepson takes us deeper into Key’s life and world in What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life. As Leepson explains, “Virtually every American knows the name Francis Scott Key. But they know just one thing about him. There was a lot more to the man than just that he wrote 'The Star-Spangled Banner' under dramatic circumstances." Leepson shares more about Key’s life, his family and his relatively unknown influence on our country’s history. Watch a video of Leepson’s recent talk at the National Archives on BCPL’s Tumblr.

 

Marc Ferris’ Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem takes a different approach, following the history of the song itself. When it was first published as a broadside, the song was actually titled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Key’s words were intended to match the already well-known tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a song that Ferris refers to as “a bawdy, boozy ballad.” It was instantly popular in Baltimore. Later, when Congress named it our national anthem in 1931, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was one of several contenders for the honor. It was selected over other popular choices like “America the Beautiful,” “Yankee Doodle” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” This rich history of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a fascinating read.

 

Baltimore will be celebrating this important anniversary with a host of exciting events September 10-16.
 


 
 

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