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The Witch of Lime Street

posted by: January 5, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Witch of Lime StreetFollowing the devastation wrought by World War I, grieving Europeans and Americans sought the answer to the question: What happens to us after death? Many turned to Spiritualism, the belief that the dead can communicate with the living, and popularized consulting mediums and psychics to contact their dead. But how would you know if the dead were really speaking through the medium, or if you were in the presence of a talented (or sometimes not-so-talented) fraud?

 

One answer: apply science and logic to test a medium’s abilities. David Jaher’s debut book The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction and Houdini in the Spirit World describes just such a test held in the mid-1920s and the furor that surrounded its most likely candidate. Sponsored by the magazine Scientific American, a large cash prize was offered to the medium who could provide proof of his or her abilities, proof that had to withstand scientific scrutiny by an investigative panel of judges.

 

What set out to be an objective experiment in psychic research became anything but, dominated by the personalities involved. Jaher’s cast ranges from the champion of Spiritualism and Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to one of the judges, the escape artist who actively sought to expose fake psychics, Harry Houdini. Most important of all was the so-called Witch of Lime Street, a Boston woman known as Margery or Mina Crandon, who supposedly could call on her deceased brother to perform various ectoplasmic phenomena.

 

Jaher provides a deeper understanding for a little-known craze of the Jazz Age. His level of detail is meticulous and illuminating, capturing the complex relationships and beliefs of everyone involved, living or apparition. His objective recounting of the contest and the fallout that followed allows readers to make their own judgment of the people involved. Readers who enjoy learning about the more obscure events in history will definitely enjoy this book. But this book could also be enjoyed by those who have wondered if there is life after death, or who appreciate the complexity of human relationships. 


 
 

Oyster

posted by: December 17, 2015 - 7:00pm

Cover art for OysterIn Oyster: A Gastronomic History (with Recipes), Drew Smith delves into everything you ever wanted to know about the briny bivalve, and then some. Smith takes a fascinating, in-depth look at the oyster's place in history — important in the diet of many cultures throughout the years but also to their economies. You would be hard pressed to find a better source of overall nutrition than the oyster. Low in fat and calories, it’s high in protein, calcium, vitamin B12, thiamine, riboflavin vitamin C and zinc, with trace amounts of other vitamins. Oysters eventually became an important industry in the colonies, with jobs for harvesting, opening, washing, measuring, selling and, eventually, canning. These jobs often went to those who would otherwise have had difficulty finding employment, including African Americans, women, immigrants and children. While people think of crabs when they hear Baltimore, we have been an oyster mecca for far longer. Baltimore was the first to become a canning center (way before any other city) in the early 1840s, where the stock was also labeled and shipped.  

 

Oysters have long been celebrated in writing as well as art — and of course they have a long-standing reputation as an aphrodisiac. Smith has included numerous color illustrations, photographs and maps to enhance the reading experience. There are recipes throughout the book, and even recommendations on what to drink with oysters. This scholarly yet entertaining and accessible look at oysters would make a great gift for the foodie and/or historian on your gift list. Fans of Mark Kurlansky’s microhistories Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World or Salt: A World History will be entranced by Oyster.

 


 
 

1944

posted by: October 27, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for 1944 by Jay WinikJay Winik chronicles the final push toward a WWII victory in 1944: FDR and Year That Changed History. By 1944, the Allies expected to win the war. There were no illusions: They knew the terrible cost it would entail. Franklin Delano Roosevelt maintained a coalition of contentious rivals who, in ordinary times, would have been natural enemies. Roosevelt faced some of the biggest challenges in our history: a struggling economy that threatened our democracy, an isolationist sentiment that shunned foreign involvement and the insatiable greed of fascism as it gobbled up country after country. All the while, the presidency took its toll on his health. FDR was clearly dying.

 

The book also discusses the atrocities being committed to Jews. The dread of Jewish families as the full meaning of their plight is understood is heartbreaking. The detailed account of the escape of two Jewish men from Auschwitz is taut and gripping.

 

Winik skips back and forth through the era, documenting events in 1944 and then backtracking to FDR’s political rise. Winik indicts FDR and his administration for failing to take direct action against the Nazis’ diabolical “Final Solution.” Historians have long debated whether Roosevelt could have done more militarily to disrupt or alleviate the Holocaust. His choice to concentrate on winning the war will remain controversial.

 

Jay Winik is a respected historian and his writing well executed. He is the author of New York Times bestselling April 1865 and The Great Upheaval. World War II enthusiasts will enjoy the backseat view of a beleaguered president as he maneuvers through the minefields of war and politics.


 
 

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!


 
 

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