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Revisiting Downton Abbey

Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton AbbeyBehind the Scenes at Downton AbbeyFrom the start, American audiences fell in love with Downton Abbey. The opening notes of the theme song strike a familiar chord and the characters seem like people who we really know. The popular show’s fourth season premieres in the U.S. on January 5th on PBS. Following the tragic conclusion to season three, fans are curious as to the fates of the show’s beloved characters. Two new books will whet Downtonites’ appetites as they watch the drama unfold.

 

In Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey, Fiona, the Eighth Countess of Carnarvon shares another chapter in the story of the family that lived in Highclere Castle – the real Downton Abbey. American-born Catherine Wendell married Lord Porchester, known as Porchey, in 1922. Soon, he inherited his father’s title, Highclere Castle and the debt that came with it. The couple was forced to auction family heirlooms to raise the funds to keep the castle in the family. While successful, the couple eventually divorced. Countess Fiona shares their stories complete with enough scandal, intrigue and drama to warrant a BBC production. The book also highlights the interesting role that Highclere Castle played during World War II, at times making the house a character in this family’s story. This is a fascinating look at the period and place that frame the show.

 

Emma Rowley’s Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey: The Official Backstage Pass to the Set, the Actors and the Drama is a new guide to the show with glossy, never-before-seen photographs. Fans will enjoy photographs of the actors, Highclere Castle, the studio set and the show’s sumptuous costumes. The book also includes interviews with the cast, crew and show’s creative team. Throughout this magnificent companion book, the show’s dedication to historical detail is evident. The cast calls historical advisor Alastair Bruce “The Oracle,” and he takes his job seriously. He meticulously studies the historical detail in every element of a scene, from the props, hair and make-up to the actors’ body language. This video is a lighthearted look at the effort that goes into the show’s historical accuracy.

Beth

 
 

Tragedy Remembered

Tragedy Remembered

posted by:
November 22, 2013 - 8:00am

Cover art for End of DaysCover art for Dallas 1963Cover art for ParklandFifty years ago the country was rocked by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His life and tragic death remain a cultural touchstone, and today's anniversary has resulted in a proliferation of published titles on the subject. Three of these new entries shed light on the man, the assassination and his enduring legacy.

 

Award-winning author James Swanson thoroughly documents the day Kennedy was killed in End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy. From the Kennedys’ Texas train trip, to the shooting in Dealey Plaza, to the aftermath awash with confusion, Swanson does not miss a detail. The narrative unfolds hour-by-hour, and the reader is immediately caught up in this riveting account which defines all of the major players, from Jack and Jackie to Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. The research is remarkable, and the accompanying photographs add heft to this absorbing and important account.

 

Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven Davis offers a different take on the assassination by focusing on the city which will become inextricably linked with President Kennedy. In a fascinating study, they describe the sociological and political forces which collided to create a tinderbox of activism, along with the colorful characters who stirred the political pot. Included are profiles of oil baron H. L. Hunt, Dallas Morning News publisher Ted Dealey and provocative congressman Bruce Alger.

 

Parkland by Vincent Bugliosi is a companion to the film of the same name produced by Tom Hanks, released earlier this fall and now available on DVD. Parkland focuses on the aftermath of the assassination by following key players in the hours and days following the shooting. The group of individuals includes the doctors and nurses at Parkland Hospital, the chief of the Dallas Secret Service and Abraham Zapruder, the cameraman who captured perhaps the most examined footage in history. Bugliosi, also the author of Helter Skelter, successfully delivers a richly detailed narrative of this circle of men and women involved in the historic tragedy of November 22, 1963.

Maureen

 
 

National Book Award Winners Announced

National Book Award LogoWinners of the 64th annual National Book Awards were announced last night at a black-tie dinner held at Cipriani Wall Street. This morning, the literary world is abuzz about James McBride’s win in the Fiction category for his novel The Good Lord Bird. With a strong list of finalists, many considered McBride’s novel to be an underdog. McBride seemed shocked by the win. He shared that writing the novel became an escape for him during a difficult season of his life. McBride also expressed his pleasure about the win, remarking, “Had Rachel Kushner or Jhumpa Lahiri or Thomas Pynchon or George Saunders won tonight, I wouldn’t have felt bad because they are fine writers, but it sure is nice to get it.”

 

Mary Szybist was presented with the Poetry Award for Incarnadine: Poems, her second collection of poetry. The award for Young People’s Literature was given to Cynthia Kadohata for her novel The Thing About Luck. George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America won the award for Nonfiction.

 

Congratulations to all the winners!

Beth

 
 

Girls of Atomic City

Girls of Atomic City

posted by:
November 13, 2013 - 7:55am

Cover art for The Girls of Atomic CityBy 1942, the United States government had fully committed to the idea of building an atomic bomb. The scope of that project would dwarf any other single undertaking in human history in cost and material. The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan details the experiences of 16 women who find themselves wrapped up in the secrecy and inadvertent social engineering of the Manhattan Project.

 

Oak Ridge, Tennessee was the first of the three biggest Manhattan project facilities and did not exist until the Department of Defense built it. For years, it didn’t even appear on any maps. The town started small, but as the project ramped up there was an increased need for housing, stores, sundries and recreational outlets. By the end of World War II, 75,000 lived in and around Oak Ridge. With so many able-bodied men in the military, women formed a vital backbone to the efforts at Oak Ridge. Some were transported in from the coasts without knowledge of their final destination. Others were from the surrounding area, lured in by the promise of well-paying, if secretive, government work. There were also the women scientists involved in the research, although they were often deprived of the accolades. Many of these women had never been away from home; many had never earned their own salary before. They found themselves someplace where the security and secrecy was oppressive. Some were even recruited to spy on their fellow workers.  

 

Kiernan lets the women tell their own stories, and if many of them are similar, the cross-section is still broad. Especially interesting is the vast difference in experiences based on race, the United States still viciously segregated at the time. It’s also interesting to see how this group of clever young people made a dry county one of the best areas for the production and smuggling of moonshine in the U.S. Many of the women Kiernan interviewed were shocked at the war’s end to realize what exactly they had been working on. Most of them, though, remained in Oak Ridge - at least the town if not the facility.

Brian

 
 

For All the Saints

Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the CatacombsArt historian Paul Koudounaris has developed a grotesque but incredibly interesting research niche as he uncovers Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. In this, the follow-up to his 2011 Coup de Coeur award-winning Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses, Koudounaris continues to delve deep into the centuries-old mystery of the veneration and bejeweling of full skeletons and individual bones of Christian “saints” in Europe. In the past, the relics have made their appearances only once a year at festivals, but the author was granted unprecedented access to examine and photograph these unique marvels.  

 

Beginning in the early middle ages, the remains of various Christian martyrs were buried in the Roman catacombs. Long forgotten, the skeletons filled the underground passages until the era of the Protestant Reformation. In the late 1500s through the following century, many Catholic churches were looking for relics that would help to invigorate their parishioners to remain devoted. These churches, mostly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, were sent authenticated bones from The Vatican with official documentation identifying them as having belonged to early Christian martyrs. In the intervening years, many of these unofficial saints have been “decanonized” by Roman Catholic officials.

 

Individual examples and stories of the relics and the stunning manner that they are displayed make up the bulk of this fascinating look at the crossroads of religion, art and history. Sumptuous photographs of the artifacts in all their dazzling glory, including a breathtaking double-page spread of the “Chapel of Bones” at the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne, complete this unique volume.

Todd

 
 

To Turn a Blind Eye

To Turn a Blind Eye

posted by:
November 4, 2013 - 7:00am

Witnesses. Accomplices. Killers. One thing is clear from Wendy Lower’s chilling new book Hitler’Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fieldss Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. Regardless of the prism through which German women viewed the Third Reich’s maddening quest for racial purity few escape Lower’s dogged search for the answer to “why?”  Why did this “darkest side of female activism” rear its head and consume a generation of women that found themselves thrust into a war they did not want but nonetheless embraced for their own selfishness and ambition.

 

For the thousands of women coming of age in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the dividing line between home front and battlefront was practically nonexistent.  While most women found ways to distance themselves from the violence of the war, a third of the female population was actively engaged in a Nazi Party organization. Many volunteered to be sent to the Eastern Front where some of the worst atrocities against Jews were documented. Clerical, teaching and nursing jobs became the sinister underpinnings of the Nazi machine, where new career tracks beckoned young women seeking a steady paycheck. How these women, some barely out of their teens, others young mothers, evolved into indifferent bystanders or cold-blooded killers, is the thrust of Lower's dramatic account.

 

Lower sorts her 13 "main characters" into three categories: witnesses, accomplices and killers. It is the latter perpetrators of genocide that evoke the most study. Women like Johanna Altvater, a secretary  who lures Jewish children with candy only to shoot them, or Liesel Willhaus, wife of an SS commander who shoots Jewish slave workers from her balcony with her child in tow, are impossible to fathom. Lower, who is a Holocaust historian, explores shocking behaviors like these in this 68-year-old story of one of the most disturbing puzzles of women's behavior. Hitler's Furies has recently been named a finalist for the National Book Award.

Cynthia

 
 

Women and the Civil War

Women and the Civil War

posted by:
October 30, 2013 - 7:00am

Maryland Women in the Cival War:Union, Rebels, Slaves and SpiesWith the ongoing 150th anniversary of the Civil War, quite a few books have been published recently dealing with many of the famous figures and battles of that era. However, one area that has not been explored very deeply is the role women played in shaping this period of history. In her book Maryland Women in the Civil War: Unionists, Rebels, Slaves and Spies, author and former Stevenson University History Professor Claudia Floyd examines some of the ways that women were able to make a difference behind the scenes whether they were for the Union or Confederacy.

 

Well-researched with an extensive bibliography and endnotes, Floyd sheds light on some remarkable Maryland women who often risked their reputations, freedom and lives to assist with issues about which they were quite passionate. During the Civil War, Marylanders fought for both the North and South, although the state technically remained part of the Union. Floyd introduces the reader to some remarkably courageous women who took up both sides of the cause. Some are familiar (Harriet Tubman) and some obscure (Anna Ella Carroll) but they all helped in ways that included assisting slaves to freedom, nursing wounded soldiers, spying (for both North and South) and holding together their families torn apart by the loss of the security provided them by their absent male relatives.

Regina

 
 

Helter Skelter, and Everything Before and After

Cover art for Manson“The paranoia was fulfilled” – that’s how Joan Didion described the murders carried out in 1969 by Charles Manson and his band of devoted followers known as “The Family.” Translation? The late sixties were already a time of intense political change and civil unrest. Throw in sensationalized murders and an equally dramatic trial, and this period was officially the craziest and most unsettling in American history, no matter one’s political or ideological leanings. In Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, Jeff Guinn traces the hardscrabble origins of the boy who grew up to become the infamous cult leader and murderer. Although Manson did have a somewhat unstable home life, he exaggerated or fabricated childhood tales of woe to win sympathy and devotion from his followers. In the true fashion of an “opportunistic sociopath,” as Guinn describes him, Manson used skills obtained in prison, like Dale Carnegie’s popular How to Win Friends and Influence People program, to manipulate followers and bring them under his control. His teachings that “Helter Skelter”, the end of an orderly American society, was close at hand led to the “Tate murders,” where pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others were brutally killed. Additionally, his followers murdered several other people before and after this most infamous crime.  

 

Guinn does an excellent job alternating national and world history with Manson’s development, meticulously chronicling his childhood and adolescence in and out of reform schools, his young adulthood as a petty repeat criminal, and his time in Haight-Ashbury, the neighborhood that was the epicenter for the darker side of the hippie movement where Manson did much of his initial recruiting. Those who enjoyed Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders will appreciate this in-depth account of these suspenseful and chilling crimes. As James Lee Burke writes in his cover review: “Hang on, reader. This is a rip-roaring ride you won’t forget.”
 

Melanie

 
 

The Recovered Alcoholic Abroad, or in Search of Robert Lewis Stevenson

Cover art for Headhunters on my DoorstepJ. Maarten Troost’s newest work of travel journalism, Headhunters on my Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost, tackles foreign shores, classic literary giants and a newfound sobriety with the same sharp wit we’ve come to expect from the author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Getting Stoned with Savages and Lost on Planet China.

 

Again, Troost invites us along on his voyage to the South Pacific, but this trip promises to be immensely different. For one, his sole inspiration for this particular expedition is to follow Robert Lewis Stevenson’s own eccentric island-hopping excursions. On Hiva-Oa we stand over the stacked rocks of Paul Gauguin’s supposed grave, where Troost ruminates on the conflicting lives of the Post-Impressionist artist, both at once the freedom-loving painter and the syphilitic sexual tourist.  On Nuka Hiva we discover the hidden dangers of the land that include falling coconuts, tiger sharks and deceptive fellow rovers.

 

But what’s with Troost’s sudden interest in the life of the novelist who penned Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? What was compelling enough to set Troost trekking distant lands and sailing strange waters? The search for redemption. He asks us to “step back for a moment and consider our hero, Robert Lewis Stevenson. The first thing one gleans is that he does not mess around –no hemming and hawing for him, no dithering.”  

 

Troost, nearly one year sober, is testing not only his sea legs but his teatotaling fortitude which has held him back from both wrecking his marriage and ruining his life. Troost, while traveling on a boat of booze-guzzling shipmates, is not dawdling nor dithering in his search to better understand addiction. With candid humor, Troost dissects himself while also ruminating on the relationship between some of the great artists and writers and their own proclivities for drugs and the endless bottle.

 

For fans of classic Troost, there are still plenty of escapades including a pack of vicious village dogs, an underage Marquesan tattooist and the rogue cannibal. This travel memoir just offers a bit more; both a view into a wanderlust’s struggle with dependency and a hopeful tale of where the curiosity of the human might lead.
 

Sarah Jane

 
 

As Time Goes By in Charm City

Lost Baltimore cover artLost Baltimore by Gregory Alexander and Paul Williams pays homage to vanishing icons from the landscape of Baltimore’s past. Emphasis is on bygone buildings, but the authors also remember professional sports teams and businesses which left the city and impacted the livelihood of many denizens of Charm City. While tourists and residents see the Inner Harbor as the jewel in Baltimore’s crown and enjoy updated sports’ venues, this book sheds light on the dramatic changes to its skyline in just the past 150 years.  
 

The authors start in 1860 with the demolition of the First Presbyterian Church and continue through today with the virtual disappearance of arabbers in the city. Detailed text and rich images bring Baltimore’s past to life in this engaging coffee table page-turner. Mention is made of the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 which destroyed so many buildings, lives and, indeed, the layout of the city. But the authors are careful to look at all aspects of life in Baltimore which have changed over the years. Enjoy reminiscing about cherished sports teams — the Baltimore Bullets left in 1973, followed by the Baltimore Colts a decade later. And whatever happened to the mysterious Poe Toaster whose annual visits ceased in 2009? It is the disappearing industries which have had the most impact on Charm City and its changing population. Major businesses which have left or are now defunct include the Baltimore Shipyards (1984), McCormick Spice plant (1989), Hutzler’s (1990) and Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point (2012).
 

This fascinating look at our city sheds light on societal changes and the evolution of Baltimore from a manufacturing and shipping capital to tourist and business center. Paging through this entertaining and informative book allows readers to step back and enjoy the Baltimore of old.

Maureen