How 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.
For 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.
Baltimore 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.
AMC’s new Revolutionary War television series, Turn, brings viewers into a world of espionage, covert operations, code breaking and double agents. The show is based on historian Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring. In this case, fact is every bit as exciting as fiction. Rose tells the story of the Culper Ring, a small network of spies who operated under the direction of George Washington. This unusual group of spies worked unlike anyone before, and the Culper Ring’s activities laid the foundation for modern spy craft. Rose shares more about the groundbreaking band of spies in this interview.
This compelling and fascinating chapter of the Revolutionary War probably isn’t much like the story that you remember from your high school history class. Turn showrunner Craig Silverstein explains, “What we’re told in school is that it was a very David vs. Goliath tale, that we fought the British for our freedom. In reality, it was a war fought between neighbors; it was fought house to house … It wasn’t like we were repelling an alien invasion force; it was more like a divorce.”
Turn premiered on AMC on April 6. Get a taste of this exciting new series in this preview.
Baltimore’s Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte was known as the most beautiful woman in the United States. Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother, was more interested in women than war games. The pair fell madly in love, and in so doing, changed their destinies and affected international diplomacy. Carol Berkin shares the story of this remarkable woman in Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte.
Born in Baltimore in 1785, Betsy was the eldest child of William Patterson and Dorcas Spear Patterson. Betsy’s beauty was renowned and coupled with her intelligence, wit and independence, it made her one of the most sought-after women in America. She refused marriage proposals from wealthy, powerful men, writing to her father, "Nature never intended me for obscurity." Her 1803 marriage to Jerome ensured her place in the spotlight and in history. Her father’s opposition to this union paled in comparison to Napoleon’s livid reaction. When the couple traveled from Baltimore to France, Napoleon banned the then-pregnant Betsy from disembarking in any European port. Napoleon also gave Jerome an ultimatum: Stay married to Betsy and get nothing, or marry a woman of Napoleon’s choice and enjoy wealth and power. Jerome ended the marriage in 1805 and was made king of Westphalia.
England welcomed the sensational Betsy with open arms, and it was there that she gave birth to her son and only child. She spent the rest of her life traveling between Baltimore and England and grew to admire the refined English society and despise America’s obsession with commerce. Despite her disdain for her country’s moneymaking mania, she fought for and received a pension from Napoleon that she invested, ultimately amassing a great fortune. Using Betsy’s letters, Berkin goes behind the tabloid-esque story and creates a portrait of an independent woman struggling to find her place in a changing world.
The Maryland Historical Society’s exhibit "Woman of Two Worlds:" Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy” brings to life the two worlds that Betsy inhabited and showcases her jewels, silver, furniture, paintings and much more, including one of her scandalous gowns.
In April 1940, John Henry Montagu Manners, the ninth Duke of Rutland, spent his final days working in the small rooms in the servants’ quarters of Belvoir Castle, where his family’s archives were housed. Although he spent most of his life carefully preserving his family’s history, the duke spent the end of his life expunging the family records of three specific time periods from his life. After his death, the duke’s son and heir, Charles, ordered the archive rooms sealed. The rooms and their contents remained untouched until they were reopened in 1999. Historian Catherine Bailey brings this story to light in her captivating new book The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess and a Family Secret.
While Bailey was researching a book on World War I, she came across some curious gaps in the family’s archives and began to question what was missing. Why would someone have removed those specific sections from the family’s otherwise meticulous records? She worked steadfastly, researching and piecing together the scandalous family secrets that John Manners worked so hard to hide. In this case, the truth sounds like the plot of an epic BBC miniseries, and the answers she finds are more dramatic than most fiction. The Secret Rooms is part Downton Abbey, part Gothic mystery and entirely irresistible. This story is narrative nonfiction at its best.
In Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War, Richard Serrano tells the story of the last two survivors of the Civil War. It’s the 1950s and both men are in their 100s, still holding on to life and their past glory. One is a former drummer boy for the Union now living in Duluth, Minnesota and the other lives in Texas, having served with General Hood’s Brigade fighting for the South. They’ve both been alive for various Civil War reunions and each hopes to make it to the upcoming Centennial Celebration set to begin in 1961. However, one of them never served for the United States in any conflict and was a mere boy of 5 years old when the Civil War began. Which one really deserves the accolades, including a federal pension, and which is an imposter?
Serrano’s book is full of details about these men and others who claimed to be former Civil War veterans. What is compelling about this narrative is that many records from the Civil War, particularly those of the South, were lost or destroyed over the years. Some men even served and were discharged without official papers. With painstaking research into the records and archives that do remain, including the 1860 U.S. Census, Serrano is able to write an accurate story of the various frauds who tried to claim the glory that was never due to them.
As Serrano posits, the reasons for their deceptions included poverty (many new pension claims from Civil War vets occurred during the Great Depression), a need for fame and an inability to distinguish fact from fiction. Some of these men had been telling their stories for so long that they began to believe they were true. Serrano points out that even the most well-intentioned fraud detracts from the countless number of men who served during the Civil War and never got their due.
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Donald Yacovone is a fascinating companion book to the recent documentary series of the same name. Like the series, the book begins with the story of Juan Garrido, the first known African-born person to arrive in what is now the United States in 1513. The narrative carries through to the present, covering 500 years of African-American history. The book, which is organized in nine chapters that mark distinct periods in the African-American story, brings greater depth to the stories presented in the documentary. In both, Gates highlights the diversity and the resilience of African-Americans by sharing the stories of individuals whose experiences shed light on their time and place in this complex history.
This documentary series is a lifelong dream that Gates was finally able to bring to fruition. He explains,“Since my senior year in high school, when I watched Bill Cosby narrate a documentary about black history, I’ve longed to share those stories in great detail to the broadest audience possible, young and old, black and white, scholars and the general public. I believe that my colleagues and I have achieved this goal through The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The critics agree that it is a success. Both the series and book have been nominated for NAACP Image Awards.
The six-part miniseries, which aired on PBS last fall, was recently released on DVD. This touching and inspiring video clip gives viewers a taste of the storytelling found in this riveting look into 500 years of history.
In September of 1944, in the final year of World War II, a B-24 bomber piloted by Jack Arnett and carrying 10 servicemen plummeted into the western Pacific Ocean near the Micronesian islands of Palau. The wreckage of the plane disappeared, and the men were presumed dead though no bodies were found. Baltimore author Wil S. Hylton examines the quest of the man who worked to unravel the mystery of crash and the fate of the men on board in Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II.
In 1993, middle-aged medical researcher Pat Scannon was a novice scuba diver, so when an invitation came to search for the underwater ruins of a sunken Japanese hospital ship supposedly laden with gold stolen during WWII, he was hesitant to accept. While diving on the trip, Scannon saw a wing of a different submerged American plane and became determined to answer the question of what happened to Arnett’s aircraft and crew. He assumed that, due to the massive size of a B-24 bomber, he’d locate the crash site fairly quickly; instead, his detective work spanned more than 10 years.
Hylton documents the details of Scannon’s research utilizing books, government documents, archival material and networking with veterans and military contacts. Yet, Vanished is far more than a paper trail. Particularly compelling are the parallel stories of Scannon, the crew members and their families who had been waiting for nearly 60 years for information about the fate of their loved ones. Vanished is a moving account of one man’s determination to lay to rest with honor a forgotten crew of our country’s airmen.
Soviet Russian cooking may conjure up images of boiled cabbage and overcooked potatoes, but Anya von Bremzen’s fascinating food memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing reveals a much more rich and flavorful history as it pertains to Soviet-era dishes. As von Bremzen, a food writer, muses in the prologue: “All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion.” Following this sentiment, von Bremzen travels between past and present as she and her mother cook and recreate both the supreme and humble food concoctions relational to their homeland’s state of being. There’s the pre-Bolshevik Revolution richness where dishes boast complex flavors and labor-intensive preparation, the uniformity of Lenin’s new Soviet model when blandness and simplicity prevailed, the starvation years of the Stalin- and World War II-eras which lay bare the “recipes” created solely for survival, and the “Thaw” of the 1950s and 1960s when food began to reappear but scarcity still ruled. In the book’s final chapter, aptly titled “Putin on the Ritz,” the author sees through a 21st century lens the Moscow life of her childhood in all its small pleasures and shortcomings.
Von Bremzen and her mother Larissa emigrated to the U.S. in 1974, but not before Anya had a chance to experience both the deprivations and the decadence of Soviet food distribution, depending on one’s connections and/or status as nomenklatura (Communist party appointees). Von Bremzen’s writing is at times dense yet always saturated with flavorful layers, much like the kulebiaka, or fish pie, which dominates much of the first chapter with tales of its preparation. At the end are recipes for some of the dishes discussed, one from each decade, so readers can experience firsthand a taste of history. Russophiles and foodies alike shouldn’t miss this hidden gem which shows how a country’s complex history and its food are intricately connected, and as a result become equally important to its cultural identity.