Winners 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!
By 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.
Art 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.
Witnesses. Accomplices. Killers. One thing is clear from Wendy Lower’s chilling new book Hitler’s 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.
With 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.
“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.”
J. 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.
Lost 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.
David Bowie sang “fame puts you there where things are hollow.” Two new books take a close look at superstar entertainers separated by decades, yet the perks and consequences of fame seem to remain the same. Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus by Dean Jensen is the true story of circus aerialist phenom Leitzel Pelikan who rose to international stardom at the dawn of the 20th century. Author Michael Walker looks to the music scene in What You Want Is in the Limo: On the Road with Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper and The Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born.
The Pelikan’s small family circus had fallen on hard times, and crippled patriarch Eduard was forced to “apprentice” his talented 12-year-old daughter Nellie to Willy Dosta’s traveling troupe in order to feed his family. Nellie, an accomplished acrobat and flyer herself, returned within a year and gave birth to baby Leitzel in 1891. Nellie left her baby in the care of her parents while she trained, traveled and eventually found renown under the tutelage of Edward Leamy. Petite Leitzel showed a gift for the trapeze and Roman rings and soon outshone her mother under the big top. So famous that she was known simply as Leitzel, she commanded a private car in the Ringling Brothers circus train, enjoyed legions of admirers and suitors, and was married several times including to her male trapeze counterpart, Alfredo Codona. Queen of the Air is not only a biography of a legendary aerialist, it is a behind the scenes view of the celebrity and circus life of an earlier time.
Walker’s title says it all; his premise is that 1973 marked a year of intense road tours for “every major act of the era” which ushered in the real ’70s, changing the hippieish peace and love culture of the ’60s to a harsher reality of big money, scads of friendly groupies and an unending assortment of illicit substances. Walker tracks the travels and travails of The Who, Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper whose skyrocketing stars and bulging coffers are directly proportional to the indulgence of their dissolute behaviors. 1973 marked the year of outrageous contract demands, powerful and massive customized sound systems and no-holds-barred stage shows. What You Want Is in the Limo will be enjoyed by anyone who ever held a transistor radio to their ear.
America’s most famous family feuders are surely the Hatfields and McCoys. Memorialized in cartoons, movies, and recently the subject of a television mini-series, the two clans have become an Appalachian cultural reference. In The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story, author Dean King presents a factual history of the warring families and lays to rest some of the myths perpetuated around the deadly quarrelling which spanned decades.
The Tug River runs between what is now West Virginia and Kentucky. Mountainous and forested, the valley’s inhabitants scratched out a living hunting, timbering, sometimes brewing moonshine. "Devil" Anse Hatfield and Randolph McCoy were each a patriarch with thirteen or more children apiece and a sprawling network of relatives. Hatfields and McCoys lived on both sides of the river and sometimes chose spouses from the other’s clan. Their peaceful co-existence was challenged with the advent of the Civil War; just as Kentucky became a Union state and Virginia chose the confederacy, family members also chose sides and hard feelings developed with the ensuing home guard executions of "traitors" in both states.
King outlines other incidents which intensified the animosity between the families, including the theft of a branded pig, a dispute over timber rights, and the infamous ill-fated romance between Johnse Hatfield and Rosanna McCoy. He thoroughly traces the roots of the hostilities and follows the brutal beatings, home burnings, armed battles, and a court ordered hanging which would eventually claim the lives of well over a dozen people. King uncovered previously overlooked documentary evidence, reviewed legal records and contemporary newspaper accounts, and interviewed descendants of the families, all of which make this book and its fascinating photographs an encompassing study of this deadly vendetta fueled by pride and profit.