Review: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger

Review: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey KlugerApollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger
Format: audiobook, eARC, hardcover
Source: publisher, publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: nonfiction, science history
Pages: 320
Published by Henry Holt on May 16th 2017
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The untold story of the historic voyage to the moon that closed out one of our darkest years with a nearly unimaginable triumph

In August 1968, NASA made a bold decision: in just sixteen weeks, the United States would launch humankind’s first flight to the moon. Only the year before, three astronauts had burned to death in their spacecraft, and since then the Apollo program had suffered one setback after another. Meanwhile, the Russians were winning the space race, the Cold War was getting hotter by the month, and President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade seemed sure to be broken. But when Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were summoned to a secret meeting and told of the dangerous mission, they instantly signed on.

Written with all the color and verve of the best narrative non-fiction, Apollo 8 takes us from Mission Control to the astronaut’s homes, from the test labs to the launch pad. The race to prepare an untested rocket for an unprecedented journey paves the way for the hair-raising trip to the moon. Then, on Christmas Eve, a nation that has suffered a horrendous year of assassinations and war is heartened by an inspiring message from the trio of astronauts in lunar orbit. And when the mission is over—after the first view of the far side of the moon, the first earth-rise, and the first re-entry through the earth’s atmosphere following a flight to deep space—the impossible dream of walking on the moon suddenly seems within reach.

My Review:

Anyone who has lived in Chicagoland knows that while expressways may be designated official numbers from the DOT, no one ever calls them by those numbers. Highways in Chicagoland have names; the Ryan, the Kennedy, the Ike. And if you travel through Northwest Indiana, the Borman.

The Borman is named for Frank Borman, the native Hoosier who was one of the first three people to see the far side of the moon with his own eyes, up close and personal. Frank Borman was the commander of Apollo 8, the first mission by any country to send humans around the far side of the moon.

They may not have landed there, that honor was bestowed on Apollo 11, but they were the first humans to leave not merely the Earth, but to entirely leave Earth’s gravitational field and become temporary residents of a different celestial body, in orbit around the Earth’s moon.

Apollo 8 is the story of not just that one mission, but of as much as possible of everything that came before it. Frank Borman was not one of the original Gemini astronauts. He just missed inclusion in that celebrated group with the “right stuff”. He was, however, part of the second class of astronauts, merely referred to as the “next eight”.

It’s always the ones who get there first who get all the good names.

So this is the story of not just the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, and of their lives and careers in NASA up to that point, but it is also the story of NASA itself. Now that’s a story of “big science”, where there are many, many people who give significant portions of their lives to work together for what they hope (and in this case they were right) is a cause greater than themselves.

There are heroes here, too. Names we’re familiar with like Gene Krantz and Deke Slayton. (Krantz was the Mission Controller who helped bring Apollo 13 back from the brink.) But there are plenty of both sung and unsung heroes among this early corps of NASA movers, shakers and believers, and the author does a skillful job of weaving the parts that they play into the narrative of this one, singular mission.

It is also the story of America in the 1960s. While this book does not attempt to portray the entirety of that tumultuous decade – nor should it – within its narrow scope it does set the missions of NASA in general and Apollo 8 in particular into their historic context. Not just the story of what was done, but why it was done and how it felt to be a part of or even watch as it was done.

And to show why the space program was so important. What it did, and what it celebrated. And just how much was accomplished and how many people around the world celebrated with it.

Reality Rating A: I have a very soft spot in my heart for anything to do with NASA and the space program. I was a child during the 1960s, and the space program, its successes and its tragic failures, formed part of the backdrop of my earliest years.

We accomplished so much. We went so far, and we showed such promise. And now it seems to be gone. Not just the adventure itself, but the promise of the future it provided and the surprising amount of unity it engendered.

(Readers interested in a bigger picture of exactly what it means that we don’t go into space much anymore should read Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean)

Apollo 8, the book, does a terrific job at showing the importance, the risks and the rewards of Apollo 8, the mission. By focusing on the smaller perspective of the three astronauts, and particularly Borman, it allows the author to paint the broader picture in a way that allows readers to empathize with the people and to grasp the size and scope of NASA’s operation and how it worked – and how it occasionally didn’t with disastrous results.

So while the focus is on Borman, Lovell and Anders, this is also very much a book about “big science”. And like The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell, it does a good job of making that “big science” comprehensible. And makes the reader wish they could have been there.

I found Apollo 8 to be compelling reading, to the point where I began by listening on audio and then switched to print to see what happened faster, even though I already knew what happened. I was absorbed in the details and the perspectives. As glad as I was to have the crew get back safely, theirs was a journey that I never wanted to see end.

But it did. As did our journey with them.

I leave you with this iconic photograph taken from Apollo 8. Earthrise.

Review: Leonard by William Shatner with David Fisher

Review: Leonard by William Shatner with David FisherLeonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man by William Shatner, David Fisher
Format: audiobook, ebook, hardcover
Source: publisher, purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography, biography
Pages: 278
Published by Thomas Dunne Books on February 16th 2016
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Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner first crossed paths as actors on the set of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Little did they know that their next roles, in a new science-fiction television series, would shape their lives in ways no one could have anticipated. In seventy-nine television episodes and six feature films, they grew to know each other more than most friends could ever imagine.
Over the course of half a century, Shatner and Nimoy saw each other through personal and professional highs and lows. In this powerfully emotional book, Shatner tells the story of a man who was his friend for five decades, recounting anecdotes and untold stories of their lives on and off set, as well as gathering stories from others who knew Nimoy well, to present a full picture of a rich life.
As much a biography of Nimoy as a story of their friendship, Leonard is a uniquely heartfelt book written by one legendary actor in celebration of another.

My Review:

Yesterday was NASA’s Day of Remembrance, in honor of all those who lost their lives in the quest for space, particularly the tragic losses of Apollo I and the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

Because so many people have entered the space program and the aerospace industry because they fell in love with the idea of space travel while watching Star Trek, William Shatner’s semi-biographical, semi-autobiographical book about his friendship with the late and very much lamented Leonard Nimoy seemed like an appropriate book for this week.

shatner nimoy youngTo this reader, it felt as if the book, while purporting to tell the story of Leonard Nimoy’s life, ends up combining autobiography with biography. These two men knew each other very well for a very long time, came from somewhat similar backgrounds, and found themselves yoked together, whether they liked it or not (and sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t) by their performances in what everyone expected would be a short-lived TV program.

Instead, Star Trek became a phenomenon and none of the lives that it touched were ever the same. Particularly theirs.

Because Star Trek altered the trajectory of both their lives in ways that were both bizarre and profound, this book also serves as a personal recollection of the production of the original series. While many of these stories have been told before, it is still interesting to hear them again from someone who lived through those events.

A group which gets smaller and smaller every year. Dammit.

The other story that is told here is that of the life and occasionally hard times of a working actor in what is now considered the “Golden Age” of television. There is never a good time to be an actor. It’s a lot of tiny parts, short run work, and cab driving (in Nimoy’s case) or waiting tables or some other job that can be dropped and picked up on the whim of a casting director.

And even though these stories are now more than 50 years in the past, that struggle still resonates. The reader can see how those years formed the characters of the men who performed those iconic characters, and how much those characters both represented pieces of their core selves, and how much those characters influenced who they became.

For a fan, this is a fascinating story, all the more so because it rings so true in the author’s voice.

Escape Rating B+: Sometimes I talk about what I think about a book, sometimes I talk about what I feel. Fair warning, this is one of those “feelie” reviews.

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the end of the original series. I watched some of those early episodes with my dad, so there are a lot of memories tied up in this for me. Also, the stories that Shatner tells at the very beginning of the book, about his and Nimoy’s shared background as first-generation Americans (or Canadians) in Jewish immigrant families is also the story of my parents’ generation. With very little alteration, my mother could tell similar stories.

As a fan, I read a lot of the “making of Star Trek” books that came out in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the stories that Shatner relates were also a part of those books, but they are told slightly differently from one participant’s perspective than they were in those more “reporting style” books. Different both in the sense that we all remember things differently, and that it seems as if Shatner glosses over some of his behavior that drove his colleagues crazy at the time, and for years later. Some of the more contentious incidents seem to have faded from memory a bit.

We are all the stars of our own stories, possibly in this case more literally than for the rest of us.

This was a book where I both read the book in ebook, looked at the pictures in the hardcover, and listened to the audio. I would have the audio on in the car, and then pick up with the book at lunch and after I got home. One of the things that comes through on the audio is that the author often sounds tired. He frequently ran out of breath on the longer sentences. I kept wanting to tell him to take a breath in the middle, or grab a glass of water. I wanted to be there as he told his story.

shatner nimoy laughing lateIn the end, this is a book for the fans.It is way more about the history of Star Trek than any other single topic. As a fan, I found the story interesting and often charming. Perhaps I should say “fascinating” as Spock often did.

For readers who are not fans, or for later readers who are looking to find out what all the fuss was about, this is not a book that analyzes the influence of Star Trek or its characters on pop culture and the explosion of science fiction into movies, TV and mainstream literature. That’s a book for someone else at some other time.

But for those of us who loved those men and the show that they created, and which created them, this book is a marvelous way to remember them both.

As his most famous saying goes, Leonard Nimoy lived long and prospered. And he is missed.

Review: Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines Hellions & Heretics by Jason Porath

Review: Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines Hellions & Heretics by Jason PorathRejected Princesses: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: history, women's history
Pages: 384
Published by Dey Street Books on October 25th 2016
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Blending the iconoclastic feminism of The Notorious RBG and the confident irreverence of Go the F**ck to Sleep, a brazen and empowering illustrated collection that celebrates inspirational badass women throughout history, based on the popular Tumblr blog.
Well-behaved women seldom make history. Good thing these women are far from well behaved . . .
Illustrated in a contemporary animation style, Rejected Princesses turns the ubiquitous "pretty pink princess" stereotype portrayed in movies, and on endless toys, books, and tutus on its head, paying homage instead to an awesome collection of strong, fierce, and yes, sometimes weird, women: warrior queens, soldiers, villains, spies, revolutionaries, and more who refused to behave and meekly accept their place.
An entertaining mix of biography, imagery, and humor written in a fresh, young, and riotous voice, this thoroughly researched exploration salutes these awesome women drawn from both historical and fantastical realms, including real life, literature, mythology, and folklore. Each profile features an eye-catching image of both heroic and villainous women in command from across history and around the world, from a princess-cum-pirate in fifth century Denmark, to a rebel preacher in 1630s Boston, to a bloodthirsty Hungarian countess, and a former prostitute who commanded a fleet of more than 70,000 men on China’s seas.

My Review:

Think of this as the ultimate collection of fractured fairy tales, because this collection is fractured on a number of different axes, all of them worth thinking about.

Also, the whole thing is a terrific hoot. So if you are looking for a slightly ironic and occasionally a bit pained laugh, this book is well worth dipping into. Often.

Many of these stories are based on history, some a bit more loosely than others. And the rest are based in myths that are well-known but have been ignored by Western culture. Why, you ask? Because all of the stories in this collection feature women who acted in various ways outside of the norms that Western history wants to impose upon women.

Every one of the women in these stories lives up to the saying, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” None of these women behaved well, and all of them made history. Even if, or especially because, it’s a history that the entrenched patriarchy wants to bury. After burning.

In case you can’t tell, reading this collection will definitely get your feminist dander way, way up. And that’s a good thing. These stories all need to be told. Because if we want girls to believe that they can be anything they set their minds and hearts to, we need to show them that it is possible to be more than just the few options that all of the media messaging tells them are available to girls and women.

The tone of Rejected Princesses is tongue-very-firmly-in-cheek. Although it reminds me of last year’s marvelous Cranky Ladies of History, the scope is much broader and the stories are much, much shorter, to the point of being vignettes rather than stories. But the Cranky Ladies had an observable bias towards stories with which most of us in Western societies, notably America, are already familiar with.

Porath’s scope is deliberately broader. The intent seems to be to illuminate all of the dusty and forgotten corners of history and legend that are occupied by women, from every continent and every time period. There are stories that feature women in ancient legends from the Norwegian fairy tale Tatterhood to the Brazilian legend of Iara to Xtabay from Mesoamerican mythology.

The historical figures are equally far ranging, from familiar names like Harriet Tubman and Anne Hutchinson in the US and Tomoe Gozen in 12th century China to Andamana in the 14th century Canary Islands and Alfhild in 5th century Denmark. The author has attempted to show the wide and varied range of women in history, from the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians to the 20th century around the globe.

If you are looking for a female historical figure relevant to any culture, any continent, any race and any era, she’s probably in here someplace, along with her sisters. I think that anyone could find a woman to identify with who relates directly to herself in some or many ways.

Not all of the women are heroes, either. The infamous Elizabeth Bathory is not the only villain featured between these pages. But the focus of the collection is to show the wide range of women in history, from heroes to villains, from slaves to owners, from commoners to queens. We’ve done it all. We just don’t get to see it all reflected in the history books.

Escape Rating B+: This collection is not intended to be definitive. And it is definitely not intended to be an authoritative historical treatise. That tongue-in-cheek style lends itself to a lot of humorous asides and more than a bit of breaking the fourth wall, where the author talks directly to the reader and not necessarily about the subject in hand.

One of the terrific things that the author has added to the collection is an attempt to provide trigger warnings and guide parents to stories that are or are not suitable to a particular child at a specific maturity level. Many of these stories, Elizabeth Bathory just keeps coming to mind, are not for the faint of heart (or stomach) or for a very young audience. An unfortunate number of famous women rose to fame or infamy after an awful lot of abuse of one kind or another, which may make their stories not exactly suitable for toddlers. When the author calls someone’s ex-husband “a crap sandwich” it’s not surprising that the story is not for the youngest audiences.

Based on the story, calling this particular ex “a crap sandwich” may possibly have been an insult to both crap and sandwiches.

But it is incredibly fun. If you are looking for something to whet your own on someone else’s appetite for diving into more women’s history, this is a great place to start. One final note to prospective readers; the illustrations in Rejected Princesses are terrific and often relevant to the story. Not historically accurate, but always interesting. Because of the illustrations, this is one book that is MUCH better read in print. Which also makes it easier to skim, a temptation that is nearly impossible to resist.

Review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth StroutMy Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 193
Published by Random House on January 12th 2016
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A new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout is cause for celebration. Her bestselling novels, including Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys, have illuminated our most tender relationships. Now, in My Name Is Lucy Barton, this extraordinary writer shows how a simple hospital visit becomes a portal to the most tender relationship of all—the one between mother and daughter.   Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her. Gentle gossip about people from Lucy’s childhood in Amgash, Illinois, seems to reconnect them, but just below the surface lie the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy’s life: her escape from her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters. Knitting this powerful narrative together is the brilliant storytelling voice of Lucy herself: keenly observant, deeply human, and truly unforgettable.

My Review:

My Name is Lucy Barton is literary fiction. Which means that not much happens. So fair warning, this is going to be one of those reviews where I end up talking a lot about how the book made me feel, rather than what the book was about.

Because I’m not quite sure what this book was about, at least in the sense of what the plot might have been. Or even if there is one.

Instead, this is a novel about relationships. And it is also very much a story about secrets, especially the ones where the need for secrecy becomes so ingrained, that we no longer even tell them to ourselves.

The ostensible story is about Lucy’s unexpected extended hospital stay, but it is clearly told from a point much later in her life. And as her thoughts roam over the whole of her life, she hints at memories from her childhood and adolescence.

It’s clear that there was a lot wrong in the Barton household while Lucy was growing up. The family was poverty-stricken, but that wasn’t either the real or the whole of the problem. Sparked by an extremely unexpected visit from the mother she hasn’t seen for years, in the quiet of her own mind Lucy hints at the things that went wrong. But she never speaks of them, not even to herself, at least not in detail.

There’s a monster lurking somewhere in that dim past, but the habit of never revealing that truth, whatever it was, is so ingrained that Lucy doesn’t even let herself think it. Consequently, the reader never does know precisely what happened.

What we do know is that those long ago troubles shaped Lucy’s life, and that her mother’s inability to even touch on those difficulties is part of their estrangement. At the same time, Lucy longs for real connection with her mother. And even though she is terribly grateful that her mother is there for those long, uncertain days in the hospital, Lucy still doesn’t get what she needs.

Escape Rating B-: I finished this, I found it interesting enough to keep turning back to over and over throughout the day, but in the end, it didn’t move me. There was no catharsis, no true ending.

Throughout the story, Lucy hints at terrible secrets, but she never reveals them, even to herself. As a reader, I felt let down at the end. I expected a resolution, or at least a reveal, that never came.

At the same time, part of what kept me coming back was the tenuous relationship between Lucy and her mother, which had some uncomfortable parallels to my own relationship with my mother. And maybe that was the point of the whole story. Not that Lucy tells us what happened to her, but that it makes the reader reach for the resonances in their own story. It’s not what the story gives us, but what we bring to it.

And that’s an uncomfortable thought.

Review: Give Us the Ballot by Ari Berman

Review: Give Us the Ballot by Ari BermanGive Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, politics, U.S. history
Pages: 384
on August 4th 2015
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A New York Times Notable Book of 2015A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2015A Boston Globe Best Book of 2015A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2015An NPR Best Book of 2015Countless books have been written about the civil rights movement, but far less attention has been paid to what happened after the dramatic passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 and the turbulent forces it unleashed. Give Us the Ballot tells this story for the first time.
In this groundbreaking narrative history, Ari Berman charts both the transformation of American democracy under the VRA and the counterrevolution that has sought to limit voting rights, from 1965 to the present day. The act enfranchised millions of Americans and is widely regarded as the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement. And yet, fifty years later, we are still fighting heated battles over race, representation, and political power, with lawmakers devising new strategies to keep minorities out of the voting booth and with the Supreme Court declaring a key part of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.
Berman brings the struggle over voting rights to life through meticulous archival research, in-depth interviews with major figures in the debate, and incisive on-the-ground reporting. In vivid prose, he takes the reader from the demonstrations of the civil rights era to the halls of Congress to the chambers of the Supreme Court. At this important moment in history, Give Us the Ballot provides new insight into one of the most vital political and civil rights issues of our time.

My Review:

Give this book to anyone who believes that the struggle for voting rights in America is over. Because the all too recent history told in this narrative shows all too clearly that it is far, far from over.

This is a difficult book to review. The history related is searing in its intensity. And it is impossible to be neutral. For those who are of the liberal persuasion, it is an indictment of man’s (and woman’s) continuing inhumanity to those who are not part of the white majority. For those who are conservative, it will read very differently. I’ll admit that my mind just won’t go wherever that it.

I wanted to take a bath when I finished, because the things that were done to suppress the African-American vote (and the Hispanic vote) were disgusting and sometimes deadly. In reading this history, it feels as if the deadly has mostly moved to other arenas, but the disgusting is still very much alive and kicking.

A voting rights case in Forsyth County, Georgia, (one county over from my house) was just settled this past week. Voting rights are still being fought for in the U.S., but the fights have moved from the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the judicial system. The fight is no less bloody for that blood being time and ink instead of red.

This may be progress of a sort, but it is progress that must be constantly and rigorously defended.

And in a nutshell, that is the lesson of Give Us the Ballot. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was landmark legislation, but it also marked a beginning and not an ending. Poll taxes and literacy tests were finally over. The battleground simply moved to Voter ID laws, redistricting and “at large” elections.

The right to vote is one of the bedrock principles of the United States. This history shows that the fight to make sure that every eligible person is allowed to vote, and that their vote counts, and that their vote has effective power, never, ever ends.

Escape Rating A: This is a book where I think it will be impossible for any reader to read dispassionately. As a liberal, I frankly wanted to wash at least my hands after reading it. I found the indictment compelling and also slightly nauseating. Both that blatant attempts to suppress the votes of blacks, hispanics and students continue, but that they are all too often successful and cloaked in coded language. And frankly, I still hear “dog whistles”.

Progress has been made, but it has also been beaten back by those in power who want to retain that power. And the tools used to beat that progress back seem designed to obfuscate either the motives of the perpetrators or the consequences of their actions. Or both.

This history clearly shows, at least to this reader, that Voter ID laws, reduction in the hours of early voting, voter roll purges and other such measures are both racially motivated and completely partisan. They are designed to suppress the votes of groups that generally vote for the Democratic Party. For someone who votes liberal, it reads like an attempt to turn the clock back and prevent the changes to the population that are occurring in fact from having a proportional impact at the ballot box and in the politics of the country.

Someone with a more conservative political inclination will undoubtedly see this history differently. I doubt that anyone can be neutral on this subject. This history will certainly make you think, whatever side of the political spectrum you fall upon. Thinking about the right to vote, and about making sure to exercise that right whenever possible, is always important.

Reviewer’s Note: Give Us the Ballot was nominated for the American Library Association’s Notable Book Awards for this year. As part of the Notable Books Council, I am pleased to say that this book was on our Awards list for this year, along with other outstanding works of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. Give Us the Ballot is an intensive history of an important and timely topic. It was also a perfect book to re-read and review over the Martin Luther King Day weekend.

Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney PaduaThe Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: computer history, graphic novel, history, steampunk, technology
Pages: 320
Published by Pantheon on April 21st 2015
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THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF LOVELACE AND BABBAGE
. . . in which Sydney Padua transforms one of the most compelling scientific collaborations into a hilarious series of adventures.
Meet Victorian London’s most dynamic duo: Charles Babbage, the unrealized inventor of the computer, and his accomplice, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the peculiar protoprogrammer and daughter of Lord Byron. When Lovelace translated a description of Babbage’s plans for an enormous mechanical calculating machine in 1842, she added annotations three times longer than the original work. Her footnotes contained the first appearance of the general computing theory, a hundred years before an actual computer was built. Sadly, Lovelace died of cancer a decade after publishing the paper, and Babbage never built any of his machines.
But do not despair! The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage presents a rollicking alternate reality in which Lovelace and Babbage do build the Difference Engine and then use it to build runaway economic models, battle the scourge of spelling errors, explore the wilder realms of mathematics, and, of course, fight crime—for the sake of both London and science. Complete with extensive footnotes that rival those penned by Lovelace herself, historical curiosities, and never-before-seen diagrams of Babbage’s mechanical, steam-powered computer, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is wonderfully whimsical, utterly unusual, and, above all, entirely irresistible.
(With black-and-white illustrations throughout.) 

My Review:

I finished this last night and it is great fun! I’m not totally sure what it is, but I had a terrific time reading it.

When I say that I don’t know what it is, I’m referring to the ratio between fact and fiction. It certainly is a graphic novel, but with surprising points as both graphic and novel. Although it certainly feels novel, I’m not totally certain that it IS a novel, if you catch my drift.

And if you like the kind of book where authors include lots of asides that induce laughter and add information while being both tongue-in-cheek and also true, you will love this book.

It purports to be a graphic novel that started as a webcomic about the fictional adventures of an alternate Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, where they actually managed to build Babbage’s famous Analytical Machine and Lovelace wrote programs for it that were able to be input, instead of the real world where Babbage started lots of inventions but never finished them, and Lovelace died of cancer in her mid-30s, after having written a seminal article on computer programming that she never got to see put into use.

This fictional world is much more fun. But in detailing the fictional adventures of our intrepid hero and heroine, the author manages to insert an incredible amount of real information, often in the form of footnotes and asides, that is taken verbatim from contemporary accounts of Lovelace and Babbage.

And there are LOTS of surviving documents. The Victorians were very prolific (or profligate) writers, and Babbage and Lovelace were both quasi-celebrities. Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, and Babbage, was, well, Babbage. He held a mathematics professorship at Cambridge that had been formerly held by Isaac Newton. Babbage was also infamous for misplacing government grant money, including a large grant for his Difference Engine. Babbage held large, well-attended parties, and famously argued with lots of people, many of them influential, about lots of things. In public and in writing.

Both Lovelace and Babbage were well-known mathematics geniuses, and they were good friends. The exact nature of that friendship is subject to debate, but they wrote to each other voluminously.

In other words, the author of this book had oodles of material to work with.

While the story that emerges in the webcomic is definitely fictional, the underpinning facts are relayed in a way that makes readers laugh out loud, and provides a surprising amount of understanding about two figures who did so much to create the computer revolution that we now live in – even though they hadn’t a clue at the time.

Escape/Reality Rating A-: I am still not sure whether to call this fiction or nonfiction, hence the combination rating for both escapism and reality.

The depiction of Babbage and Lovelace as somewhat mad inventors whose invention has definitely gotten out of hand is hilariously funny. Seeing them both as quintessential steampunk engineers, while not factually correct, rings surprisingly true. This is an alternate future that would have been so much fun!

At the same time, that these two figures have become posthumously associated with a movement as full of beautiful design and style as steampunk is its own kind of funny. In real life, neither of them was exactly known for their sartorial elegance. Or even their sartorial tidyness.

The individual stories are both funny and have that sense of feeling true without actually having been true. The chapter where George Eliot submits her manuscript to the Difference Engine for analysis has a lot of true things to say about Victorian writers in general, George Eliot in particular, and the nature of computers and computing capabilities, all in one swell foop. And I do mean swell foop – this is all fiction but it all still feels true.

Ironically, I also feel like I learned more about the real Ada Lovelace from this fictionalized, cartoonish version of her life and works than I did from a less fictionalized, and also less fun, biography, Ada’s Algorithm. That felt like gossip for the sake of gossip, where in Thrilling Adventures every seemingly silly aside is both grounded in fact and makes a point about its subject.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is a terrific, and terrifically funny book for anyone who wants to learn a little about the birth of computing and the outsize personalities of the Victorian era, while having a good chuckle.

Review: Broadcast Hysteria by A. Brad Schwartz

Review: Broadcast Hysteria by A. Brad SchwartzBroadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News by A. Brad Schwartz
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: broadcast journalism, history, nonfiction
Pages: 352
Published by Hill and Wang on May 5th 2015
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The enthralling and never-before-told story of the War of the Worlds radio drama and its true aftermath
On the evening of October 30, 1938, radio listeners across the United States heard a startling report of a meteor strike in the New Jersey countryside. With sirens blaring in the background, announcers in the field described mysterious creatures, terrifying war machines, and thick clouds of poison gas moving toward New York City. As the invading force approached Manhattan, some listeners sat transfixed, while others ran to alert neighbors or to call the police. Some even fled their homes. But the hair-raising broadcast was not a real news bulletin-it was Orson Welles's adaptation of the H. G. Wells classic The War of the Worlds.
In Broadcast Hysteria, A. Brad Schwartz boldly retells the story of Welles's famed radio play and its impact. Did it really spawn a "wave of mass hysteria," as the New York Times reported? Schwartz is the first to examine the hundreds of letters sent to Orson Welles himself in the days after the broadcast, and his findings challenge the conventional wisdom. Few listeners believed an actual attack was under way. But even so, Schwartz shows that Welles's broadcast became a major scandal, prompting a different kind of mass panic as Americans debated the bewitching power of the radio and the country's vulnerability in a time of crisis. When the debate was over, American broadcasting had changed for good, but not for the better.
As Schwartz tells this story, we observe how an atmosphere of natural disaster and impending war permitted broadcasters to create shared live national experiences for the first time. We follow Orson Welles's rise to fame and watch his manic energy and artistic genius at work in the play's hurried yet innovative production. And we trace the present-day popularity of "fake news" back to its source in Welles's show and its many imitators. Schwartz's original research, gifted storytelling, and thoughtful analysis make Broadcast Hysteria a groundbreaking new look at a crucial but little-understood episode in American history.

My Review:

This was scary all right, but not in the way that I originally thought. Then again, the original broadcast of the War of the Worlds in 1938 wasn’t actually as scary as anyone thought. At least not that night, 77 years ago today.

The newspaper coverage the next day had all the chills and thrills that anyone could possibly have imagined. And very little of it seems to have been true. Instead, the newspapers latched onto the sensational aspects and magnified them out of proportion, with each newspaper account adding more “details” to the one before, until the original incident became buried in an avalanche of sensationalized but fake news.

Today we would turn to snopes.com to see if the whole thing was a hoax or not. But in 1938 the internet hadn’t been invented yet, and TV was in its infancy, if not still mostly in its gestational stage. Your news choices were the newspaper, the radio, or the rumor mill.

In the case of Orson Welles’ broadcast of the War of the Worlds, the newspapers amplified the rumor mill until the story reached the level of myth – we all believe there was a mass panic during the October 30, 1938 radio broadcast, when there wasn’t really a mass anything.

For one thing, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air didn’t ever have a mass audience. It only had about a 3% share of the radio audience. Mercury Theatre ran opposite an extremely popular program, one that ironically starred a ventriloquist and his dummy, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

The story in Broadcast Hysteria is itself ironic. While it does provide background on Welles’ creation of the broadcast, the place where this story really puts its emphasis is on the aftermath. It also does a terrific job of explaining what it was that those people who did believe, even briefly, believed in, and why they believed it.

From the description of radio broadcasting techniques, and a look at world conditions at the time, a picture very different from the one of mass, uneducated panic emerges.

One of the aspects that fascinated this reader was the prevalence of re-enacted news events accepted as the truth. This was a standard practice in broadcast journalism at the time. To us it automatically sounds faked – a re-enactment is not the same as a recording of the same event. The re-enactment inevitably inserts some dramatic license to make its packaged story flow. That some of the same voice actors from the news re-enactments were part of the War of the Worlds did add to the verisimilitude.

But even more telling was what people believed. Based on information that has recently been pulled from various archives, it looks like only a third of the people who believed at all believed or even heard anything about Mars and Martians. In 1938, with World War II about to erupt and World War I still a very recent memory, a lot of people believed they were hearing about a perfectly terrestrial, albeit terrible, invasion of the U.S. by Germany or the growing Axis Powers. And most of the rest who believed something thought the problem was a meteor strike. Again, something quite plausible.

Like a lot of us who use television as the background soundtrack of our lives, many people who were listening to radio were not paying attention to every single word. It was on in the background, and they listened more intently when something grabbed their attention. So even people who were listening were not actively listening all the time. And without pictures, their minds filled in the blanks with things that made sense, like a European invasion or a meteor.

The story here is that the newspapers sold a lot of issues by playing up the sensationalism of the story. If it sounds like modern “clickbait”, it should. While there was some somewhat scientific research on the aftermath of the broadcast, the research seems to have been designed to confirm the biases of the researchers, and rejected any data that did not fit the result they wanted.

The fears at the time, in 1938, were that the mass panic supposedly created by the fake broadcast showed that America would be susceptible to mass propaganda in the same way that Germany and Italy had been. Instead, the data showed that propaganda didn’t really work that way, but the published reports ignored their own data.

So instead of a story about the mass panic, the one that I expected, instead we have a story about the rise of fake news, and we see just how seductive it can be. That’s actually more frightening than any invasion from Mars.

Reality Rating A-: The parts of this story that shine are the parts that get into the making of the broadcast and its aftermath. The world of radio broadcasting was different than we imagine, but in some ways the manner in which the news is made hasn’t changed all that much. The irony is that some of the worst changes are the result of War of the Worlds, not the non-existent panic of the broadcast, but the very real panic created by the newspaper coverage.

One of the reasons this book is sticking with me is that the comparisons to now are all too easy to make. In 1938, newspapers were tried and true, and radio was the new kid on the block. While that seems old fashioned now, it seems new again when the book describes all of the charges that were leveled at radio broadcasting at the time. Radio was new, it was immediate, it was available everywhere, and the drastic change in the way that people consumed media frightened people. All the same charges about corrupting morals and leading to violence that have been charged against TV, movies, video games and the internet in general were all leveled against radio at that time.

This is a fascinating study for anyone interested in mass communication and the uses and abuses to which it can be put.

One final note. As I said above, all the charges that every new media rots the mind were first leveled at radio. But one comment I found eerily prescient. A Tennessee publisher warned in 1932 that one day “newspapers will be nothing but a memory on a tablet…” And so they are.

Review: Grant Park by Leonard Pitts Jr.

Review: Grant Park by Leonard Pitts Jr.Grant Park by Leonard Pitts Jr.
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 400
Published by Agate Bolden on October 13th 2015
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Grant Park is a page-turning and provocative look at black and white relations in contemporary America, blending the absurd and the poignant in a powerfully well-crafted narrative that showcases Pitts's gift for telling emotionally wrenching stories.
Grant Park begins in 1968, with Martin Luther King's final days in Memphis. The story then moves to the eve of the 2008 election, and cuts between the two eras as it unfolds. Disillusioned columnist Malcolm Toussaint, fueled by yet another report of unarmed black men killed by police, hacks into his newspaper's server to post an incendiary column that had been rejected by his editors. Toussaint then disappears, and his longtime editor, Bob Carson, is summarily fired within hours of the column's publication.
While a furious Carson tries to find Toussaint—at the same time dealing with the reappearance of a lost love from his days as a 60s activist—Toussaint is abducted by two improbable but still-dangerous white supremacists plotting to explode a bomb at Obama's planned rally in Grant Park. Toussaint and Carson are forced to remember the choices they made as idealistic, impatient young men, when both their lives were changed profoundly by their work in the civil rights movement.

My Review:

Grant Park is a story about looking back and looking forward. It’s about staring into the future with the eyes of the past, and wondering if the world that you hoped for is going to be anything close to the world that you get.

It’s about hope, and it’s about change. And it’s also about fear. Not just about what you fear, but what everyone else fears about you.

Two men’s careers are at the same crossroads. Malcolm Toussaint, an opinion columnist for the fictional Chicago Post, writes a column that his editor, Ben Carson, believes is too incendiary to publish. After being turned down by every person up the chain of command, in the middle of the night Malcolm uses Ben’s computer and Ben’s password to insert his column into the next morning’s front page.

Malcolm’s column appears on the morning of November 4, 2008. It is Election Day, and Malcolm’s column is a venting of his anger, but mostly his exhaustion. He is tired of all the platitudes that white people use to cover their hidden racism, and he firmly believes that in spite of all the polls, Barack Obama will lose the election because white people will not vote for a black president in the privacy of the voting booth, no matter what they tell pollsters.

He is tired of the countless indignities that have been visited upon him all of his life, and he is overwhelmingly sad that the hopeful future he saw during the protest years of the late 1960’s seems to be dead. He’s pushing 60, and when he looks back at himself in 1968, he sees a young man full of hope that was ultimately defeated.

Malcolm knows that publishing that column will kill his formerly Pulitzer Prize winning career. What he doesn’t know is that his newspaper, failing slowly as all newspapers were failing in 2008, will use his editor Ben Carson as their scapegoat, and fire him too.

When Malcolm disappears on the morning of November 4, Ben Carson finds himself questioning who and what he is. He protested in 1968 too. He marched with Martin Luther King, too, coincidentally at the same march that Malcolm did. But as the scapegoat, Ben is bitter and blames his problems on Malcolm, wondering whether in his blame of the one man, he has become the racist that he always feared lurked under his skin.

As the day progresses, Malcolm and Ben both relive their very separate versions of 1968. A year when Malcolm went back to college at King’s urging, and Ben lost the love of his life over their differint reactions to the color line their relationship had attempted to bridge.

But while they look back, they are sitting in very different positions. Malcolm has been kidnapped by a couple of crazed white supremacists with a big agenda and almost no sense whatsoever. And Ben finds himself pursuing Malcolm and his story, because the woman he loved and lost has returned to him, and been kidnapped by those same crazies.

It’s all supposed to come together, or fall apart, at the Obama victory rally that Malcolm hoped for but never expected to happen and that has captors fear above all else.

Escape Rating A+: This story kept me up all night. Seriously. I read it until I finished and then couldn’t stop thinking about it. I still can’t.

It feels like there are at least three threads moving through this story. One is the current event of 2008. A second is the past, specifically the events leading up to April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. And the third is how Malcolm, Ben and even Janeka, the woman who broke Ben’s heart all those years ago, feel and think when they look back and remember.

The kidnapping plot seems insane from beginning to end, at least in practical terms. The kidnappers are not the most ept criminals on the face of the planet, or even in the city of Chicago. However, and it is a huge however, the white supremacist mantras that they spout are very, very frighteningly real. We’ve all heard them, straight out of the conservative corners of the internet and the media. These nuts believe that Blacks, Jews, homosexuals, Muslims, Hispanics and every other group have somehow “stolen” the country from white Christian men like themselves and that they need to rise up in violence to get it back. And they intend to strike the first blow at Obama’s victory rally. They are all the more frightening because they seem all too plausible, even downright possible, in their hate and desperate need to act on that hate.

As the present day events unfold, the Malcolm and Ben look back at their almost-shared past. They are both around 60, they were both college students in 1968, and they are reflecting back on who they were then, what they hoped for, and how different the future is that they got. They also look back at how much more hopeful the world seemed back then. The question is, was it more hopeful because they were young, with their future all before them, or did things really seem more possible than was actually achieved?

This is fiction that feels all too real. I remember that night, watching the election results come in and realize that we as a country had made a step forwards, but also wondering at the time what the backlash would be. We’re living in that backlash now, and it’s ugly. The author hints at the end that the characters fear something like this is coming, even though they can’t see the details from where they are. They just know that this kind of movement forwards never comes without a price.

The story ends with a sense of resigned hope. We have to find a way to make things better for everyone, together, because all of the alternatives are unthinkable. The frightening part, for those reader at least, is that there are some people thinking them.

Review: Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier

Review: Data and Goliath by Bruce SchneierData and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World by Bruce Schneier
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: current events, history, internet, politics, technology
Pages: 400
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 2nd 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Your cell phone provider tracks your location and knows who’s with you. Your online and in-store purchasing patterns are recorded, and reveal if you're unemployed, sick, or pregnant. Your e-mails and texts expose your intimate and casual friends. Google knows what you’re thinking because it saves your private searches. Facebook can determine your sexual orientation without you ever mentioning it.
The powers that surveil us do more than simply store this information. Corporations use surveillance to manipulate not only the news articles and advertisements we each see, but also the prices we’re offered. Governments use surveillance to discriminate, censor, chill free speech, and put people in danger worldwide. And both sides share this information with each other or, even worse, lose it to cybercriminals in huge data breaches.
Much of this is voluntary: we cooperate with corporate surveillance because it promises us convenience, and we submit to government surveillance because it promises us protection. The result is a mass surveillance society of our own making. But have we given up more than we’ve gained? In Data and Goliath, security expert Bruce Schneier offers another path, one that values both security and privacy. He shows us exactly what we can do to reform our government surveillance programs and shake up surveillance-based business models, while also providing tips for you to protect your privacy every day. You'll never look at your phone, your computer, your credit cards, or even your car in the same way again.

I should have saved this book for Halloween. It is possibly the scariest thing I have read in a long time, and all the more frightening because it is true.

Two things keep running through my head about what is outlined in this book. One is a play on this quote from George Orwell’s 1984. It’s not that “Big Brother is watching you”, but that “Big Brother and all of his pesky little brothers are watching US”. All of us. Every single one of us. All the time.

And that the late Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip Pogo from the late 1940s until the early 1970s said it best, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Data and Goliath gives readers a clear picture of just who Big Brother and all his little brothers are, and a good idea of what they are collecting when they watch. We also get to learn all the pesky justifications for why they watch and collect. Also what they do with what they collect, and how secretive and obfuscatory they are about their true purposes and their abuses of our privacy and any attempts at oversight.

Just as fascinating are all the things that are being done in the name of security that actually make us less secure in addition to making us less free. Some of that is truly scary.

The author doesn’t leave us without hope. This book is definitely a call for action, so there are plenty of ideas that can be implemented to address this streaming away of our privacy that claims to, but doesn’t actually make us more secure. The irony is that our increasing lack of privacy makes it easier, in fact downright simple, for those who wish to maintain the status quo to know in advance that we are moving against them, and for them to move against us, with all the power of the state at their backs, first.

Can we manage to get enough watch placed on the watchers in place before they make it impossible?

Reality Rating A-: The text is occasionally a bit dry, but the abuses of technology that it outlines are enough to keep the reader on the edge of their seat in spite of that. Because this is all true, and it’s enough to scare way more than your socks off.

One of the things the author makes abundantly clear is that we are all being watched, as in surveilled, all the time. Having a cell phone is enough to do that. Cell phones tell their carriers, and then anyone who has access to that data, where we are every minute of the day, within a couple dozen feet. From knowing where we are, it can then track who is around us, and from that, it can tell where we work, where we sleep, who we sleep with, where we eat, what we do for fun. Other tracking systems track what we buy and where we buy it, whether online or in real space. Anything we buy with a credit card is tracked. And even if we pay cash, cameras at the store we went to show what we bought and when we bought it.

The descriptions of just how easy it is to diagnose someone’s medical conditions by tracking their movements and their purchases shows just how easily one’s privacy, even about the most private things, can be breached.

And for those who say that there is so much information that no one could be looking for them in particular. Well, that may be true. But, if the government is looking for someone who is in your vicinity, your information will be scooped up and analyzed. And kept. If ten years from now what you bought or wrote today is deemed questionable, it is possible that something you forgot long ago could come back to haunt you.

For those who say that if someone has nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear, the arguments against that logic are pretty easily demolished. We are human, we all have things to hide – from the child who tells their parents they brushed their teeth when they didn’t to the worker who is searching for another job and doesn’t want their employer to know to the spouse who wants to hide a present or a special announcement until the right moment to the people organizing a surprise party. These are all things we want hidden, and none of the them are illegal or even guilty secrets (except maybe the non-toothbrushing child, but didn’t we ALL do that?)

As the author makes very clear, one of the big issues about this push-pull between surveillance and privacy is that we are often not aware how much of our privacy has been stripped away, or how much data is collected about us and how it can and will be used either against us or to sell us stuff that big computers are able to figure out that we might want based on all the tiny details they know about us.

Or to put it another way, we are not the customers of Google or Yahoo or any other search engine, we are the product. We get free search, and those companies collect data about us which they sell. We’re not the shepherd, we’re not even uninvolved bystanders watching as the sheep go by – we ARE the sheep. If you want to learn about all the ways that the sheep are being tagged, and who is looking at all the tagging and tracking data generated by the sheep, this book is a great place to being your search

There is always a question about “who watches the watchers”. In this book, the author provides the answer, and that answer is “no one”. And that makes me very afraid indeed..