Decoding the Heavens
A 2000-Year Old Computer – And the Century Long Search to Discover its Secrets
Da Capo Press
(c) 2009 by the author
I suppose that anyone interested in the history of science in the years BCE or archaeological oddities has heard of the Antikythera Mechanism. Found in a shipwreck off the coast of a Greek island, the box of gears and dials has been a puzzle and a marvel (a puzzling marvel?) for decades.
Marchant has dredged up the history of the device, from its collection off the Aegean seabed up through the first decade of the twenty-first century. Well, to be honest, the object itself hasn’t done much. It sat in storage in the National Museum of Athens for years before anyone decided to take a look at it. The museum – and the divers that worked on the wreck – were more interested in the statues and other objects of obvious value.
The Mechanism turned out to be a specialized device for computing the many lunar cycles – and possibly some dials that compute planetary positions as well (parts are still missing). Marchant doesn’t spend much time on the astronomy or mathematics behind it; she’s far more interested in the archaeology and personalities in its story.
Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants
by H. W. Brands
(c) 2018 by the author
“History is not what you thought,” wrote W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman in the “Compulsory Preface” to their classic 1066 and All That. “It is what you can remember.” Those words are as true on this side of the Atlantic as they are in Great Britain, where they were written.
We tend to remember only those things that are memorable. When it comes to history, for most Americans that means wars and crises, the more recent, the more memorable. The decades between the War of 1812 and the Civil War are one big nothing. Depending on where you were raised, you might remember the Missouri Compromise, the Nullification Crisis, or Texas’ War of Independence. But for most of us? Boredom on parade – especially when the presidents of the era generally served only one term (at most) and were mediocre (at best).
Alternate History buffs: What if William Henry Harrison wore a hat and coat at his inauguration, and didn’t catch pneumonia?
In Heirs of the Founders, Brands dives into those decades with a joint political history of three of the greatest Congressmen ever to walk the halls of the Capitol. Kentucky’s Henry Clay, South Carolina’s John Calhoun, and Massachusetts’ Daniel Webster were all widely known and respected for their powers of oratory, and their abilities to get things done.
The Tango War
The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds, and Riches of Latin American During World War II
Mary Jo McConahay
St. Martin’s Press
(c) 2018 by the author
I like to think of myself as something of a WWII buff. I’m not one of those people who can argue the finer points of the various tanks used in the European Theater, but I know enough about the war to be embarrassingly wrong about some aspects. However, I do know that it was a truly World War, with battles raging from Spitzbergen to Madagascar, troops being pulled in from all over the world by their colonial masters, and a vast network of military and transport bases linking everything together.
If one is so inclined, one can take out a world map and mark it with all the places that were somehow affected by combat. One might soon spot a large gap on the map, where nothing much seemed to be happening.
What was going on in South and Central America?
Crown Publishing Group
(c) 2017 by the author
If “Doctor Who” was American.
That’s about it.
Teenager Eli Teauge lives in Sanders, MA – basically “The Town That Time Forgot”. The town is stuck in the past. No cell phone towers, an actual video rental store…. After two encounters with a woman in a tricorn hat and a frock coat who is driving a modified Model A Ford, he winds up joining her at their third encounter. And they’re off on a rollicking ride through American history, searching for a magical McGuffin that’s supposed to allow its possessor the ability to change the destiny of the nation.
Yeah, pretty much an American “Doctor Who”. I did spot one direct reference to Doctor Who; there are probably more.
Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous With American History
by Yunte Huang
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Copyright 2018 by the author
I doubt there are many people who haven’t heard of Chang and Eng Bunker, the “archetype” of Siamese Twins. There have been a few biographies of the pair, but this is the first I’ve come across. They led a fascinating and complex life, that just happened to coincide with a fascinating and complex era of American history.
Huang, who previously wrote a “biography” of Charlie Chan (in which he covered the lives of Werner Oland, the actor who first portrayed the character in film, Earl Biggers, who wrote the novels, and Chang Apana, the Honolulu policeman who was the inspiration for the character), applies his considerable skills to a real person – or is it real people? He barely touches on the conundrum of whether Chang and Eng should be considered one person or two. To be fair, I don’t think that question has an answer….
The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions
(c) 2017 by the author
When one reads essays in the right places, one finds mention of how we are in the sixth great “mass extinction”. Humans seem to be wiping out species left and right, through habitat destruction even in cases where we aren’t really trying. Brannen takes a look at the other five, and extracts lessons for today.
For the record, the “Big Five” are the Late Ordovician, Late Devonian, End Permian, Late Triassic, and the Cretaceous-Tertiary Event. In comparatively short time frames, the vast majority of species – both plant and animal, on land and in the water – were erased from the planet.
Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History Making Race Around the World
Ballantine Books, New York
(c) 2013 by the author
You may have heard (at least I hope it’s somewhere in the dustier corners of your memory) that after the publication of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, people started seriously considering the possibility of such a circumnavigation. At the offices of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, crusading reporter Nellie Bly was put up to the task. She departed from Hoboken NJ on November 14, 1889, heading across the Atlantic.
What I did not know was that later the same day, Elizabeth Bisland, a reporter and columnist for the monthly magazine The Cosmopolitan boarded a train leaving Grand Central heading west, with the same goal in mind.
The two women were not just racing the calendar, hoping that the uncertainties of long-distance travel (weather delays, equipment failures, et al.) would be minimal, but also each other.
How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler
by Ryan North
(c) 2018 by the author
It’s a fun conceit. Your rental time travel machine broke down, leaving you stranded in the distant past. And your FC3000(tm) personal time machine has no user serviceable parts. What do you need to know in order to not just survive or thrive, but start things moving towards an advanced technological civilization?
The book assumes you can manage to make a fire and build some sort of shelter (if your time machine has been damaged to the point where it won’t serve in that capacity, that is). As far as food goes, it gives the standard technique for safely determining if a plant is inedible or poisonous, and the helpful information that virtually all mammals and birds are safe to eat once cooked.
But then what?
The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War
Joanne B. Freeman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
(c) 2018 by the author
You might recall from your American History classes in school that in the few decades before the Civil War, Congress was filled with great orators like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. Continuing in the fine tradition of our Founding Fathers, they and other congressmen would passionately debate the issues of the day, letting their words carry the force of their arguments….
Well, maybe in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, it was another story.
The Laundry Files series
by Charles Stross
The Atrocity Archives (2004)
The Jennifer Morgue (2006)
The Fuller Memorandum (2010)
The Apocalypse Codex (2012)
The Rhesus Chart (2014)
The Annihilation Score (2015)
The Nightmare Stacks (2016)
The Delirium Brief (2017)
The Labyrinth Index (to be published 2018)
It’s a mixed blessing for a fan of an author when that author has a really good series of stories that happens to be rather open-ended. There’s always the chance for another entry in the series, but you feel compelled to read them all. And there’s the problem that the stories might have a specific order in which they should be read. Miss one, and you lose a lot of background information in the next. Or the author has to keep adding annoying infodumps to fill the reader in.
With his “Laundry Files” stories (the above-mentioned novels, plus a handful of shorter works), Stross has managed to avoid those problems for the most part. While the order given is both the order of publication and the order in which the stories take place, they can be read and enjoyed separately. A couple of the later entries (Score, Stacks, Index) even center on side characters.
Speaking of which, the main character is Bob Howard, an office flunky in Britain’s secret government agency that deals with the “occult”. Thanks to being in the right place at the right time (though to Bob, it’s the wrong place and wrong time), he rises quickly through the ranks to become the de facto head of the agency.