kirsch baseballI once tried to explain baseball to a British friend while we watched a Cubs game. By the sixth inning, after going aground on the dropped third strike and tagging up on a fly ball, I said that baseball, like a foreign language, is most easily learned in childhood.

Like cricket. An impossible game that as far as I can tell lasts days, like one of those ball games played by Aztecs, cricket baffles the outsider yet addicts those who can tell a yorker from a nurdle. Thus, it shares something with its greatest descendant, baseball. But why invent a new game in the first place? In discovering how and why Americans chose baseball over cricket as the national pastime, George B. Kirsch takes us back to amateur playing fields around the country to recreate the excitement of the early matches, the players, clubs, and their fans. Baseball and Cricket places the growing popularity of the two sports within the social context of mid-nineteenth century American cities. At the same time, Kirsch follows baseball’s transition from a leisure sport to a commercialized, professional enterprise and offers the first complete discussion of the early American cricket clubs.

Longing for that down home music? Looking for a shot of brilliance? Tryin’ to forget that you asked for water and your woman/man gave you gasoline? Then you must be celebrating the 100th birthday (or it might be the 102nd birthday) of McKinley Morganfield, a man reborn to serve humanity as Muddy Waters. An artist for whom the word genius falls laughably short, Waters recorded a bushel of blues classics, helped mainstream amplified guitar, and brought the blues mania to Britain that soon after birthed the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Eric Clapton, and half the other people in that iTunes folder your dad can’t figure out how to open.

GoinsF14An essential Muddy Waters sideman as well as a hitmaker in his own right, Jimmy Rogers pioneered the blues guitar style that launched a thousand songs. Blues All Day Long tells the untold story of a revered legend who was down by law with Muddy and whose groundbreaking guitar work bridged generations—and sends its electrifying echoes into our present day.

“Great work. Long, long overdue.” —Taj Mahal

“A great read. I loved it. What a nice tribute to the great Jimmy Rogers.” —Charlie Musselwhite

JackThe hit film Hidden Figures re-acquainted the zeitgeist with the idea that women in general, and African American women in particular, have long participated in scientific endeavor. Science on the Home Front tells women’s story during the critical years of World War II, when Leona Marshall and Katharine Way worked on the Manhattan Project while Lydia J. Roberts developed the Recommended Dietary Allowances.

Jordynn Jack lays out the obstacles faced by women scientists even as they answered the urgent call for their participation in the war effort. Even though newspapers, magazines, books, and films forecasted tremendous growth in scientific and technical jobs for women, the war produced few long-term gains in the percentage of women in the sciences or in their overall professional standing.

Jack shows how the very language of science—the discourses and genres of scientific communication—that helped to limit women’s progress in science even as it provided opportunities for a small group of prominent female scientists to advance during the war. The book uses the experiences of individual women to illuminate the broader limitations of masculine scientific culture and its discourses of expertise, gender neutrality, technical expediency, and objectivity. Focusing on genres of women scientists’ writing in the disciplines of psychology, anthropology, physics, and nutrition, Jack identifies key characteristics of scientific culture and rhetoric that continue to limit women’s advancement in science and to stifle their unique perspectives.

March 28 marks the date of a historic moment in the history of comedy. On that date in 1948, Jack Benny’s popular radio show aired one of the great exchanges in the long history of that beloved program:

Mugger: Your money or your life.
Mugger: Look bud. I said, your money or your life.
Jack: I’m thinking it over!

Born in Chicago in 1894 as Benjamin Kubelsky, or alternately in whatever year was 39 years before the air date of his show, Jack Benny grew up in Waukegan before heading to vaudeville in his teens. The “Your Money or Your Life” sketch took place long after the comedian had taken his place as the king of radio and a year before he famously jumped from longtime home NBC to anchor CBS’s entertainment bloc on the wireless.

For years, the skit was celebrated as getting the longest laugh in the history of The Jack Benny Program. Fans and biographers have since disproved the claim. The seven-second laugh in fact finished far behind other gags that provoked laughs over twenty and even thirty seconds long. But “Your Money or Your Life” and the skit on either side of it remains a beloved part of Benny lore.

Emerging in the 1850s, elocutionists recited poetry or drama with music to create a new type of performance. The genre—dominated by women—achieved remarkable popularity. Yet the elocutionists and their art fell into total obscurity during the twentieth century. Today we barely remember the ubiquity of the genre. Indeed, we barely remember elocutionists at all.

Marian Wilson Kimber is working hard to revive awareness of this pop culture phenomenon of yesteryear. Her recent book The Elocutionists: Women, Music, and the Spoken Word explores the world of these forgotten performers, their art, and their appreciative audiences. Now Wilson Kimber has opened up the wayback machine to give we twenty-first century people a look at the elocutionists in action. How? She became an elocutionist. Well, kind of. Not exactly. But in the neighborhood. Living the scholarship, Wilson Kimber has dropped four videos onto YouTube recorded at a recent elocutionist’s recital at the University of Iowa. The first is above. The rest are available via easy links. If you think entertainment in the late 1800s consisted solely of Wild West Shows, shooting passenger pigeons, and hog calling, think again!

Rockmore_and_TermenYou can’t have Women’s History Month without musician-genius Clara Rockmore (left in the photo). The appropriately named Rockmore was a master of the theremin, that haunting/creepy sound-maker that entered our consciousness through 1950s science fiction films, “Good Vibrations,” twentieth-century electronica, and by inspiring the Moog synthesizer.

The theremin, it will not surprise you, had a strange history. Russian scientist and radio engineer Leon Theremin (right in the photo) invented the device that bears his name and showed it to the world in 1920. The only instrument that is played without being touched, it became an international sensation.

glinskyBut, as Albert Glinsky shows in his acclaimed book Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, the story of the instrument and its inventor goes way beyond music history.

Theremin surrendered his life and work to the service of Soviet state espionage. On assignment in Depression-era America, he became the toast of New York society and worked the engines of capitalist commerce while passing data on U.S. industrial technology to the Soviet apparat. Following his sudden disappearance from New York in 1938, Theremin ended up in a Siberian labor camp and subsequently vanished into the top-secret Soviet intelligence machine, presumed dead for nearly thirty years. Using the same technology that lay behind the theremin, he designed bugging devices that eavesdropped on U.S. diplomatic offices and stood at the center of a pivotal cold war confrontation. Glinsky masterfully blends the whimsical and the treacherous into a chronicle that takes in everything from the KGB to Macy’s store windows, Alcatraz to the Beach Boys, Hollywood thrillers to the United Nations, Joseph Stalin to Shirley Temple. Theremin’s world of espionage and invention is an amazing drama of hidden loyalties, mixed motivations, and an irrepressibly creative spirit.

woeseToday we turn over the 200 Years of Illinois feature to Steven Lenz and Nicholas Hopkins, authors of an essay (reprinted below) in the new UIP book The University of Illinois: Engine of Innovation. Lenz and Hopkins look into the life and work of longtime U. of I. figure Carl Woese.

Carl Woese (1928-2013) received a bachelor’s degree in math and physics from Amherst College in 1950. Despite his fascination with physical phenomena, however, Woese opted to explore the relationship between physics and the world of living things. He completed his graduate work at Yale University just as scientists were becoming aware of the role of the genetic code in the evolution of life. Marked by an independent turn of mind, however, Woese chose to explore the origins of the genetic code itself rather than to study its operation in living cells as had Nobel laureates James Watson and Francis Crick. He pursued this curiosity through postdoctoral work at Yale and the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York, and brought it with him to the University of Illinois, where he was recruited to the faculty (and immediately tenured) in 1964. Woese would remain in Urbana-Champaign for the rest of his career.

Continue reading

tri-state-tornado-damage-gorham-illinoisThis weekend marks the anniversary of the Tri-State Tornado, the deadliest tornado disaster in U.S. history. On March 18, 1925, an F5 twister formed near Ellington, Missouri in the early afternoon. The storm packed 300 MPH winds and stayed on the ground a nigh-unthinkable 3.5 hours. Moving northeast, it crossed the Mississippi River. On its way across southern Illinois it wiped out almost half of Murphysboro, where 234 people died either in the storm or in the fires that broke out shortly afterward. In Gorham, the winds ripped railroad tracks out of the ground. Virtually every building was destroyed. It soon leveled De Soto, where the partial collapse of the local school killed 33.

“I was happy that day of the tornado and, just in a flash, I was desolate,” survivor Betty Moroni told a newspaper in 2015. “I didn’t have a home, didn’t know the way home. It was all blown away.”

Bush, West Frankfurt, and the Orient Mine suffered enormous damage. The storm demolished the entire town of Parrish. Still moving northeast, it smashed into three Indiana towns and destroyed an estimated 85 farms before dissipating near Petersburg at 4:30 p.m.

The total death toll across the tornado’s path was a still-record 695 people, with approximately 600 of the deaths in Illinois.

Scientists today generally believe the Tri-State Tornado was in fact a family of tornadoes, though there’s not enough data to be certain. Strong downburst winds from the storm clouds added to the damage. It seems that in some places rain or dust hid the tornado from sight and allowed it to approach with little or no warning. Meteorologists group the Tri-State Tornado into a massive March 18 tornado outbreak that affected at least six states. The storm that spawned the Tri-State twister spun off more tornadoes in central Indiana.


mayneWidely regarded as one of the most innovative and passionate filmmakers working in France today, Claire Denis has continued to make beautiful and challenging films since the 1988 release of her first feature, Chocolat. Judith Mayne‘s comprehensive study of these films traces Denis’s career and discusses her major feature films in rich detail.

Born in Paris but having grown up in Africa, Denis explores in her films the legacies of French colonialism and the complex relationships between sexuality, gender, and race. From the adult woman who observes her past as a child in Cameroon to the Lithuanian immigrant who arrives in Paris and watches a serial killer to the disgraced French Foreign Legionnaire attempting to make sense of his past, the subjects of Denis’s films continually revisit themes of watching, bearing witness, and making contact, as well as displacement, masculinity, and the migratory subject.

*    *    *

fowlerThis survey of Sally Potter’s work documents and explores her cinematic development from the feminist reworking of Puccini’s opera La Bohème in Thriller to the provocative contemplation of romantic relationships after 9/11 in Yes. Catherine Fowler traces a clear trajectory of developing themes and preoccupations and shows how Potter uses song, dance, performance, and poetry to expand our experience of cinema beyond the audiovisual.

Potter has relentlessly struggled against predictability and safe options, and her work provides an example of the complexities of being a woman in charge. Instead of the quest to find a romantic partner that drives mainstream cinema, Potter’s films feature characters seeking answers to questions about their sexual, gendered, social, cultural, and ethnic identities. They find answers by retelling stories, investigating mysteries, traveling and interacting with people. At the heart of Potter’s work we find a concern with the ways in which narrative has circumscribed the actions of women and their ability to act, speak, look, desire, and think for themselves. Her first two films, Thriller and The Gold Diggers, largely deconstruct found stories, clichés, and images. By contrast her later films create new and original narratives that place female acts, voices, looks, desires and thoughts at their center.

Fowler’s analysis is supplemented by a detailed filmography, bibliography, and an extensive interview with the director.

*    *    *

mchughIn considering Jane Campion’s early award-winning short films on through international sensation The Piano and beyond, Kathleen McHugh traces the director’s distinctive visual style as well as her commitment to consistently renovating the conventions of “women’s films.” By refusing to position her female protagonists as victims, McHugh argues, Campion scrupulously avoids the moral structures of melodrama, and though she often works with the narratives, mise-en-scene, and visual tropes typical of that genre, her films instead invite a distanced or even amused engagement.

Jane Campion concludes with four brief, revelatory interviews and a filmography. Campion spoke twice with Michel Ciment, first after the screening of her short and medium-length films at the Cannes Film Festival 1986, and three years later, after the Cannes screening of Sweetie. Judith Lewis narrates a Beverly Hills interview with Campion that followed the release of Holy Smoke, and Lizzie Francke’s interview, reprinted from Sight and Sound, centers on Campion’s film In the Cut, adapted from Susanna Moore’s novel.

Clear LaRue Road. Today marks the day officials close the storied roadway to assist of one of Illinois’s majestic natural wonders: the spring snake migration in Shawnee National Forest. The limestone bluffs come alive as snakes, as well as various turtles, frogs, toads, and other animals, hitch up their covered wagons to trek to wetter digs in the nearby LaRue Swamp. Amateur herpetologists flock to see a wide variety of snake species making the commute between natural habitats. Three venomous snakes usually get the headlines: the cottonmouth, the copperhead, and the timber rattlesnake. But around thirty-five snake species make the trip alongside many kinds of reptiles and amphibians, including protected and endangered species.

Humans began closing a 2.5 mile stretch of the road in 1972. Until then, locals liked to shoot the snakes or run over them with their cars. The closure lasted three weeks in the early days. Research soon indicated that the animals took far longer to migrate. The Forest Service now closes LaRue Road, aka Snake Road, for two months in the spring and two months again in September-October, when the animals make the trip back to winter in the limestone. Though traffic cannot pass, the Forest Service allows people to walk the slithering, creeping, hopping highway. If you go, don’t except a tsunami of snakedom. Officials note that spotting twenty snakes in a day would be a big deal, unless you’re the type to add skinks to your scorecard to boost your numbers.