Thursday, September 27, 2007


Here is a review of THE BALLOONIST as it appeared in the December 15, 2006 issue of BOOKLIST, the magazine published by the American Library Association.



Poleskie, Stephen. The Balloonist: The Story of T. S. C. Lowe – Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U. S. Air Force.

Dec. 2006. 368p. Frederic C. Beil, $24.95 (1-929490-27-5).973.7.


            This first full-scale biography of Thaddeus Lowe (1832-1913) makes fascinating reading for aviation buffs and students of nineteenth-century eccentricity. Lowe is best known for organizing the Civil War Army of the Potomac’s Balloon Corps, though it was disbanded because of losing high-ranking support, bureaucratic infighting, and, to some extent, the technological immaturity of balloons. Lowe was a stage magician before the war and after it worked seriously in such fields as mountain railroading and the extraction of hydrogen from water. His career suggests a failed Thomas Edison. Endlessly fertile in his invention, he lacked an organization to support the development of his ideas and winnow the viable ones from the rest. He never abandoned balloons, however, and left a definite legacy to fixed-wing aviation in the person of his granddaughter, aviatrix Pancho Barnes (1901-75, subject of Lauren Kessler’s biography The Happy Bottom Riding Club. 2000). Aviation and history collections may acquire this seemingly tangential book with clear consciences.  Roland Green



Copyright 2006, the American Library Association. This document may be reprinted and distributed for non-commercial and educational purposes only, and not for resale.




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The Balloonist: The Story of T. S. C. Lowe,
Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force

by Stephen Poleskie
Category: Fiction / Historical
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
On Sale: May 2007
Price: $24.95
ISBN: 978-1-929490-27-1

click on title for more information


Monday, September 24, 2007


By Jeanne Mackin

Think of history as narrative. Think of historical fiction as expanded narrative, history with all the trimmings, with cause and effect, speculation, personalization. Think of expanded narrative as the story teller reaching out to you, saying, ‘pay attention. This is important.” Or as novelist Jeanette Winterson repeats over and over in The Passion, ‘Trust me. I’m telling you a story,’ and then as she relates a Napoleonic narrative of a Venetian woman who walks on water, you do believe her even as you know she is lying through her teeth, because that is what novelists do. But this important: you don’t believe that Venetian women necessarily walk on water (though it would be a convenient skill, considering global warming and the state of Venetian canals) but you do believe Winterson’s message that love changes us, that war changes us and that war is not conducive to happy endings, because that is what her story is really about.

We best believe what we remember, and narrative is about memory: giving memories in the form of stories, receiving memories and adding them to our personal stores. But historical fiction, as memory creation, asks us to do the impossible, to remember experiences we can’t possibly have had, to ‘remember’ the smell of the rosebush growing outside Hester Prynne‘s jail in Hawthorne‘s The Scarlet Letter, to remember crouching in darkness outside the mead hall, the perpetual outsider, as John Gardner’s Grendel does; to remember the sensation of the earthquake that begins the action of Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica; to remember the wild vines strangling the decaying plantation in Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. All of those things were before our times; yet having read them, we remember them.

There is a relationship between memory and freedom, asserts Dr. Chris Nunn, author of De La Mettrie’s Ghost: the Story of Decisions. Nunn examines free will and the decision making process and ultimately concludes that “stories…are the mediators of free choice.” He argues that people whose ‘memories are more malleable should, other things being equal, be less prone to conditions like milleniarianism “{belief that the world will end on a given date simply because of the date} and other forms of private or mass delusion. People with flexible memories are less gullible…“thanks to its intimate relationship with the memory process, consciousness can to some extent determineits own future.”

Call me an idealist, but perhaps fiction can prevent us from making even bigger and more dangerous idiots of ourselves than the species already has. Perhaps historical fiction keeps our memories malleable by constantly recreating and adding to those memories; perhaps there is a connection between fiction, memory and freedom. Gardner’s Grendel can be read as an early eco-novel, among other things: “They {man} hacked down trees in widening rings around their central halls and blistered the land with peasant huts and pigpen fences till the forest looked like an old dog dying of mange.”

In Jean Rhys’ postcolonial devastation in Wide Sargasso Sea, the destructive misery of failed empire comes home to roost in a suicidal conflagration: “I got up, took the keys and unlocked the door. I was outside holding my candle. Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do. There must have been a draught for the flame flickered and I thought it was out. But I shielded it with my hand and it burned up again to light me along the dark passage.”

Richard Hughes’ incredibly convincing narrative of the connections between entitlement and violence in A High Wind in Jamaica reveals how a lack of self-responsibility so easily leads to murder and how that violence estranges us: “Mr. Thornton made no attempt to answer her questions: he even shrank back, physically from touching his child Emily..Was it Conceivable she as such an idiot as really not to know what it was all about? Could she possibly not know what she had done? He stole a look at her innocent little face, even the tear-stains now gone. What was he to think?”

Murdered pirates, decaying plantations, mead halls, Napoleon’s roasted chickens…artificial memories bestowed by historical fiction, but who’s to say that an artificial memory is less meaningful than mundane ones? De La Mettrie argues that memories become encoded in neurons and have physical properties, so why can’t the memories acquired in a reading of fiction matter as much as the memory of today’s first cup of coffee and who poured it for you? Read, and remember. Is it possible to also understand something from what is given us by the memories in fiction? “The pastis the present, isn’t it? It’s the future,too. Weall try to lie out of that but life won’t let us,” Eugene O’Neill tells us in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Perhaps what fiction most asks us to remember is that memory keeps us human, and if we remember enough and remember well, we can add an e to human.


Jeanne Mackin is the author of several historical novels including The Sweet By and By and The Frenchwoman.  She teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Goddard College.


Barnes & Noble Book Fair

Tompkins County Public Library Foundation

in support of the Tompkins County Public Library

Thursday and Friday, October 25 & 26

614 South Meadow Street, Ithaca NY

author book signing on Thursday beginning at 6:00 p.m.



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Sidney Grayling

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Gas Bag of Courage
(The Balloonist, 8/13/07)
By Nicholas Nicastro

The Balloonist. By Stephen Poleskie
(338 pp., Frederic C. Beil Publishers, $24.95)

It is often said that journalists write the first draft of history. Thaddeus Lowe, the pioneering inventor and aviator, was perhaps the first notable exception to this rule. Rising in his silk balloon over the killing fields of the Civil War, Lowe instantly got a breadth of perspective—a sense of who, what, and where on a grand scale—that was previously limited to scholars of great and tragic events. "To the right could be seen the York River, following which the eye could rest of Chesapeake Bay. On the left, and at about the same distance, flowed the James River..." wrote one of Lowe's most notorious passengers, George Armstrong Custer. "Between these two extended a most beautiful landscape, and no less interesting than beautiful; it being made a theatre of operations of armies larger and more formidable than had ever confronted each other on his continent before..."
      With The Balloonist: The Story of T.S.C. LoweInventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the US Air Force, Ithaca-based writer Stephen Poleskie offers up what is perhaps the most gratifying kind of biography—one that convinces us that its subject is so manifestly significant that the absence of previous books about him seems downright mystifying. As hinted in the subtitle, Lowe (1832-1913) was something of an industrial alchemist, a restless polymath who contrived innovations in fields as disparate as chemistry, engineering, meteorology, espionage, and roadshow razzmatazz. His antebellum "magic" shows, staged under the assumed title of "Professor" Lowe, were more scientific lecture/demonstrations than the kind of portentous dinner theatre practiced by his modern descendants. Yet they were also very popular, making him not only a pioneering inventor but the Science Guy of his times.
      Lowe's lifetime passion, however, was the delicate craft of ballooning. Conceiving the then-outrageous plan to cross the Atlantic by air, he worked steadily to improve the technology and public profile of lighter-than-air aviation. The advent of the Civil War undercut public support for such adventures, but not Lowe's enthusiasm: if balloons could cross oceans, they certainly could be used to erase the front lines between armies. Along with a handful of rivals, Lowe labored hard to get Union generals to appreciate the potential of hydrogen balloons for intelligence-gathering.
      It took the intercession of Lincoln himself to finally get the US Army Balloon Corps off the ground. Rising above the battlefields of Virginia, Lowe became a unique witness to some of the most momentous battles in the war, including George McClellan's ill-fated Peninsula campaign. He became the first to supply real-time intelligence from the air when he conceived the notion of stringing a telegraph wire from his gondola. As his custom-built observation balloon floated above the trees, he also became the most shot-at man in the war, as Confederate sharpshooters and gunners attempted to erase the Union intelligence advantage by blasting him out of the sky. That Lowe exposed himself to such danger for more than two years as a civilian contractor, without commission or regular salary, is not the least of his miracles.
      Poleskie tells his story with a rare combination of practical expertise (the author is an aviator himself), empathy, and poetic vividness. Describing Lowe's lingering horror at the carnage he witnessed, Poleskie writes "A violent spasm twitched his body. Once again he heard the boundless roar of cannon; saw the shattered bodies and the collapsing bridges; listened to the clumsy, gasping cries of drowning men; and the agonizing shriek of the wounded. Riderless horses wallowed in the mud along the banks snorting flames from their nostrils. Corpses, swollen to twice their size, ground out curses and blasphemies from their bloated mouths as they floated on the spume. Summoned by he did not know what, the whole ghastly parade assembled around him, marching skyward, a relentless invasion of his senses."
      The Balloonist is full of similar, fictionalized passages, many of which are quite fine. Indeed, Poleskie is not alone in mixing the roles of historian and novelist—the bookstore shelves are lately full of similar hybrids. More literal-minded readers may chaff at this approach, however: it is occasionally nice to know which fine reflection or turn-of-phrase originates with the author, and which from Lowe's own memoirs (published only in 2004). Other strange omissions, such as a single likeness of Lowe, or an index (though Poleskie does provide a bibliography) may also frustrate the conventional reader.
      Compelling as Lowe's story is, the notion that balloon reconnaissance alone could have shortened the Civil War is arguably wishful thinking. Though Lowe did work wonders in that brief time before bureaucratic infighting finally drove him away, one senses that the skein of determined stupidity enveloping the Union general staff would have squandered any advantage. Indeed, one of the unanticipated dividends of Poleskie's book is to put the current trail of miscues in Iraq in historical perspective. If anything is as perennial as war itself, it's the quality of the foolishness it seems to attract.

©2007 Nicholas Nicastro


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The Balloonist: The Story of T. S. C. Lowe,
Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force

by Stephen Poleskie
Category: Fiction / Historical
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
On Sale: May 2007
Price: $24.95
ISBN: 978-1-929490-27-1

click on title for more information