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Beyond the Book Articles
Cultural Curiosities

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The Origins of Trick-or-Treating (05/21)
In the story 'Chick-A-Chee!' from How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa, an immigrant father takes his children trick-or-treating on Halloween in the hope that they will integrate better into the local culture.

Around the world today, treat-or-treating is very much seen as an all-American activity. However, its origins can...
Creation Myths (05/21)
Woven into Guido Tonelli's Genesis are origin myths from different cultures and religions throughout history. He frames his work using the first book of the Hebrew Bible and often brings up creation myths from around the world. So what are these myths, and what do they have in common?

In the creation story found in the Hebrew Bible ...
The Nag Hammadi Texts (04/21)
Sue Monk Kidd's novel The Book of Longings was in part inspired by a work entitled 'The Thunder, Perfect Mind.' Narrated by a female divinity, the poem is one of over 50 ancient texts that were found near the town of Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945.

The tale surrounding the discovery of the works is fascinating in its own right. ...
Gilmore Girls, Lane Kim and Asian Americans on Television (04/21)
In Mary H.K. Choi's Yolk, June is particularly fond of the Warner Brothers (WB) Network television series Gilmore Girls. At first glance, the show seems like a somewhat anachronistic and unlikely pop culture presence in the novel. Set in Connecticut, it first aired in 2000; Choi's characters June and Jayne, Korean American sisters living ...
Grieving Places (03/21)
In The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World, author Laura Imai Messina crafts a fictional story around a real-life place of public mourning, a phone booth, in the Japanese town of Otsuchi, located about three hours inland in northeastern Japan. A man named Itaru Sasaki built the glass booth with a rotary phone inside after the death of a ...
The Founding of Home Depot (03/21)

As he passes the lumber and rounds into a lane full of bagged cement, the logic behind the division of inventory dawns on him. The contractors' half of the store holds all the fundamental elements for building a home, all of which later get concealed by the ornaments for sale on the other side, all the paints, light fixtures, moldings, ...

Boarding School Syndrome (03/21)
In Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, which explores psychological wounds and mental illness, Martha's husband Patrick was sent to boarding school at a young age. The image of boarding schools is deeply embedded in the British psyche. Writers from Enid Blyton to James Joyce have found these strange micro-societies to be rich earth. In fiction...
Mudlarking (03/21)
In Sarah Penner's The Lost Apothecary, a historical mystery is set in motion when a character discovers a small blue vial while mudlarking. 'Mudlarking' refers to the practice of scavenging for objects — generally manufactured or otherwise manmade ones that have been lost or thrown away — usually on the shore of a body of ...
Olympic Equestrian Eventing (02/21)
Eventing, sometimes described as an equestrian triathlon, became an Olympic summer sport at the Stockholm Games in 1912, but before that, it had its roots in the military as a series of exercises developed to test and prepare cavalry horses. Equestrian sports date back much further, in some cases all the way back to the ancient Olympics, ...
Self-Serve Frozen Yogurt (02/21)
In My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee, Pong Lou enlists Tiller Bardmon to help with the formulation and branding of a product called jamu, a kind of restorative drink. However, Pong first tests Tiller's nose for business by having him taste and evaluate flavors for his self-serve frozen yogurt (froyo) chain, WTF Yo!. According to Tiller, the...
Hitler's Plan to Create a "Super Horse" (01/21)
It's well known that Hitler obsessed over the purity of the so-called Aryan 'master race,' but many might be surprised to learn that his interest in eugenics extended to horses as well. He desperately wanted to selectively breed a line of horses that were unparalleled in strength and purity of bloodline. With snow-white coats, they would ...
Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) (01/21)
Before Sunny Dae embarks on a rock 'n' roll career in Super Fake Love Song, he and his friends are minor celebrities in the world of LARPing, which stands for Live Action Role-Playing. If you're familiar with tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons or online role-playing games like EverQuest, LARPing is sort of like one of ...
Mythical Healers (01/21)
The central characters in Follow Me to Ground are two human-like beings with mystical powers to heal all illnesses and even resurrect the dead. It seems we have forever been fascinated by the magic of healing and the ability to cheat our own mortality. Ancient mythologies from across the globe featured powerful healers that humans turned ...
The Stories That Houses Can Hold (01/21)
Having moved 17 times in the wake of my late father being transferred at his job, I don't have a nostalgic connection to anywhere I've lived. The connection many people feel in their bones, heart and soul to a specific home is a mere curiosity to me—an interest in what people remember, how they seek to describe it. I live ...
Agege Bread (01/21)
Agege (pronounced 'a-GAY-gay') bread is a sweet white bread known for its unique soft and dense texture. It is a common food in Nigeria, particularly in Lagos, where it is produced by local bakeries and sold by vendors on the streets. In Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi, Taiye attempts to master baking Agege bread, but finds ...
Spiritualism in Victorian London (01/21)
Though the movement of Spiritualism — the belief that the spirits of the dead are able to communicate with the living — was born in New York in 1848 with the Fox sisters, it quickly took hold of the Victorian imagination when it arrived in England in the mid-19th century. Maria Hayden, a famous American medium, arrived in the ...
Palimpsests (12/20)
The heroine of V.E. Schwab's novel, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, often takes notice of what she refers to as 'palimpsests,' which she defines as instances where the past is blotted out and written over by the present.

The word palimpsest comes from the Greek palimpsestos, meaning 'scraped again.' Strictly speaking, the term ...
The Apple in Religion and Myth (11/20)
The unnamed mother in Lynne Sharon Schwartz's story 'Apples' rejoices when her picky daughter delights in a new kind of apple that makes her 'elated and energetic and enthusiastic.' The mother is so impressed she mentions to the pediatrician that the apple might be magical.

This character is certainly not the first to attribute ...
The American Roadside Motel (11/20)
In Simone St. James' thriller The Sun Down Motel, a roadside motel in upstate New York serves as the location for a ghost story that takes place in alternating timelines occurring in the years 1982 and 2017. It's hardly surprising that the author would place a motel at the center of this spooky suspense novel, as motels have something of ...
Exploiting the Unknown: Entertainment in the Georgian Era (11/20)
A taste for blood and an unfortunate willingness to exploit those considered 'Other' are not wholly unique to the Georgian period, but their prevalence during the era cannot be ignored. By 1726, when the subject of Dexter Palmer's novel Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen, claimed to have given birth to a rabbit, the concept of difference as ...
Using (or Not Using) Quotation Marks in Fiction (11/20)
A lack of quotation marks around dialogue is a pet peeve for some readers. Yet it seems to be an increasingly popular stylistic choice in literary fiction, and one that Bryan Washington opts to use in his debut novel Memorial. You may have also encountered this approach in books by Jesse Ball, Junot Diaz, Bernardine Evaristo, Kate ...
Minecraft and the Uncensored Library (06/20)
The story 'Mind Craft' in Sleepovers by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips is named for one character's incorrect way of referring to the video game Minecraft, which is a multi-platform 'sandbox game,' the term for a game that leaves the player relatively free to explore a setting without having to progress through it in a linear fashion. Minecraft...
The Sidekick Character in Detective Fiction (11/20)
In Fortune Favors the Dead, being in the wrong place at the right time earns Will Parker the job of assistant to Lillian Pentecost, New York City's classiest and most unorthodox private investigator. Although Lillian's worsening multiple sclerosis is her initial motivation for hiring the younger woman, Will possesses a keen eye and a ...
Stave Churches (10/20)
It's no secret that Lars Mytting loves trees. He wrote a novel titled The Sixteen Trees of the Somme (2017), and is known for his international bestseller Norwegian Wood (2015), a nonfiction guide to sources of firewood that gives instructions on how to chop, stack and cure wood for burning. With The Bell in the Lake, he continues with ...
Emergency Preparedness Needs (09/20)
Ellis Kimball in Let's Call It a Doomsday is ready for the apocalypse, whatever form it takes. Would you be prepared? Most of the population of the United States lives in a place where some kind of natural disaster is possible, be it tornado, hurricane, flood, drought, blizzard or earthquake. As soon as the radio or television stations ...
Metempsychosis, Transmigration and Mesmerism (08/20)
Central to Alex Landragin's debut novel Crossings is an idiosyncratic version of soul metempsychosis. Metempsychosis is the reincarnation of a soul from one biological body to another occurring after the first body's death. Reincarnation plays a prominent role in Hinduism and Buddhism. The European concept developed independently in ...
Virtue Signaling (08/20)
'Virtue signaling,' that ubiquitous pejorative flung like so much feces across party lines by political pundits, has created a minor crisis in moral discourse. The phrase was allegedly coined by James Bartholomew in an article appearing in the right-leaning British periodical The Spectator, in which he reacted to what he saw as the ...
Six Flags Amusement Parks (07/20)
In Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford, Justine dreams of riding the Big Bend roller coaster at Six Flags. Today, Six Flags is a large theme park company with locations throughout North America and also in China, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Justine, who is living in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in 1974, is anticipating a...
The Oldest Known Burial in North America: Anzick-1 (07/20)
The evocative prehistorical scene with which Heather Young opens The Distant Dead might be fictional but, as the narrator suggests near the end of the novel, it parallels some real-life archaeological discoveries. One of these is Anzick Boy, or Anzick-1, a Paleoindian child of one or two years old, found buried in Montana in 1968. ...
Puppies and Prisoners (06/20)
In Owen Laukkanen's thriller Deception Cove, protagonist Mason Burke participated in a prison dog training program that brought meaning to his life during his incarceration. The origin of these programs can be traced back to a 1925 Boston Daily Globe news item. This article claimed that Pep, a Labrador owned by Governor Gifford Pinchot of...
The Tradition of Las Vegas Magicians (06/20)
Even though I lived in Las Vegas for five years (2012-2017), I never gave it much thought. Magicians were always there, on and off the Las Vegas Strip. David Copperfield's face was on that massive advertisement across the top of the MGM Grand. Mac King, the afternoon comedy magician at Harrah's, was always in any number of small Vegas ...
Syanon: Rehabilitation Center Turned Cult (06/20)
Mikel Jollett and his older brother Tony were just two of the hundreds of children that grew up in the bizarre environs of Synanon, an infamous California cult in the 1970s.

Synanon began in Santa Monica in 1958, the brainchild of Charles (Chuck) Dederich, a recovering alcoholic seeking to extend the Alcoholics Anonymous program that ...
The History of Church Pews (08/20)
In Catherine Lacey's novel Pew, the title character is given their name because they are found sleeping on a church pew. The word 'pew' is thought to come from the Dutch 'puye,' meaning the enclosed front area of a building such as a town hall, where important proclamations were made. 'Puye,' in turn, may come from the Latin word '...
A Brief History of Podcasts (05/20)
The action in Denise Mina's novel Conviction is set in motion when the protagonist listens to a true-crime podcast.

Serial audio broadcasts have existed for more than a century; many of us remember gathering around our radios each week to listen to favorite shows, or remember parents or grandparents doing so. In many ways listening to ...
Symbolism of the Pig (04/20)
In addition to having a very real fugitive pig running through the streets of Brussels, Robert Menasse deploys a pig leitmotif throughout The Capital that takes on a wealth of significance across the novel. Characters discuss the value of pig's ears, and pork is served in a succulent cherry beer sauce. Even fictional pigs such as Babe, ...
A Coney Island Tour (04/20)
Here we are, at the famed Coney Island in Brooklyn, through the eyes of Billy O'Callaghan in his novel My Coney Island Baby. The air is 'mean with cold.' Snow's coming, so along Surf Avenue, past Nathan's Hot Dogs, 'most of the stores along here are shuttered…some closed for the season, others having already written off the day as a...
Vampires in Legend and Literature (04/20)
The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires is about the presence of a suspected vampire in a South Carolina suburb in the 1990s.

The vampire is a type of legendary creature falling into the broader category of 'revenant'—a person who has returned from the dead, often to do harm to the living. Many people tend to think of...
The Weird and Wonderful History of Weird Tales Magazine (04/20)
In Michael Zapata's The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, Adana Moreau's sci-fi novel Lost City is serialized in Weird Tales. This fantasy, horror and science fiction pulp magazine was a real-life publication that was founded in 1923 by J.C. Henneberger and J.M. Lansinger and that remained in print until 1954.

Over its lifetime, Weird ...
Borodinsky Bread (03/20)

Early on in Savage Feast, Boris Fishman, beginning to recount his family's exodus from the Soviet Union, states that there were 800 kinds of bread in the U.S.S.R. It's true. According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor in 1985, there is domashanya, a basic household roll; stolichniye, the bread of Moscow, and orlovsky, which ...

The Shape-Shifting Monsters of African Lore (02/20)
Stories of shapeshifters have permeated literature and art from the beginning of civilization. Therianthropy, or the changing of a human into an animal, is perhaps the most commonly known trope of the shapeshifting genre, with illustrations of such changes dating back all the way to 13,000 BC.

In his novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, ...
Animal Sounds in Different Languages (01/20)
In Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages, Gaston Dorren writes about how Korean includes separate words for different kinds of meows. One word refers to the ordinary cry, and a different word is used to describe a more urgent vocalization. With this information, Dorren illustrates how sounds are indicative of a language's idiosyncrasies...
Shakespeare and the Double Entendre (01/20)
In Benet Brandreth's The Spy of Venice, William Shakespeare is a brilliant wordsmith but still a young man with all of a young man's appetite for adventure and women. He's witty with a rapier-like pen and rakish sense of humor. But wait. Many people reading Shakespeare's plays might doubt that the Bard of Avon had much...
The History of Bowling (11/19)
Bowling as a sport is arguably more familiar than it is popular. Top competitors and heroes of the sport are not typically household names, yet most people have a basic understanding of how it's played. Even without famous athletes promoting it, bowling is a steady component of modern culture. However, there has been a decline in its ...
The History of the Condom (10/19)
Women's health clinics like the one depicted in A Spark of Light offer many services beyond abortion, including providing access to pregnancy prevention tools like condoms. The condom is arguably the oldest pregnancy prevention method used by men that's still widely used today, albeit its early popularity was more to do with protecting ...
Musings on A Nation of Reinvention (10/19)
In Beautiful Country Burn Again, author Ben Fountain posits that the United States reinvents itself to survive times of extreme crisis. He believes that these severe times of change happen approximately every 80 years, making the Civil War the first great reinvention, followed by the Great Depression and the New Deal in the 1930s, and ...
SERE (10/19)
In Elliot Ackerman's novel Waiting for Eden, a pivotal scene is set at the Marine Corp's SERE school.

SERE is an acronym that stands for 'Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.' Created by the U.S. Air Force at the end of World War II, the program was modeled after the experiences of British and US aviators who were able ...
The Cold War UFO Craze (09/19)
In A Girl's Guide to Missiles, Karen Piper overhears her father talking about a coworker's belief in aliens. It's just one of many moments in which she associates her childhood at the top secret China Lake Naval Station with paranoia, secrecy and fear of the unknown. While Piper knows that the secrecy of her home is due to weapons ...
Tollund Man (09/19)
Anne Youngson's debut work, Meet Me at the Museum is an epistolary novel consisting of letters between a farm wife living in England and a Danish museum curator. The correspondence begins when she writes to inquire about Tollund Man.

The naturally mummified corpse known as Tollund Man (so named because he was found close to the small ...
The Ferrymen of Souls (08/19)
Quietly the ferryman is a recurring character in Once Upon a River, a spectral presence that exists somewhere in between truth and fantasy. Radcot's denizens, many of whom believe they have spotted Quietly on the Thames, have constructed dozens of versions of his story, but in essence he is described as 'a man who comes and goes without ...
Real Life Tree Houses (08/19)
Unlike Harry in Jon Cohen's Harry's Trees, readers can't stay in the fictional tree house built by Amanda Jeffers's late husband, but there are plenty of other wildly inventive and beautiful tree houses around the world that people can visit, explore - and even sleep in! Here are just a few:

Just 20 miles outside Seattle,...
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