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Beyond the Book Articles
Cultural Curiosities

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Fish and Chip Shops (05/24)
In Colm Tóibín's novel Long Island, one of the main characters owns a chip shop in Enniscorthy, Ireland – a carryout restaurant that sells fish and chips (french fries in the United States). The dish is a staple of the British Isles, and hundreds of chip shops (aka 'chippies') can be found in the Republic of Ireland, where...
Wind Knots (05/24)
The coastal California setting of The Witches of Bellinas is often beset by fierce and powerful winds. As the strong gusts rage, Mia, Bellinas's unofficial matriarch, explains to main character Tansy that wind has often been associated with magic. She gives the example of a peculiar, and largely forgotten, bit of history.

Hundreds...
The History of Antler and Horn Décor (05/24)
In Courtney Summers' I'm the Girl, much of the plot focuses on the mysterious, imposing Aspera resort. Part of what gives Aspera its exotic and vaguely menacing atmosphere is the fact that its luxurious interiors are heavily decorated with deer antlers (the book's endpapers also contain images of antlers). For Matthew Hayes, the owner of ...
The History of Grog (04/24)
Hampton Sides' book The Wide Wide Sea records the third and final voyage of Captain James Cook and relays some of the exploits of his crew aboard the HMS Resolution. One of Cook's key decisions concerned an alcoholic drink known as "grog."

During the Age of Exploration—the 15th to 18th centuries—Royal Navy...
The American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel (04/24)
Anne Curzan, author of Says Who?, has some compelling bona fides when it comes to remarking upon English grammar and usage. Not only is she a linguistics professor, she was also for many years a member of the illustrious (and somewhat mysterious) American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language Usage Panel. If you, like me, own a copy...
Demeter and Persephone (04/24)
Rachel Lyon's novel Fruit of the Dead is based on the story of Demeter and Persephone from Greek mythology. In the original story, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, is devastated when her daughter Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld, who intends to make her his wife. Demeter's grief is so great that it affects the ...
Fan Culture and Parasocial Relationships (03/24)
For those living in the dystopian world of Soyoung Park's Snowglobe, the main source of entertainment is reality television shot within a climate-controlled dome. The lives of the actors on these shows are on 24-hour display to be consumed obsessively by the fans in the icy world beyond the dome's barrier. Every detail of the stars' lives...
Hungry Ghosts in Art and Culture (03/24)
Kevin Jared Hosein's title Hungry Ghosts has its origin in Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism. According to the Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, hungry ghost, or preta "literally means 'one who has gone away from here' and is used to indicate the disembodied spirit of a dead person, especially during the first ten days after ...
Escape and Evasion Maps (02/24)
In Lea Carpenter's Ilium, some of the spies have escape and evasion maps. Also known as escape maps or silk maps, these are scarves imprinted with maps that intelligence officers and soldiers have historically used when they've ended up behind enemy lines. They offer information about how best to escape or at least find somewhere safe to ...
Moon Art (02/24)
When you look at the Moon, what do you see? Since ancient times, the Moon has ignited our imaginations, as Rebecca Boyle demonstrates in her history of Earth's relationship to its closest neighbor. In mythologies and legends, it has been seen as a canvas depicting a rabbit and a jovial man's features, among other things. It has been with ...
Townsizing: Trendy or Timely? (02/24)
The city versus country trope is as old as Aesop's fabled mice, yet the debate continues to warrant new narratives. In Jas Hammonds' We Deserve Monuments, the protagonist, Avery Armstrong, puts this very debate to the test when she moves to the small fictional town of Bardell, Georgia. Raised in the cultural mecca of Washington, D.C., ...
Trail Names (02/24)
In Kristin Dwyer's The Atlas of Us, Atlas and her friends are given trail names by their program director; these nicknames allow Atlas (trail name Maps) to create a new identity and forge a new beginning, one unencumbered by her personal history. Names in Dwyer's novel serve a symbolic purpose, but there's a very real phenomenon of trail ...
US Military Mules in World War II (02/24)
One of the characters in Derek B. Miller's novel The Curse of Pietro Houdini is a limping mule named Ferrari. The author notes that mules were used extensively during World War II in the Italian theater, in areas where trucks couldn't go, such as mountain passes and forests.

Mules are remarkable creatures that have been used as pack ...
The 2023 Spiel des Jahres: Dorfromantik (01/24)
In his section on European games in Around the World in Eighty Games, Marcus du Sautoy discusses the Spiel des Jahres ('Game of the Year'), the most prestigious award in tabletop gaming, awarded annually since 1979 by a jury of journalists who write about games. The Spiel des Jahres carries no cash prize, but certainly the winners (which ...
Teddy Ruxpin (11/23)
The portability and low price point of cassette tapes meant that they were easily integrated into many areas of technology, as Marc Masters explores in High Bias. Toys began incorporating tapes too, and the most famous tape-playing toy of all was named Teddy Ruxpin. First introduced in 1985, Teddy was quickly a favorite cutting-edge toy ...
Dream Interpretation (11/23)
One of the short stories in Kij Johnson's The Privilege of the Happy Ending lists whimsical interpretations of specific dreams. For instance, to dream about an Audi 'signifies great strife and financial disaster. It is hard not to connect this to the fact that your ex left you for someone who owns an Audi.'

But the interpretation of ...
Zines and the 1990s (10/23)
In his memoir, Stay True, Hua Hsu recalls his college years in the 1990s, including the role that zines played in the evolution of his identity: 'Zines are a metaphor for life…It's your creation and your voice.'

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a zine as being a short form of fanzine, a kind of amateur-produced magazine ...
Changelings in European Folklore (09/23)
In addition to being a reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, T. Kingfisher's novella Thornhedge is inspired in part by the tradition of stories about changelings. In European folklore, changelings represented an intersection between the fairy world and the human world; a fairy would steal a baby—usually one who had not yet ...
The Death Doula Profession (07/23)
The protagonist of Mikki Brammer's The Collected Regrets of Clover is a death doula. Just as a doula (or midwife) helps in childbirth, a death doula helps people who are approaching death. The profession has grown remarkably since 2000, when a New York City program co-funded by NYU Medical Center and the Shira Ruskay Center of the Jewish ...
Blood and Ink: Writing Materials Through the Ages (06/23)
In Emma Törzs's Ink Blood Sister Scribe, the first word of the title plays an important role: By mixing blood with herbs, people can make ink with magical properties. In the real world, writing has been done with a variety of materials throughout history — including, from time to time, blood.

Evidence points to ink first ...
How TV & Film Portrays Capital Accumulation (06/23)
Hernan Diaz has said about writing his novel Trust that, despite the numerous books depicting 'the symptoms of wealth,' 'there are very, very few novels that deal with the process of accumulation of capital. This, to me, was baffling.' This isn't surprising to me, as the accumulation of capital seems narratively uninteresting, at least ...
Au Pair Exchanges (05/23)
The novel The Caretakers centers on several young women who are au pairs in France, living there on special visas that allow them to stay with a family, take language classes and immerse themselves for a year in Parisian social life.

The term 'au pair' refers to a (usually young) person who lives with a family in a foreign country in ...
The Electra Complex (05/23)
We have all heard of the Oedipus complex, right? Its origin is in Greek mythology, where Oedipus, King of Thebes, unknowingly kills his own father and marries his mother. Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of the complex, which posits that a young boy has a subconscious sexual desire toward his mother and anger or jealousy toward his ...
Winston Churchill in TV and Film (05/23)
Countless movies about Winston Churchill have been made in the decades since World War II, with different actors playing the starring role to varying degrees of success. What are some of the most — and least — memorable of these cinematic depictions, and what effect did these films have in perpetuating the Churchill legend?

...
Palimpsests (04/23)
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 ...
Joan Didion's "On Self-Respect," and Social Media Culture (04/23)
For a moment, I can pretend I am a professor, like Joan Didion-obsessed NYU English professor Nick Harrison in Grant Ginder's Let's Not Do That Again, as he discusses her 1961 essay 'On Self-Respect' with his undergraduate class. For a moment, I can pretend that in the high evening before one of my part-time jobs, I am not 23, sitting in ...
Social Media Addiction (04/23)
In The Candy House, the allure of social media, with its illusions of security, comfort and happiness are frequently described in terms similar to those related to addiction. Egan presents characters who struggle with substance abuse and deal with their isolation by withdrawing into the social media platform Own Your Unconscious.

While...
Studebaker and the Land Cruiser (04/23)
In The Lincoln Highway, the main characters undertake a would-be cross-country road trip in Emmett Watson's pride and joy, a 1948 powder-blue Studebaker Land Cruiser.

The Studebaker company, now known as a long-lasting and iconic automotive manufacturer, was founded in South Bend, Indiana in 1852. The Studebaker family had emigrated ...
The Toronto Raptors (02/23)
In Fight Night, grandmother and granddaughter Elvira and Swiv are both big fans of the Toronto Raptors, a Canadian basketball team that competes in the NBA's Eastern Conference Atlantic Division. The novel has a few autobiographical elements, as author Miriam Toews lives in Toronto in a household that includes her own mother (whose name ...
Wellness Retreats (01/23)
The events of This Might Hurt by Stephanie Wrobel take place predominantly at Wisewood, a fictional island retreat off the coast of Maine that purportedly focuses on self-improvement techniques and conquering one's inner fears. The concept of a mental health 'retreat' is by no means foreign to Americans, and wellness tourism has grown ...
A Short History of the Cooking Show (12/22)
In Lessons In Chemistry, the main character is the reluctant host of a popular TV cooking show.

Gordon Ramsay, Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray are just a few of the many modern TV chefs who’ve become household names. Cooking shows are now not only daytime television staples; they're featured in the primetime lineup. Such was not ...
The Shelfie: From the Early Modern Ages to COVID-19 (11/22)
Perhaps it's a quirk of readers, but it seems almost natural to be drawn to other people's books — whether in images on social media or in someone's home. Books offer a snapshot of who a person is, presenting a quick glimpse of what influences them, what they might think about and what holds lasting meaning for them.

So it isn't ...
Grieving Places (10/22)
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 ...
Stave Churches (09/22)
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 ...
Cassandra of Troy (09/22)
Like most stories and characters from Greek mythology, the exact origin of Cassandra of Troy is unknown, though she may have first appeared as a character in the Iliad, composed around the 8th century BCE, where she is described as 'the fairest of Priam's daughters' and 'fair as golden Venus' (in the English translation by Samuel Butler)....
Mermaids and Water Spirits Around the World (08/22)
Simi, the main character in Natasha Bowen's Skin of the Sea, is a Mami Wata, a water deity from West African mythology who is described in the novel as having a mermaid form. While the red-headed Ariel of Disney fame might be the dominant image of what a mermaid looks like for many people, they come in many forms from all over the world, ...
High and Common "Magick" in Past and Present Narratives (08/22)
Of all the commanding aspects of All of Us Villains, the concept of 'magick' arguably stands as the story's most significant. The residents of Ilvernath treat its existence much as they would electricity and running water, and in many ways are just as reliant on its practical applications as we in the real world are on our smartphones. An...
The Oregon Trail Video Game (08/22)
Before they became video game developers, the main characters in Gabrielle Zevin's Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow were kids growing up in the 1980s, and like countless other Generation X kids, one of the first video games they fell in love with was The Oregon Trail. Many people of this age group probably remember hunting for deer ...
Door Locks Throughout History (05/22)
In Ashley Weaver's novel A Peculiar Combination, the heroine is a safe-cracker who breaks into houses by picking door locks. Locks that operate with keys, including those typically used on doors, haven't changed all that much within the past century and a half. In fact, personal door locks in use today are of the same basic design ...
Creation Myths (05/22)
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 Mandela Effect (04/22)
In The Impossible Us, Nick becomes connected with a group calling themselves the Berenstain Society. Their name is inspired by one of the most famous examples of what's popularly known as the Mandela effect. The Mandela effect, according to Medical News Today, 'describes a situation in which a person or a group of people have a false ...
Syanon: Rehabilitation Center Turned Cult (03/22)
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 ...
Gilmore Girls, Lane Kim and Asian Americans on Television (03/22)
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 ...
Boarding School Syndrome (03/22)
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 (03/22)
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 ...
Self-Serve Frozen Yogurt (02/22)
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...
The Legend of the Sandman (02/22)
In one story from Kim Fu's collection Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, an insomniac character is visited by the Sandman and subsequently finds it much easier to fall asleep. There is no consensus among experts as to the origin of the Sandman in folklore, as it is believed to be part of a long history of stories passed from ...
Spiritualism in Victorian London (02/22)
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 ...
The Apple in Religion and Myth (01/22)
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 ...
Oulipo (01/22)
Hervé Le Tellier, the author of the novel The Anomaly, is a member of Oulipo. Oulipo is an international literary group that was founded in 1960 and embraces 'formal and procedural constraints to achieve literature's possibilities.' The name comes from the French 'Ouvroir de littérature potentielle' (OuLiPo), which translates ...
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