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Beyond the Book Articles
Cultural Curiosities

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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...
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...
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, ...
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...
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...
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 ...
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,...
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 ...
Angels (08/19)
Angels continue to intrigue many, as evidenced by Sophie Cameron's debut novel, Out Of The Blue. In Zoroastrianism (which dates back to about 1500 BCE) and the Abrahamic religions (the major ones being Judaism, Christianity and Islam), angels are generally considered spiritual beings created by God to serve him in many roles, including ...
Qat (07/19)
As a young boy growing up in war-torn Mogadishu, the capital of the East African country of Somalia, Abdi Nor Iftin and his brother Hassan often looked for enterprising ways to support their family. They stumbled onto a lucrative business when they started selling the qat leaves they gathered from the ground around market stalls or stole ...
World of Wonders (05/19)
In her memoir, The Electric Woman, Tess Fontaine recounts her experiences working for a five-month long season with World of Wonders, the last traditional traveling sideshow in the United States.

As the name implies, sideshows are smaller acts that are part of a larger fair or circus. According to the International Independent Showmen'...
The Art of the Flaneur (05/19)
The word flaneur sounds like a term for a connoisseur of flannel fabric but, in fact, the Oxford dictionary defines flaneur as 'A man who saunters around observing society.' It is derived from the French word flâner which means 'saunter, lounge.'

According to an article in the New Republic, Charles Baudelaire gave birth to the ...
Greyhound Racing (05/19)
In Michael Ondaatje's novel Warlight, the narrator assists with 'importing a dubious population of unregistered foreign dogs' into England for the sport of dog racing.

Modern dog racing is an outgrowth of an older sport called 'coursing,' in which dogs hunt game by sight instead of using their sense of smell (hounds as a category are ...
Nainoa Thompson and Modern Day Wayfinding (04/19)
Although Sea People is largely written as a history focusing on Polynesia and its earliest inhabitants, it also introduces readers to the islands as a whole: the culture of the Polynesian people, the botany and wildlife of the many islands and the adventurous spirit of a people who loved exploration. This adventurous spirit, however, was ...
Fingerprint Alteration (03/19)
In Joseph Knox's noir thriller The Smiling Man, the police can't identify the murder victim because the man had gone to extremes in order to conceal his identity. Clearly a person in an occupation that required anonymity, he had resorted to perhaps the ultimate means of operating under the radar of law enforcement authorities. He had ...
Dancing Bears (02/19)
The third section of Neel Mukherjee's A State of Freedom follows Lakshman, a young father taking care of two families in the slums of India. When one day Lakshman stumbles upon a stray bear cub wandering about the streets, he sees the animal as his golden ticket to earning a fortune by starting a dancing bear routine.

Dancing bears ...
A Second Career as a Private Investigator (02/19)
In Walter Mosley's crime novel, Down the River Unto the Sea, the protagonist, Joe King Oliver, is a former NYC police detective who starts his own private investigative agency as a follow up career. In real life this choice is not uncommon.

Due to the generally early retirement opportunities within most public law enforcement ...
The Origins of Human-Canine Friendship (02/19)
Sigrid Nunez's The Friend reminds us of the power and beauty of the human-canine friendship. Many of us have witnessed the relationship first-hand – our dogs 'listen' to us, they comfort us when we are sad and they are the first to greet us when we come home – but where and when did it originate? How did the gray wolf ...
Trinacria (02/19)
Auntie Poldi, in Mario Giordano's Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, is intrigued when she encounters an unusual tattoo on the murder victim. It's Sicily's trinacria, an heraldic-style image whose origins linger in the shadows of Greek mythology.

Heraldry (the art of devising and displaying armorial insignia) may have begun on the ...
Creative Blocks (01/19)
Many writers, artists, and other creatives experience the occasional block – an inability to create or a sudden lack of ideas for moving forward with their work. Both Alex and Christine deal with this issue in Tessa Hadley's Late in the Day, and for Alex the block spans many years. The term creative block was coined in 1947 by Dr. ...
Tidbits from Timekeepers (01/19)
Simon Garfield's Timekeepers, is a book about our obsession with time. It is chock filled with the ways our lives revolve around it, the instruments we use to manage it, and some people's odd perspectives on it. Here are five quirky, fun facts from the book:

1. The Oxford English Dictionary keeps a list of frequently used nouns. The ...
Sidewalk Chalk (01/19)
In C. J. Tudor's thriller The Chalk Man, twelve-year-old Eddie and his friends create a secret language using stick figures drawn with chalk. The story takes place in 1986, but of course chalk games have been around for a lot longer than that.

Chalk has too. The word chalk comes from the latin calx, which means limestone. Limestone is ...
Money Laundering (01/19)
A high stakes money laundering scheme is at the core of Steve Cavanagh's legal thriller The Plea. Eight billion dollars in illicit cash is flowing through the accounts of a Manhattan law firm that enjoys a solid gold reputation. The United States federal government is hot on the case, but nailing the parties involved at just the ...
Holiday Survival Guide (10/18)
In Seven Days Of Us, Francesca Hornak has her characters quarantined for seven days during the holiday season; Days trapped with one's family is stressful enough, but the added pressure of "The Holidays" can really turn up the heat. 

So why, one might ask, are the holidays a particularly stressful time for so many? ...
The History of the Typewriter (09/18)
Tom Hanks' short story collection Uncommon Type, puts his love for typewriters on display. Hanks has a personal collection of over one hundred machines, made up of nearly every make and model ever put on the market. For those who grew up in the digital age, typewriters may seem all but extinct, a relic of a past era. But at one time, ...
Bibliotherapy (08/18)
The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg is by many accounts a "feel-good read" – a book that readers say makes them feel upbeat after having finished it. But that raises the question: Can a book truly influence your mood?   It turns out that scientists have long speculated that reading can, in fact, have ...
The Omnibus Project (07/18)
Readers who enjoy Jennings's dense, fact-laden prose in Planet Funny might like to check out his relatively new podcast, Omnibus! The podcast is cohosted by Jennings and John Roderick, front man for the indie rock band The Long Winters.

The premise of the twice-weekly podcast is that the two hosts — who both hail from Seattle &#...
Makloubeh (06/18)
War and political divisions are not the only reasons for people living in exile from their families, but they are often why people must leave in haste and abandon everything behind them. Sometimes homes are destroyed by war or, as with Alia's parents in Hala Alyan's novel Salt Houses, they are occupied following invasion. What can ...
Retired RV Adventurers (05/18)
When Norma joined her son Tim Bauerschmidt and his wife Ramie Liddle on the road, Tim was 57 years old. 'Ramie and I had been able to retire early because of many years of frugal living, our lack of debt, and forgoing having a family,' he writes in his memoir about his mother, Driving Miss Norma. 'We always drove older vehicles and almost...
A Short History of Mardi Gras (04/18)
Some of the action in Michael Knight's story 'Our Lady of the Roses' takes place during Mardi Gras. The protagonist notes that the first celebration was in Mobile and not in New Orleans. That piqued my curiosity and I decided to do some research into this most colorful holiday.

The first thing I found was that, like many of our modern ...
What Is a Manifesto? (03/18)
The book Women & Power is labeled a manifesto, which comes from the Latin word manifestus, meaning 'to manifest, to clearly reveal, or to make real.' It is a broad term for a public statement of intent, belief, or a call to action issued by an organization or an individual.

Most nonprofit and political groups have a manifesto of some ...
Famous Predictions for the Future (03/18)
Would you like this in your daily life?:

Getting dressed involves an automated device that cuts and stitches a new outfit every morning, indexed to your personal style and body type. The fabric is made from laser-hardened strands of a light-sensitive liquid polymer that's recycled nightly for daily use.

Or how about this?: ...

Complications - The Mechanical Watch Variety (02/18)
In Hannah Tinti's novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, Hawley and Jove are sent to recover an antique watch, a priceless item stolen from a crooked boxing promoter and now in the hands of a thief-survivalist living on an island off Washington's coast. The watch has many complications, the term used for any mechanical watch ...
Blackface in Performance (01/18)
Early in Zadie Smith's novel Swing Time, the narrator shows a friend a clip from the 1936 Fred Astaire musical by the same name. She doesn't have her glasses on the first time she watches it so is startled when she realizes that Astaire performs a solo dance referred to as the 'Bojangles of Harlem' in blackface.

Music and dance had ...
Pachinko (01/18)
'If you are a rich Korean, there's a pachinko parlor in your background somewhere,' Min Jin Lee writes in her novel Pachinko. Several of her Korean characters end up working in pachinko parlors, despite their differing levels of education and their previous experience.

Pachinko is essentially an upright pinball machine. Gamblers ...
The Boy Scouts of America (01/18)
The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) plays a significant role in The Hearts of Men. The youth organization was in the news in 2017, beginning to adapt to current social mores.

The New York Times reported on January 31, 2017: 'Reversing its stance of more than a century, the Boy Scouts of America said on Monday that the group would begin ...
Moonshine Mania (12/17)
In If the Creek Don't Rise, Sadie Blue's husband earns his money making and selling moonshine. The trouble caused by alcohol and illegal business is a theme that runs throughout the story. The term moonshine comes from the illicit nature in which it has historically been brewed, in the dark, under cover of 'moon shine.' Moonshine has made...
Feed Sack Fashion (11/17)
In Dust Bowl Girls, Lydia Reeder notes that many, if not all, of the young women who lived on their families' Oklahoma farms wore dresses made from flour or feed sacks. At the time, before the ready availability of store bought or bakery products, farm women bought their flour in sacks of 25-100 pounds. Feed came in hundred-pound ...
Bernard Heuvelmans: Father of Cryptozoology (09/17)
The eponymous guardian in Dolores Redondo's The Invisible Guardian refers to a mythical Basque creature called a basajaun. According to a character in the book, '[B]asajauns are real creatures, hominids about two and a half meters tall, with broad shoulders, long hair on their heads, and thick hair all over their bodies…They ...
The Fasting Girls (09/17)
The Wonder was inspired by several real-life instances of girls who claimed to be beyond the earthly requirement of eating. The tradition dates back to at least medieval times when it was common for devoutly religious women to abstain from food, among other essentials. Intermittent fasting is a common custom in many religions and viewed ...
Luxury Watches (08/17)
According to Michael Honig's imagined life of Vladimir Putin in his novel The Senility of Vladimir P., the dictator-president could be impressed by the gift of a fine wristwatch – 'fine' meaning anything beyond the standard Rolex.

In this era, a good majority of the younger generation keeps track of time by using a smart phone, ...
The Concept of Sainthood (08/17)
In The Guineveres, Sarah Domet weaves the stories of eight saints—Rose of Lima; Cecelia; the sister saints, Irmina and Adela; Ita; Agatha; Alice and Christina the Astonishing. These holy figures have a relevance to certain themes in the novel including the concept of sacrifice, the sanctity of the female body, and the recognition of...
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