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Beyond the Book Articles
Cultural Curiosities

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Spring Temple Buddha (07/17)
Like many kids on the autism spectrum, Tilly has a passionate interest, one she loves to research and that she'll happily talk your ear off about if you ask (or even if you don't). In her case, she's fascinated by massive sculptures past and present, from the Colossus of Rhodes to the Lincoln Monument.

More than ...
Tips for Making the Perfect Pie Crust (07/17)
In Dinner with Edward, Isabel Vincent's memoir, Edward's two tricks for making a perfect pastry crust are crushed ice and a mixture of grated butter and fresh lard (from his Queens butcher), all kept as cold as possible. What are other chefs' top tips? The choice of fat(s) and their proportions are the main differences.

Julia Child...
Cultural Heritage Sites Destroyed by Earthquakes (06/17)
In Here I Am, a severe earthquake destroys practically all of Israel's (and its neighboring countries') cultural heritage sites. While this situation is fictional, there have been real instances of prized world heritage sites being destroyed or damaged by catastrophic seismic events. Here are a few examples of many:

The ...
A Snapshot of Snake Handlers (06/17)
In the opening pages of Jeff Zentner's The Serpent King, we come to know about Dill Early's family history of snake-handling. His father is an infamous snake-handling pastor at the Church of Christ's Disciples with Signs of Belief. Dill's great grandfather was also a preacher with a shared tenacity for using snakes in ...
Thoroughbreds (06/17)
In Mercury, when Donald Stevenson sees the horse for the first time he says, 'Mercury, true to his name, was unmistakably hot-blooded. The lines of his body, the arch of his neck, the rise and fall of his stride...were...beautiful.'

Horses, like dogs, are defined by breeds, and each have their own traits and purposes. Mercury is a ...
The Dachshund (05/17)
In Lily and The Octopus, the main character struggles with the decline of his beloved canine companion, a charming dachshund named Lily. Famously described by the German-American journalist, H. L. Mencken, as 'a half-a-dog high and a dog-and-a-half long,' dachshunds are one of the most popular dog breeds in America. Affectionately called ...
House Architectural Styles (05/17)
Laura McHugh's atmospheric novel Arrowood is set in Keokuk, in the south-east of Iowa, where the Des Moines River meets the Mississippi. This setting is an important component in establishing the sense of the past overshadowing the present — a major theme in the story. The house, Arrowood, plays a vital role and McHugh's ...
The Philosopher's Stone (05/17)
Its powers are said to be remarkable. It is the source not only of great wealth but also, perhaps, freedom from mortality. It was sought after for centuries, often by some of the greatest minds in history. Its legend has lived on in movies, novels, video games, music, and comic books. Its fabled existence has fired the human imagination ...
Missed Signals (04/17)
Could the tragedy of the RMS Titanic that unfolded on 15 April 1912, have been prevented or the casualty toll severely decreased? This is the question that anchors The Midnight Watch. The SS Californian, which left Liverpool and was headed for Boston with cargo, was in close enough range of the Titanic for some kind of rescue operation to...
Magical Objects from the Past (04/17)
It doesn't take long for magic to sneak into Mariko Tamaki's YA novel, Saving Montgomery Sole. In fact, much of the story relies on suspending one's belief, as we follow the life and peculiar happenings of Montgomery 'Monty' Sole. Monty is an outcast looking for a way to connect with those around her. After participating in...
Crow Facts and Bird Group Names (03/17)
In Elizabeth Church's debut novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, Meridian Wallace studies crow behavior over the course of decades. The Corvid family – which includes crows, rooks, magpies, ravens, and jays – is often considered to have the highest intelligence and most remarkable habits in the bird world. Here are some facts ...
Creatures from Japanese Mythology (03/17)
Two of the monsters that haunt the island of Kokoro-Jima in the novel The Emperor Of Any Place are borrowed from traditional Japanese mythology.

Jikininki might remind many readers of zombies. In The Emperor of Any Place, they devour the bodies of deceased soldiers who have washed ashore on Kokoro-Jima, but what they are hungry for ...
The History of Newspaper Horoscopes (02/17)
In Tender, Catherine Reilly takes up a job writing horoscopes, the kind that you routinely find in newspapers, generic enough to possibly apply to a wide swath of people, yet specific enough to make the individual reader feel like it was written just for him or her.

The word horoscope comes from the Greek words hõra (time or hour...
A Brief History of Charm Bracelets (02/17)
Today's charm bracelet can trace its origins back to Neolithic times when small rocks and other items considered to have special powers to ward off evil were carried around. Charms worn by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Hittites were created from lapis lazuli, rock crystal and other gems and inscribed with symbolic designs, ...
The Golden Record (02/17)
In Mr. Splitfoot, Samantha Hunt's new novel of ghosts, cults and motherhood, two characters fall in love while listening to the Golden Record.

Voyager spacecrafts 1 and 2 launched from Earth in 1977 and continue to travel further away from our planet, transmitting information back through the Deep Space Network. Theirs is an ...
Mothering Sunday and Mother's Day (01/17)
In the UK, 'Mothering Sunday' – the central event in Graham Swift's novel of the same name – dates back to at least the 16th century when Christians would go 'a mothering' to visit their 'mother church' once a year, where they had been baptized. For some, this would also be the day of the year when mothers were united with ...
The Great Tulip Mania (01/17)
Since the beginning of time, humanity has been enchanted by – and paid a small fortune to possess – rare and beautiful objects: diamonds, gold, emeralds…and tulips.

At the peak of the 'Great Dutch Tulip Mania of 1637,' an event which is covered in The Confidence Game, the most desirable tulip bulbs commanded ...
What's That Mess in the Mess Hall? (01/17)
'The chow hall was a big white magnet north of the shopping gulch, a massive canopy that seemed to hover over the pale sands. Part circus tent, part martial pretense, it was ringed by blast walls and protected by counterbattery radar. It could serve over a thousand soldiers at a time and up to fifteen thousand a day, not including the ...
Ancient Apartment Buildings (11/16)
Fishbowl is set in a high-rise apartment building.

The contemporary apartment building has evolved over hundreds of years to its current avatar, sleek structures fashioned with high-tech materials and serviced by powerful elevators.

It is believed that the first apartment buildings were built by the Romans two thousand years ago...
A Funambulist By Any Other Name (11/16)
It seems that as long as there have been human beings and rope there has been the urge to string that rope between two posts or trees or buildings or things of any sturdy sort and walk - heel to toe - across the span.

For the ancient Greeks it held the appeal of balance offset by danger and, of course, the physical challenge. Though ...
The Yakhchal (10/16)
Long before the advent of the refrigerator, around 400 BCE, the ancient Persians had figured out a way of making ice and having it readily available even over the summer. At its most basic, the solution took advantage of the low humidity and cool desert nights, especially in winter, to make ice and then store it in an insulated building ...
René Descartes: I Think, Therefore I Am (08/16)
Western philosophy since the Renaissance has been governed by an idea so simple it could appear on a bumper sticker: 'I think, therefore I am.'

The idea – originally expressed in French but more often rendered in Latin ('Cogito ergo sum') – came from a French philosopher of the 17th century named René Descartes, ...
Unusual Swimming Pools (06/16)
The members of the Three-Year Swim Club began their careers in rough and dangerous irrigation ditches. However, even after they moved their practices to a more traditional swimming pool, they had to compete in other challenging venues.

Some were simply an unconventional size — sometimes creating an advantage, other times ...
This Is Your Life, a Television Phenomenon (06/16)
Along with Queen for a Day and Candid Camera, This Is Your Life was one of the first reality television shows. It aired in the United States from 1952 to 1961, and in the United Kingdom from 1955 until 2003. At least nine other countries adopted the format too. In each episode, the host surprised one audience member – either a ...
The Sport of Rodeo (06/16)
Bad Country's protagonist, Rodeo Grace Garnet, is a second-generation rodeo contestant who quit the circuit without setting records or achieving lasting fame. Cowboys like P.I. Garnet dream of competing and winning the big money stakes at the annual National Rodeo Finals but most endure a hard-scrabble, impoverished lifestyle and limited ...
Bare-Knuckle Boxing (04/16)
Bare-knuckle fighting has probably existed ever since humanity learned to make a fist, and it has been practiced as a sport since at least the 3rd millennium BCE. The earliest records are found in Sumerian reliefs from that time period, and ancient Egyptian artwork from the 2nd millennium BCE depicts an audience watching barefisted ...
The Backyard Chicken Movement (04/16)
'The backyard chicken movement sweeping the United States and Europe is a response to city lives far removed from the daily realities of life and death on a farm, and the bird provides a cheap and handy way for us to reconnect with our vanishing rural heritage,' writes Lawler in Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? 'This trend may not ...
Extreme Skiing (04/16)
In This Is How It Really Sounds, one of the Pete Harringtons is an extreme skier – a sport, he complains, not many people find appealing or artistic because, unlike regular downhill skiing, it does not have as much cachet with the general public.

The strict definition of extreme skiing is taking on very steep cliffs, with the ...
Classic BBC Comedies (03/16)
Funny Girl is set in the Swinging Sixties in Britain in the world of television shows and their production.

The British Broadcasting Corporation, or BBC, got its start in 1922 with professional radio shows. Regular television service began in 1936 and has continued ever since. The 1940s saw the first instance of live television, a ...
Old Libraries Around the World (03/16)
One of the features of the magnificent library in Scott Hawkins' The Library at Mount Char, is its age. Some of the books and manuscripts it contains are said to be at least twenty thousand years old. In the real world there are many fascinating old libraries still in existence, a few of which are described below:

Haeinsa Temple

...
Food Tourism (03/16)
When we visited Merida in Mexico a few years ago, my husband had already decided where he wanted to eat and when. We had to taste the chaya drink made from chaya leaves, had to eat the cochinita pibil and eat at La Casa de Frida, a restaurant that was also home to many Frida Kahlo collectibles. Granted the Apte family is a little obsessed...
The Voynich Manuscript (02/16)
In reviewing Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story, by Michael Rosen, I wrote that most readers would learn something, however small, from such a wide-ranging look at the English language. In my case, I was introduced to the Voynich Manuscript, written in central Europe in the fifteenth century, in a language that no expert has ...
Aquariums (01/16)
A couple of thousand years B.C., the Chinese were building fish pens in lakes (for food and possibly entertainment), and evidence of Roman fish tanks in the sea still exist (such as the fish tank that can still be seen a little north of Rome). But building containers to showcase the fish away from their natural surroundings had many ...
Keys of All Kinds (01/16)
On a wall in his home in A Pleasure and a Calling, William Heming hangs the keys to all the houses he's sold, copies made from the originals that their residents still use. He can go in those houses, no matter if the owners are home or not. It makes for disquieting reading, but also inspires curiosity about what types of keys exist. ...
The Cost of Hunting for Treasure (11/15)
In The Marauders, Lindquist, the one-armed treasure hunter, needs only his pirogue (a small boat) and a metal detector to search the swamps of Barataria, Louisiana for the rumored treasure of renowned and revered pirate Jean Lafitte. That's it. And he's had that old metal detector for many years, so his expenses are low. But treasure ...
The "Normal" Kid in the Family (11/15)
In All the Major Constellations, Andrew, the 17-year-old protagonist, throws himself into his summer job as a laborer when his life becomes unmanageable. The heavy outdoor work where he toils alongside grown men becomes a safe refuge of physical exertion.

One day, over bag lunches, he unloads the sum of all his current problems –...
What's In a (House) Name? (09/15)
Even in the 21st Century, to send a letter to the Queen of England one's envelope might be addressed simply: Her Majesty The Queen. Buckingham Palace. London. No street address or postcode is necessary. Her royal home has a name. As such it follows an ancient and still-popular British custom; naming one's house. While numbered ...
A Note to Damien Lewis (08/15)
The world could use a lot more of your stories of miraculous dogs of war. Below, you'll find two other dogs, equally as brave as Antis in The Dog Who Could Fly, who I hope will spark your interest. The sooner, the better.

First, there is Sallie Ann Jarrett, believed to be a bulldog or bull terrier, taken in by the Eleventh Regiment of ...
The History of Ice Cream (08/15)
A year ago, the big hullabaloo among residents in my city of Henderson, Nevada was the arrival of Blue Bell Ice Cream from Texas. It is a godsend for the Texans who live here, and a curiosity for the rest of us. Beforehand, supermarkets like WinCo had signs announcing it was coming. The anticipation would not, could not, melt. And then, ...
Off-the-Grid Living (08/15)
In California, Frida and Cal Friedman are forced to live off the land without electricity or running water, growing the food they eat. While the couple has no choice but to adopt such a lifestyle, off-the-grid living has been gaining traction in contemporary society. Traditionally, the term refers to living without public utilities, ...
The Tiny World of Cabinet Houses (06/15)
Like Nella in The Miniaturist, the real Petronella Oortman ordered a cabinet house to be made in 1686 to the exact scale of her own home. It can still be seen today in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Petronella's cabinet house was elaborate, gilded with silver and inlaid with tortoise shell, but this was not a unique purchase for a ...
Stockholm Syndrome and Child Sex Abuse (06/15)
During a bank holdup in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973, two men held four people hostage for six days. Over that time period the hostages bonded with the captors and vice versa. The hostages eventually even believed that their captors were actually their protectors, keeping the police from hurting them. It is rumored that one of the hostages ...
A Period of Mourning (06/15)
In The Gracekeepers, the Graces are caged birds left to starve to death, floating above the site where a dead person was put to rest in the sea. The death of the bird indicates when the family can stop mourning. Mourning the passing of a loved one is a natural and necessary process that has different rules, guidelines and rituals ...
Slave Quilts (05/15)
Among the many unifying symbols in all the intertwining relationships that course through The Invention of Wings, one of the most important concerns is not another person but a quilt.

'This a story quilt,' Mauma Charlotte tells her daughter Handful. 'My mauma made one and her mauma before her. All my kin in Africa...kept their history...
The Jenny (04/15)
In Birdmen, Lawrence Goldstone describes how Glenn Curtiss diversified operations and courted a variety of vendors to deliver specialized engines and airplanes. Most notable amongst these were the JN series of airplanes built to fulfill an army request that both the engine and the propeller be at the front of the plane. Up until then ...
Gillette: Steel and the First Disposable Razor Blade (04/15)
One of the chapters in Stuff Matters is devoted to steel, and Mark Miodownik mentions the Gillette safety razor blade and its inventor King Camp Gillette, as being responsible for the 'democratization of shaving.'

King (yes, that really was his first name) Gillette was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, in the mid-nineteenth century to ...
Commercial Diving (03/15)
Because the Boston Harbor cleanup required work underwater, a team of commercial divers was brought in. Trapped Under the Sea focuses primarily on these divers and the disastrous project that lead to two deaths.

Commercial diving includes both offshore and inland projects. Much offshore diving is connected with the oil industry, with ...
A Short Glossary for the 21st Century (03/15)
Throughout Annabelle Gurwitch's book of essays about life for women on the edge of 50, I See You Made an Effort, she references several terms that are gradually or quickly catching on in contemporary conversation. Here are some examples.

Boomeritis refers to injuries in older athletes, especially Baby Boomers, born at the end of World ...
Oh Restaurant, From Whence Thou? (02/15)
While buying ready prepared food outside the home has been an intrinsic part of urban culture in Europe from the earliest of days (as can be seen by the many thermopoliums in Pompeii), in the modern era, in general the upper classes, especially the women, would not have chosen to eat a meal outside of a private home - except in the direst...
Dogs for Defense (02/15)
On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the US entered the war. The value of dogs in the military had been proven many times, particularly during WWI, as they were used by the European armies as sentries, message-carriers and fox-hole clearers (of rats before the soldiers entered.). Although there were relatively few military ...
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