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Beyond the Book Articles
Cultural Curiosities

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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 ...
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. ...
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 ...
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 ...
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 ...
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 ...
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 ...
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 ...
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...
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...
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 ...
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 ...
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 ...
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 ...
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 ...
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...
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...
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 ...
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 ...
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...
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 ...
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, ...
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 ...
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 ...
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...
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 ...
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