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Cultural Curiosities

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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 ...
Woodstocks Abound (02/15)
Many Woodstocks come to mind when reading Out of Woods, Lynn Darling's memoir about her move to Woodstock, Vermont. The first is, of course, from the legendary Woodstock Festival in 1969, which was actually held in Bethel, New York after the towns of Wallkill and Woodstock refused the request for a permit. But there are many others. Here ...
Enigmas of the mid-15th Century (01/15)
Throughout The Brotherhood of Book Hunters, Raphaël Jerusalmy makes his protagonist puzzle through conflicting evidence and deal with contradictory information. He also both doubts and finds reinforcements for his personal faith and beliefs. All of this fits nicely with the religious enigmas of the mid-15th Century, which is a ...
The Legend of the Crane Wife (01/15)
'And all the stars were crashing round / As I lay eyes on what I'd found.' The epigraph to Patrick Ness's novel comes from The Decemberists' 2006 album also entitled The Crane Wife. Clearly artists of all sorts have been inspired by the Japanese folktale on which Ness's novel is very broadly based.

The legend, known as Tsuru no ...
Stories In The Sky: The Myths of Ursa Major (01/15)
Since the beginning of time, people have been looking up at the stars, connecting the fiery dots and telling stories about the images they create in the sky. Even in modern times, we are taught to see the man with a belt and a sword, the regal chair, a big dipper and a little one; once you've located at least an approximate location, ...
A Brief History of Saab Cars (12/14)
A Man Called Ove inexorably links the man and his cherished Saab. Ove's first vehicle, inherited from his father at age 16, was a restored green 1949 Saab '92, a two-door coupe, the distinctive Swedish automobile manufacturer's first production car. Ove's devotion and brand loyalty to the company's Swedish roots is so steadfast that he ...
How the Word "Ghost" Got Its Spelling (11/14)
David Crystal is a prolific scholar of linguistics who specializes in language pathology, phonetics, and linguistic disability.

What I admire most about Crystal's scholarship in Spell It Out is its humanity. He never loses sight of language as a form of human expression—whether through orthography or pronunciation.

Consider for...
Tipping the Scales (11/14)
It is estimated that two-thirds of the population of both the United and Great Britain are either overweight or obese. Statistics that show the average American female has size 14 measurements. In Britain, the average woman has a size 16 body (which is equivalent to a US size 14.) The waist measurement of the average American and British ...
Surprising Facts About The Pill (10/14)
The pill wasn't an accident, but it was a surprise.
The birth-control pill has been labeled the most important invention of the twentieth century, but no drug company, no university, and no government agency wanted anything to do with it in the beginning. The pill never would have been developed if not for a small group of radicals ...
Gun Safety Etiquette (09/14)
One of the early scenes in The Infinite Moment of Us, has Wren visiting a shooting range with her best friend Tessa, and P.G., Tessa's new boyfriend. Although Wren doesn't like guns; she 'hated their ugliness, and she hated what they did,' she has a good time and finds the experience surprisingly thrilling and exciting. This unexpected ...
Yuyachkani (09/14)
The theater group Diciembre, in At Night We Walk in Circles, sounds a lot like Peru's award-winning independent theater collective, Yuyachkani. Launched in 1971, the group's essential pillars have been political performances, theatrical experimentation and performances steeped in indigenous culture.

Yuyachkani is a Quechua word that ...
The Lathi (09/14)
Throughout Pink Sari Revolution, the stick carried by the Gulabi Gang is referred to as a pink-painted 'baton.' More accurately it is a lathi – a traditional Indian weapon, made of bamboo, with a long history of martial use.

Lathi (pronounced LAH-tee) literally means 'bamboo stick' in Hindi. It is widely considered to be one ...
Screaming Bloody Murder (08/14)
To paraphrase an old poem, 'Twas a balmy summer afternoon,' July 5, 2011 to be exact. I was enjoying a peaceful lunch with a dear friend at an outdoor cafe in Portland, Oregon, when my cell phone rang and my usually placid, always refined eighty-nine year old mother screeched: 'It's not guilty on all counts, and Nancy Grace is having a ...
Metaphorically Speaking: The Power of Metaphor (07/14)
In Levels of Life, Julian Barnes creates an extended metaphor between the trials of hot-air ballooning and the experience of love found and lost. In one example he writes:

Grief is vertical – and vertiginous – while mourning is horizontal. Grief makes your stomach turn, snatches the breath from you, cuts off the blood ...

Mythic Fantasy: A Mirror World (07/14)
Mythic expression is humanity's first language. These myths, or to use a more contemporary synonym, metanarratives, are the stories that give purpose and meaning to a people, a way of understanding the seemingly random occurrences in the lives of individuals and communities. Whether these are expressed in clay statues, paintings on cave ...
Sex! Now That I Have Your Attention... (07/14)
No doubt about it. There is something about sex.

In Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement, sex is used as an instrument of power by the women protagonists. As Little Violet begins her career as a courtesan, she is given this piece of advice: 'Always remember, you are creating a world of romance and illusion...you must learn all the ...
Connection: The Wonder of the Ordinary (07/14)
John Muir said, 'When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.' In On Paper, Nicholas Basbanes centers on something – paper - and makes it a hub whose spokes can touch everything else on Earth.

Many micro-histories have been published in the last few years, and they are as ...
Rinse and Repeat: Laundry in the Nineteenth Century (07/14)
In Longbourn, the housemaid Sarah's frustration with the laundry would have been shared by anyone who cleaned clothes during the early 19th century. Our modern process of sorting, dumping into a machine, pouring in soap, and pressing a button is an embarrasingly wonderful diminution of this once complicated and time-intensive process.

...
A Red Herring (06/14)
A large part of the fun in reading The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is in Joel Dicker's use of red herrings. A 'red herring' is a literary device that is used to keep one from reaching the correct conclusion, or to divert the reader's attention from the more important details. Quebert's plot is full of them, crafted to make each ...
The Hokey Pokey (05/14)

You put your right foot in
You put your right foot out
You put your right foot in
And you shake it all about.
You do the Hokey Pokey
And you turn yourself around
That's what it's all about!

The Hokey Pokey is a timeless circle game, played by millions of children in millions of circles across many, many miles. But ...

Acting Talent Agencies (05/14)
A talent agency is an organization that represents talent – actors, musicians, writers etc – and pitches their clients' talents to appropriate organizations. For example, a Hollywood talent agency will pitch or plug a particular actor on roles for upcoming movie projects. Talent agencies work closely with production companies ...
The Ethical Will (05/14)
The author of Happier Endings believes that creating an ethical will is an important part of facing and diminishing the fear of death. She includes an appendix with prompts designed to inspire readers to at least begin this potentially intimidating document, and then to work on it a little bit at a time. An ethical will differs from the ...
The Rosetta Stone (05/14)
In The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Margalit Fox describes the challenge of decoding Linear B: 'An unknown script used to write an unknown language is a locked-room mystery: Somehow, the decipherer must finesse his way into a tightly closed system that offers few external clues. If he is very lucky, he will have the help of a bilingual ...
Abalone Fishing (05/14)
In Past the Shallows, the boys' father is an abalone fisherman off the southern Tasmanian coast. Abalone are gastropods—single-shelled molluscs—similar to snails, but with a more flattened shell. Other than their size and respiratory pores—large holes near the edge—their outer shell is often unremarkable. However, ...
The Zero-Sum Game: A Mathematical Metaphor with Legs (04/14)
In Give and Take, Adam Grant takes pains to demonstrate that many cold-hearted business transactions actually have a human side – that there is more at stake in contract negotiations, say, than the bottom line. He emphasizes the complexity of the give-and-take in business relationships by pointing out that such negotiations are 'not ...
Life After Death (04/14)
In 2011 archeologists uncovered Neanderthal skeletons, dating back about 50,000 years, that appear to have been intentionally buried with the arms folded so the hands are close to the head. This evidence, which shows respect for the dead, has led some to extrapolate that the Neanderthals had a sense of an afterlife. Scientifically ...
Belief Systems Similar to the Helix (04/14)
In book reviews for Woke Up Lonely, Scientology is often invoked as a cultural reference for the Helix. The reasons for this are clear enough: both are worldwide organizations committed to individual and social change, both are led by one man who claims to have the secret to happiness, and both are largely suspected, by outsiders, to be ...
Kiva.org Online Micro-Lending (03/14)
Founded in 2005, Kiva.org is a non-profit that uses the Internet and a global network of micro-finance institutions to allow people to make loans that will help alleviate poverty and create financial independence. Loans can be as small as $25. Once a loan is made, the lender receives updates. As the loan is repaid, the money is credited ...
African American Hair Styles Over the Years (03/14)
Ifemelu remarks that there is no better metaphor for race in America than black women's hairstyles, and the history of Afro-textured hair would seem to support her observation. In Africa, especially prior to the slave trade, hairstyles were used to communicate a variety of messages from status to identity to fertility. Dense, thick, clean...
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