Index of articles by category

Beyond the Book Articles
Cultural Curiosities

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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...
Trick or Treat? How Food Companies (and Grocery Stores) Get You to Buy (03/14)
Ever wonder why there are so many varieties of Coke? Even the most basic grocery store can boast that it carries Coca Cola Classic, Cherry Coke, Diet Coke, Coca-Cola Zero and maybe even Vanilla Coke. Years ago, the company promised that by 2015 it would have a thousand varieties of Coke all over the world. Whether that promise comes to ...
Predicting the End of the World (02/14)
The end is nigh!

Or so has been the claim for many years. And despite a success rate of zero, people continue to make passionate end of the world predictions, looking for the Apocalypse in just about every major turn of events from Y2K to Weapons of Mass Destruction to the ending of the Mayan Calendar. In fact, according to a survey ...
Glorious Failures (02/14)
Tanis Rideout's Above All Things is part of an important tradition in human history and literature. The deaths of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine continue the fascination we have with glorious failures and heroic misadventures.

The Iliad's Hector

The Iliad, one of the first works of Western Literature, celebrates the death of ...
How to Keep a Commonplace Book (01/14)
Min's narrative-through-objects reminded me of a 'commonplace book' I kept in high school at the urging of my (wonderful) 10th grade English teacher. Commonplace books became very popular during the Renaissance, used as a kind of intellectual filing system, whereby one collected poems, proverbs, quotes, and other material around a ...
Midwifery (01/14)
Hieroglyphics and even cave drawings testify to the fact that from time immemorial women in the throes of bringing forth the next generation have been tended by other women - either trained in the art of delivery or not. From the book of Genesis when Rachel's midwife predicted that she would bear a son (35-17) to Exodus where midwifery ...
Mnemonics (10/13)
In Matt Greene's Ostrich, protagonist Alex Graham is obsessed with mnemonic devices. How did mnemonics get their start?

Simonides of Ceos was a Greek poet in the sixth century B.C. As the story goes, he was asked to recite an ode at a nobleman's banquet. Simonides began his speech, as was customary, by thanking the gods – in this...
Back to the Future in the Kitchen (10/13)
While Consider the Fork is filled with delicious nuggets about the history of kitchen implements, some geeky gourmands are looking back to the future and revolutionizing the idea of exactly what we consider a kitchen tool.

Molecular gastronomy, the precision cooking that uses emulsification, gellification and other techniques to ...
The Real Schroder: Clark Rockefeller (10/13)
In the interview at the close of the novel, Gaige reveals that an Associated Press snippet about the Clark Rockefeller case was the seed idea for her story. Though Gaige states she chose not to research in detail this tale of a con man turned kidnapper, a great deal of information is readily available via news stories.

Rockefeller, ...
The Game of Cricket (07/13)
In Homesick, Victor, a Sri Lankan immigrant to England, views his native country's cricket team as his own. He owes allegiance to them and takes pride in their successes. Roshi Fernando uses this sport as a metaphor for her character's desire to break free of colonial ties.

The game of cricket is defined by Merriam-Webster as 'a ...
Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI5) (07/13)
Just as the United States has separate bureaus for internal and international intelligence and security (the FBI and the CIA), so too does the United Kingdom. Serena Frome is recruited to be part of the Security Service, the internal counter-intelligence and security agency, more commonly known as MI5 (for Military Intelligence, Section 5...
Jinn and Other Sprites (06/13)
Most Westerners are generally introduced to genies through the story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights). In it, Aladdin is tricked into obtaining an old oil lamp in which a jinni has been imprisoned. Through various twists and turns in the story, the jinni is released from...
Louise Brooks (06/13)
Louise Brooks (1906-1985), born Mary Louise Brooks, was a dancer, Ziegfeld girl, silent film actress, memoirist (Lulu in Hollywood), and in her later years, an icon rediscovered and beloved by French film historians such as Henri Langois, who remarked, 'There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!' She was best ...
The Invention of the Ballpoint Pen (05/13)
It's called an Eterpen, a truly wonderful thing, no messy ink to refill and it dries instantly. He said they have ordered 30,000 of them for the RAF to use in the air (for navigation calculations) and a grateful RAF officer recently smuggled out of France had given one of the samples to Peter, who'd given it to the sergeant, who gave...
Track Racing and the Velodrome (05/13)
The first velodrome was built around 1870 in Brighton, England. The word velodrome derives from velocipede (Latin: fast foot), which is the term used to describe any human-powered land vehicle with one or more wheels; and drome, from the Latin dromus meaning racecourse.

There are thousands of velodromes in the world, both indoor and ...
Fraudulent Money-Making Schemes (04/13)
In The Dream Merchant, Jim made his money in fraudulent ways. Aided by his business partner Marvin Gessler, who was the mastermind of the fraud, Jim made millions through elaborate pyramid schemes.

Pyramid schemes rely on recruiting buyers who then recruit other buyers and so on. The original buyer, the con man, needs other buyers ...
Lighthouse Keepers (04/13)
In Margot L. Stedman's The Light Between Oceans, Tom Sherbourne takes a job as a lighthouse keeper in Janus Rock, Australia, a place where 'the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best...' But what exactly do lighthouse keepers do? What purpose do they serve?

Generally speaking, a ...
Pilgrimages, Quests & Other Long Journeys (04/13)
In Rachel Joyce's debut novel, Harold Fry sets off on what the book title refers to as an 'unlikely pilgrimage'; but can his journey correctly be called a pilgrimage if it doesn't have a religious destination?

Although most of us probably think of a pilgrimage as having religious connotations, the word has its roots in the Latin ...
How the Evolution of Board Games Demonstrates Changing Social Mores (04/13)
Jill Lepore's new book takes its title from The Mansion of Happiness, a nineteenth century board game that demonstrated Christian morality. Like children's literature of the time, such didactic games were quite popular, but are also timeless: one such board game, The Game of Goose, has origins in ancient Egypt!

Originally marketed ...
The Darwin Awards (03/13)
Wendy Northcutt, who has a degree in molecular biology from the University of California at Berkeley, is the creator of the 'Darwin Awards,' pop culture's nod to Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest, awarded annually to one person voted to have 'improved our gene pool by removing themselves from it.' In other words, someone...
Sondesh (02/13)
In The Newlyweds, when Amina returns home to Bangladesh, her mother picks up a box of freshly-made sondesh from a reputed vendor to bring to Amina's aunt.

Bangladesh shares the Bengali language with the Indian state of West Bengal. Bengali sweets (mishti) are famous all over South Asia and sondesh is particularly well-known. Like ...
826 National (02/13)
Erica Lorraine Scheidt is a long-time volunteer for the non-profit organization, 826 Valencia, headquartered in San Francisco. Her latest effort involves teaching a writing workshop for teens, called Chapter One. In the workshop teens focus on crafting the first chapters of their novels. Here is the description of the workshop:

Calling...

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