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Beyond the Book Articles
Cultural Curiosities

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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...

Introverts and the Internet (02/13)
I wasn't surprised when Susan Cain's book, Quiet, mentioned that introverted people often thrive in the online world and are actually more likely to share personal information there than extroverts. I, for example, though unquestionably an introvert, enjoy reviewing books for BookBrowse, have profiles on several social networking sites, ...
The Real-Life Jakob Kuisl and the Life of an Executioner (02/13)
Oliver Pötzsch spent his early years in Bavaria, listening to stories about his family from his grandmother. He says that when he was five or six, she told him that he was a direct descendant of a family named Kuisl, who were employed as executioners. He was too young then to even know what an executioner did, but it sparked a ...
The Evolution of Achilles (12/12)
The name Achilles has become synonymous with great strength and invulnerability, however to the ancient Greeks it had quite a different meaning. 'Achilles' itself is a Westernization; the hero's name is better translated Akhilleus and pronounced 'a-hee-LAY-us,' and is of unknown and possibly pre-Greek origin. It is a combination of two ...
A Brief History of Bicycles Through WWII (11/12)
In The Undertow, the second-generation Billy Hastings makes a name for himself as a racing cyclist in the years between World War I and World War II and goes on to serve in a vital detachment of bicycle soldiers on D-Day in 1944. Bicycle racing had already accumulated a long history by the 1920s and military groups all over the world, ...
Google Translate (10/12)
It is a universally acknowledged truth that Google has changed the world we live in, and one of their newer features, Google Translate, is also likely to have a big impact on the future of language and translation.

Traditionally, mechanical translation has relied on systematic matching of word meanings between languages, and reordering...
Forward Operating Bases and Their Place in Military Strategy (10/12)
David Abrams' novel Fobbit is set primarily at Triumph, a fictional Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Baghdad, Iraq.

Almost always very close to the action, FOBs are secure areas where military operations are planned and front-line soldiers are fed and housed when off duty. FOBs can be low-tech: generally tents or bunkers surrounded by ...
Centenarians' Birthday Celebrations Around the World (09/12)
While many of us assume that the key to a long life is health and happiness, recent studies from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine suggest that reaching the 100-year mark is a complex blend of genetics, environment, optimism, and emotional wellbeing. Given that recent U.S. census data shows that centenarians make up approximately 0....
Type Design and Printing (09/12)
These days, typefaces are designed using computer programs such as Macromedia Fontographer, but in the early days of type, each was made by hand using basic tools. There were three products that together formed the backbone of the process by which type was developed: the mold, the matrix, and the final piece also known as a 'sort.'

To...
Schrödinger's Cat (09/12)
One classic thought experiment (i.e. an experiment that is purely theoretical but could never be actually carried out) that plays a pivotal role in I Married You for Happiness is the famous case of Schrödinger's cat. 'Something else about a cat,' Nina recalls. 'Something she can never quite grasp. Tell me again, she whispers to ...
Victorian Grandeur and its Fate (09/12)

'What do you think, Ralph?' said George. 'For or against the egregious grotesqueries of the Victorians?'...

'I suppose what I feel,' said Revel, after a minute, 'well, the grotesqueries are what I like best, really, and the more egregious the better.'

'What? Not St. Pancras,' said George. 'Not Keble College?'

'Oh, when I ...

The Devotion of a Hafiz (09/12)
In American Dervish, Hayat is distraught over the behavior of his parents as they break with many of the teachings and traditions held in the Quran*. Fearing for their afterlife, Hayat sets out to become a hafiz, or one who memorizes the Quran by heart.

Originally, memorization of the teachings of the Quran were preferable to the...
What Is a Meme? (08/12)
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a meme (pronounced meem) is, 'n. An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation'. A meme is a nugget of meaning, the smallest building block of an idea, the basic unit of culture. What a gene is to biology, some say, the meme is to ...
Golem as Jewish Legend and Literary Device (07/12)
Shepherd's English monster is a being that has no conscience, no soul. In Jewish lore such a creature is called a golem. It has the appearance of a man but is a nonhuman creation brought into being by magic. Both the concept and the word date back to the Old Testament and the Talmud (the book of Jewish law). The word is variously ...
Seafaring Terms (07/12)
While the terms used on a ship sound familiar to me, I often don't really know what they mean. Many people recognize that a cabin is a room, and a porthole is a window, but what exactly is a purser, and which direction is the stern? If you're not sure, the definitions of the seafaring expressions below - all used in The Cat's Table - ...
Charles Jamrach, The Essex and The Custom of The Sea (06/12)
Jamrach's Menagerie borrows from a number of historical events and people including:

Charles Jamrach
Charles Jamrach's father was chief of the Hamburg River Police, a position that enabled him to establish himself as a dealer in wild birds and animals. When his father died around 1840, Charles moved from Germany to take over the ...
Radical Homemaking & Foxfire Magazine (06/12)
At various points throughout Once Upon a River, Margo forages for vegetables, traps muskrats and raccoons, pinpoints the change in seasons by minutely observing foliage, chops firewood, whitewashes her boat, skins fish, and shoots deer. While the men all praise her aim with a rifle and her self-reliance, she is not as much of an ...
Twenty-First Century Cities (06/12)
In City, P.D. Smith observes that contemporary urban populations are steadily growing, and he predicts that by the middle of this century the majority of humankind will be living in urban areas that he terms 'eco-cities.' Some recent trends like urban homesteading, community gardens, and vertical farming provide a glimpse of what ...
The Macdonald Triad and the Madness of Evil (06/12)
In 1963, New Zealand forensic psychiatrist John Marshall Macdonald published a paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry called 'The Threat to Kill.' This paper described three behaviors - bedwetting past age 5, cruelty to animals, and the setting of fires - as 'red flag' indicators of sociopathy and future episodic, aggressive ...
Suicide and The Golden Gate Bridge (05/12)
In the story 'The Bridge' from Daniel Orozco's collection of short stories Orientation, one man is traumatized when he witnesses a woman commit suicide by jumping from the bridge he's employed to paint. Though the story is fictional, suicide jumping is an all too frequent occurrence in real life. The Golden Gate Bridge, located in San ...
What the Heck is a Pneumatic Tube? (05/12)
One of the hats that Pepper wears is that of a meat slicer in the Marseille Department Store. There are no cash registers in the store. Instead, whenever a customer pays for something, the money is placed in a canister, which is inserted into a tube, and then the canister is shot by compressed air through a maze of tubing and lands at a ...
The "God Helmet" (05/12)
When Fred puts on the 'God helmet' in Luminarium he is participating in an experiment into Neurotheology, a fairly new scientific field of research into the relationship between the brain and spiritual experiences. The first investigations studied brain wave patterns in the late 1950s. As the technology for brain study advanced, so did...
The Science of Lie Detection (05/12)
You can't read The Man in the Rockefeller Suit without wondering if Rockefeller would have conned you too. While Seal notes that a few people failed to believe Rockefeller's stories or personas, the majority of people Gerhartstreiter met were more than happy to call the eccentric aristocrat friend, neighbor, business partner, club member,...
Charms Candies (05/12)
It seems that Tootsie Roll Industries would have little to do with Mitchell Zuckoff's book Lost in Shangri-La. However, since acquiring the Charms Candy Company in 1988, this business has been the producer of Charms - the very food that provided the Gremlin Special's passengers with enough sustenance to survive in the jungle.

'...
Victorians and their Collections (05/12)
The Butterfly Cabinet opens with an aged nanny showing her grown-up charge an heirloom curiosity.

'It's your grandmother's butterfly cabinet: I've had it these years. The keeper of secrets, the mistress's treasure. Ebony, I think it is, very solid: four big balled feet on it... Twelve tiny drawers, every one with its own small ...

The Symbology of Werewolves (05/12)
From the 1941 classic film The Wolfman (see video clip below) to Michael Jackson's music video for 'Thriller,' from Harry Potter's Professor Remus Lupin to Jacob Black in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, the ancient symbol of the werewolf continues to play an active role in modern storytelling and carries a great deal of mythological ...
The Ramphos (04/12)
While journeying to find his parents, Ry took a train, a car, a plane and a boat. Four separate vehicles. But what if he could have simply taken one? What if there were such a vehicle? One that could operate on land, water and in the air?

There is! Check out the Ramphos!


While it looks just ...

Victoria's Dictionary of Flowers (04/12)
While researching the symbolism of various plants for her novel, The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh discovered that, 'nearly every flower had multiple meanings, listed in hundreds of books, in dozens of languages, and on countless websites.' This left her with the challenge of determining which meanings were most '...
National 9/11 Memorial & Museum (04/12)
The search for the World Trade Center Memorial design, which is now being built where the Twin Towers once stood, began in 2003. While honoring those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001, the memorial also pays tribute to the seven people killed and thousands injured in the WTC attack on February 26, 1993. Memorializing these 3,...
The Symbolism of Doves (04/12)
Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers shows us a world where doves, in addition to serving day-to-day purposes, represent so much more. Along with their close cousin, the pigeon, doves make up the bird family Columbidae. And while they're often thought of as bright white birds, with over 300 species, they actually come in all shapes and sizes....
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