Blogs: History

From whence comes the phrase "chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs"? Why is Detroit in bankruptcy and NYC always bailed out by American taxpayers? In what way is American culture and fashion a re-play of Regency and Edwardian England?

Warmth of Other Suns book jacketDon't know? Ask Isabel Wilkerson and Jacques Barzun. Respectively, they are the authors of The Warmth of Other Suns and From Dawn to Decadence. This is history that Miz Hackett, your 8th grade teacher, never heard of. Wilkerson, a journalist, and Barzun, an eminent historian, have answered history's questions in a personal way. This is not memorize the dates boredom. No, these are the impolite questions you'd ask your neighbors if you only had the guts about what it's really like where they come from and what they think about it all .
 
The Warmth of Other Suns is the story of our cities in the 20th century as told through the recollections of three individuals who lived "theFrom Dawn to Decadence book jacket great migration." They didn't know that they were part of some historical drama, so the stories are straight shooter talk of folk who weren't afraid to change their destiny in the face of tall odds. Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence is subtitled 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present. He does a remarkable job of connecting how we behave to where that behavior begins. I mean seriously, why is there money for opera and classical music but punk rockers have to work at Fred Meyer to support their art? See page 637 of Barzun for a hint.

I read a new graphic novel that is so compelling I couldn’t put it down. It’s definitely a page turner!  March is an autobiography by congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. It is filled with stunning visuals by award-winning Nate Powell. The story starts with the family chickens. His care of the flock helps him build his moral core. As a reader it  helped me get to know him and care about him. At the same time, this comic book is a biography of our civil rights movement in the United States. Important issue, important man: Fantastic read. Don’t miss it.


If you are interested in more comic books about history they can be found in the History through graphic novels list.

I was born in 1954. 

Here is Elvis bookjacketa snapshot of that year:

Elvis Presley paid to have his first two songs recorded in Memphis.                                                                                                                                    

The average cost of gas was twenty two cents and Lassie and Rin Tin Tin were keeping us safe from the bad guys.                                                                              

There was a new trend called DIY that encouraged citizens to decorate their own homes and fix own their cars through magazines like Popular Mechanics and Better Homes and Gardens .

It was also an exceptional  publishing year with modern classics likeHorton Hears a Who by Dr.Seuss and Live and Let Die by ex-British Spy Ian Fleming.

When I read the list of books that were published the year I was born it was like seeing a snapshot of my own personal history. For example, my dad carried a copy of Ian Fleming's books in his black metal lunch box to read at work. Among the piles of book we brought home from the library every week there were always at least one or two by Dr. Seuss. The families we knew traded stories and ideas for fixing up their hoHorton bookjacketuses and gardens and cooking with new and interesting ingredients, among them Jello.

Wondering what books were published the year you were born and what they might tell about your personal history snapshot? I would love to make you a list.

Ahhh riot grrrl , be still my heart. I have fond memories of you.  When I was fresh out of college with my women's studies certificate I got to witness and participate in the rise and fall of your movement.  

One of the most memorable days of my life (besides my wedding day) was when I did a poetry reading for 150 Canadian teens at a Vancouver Riot Grrrl concert in 1992.  I was the only poet on the bill. I was told by an organizer at the event that most of the audience probably hadn’t heard a poet before.  

I was shaking in my shoes when I started with these words:

Spoon Fed Our Daily Dose of Violence

You may wonder but may not care about my primal deep weep.

Or my cautious unspeaking nature.

Sure the words can be spelled or spilled upon the page but when real things are said I stutter.

I feel people shy and not so afraid of death.

They responded with screams and applause after this first poem.  As a poet I felt like a punk rock star for a moment.

Riot Grrrl was a grassroots feminist movement in the punk scene.  Riot grrrls were fighting against mainstream misogyny and subcultural sexism evident in punk rock shows and culture.  They fought the good fight and their efforts still echo in our contemporary culture.  Publishers and record labels have been collecting, reprinting and producing books, videos and music from this prolific movement.  I created this list in honor of these cultural “sheroes.”


 

When would you like to have lived? I sometimes wonder what I would be doing if I lived in a different time. What would my life be like? The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer has helped me learn about life in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, 1558-1603.

book jacket for Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan EnglandThis is a prosperous time in England. Towns and cities are growing. London’s population hits 200,000 by the end of Elizabeth’s reign. While I am visiting London, I would want to see Shakespeare's latest play. Many customs are very different. Even the Queen likes a good bear baiting. This is a much rougher time. Some things have changed more than others. Lawyers were just as skilled then as now, but doctors are much better in the 21st century. If I were sick in Elizabeth’s time, I would probably do better if I called a priest instead of a doctor. I also need to remember to pay heed to my social betters as this is a very class-conscious time.

There is lots of beer. It is safer than the water. I will be drinking about a gallon a day. Unless I am a gentleman, I won’t be able to afford wine. A strong nose and lots of perfume are helpful as there are many noxious smells. The growing populations only add to the problem. The Elizabethan people don’t enjoy the stink, but there often is nothing they can do.

Does Elizabethan England sound interesting? Why not take a trip back and see if it is for you.

Ben Franklin spent his life asking questions, discovering answers, learning new things, and enjoying time with friends and family.

 

During his lifetime he was a printer, a writer, an inventor, a postmaster, a diplomat and is one of the best known Founding Fathers of America.

As a young man he opened his own print shop in Philadelphia. He printed many things, among them his own newspaper the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richards Almanac.

 

Using the pen name Richard Saunders, Ben wrote and published Poor Richard's Almanack from 1733 to 1758. 
The most popular part of the almanacs were sayings and advice such as "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."
 
 
As Postmaster General he improved delivery times and was able to send all of his own mail for free.
 
Many of his inventions are still used today.
 
Without Ben's work as a diplomat to France, the United States may not have won the Revolutionary War. He spent a year negotiating with the French for arms, ammunition, and soldiers.
 
Ben played a vital role in the birth of our country. He helped write the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. He is the only person who signed all four of the founding documents, the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Treaty of Alliance, Amity, and Commerce with France (1778), the Treaty of Peace between England, France, and the United States (1782), and the U.S. Constitution.
 
If you want to know more about Ben Franklin, and have lots of time, watch the PBS documentary on his life and times. You can also contact a librarian.

‘Tis a good thing that I canceled my Spring Break trip to Crimea because, whether hosting the Olympics amid conflict over human rights, racing to police Pussy Riot's random protests, or facing the tense scrutiny in the fight for Crimean annexation, Russia hasn't been this magnified since Reagan and Gorbachev sat through numerous photo-ops pretending to like each other. With all the negativity surrounding this great kingdom as of late, I was reminded of my first memorable images and introduction to Russian culture...skewed as it may have been. 

For someone whose formative years were sculpted in the late '70's through the 1980's, the image of Russia, other than my grandmother reading me sinister Baba Yaga tales, was discovered mainly through the synaptic helmet that was the burgeoning American media scene.  Initially, it was James Bond films, Robin Williams's discovery of true freedom in Moscow on the Hudson, or Yakov Smirnoff's anti-Cold War comic "therapy."  

Suddenly, the image became more ominous, a threat to the milk and honey U.S. zeitgeist. It was always "Us vs. Them," through the simplest, primordial lens of good vs. evil and everything was securely color-related. Anything referenced to Soviet life or Cold War politics was unscrupulously "red," moreso than any of the malingering effects of the McCarthy "Red Menace" years, and it seeped into American culture via John LeCarre and Tom Clancy books or the Hollywood films Red Dawn, Red Heat, and WarGames. You had  to choose or risk becoming ostracized: Yanks or Commies. Wolverines vs. Russkies. MI6 vs. KGB. Rocky vs. Drago.  

Once in high school, it was my trusty English teacher who introduced me to the more respectable literary and cinematic windows of Mother Russia. Not only did I devour classic films and books such as Ivan the Terrible  or every single frame available on Rasputin, but I learned that Russia had so much more to offer than Dr. Zhivago, Turgenev, and Tolstoy. Sure, I read the assigned Crime and Punishment  and Fathers and Sons, and I connected with Dostoyevsky while my classmates groaned, yet through college I learned that not all Russian literature was depression, oppression, and long brutal winters. There, slumbering comedic enlightenment came in the guise of The Master and Margarita, Gogol, and Viktor Pelevin with characters, stories, and political musings that I never knew existed outside of the omniscient, censoring hand of the Iron Editors (I assume in red  pen, naturally).  

The Russian legacy continues to innovate and astound into the 21st century as well, with genre fiction such as Sergei Lukyanenko's pseudo-Angelic Watch  series or stories from the hilarious pen of ex-pat Gary Shteyngart. Whatever your personal desires in Russian literature or culture, they can all be accommodated down at your local library should you seek more than blizzards, "If I Were A Rich Man," or the former governor of California's Oscar-snubbed role as a KGB agent. For in this expansive landscape of history and determination, Behemoth is not just a subversive, vodka-swilling black feline but a rich, thunderous bibliography of a resilient nation. Pazhalsta!

Photo of Asmat people in dug out canoesIt turns out that headhunting isn’t such a simple barbaric act as one would think.  It’s strategic, spiritual and essential to maintain the equilibrium of the universe. At least it was for the Asmat of New Guinea when they encountered Michael Rockefeller swimming towards shore on the morning of November 20, 1961.

Michael Rockefeller was living his dream, collecting primitive art for his father’s new museum, when his makeshift catamaran capsized and he vanished off the coast of New Guinea. After a search-and-rescue effort came up empty handed, it was determined that Michael Rockefeller drowned before reaching shore that fateful day.

Savage Harvest: A Tale Of Cannibals, Colonialism, And Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest For Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman presents a very different story. Balanced and exhaustively researched, Hoffman pieces together a picture of a divided island with a tense colonial history, a fierce cannibalistic warrior society stripped powerless by outsiders, and a privileged young man, unaccustomed to confronting barriers, and so passionate in his pursuit of art, that he cannot recognize the real danger he is in.Photo of book jacket: Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman

While perhaps not for the faint of heart, I found Savage Harvest to be a fascinating, one of a kind read for armchair anthropologists such as myself. It’s also the ultimate real-life whodunit for mystery fans. Books like this perfectly exemplify why I love reading non-fiction; stories like this simply can not be made up! 

If after finishing Savage Harvest, you find you can't easily let go of this story, check out items on this list to explore different aspects of the Rockefeller disappearance.

Ah the stories of King Arthur and his knights, the cute thatched cottages, the banquets, the country life, and the bustle of growing cities!  What’s not to like about the Middle Ages and Medieval period in history?  Well, the smell for one.  And let’s not forget the plague. Get all the dirt on what life was really like in Europe during this time.

picture of knightsStart at the Annenberg Learner Middle Ages site for loads of info on everyday life in medieval times including the feudal system, religion, clothes, the arts and more.  This includes movies and other cool interactive stuff.  After you click on the link, scroll to the right to get the content!

 Click on the different people in the street in the Camelot International Village to learn more about their craft or trade and how they lived in the Middle Ages. Find out about entertainers, peasants, traders, thieves, knights, church and religion, women, and lords of the manor.

For a funny and informative video series about the Middle Ages, watch Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives.  Each 30 minute episode examines a different type of person important during the time period like kings, knights, monks and damsels.picture of a king's seal

For a video and interactive introduction to medieval life, watch Everyday Life in the Middle Ages and see if you could survive way back in the day!

The Internet Medieval Sourcebook is super boring to look at, but amazing in its amount of primary source material (letters, legal texts, religious documents etc.).  It’s a comprehensive collection of online texts from the entire medieval era, organized by topic and chronologically.

Now that you’ve learned a lot about the Middle Ages, test your knowledge here.

The Sixth Gun Volume One Book coverThere were no undead in the wild wild west.  At least, not that we know of…Toss in six magical guns with unfathomable power, a world turned upside down, and a reluctant heroine and you’ve got the fatastically addictive graphic novel series, The Sixth Gun.

Not a graphic novel reader?  Well, pardner, maybe it’s about time you started. Combining the classic western genre with a touch of the supernatural and fantasy, The Sixth Gun has something for everyone.

Becky Montcrief is the reluctant heroine who inherited one of the pistols.  Not knowing the repercussions of picking up a gun, she’s thrust into the unforeseen adventure of fighting for her life. You see, once you pick the gun, it’s with you till death do you part.

Drake Sinclair is an enigma draped in black with a complicated past. Crossing his path means trouble from him or the folks on his tail. Will his past deeds catch up with his mission of atonement?

The other folks?  Their stories are even better.

Strap on your holster and get ready for the adventure of a life and an afterlife time…

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