Blogs: History

Big & Awesome Bridges of Portland and Vancouver book jacketBridges are one of the bonuses of living in Portland. Did you know there are 22 bridges over the Columbia and Willamette rivers in the Portland and Vancouver area? I love all of the different styles and types of bridges we have. Getting out of my car and seeing them from the river bank or a boat on the river adds to my enjoyment of them. The more I learn about our bridges the more interesting they become. It is easy to learn more about our bridges with Sharon Wood Wortman's great new book, Big & Awesome Bridges of Portland & Vancouver.

What makes this book special is that it is written for kids. It has lots of art and graphics as well as facts, bridge poems and interviews with bridge designers and workers. It includes the new Tilikum Crossing and Selwood bridges. Adults needn’t worry about this being a kids' book, there is plenty of information about the bridges. You also will learn about bridge building and design. There are even plans to build model bridges out of popsicle sticks that you can load test.

Sharon Wood Wortman also wrote The Portland Bridge Book. The first and second editions are illustrated with neat line drawings and the third edition, which came out in 2006, has photographs of the bridges. These books are also worth looking at, but they’re not as much fun as Big & Awesome Bridges. You can find out more about Portland’s bridges online at  Big & Awesome Bridges of Portland and Vancouver and at PDX Bridge Festival.

The letter D in ornamental scripto you like beautiful scenery? Beer? Constant, simmering warfare? Then you need to visit Anglo-Saxon England!Cover of Hild by Nicola Griffith

I fell in love with this setting after reading Nicola Griffith’s recent novel, Hild. It follows the coming-of-age of a young girl named Hild, the seer to Edwin Overking, an Anglisc lord in the early 7th century. She is continually called upon to predict the future of her kingdom, with the constant threat of death should she ever guess wrong.

Hild is a beautifully written book, with characters that take up residence in your mind, but it was the setting that really blew me away. Anglo-Saxon England is a combination of cultures: there are the ruling Anglo-Saxons who began migrating from Germany and Denmark in the 4th centuries, but there are also the Irish, the Welsh, the Picts, and the Christian missionaries. There are ruins of the Roman civilization that had only recently spread across the island. The people speak multiple languages, and they worship multiple gods.

Of course I can’t actually visit England circa 1,400 years ago (although someday I would like to visit the land that it has become!) but there are plenty of books to take me there. Here are some of the best reads that I could find for booking a longship voyage back through time to the England of the Anglisc.

I have a degree in history and, admittedly, can be something of a snob about it. If the facts aren’t right, well, I mumble under my breath and toss the book aside. Unfortunately, that eliminates a lot of popular history; work written for a broad audience. While often dramatic and exciting, these books can often be overly simplified or simply historically wrong. That means I read mostly dry, academic works that may satisfy my intellect but fail to stimulate the senses. There are exceptions, however.

Perhaps my favorite author of exciting, accurate history is James D. Hornfischer. His three books about the naval war in the Pacific possess more action and drama than most Hollywood films. His works focus on those moments during WWII when the outcome was less than certain and the Japanese had the advantage. This allows him to imbue the story with real peril. Hornfischer is especially adept at bringing any historic figure to life, whether a gunner’s mate or fleet admiral.

Last Stand of the Tin Can Soldiers book jacketLast Stand of the Tin Can Sailors focuses on one element within the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. It tells the story of a group of small US warships that successfully fought off a much more powerful Japanese naval force that threatened the American landings in the Philippines but at a terrible cost. Few works highlight the bravery and sacrifice of men in battle more than this book.

Ship of Ghosts tells the story of the USS Houston, an American heavy cruiser. Stationed in the eastern Pacific in December 1941, theShip of Ghosts book jacket ship joined a motley assortment of other Allied vessels in a futile attempt to halt the Japanese advance through the East Indies.  When the Houston sank, most of her crew became POWs and endured unimaginable hardships. Few works capture the POW experience better than this book.

Neptune's InfernoNeptune’s Inferno, Hornfischer’s most ambitious work, tells the story of the naval campaign surrounding Guadalcanal in 1942-43. The U.S. Navy, still reeling from the losses at Pearl Harbor, suffered some of its greatest defeats ever, but ultimately broke the Japanese Navy and paved the way for Allied victory.  Few works demonstrate the uncertainty of victory in the war's early stages as graphically as this book.

So, if you’re leery of reading history but like great adventure stories, give James Hornfischer a try. I’m confident you’ll like what you find.

Chester A. Arthur photoYou remember Chester A. Arthur, right? Twenty-first president of the United States. Served from 1881 until 1885 following the assassination of James Garfield. Not really? Don’t feel too bad -- you’re in good company.

Several years ago, I set out to memorize all 43 (now 44) presidents in order, along with the years they served. I thought it would be an interesting brain exercise and a great alternative to counting sheep when I couldn’t sleep. However, I soon found that if I neglected reviewing the list from time-to-time, I would forget some of the lesser known figures like Arthur, Taft and Pierce.

Now, this phenomenon of forgetting the presidents has actually been documented in two studies on cultural memory published in the journal Science and reported in the New York Times! The long and short of the studies is that most people can identify five or six recent presidents; the founding father presidents like Washington, Adams and Jefferson; and a small number who were at the helm during huge events in our nation’s history such as Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.Image of Presidential Seal

Maybe committing the list to memory isn’t important to you, but maybe you are interested in learning more about some of our chief executives through time. Here here are some great resources


I like towers, roofs and cliffs - anywhere where I can get a birds-eye view. One of the most memorable views I have had is from the top of the dome on Florence’s Duomo, or more properly, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. This dome is there because of one man, Filippo Brunelleschi.

Brunelleschi's Dome book jacketHaving an impressive cathedral was one way that Florence wanted to show its importance and power. In 1296 they started on a new cathedral that was going to have the largest dome in the world. In 1418 the cathedral was finished except for the dome. The problem was no one knew how to build it. With a diameter of 143 feet it was too large for conventional building techniques. A competition was announced to find a design that would work. Fillippo Brunelleschi was one finalist and Lorenzo Ghiberti was the other. Ghiberti had beaten Brunelleschi years before in the competition to design the Cathedral’s Baptistery doors. Since then they were fierce rivals. The difference was that Ghiberti now had a solid reputation and Brunelleschi didn’t. Brunelleschi’s design was for a dome that would be self supporting while it was being built, but he would not divulge the details since he did not trust others not to steal his ideas. In the end Brunelleschi’s design was chosen, but since this was his first big project, the more experienced Ghiberti was assigned as his partner on the project. This greatly frustrated Brunelleschi who saw this as a lack of faith in his abilities and because it was his design, he was doing most of the work directing the construction of the dome. He finally got rid of Ghiberti by falling ill at a criticalPippo the Fool book jacket step in the building and while Brunelleschi was home sick everyone realized that Ghiberti had no idea how to build the dome.

The Duomo’s dome is still the largest in the world and you can read the whole fascinating story of the dome’s design and construction in Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King.

There is also an excellent children’s picture book Pippo the Fool by Tracey Fern that tells the story of Pippo Brunelleschi and his dome.

When you get to Florence, don’t forget to climb the dome.


(New York Daily News Headline, 10.30.1975)
Love Goes To Buildings On Fire Cover
By 1973-74, the US was facing serious economic collapse following a property investment boom and crash - not entirely dissimilar or unrelated to the crash of 2008.  New York City, in particular, felt the strains of over-speculation and an inability to make good on massive infrastructural spending debts (for a clear-minded synopsis of this trajectory, check out David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism). In essence, the major banks of NYC refused further loans, pushing one of the largest cities in the world to the brink of near-total shutdown.  When the city turned to the executive office for federal assistance, then-President Ford refused to assist (though it turns out the Daily News headline quoted above is kind of apocryphal), essentially placing the city in a hostage situation with the increasingly powerful banks.
Against this tumultuous backdrop, Will Hermes' excellent Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever explores the simultaneous explosion of musical cross-pollination, experimentation and invention that emerged from what many in the US were then calling "a cultural dead zone."  Hermes scope is impressively broad though he zeroes in on a handful of truly critical players and scenemakers including DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, disco pioneers David Mancuso and Nicky Siano, as well as punk provocateurs the New York Dolls and the Ramones.  Hermes's primary focus is on Manhattan but he also touches on the music coming out of the peripheral boroughs - like salsa, disco and rap/hip-hop.

Last summer 13 year old Mo'Ne Davis, whose fastball has been clocked at 71 miles per hour, was the first Little Leaguer to get on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Have you seen her pitch? Amazing!

Did you know that just 42 years ago girls were not allowed to play Little League?

I learned this and more in the book Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX, the law that changed the future of girls in America. The book is well written and full of startling facts, great photos and cartoons. Did you know that U.S. Representative from Oregon Edith Green was the author of Title IX? I didn't. 

A few more facts to get you thinking about life for females in the U.S. before Title IX:

  • In the 1970's a school district spent $250,000 a year on boys' sports teams and only $970 on the one sport offered to girls.
  • In the 1970's University of Michigan spent $2.6 million on men's sports and $0 on women's sports.
  • Before Title IX, many law and medical schools limited the numbers of women they would admit.

Oh, the difference Title IX has made in the lives of women and girls in the U.S.


I think it was in the late 1980s when I became a Remedios Varo admirer. It might be that her close relationship with Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington made me aware of her contextual Celestial Pablum by Remedios Varoexistence. Born in Spain in 1908, this surrealist artist was strongly influenced by her father, a hydraulic engineer, her second husband Benjamin Beret a French dadaist, and her friend André Breton.

When living in Paris she was forced into exile during WWII and settled down in Mexico City. She found refuge in Mexico until she died in 1963. Graduated from the prestigious San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid, she created around 150 art pieces, 110 of them created in Mexico using oils on masonite panels she prepared herself. Her art is full of ambiguous characters; the elements of her painting are mostly biographical, and her art is allegorical, humorous, fantastic, and oriented to science, the spiritual and the psychological.  

From the very beginning I was fascinated and intrigued with her peculiar style and wanted to know who she was. Back in the days before the internet, information was very limited so I couldn't pursue my research; but I held in my mind some images of her artwork that I saw in books and postcards. Then one day, I was reading the newspaper and discovered that the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City would be hosting one of her exhibitions -- what an opportunity! I went and spent and entire afternoon contemplating her creations and trying to digest every single image. Among my favorite paintings were "Celestial Pablum," "Creation of the Birds," and "The Cats Paradise." Her potential and her creative mind were not recognized as she deserved; you probably won't find much information about her. For me, the afternoon I spent in the company of this forgotten surreal artist will always remain in my mind. Learn more about her work in The Magic of Remedios Varo.

Chocolate bookjacketMy Mexican pride elevates each time I hear the word “chocolate”, knowing that the word comes from the Aztec “Xocoatl”. The great recognition of this peculiar Man holding cacao fruit -  National Antropology and History Museum of Mexicobean and is unprecendented; it is one of the most relevant contributions from the Mesoamerican civilizations to the world. The Olmecs, a social group established along the Gulf of Mexico, were the first to taste the flavors of this special fruit in the form of a drink where the cacao (cocoa) was ground, fermented and mixed with herbs. In those days cacao was used as currency in trading among Mayans, Aztecs and other social groups in Mexico and Central America.

The cacao was a symbol of great abundance and was used to pay taxes, to honor gods and goddesses in religous rituals, and as an offering during the funerals of the elite. The Xocoatl drink was reserved exclusively for privileged social groups and soldiers, who used it during times of war.

Columbus tasted the drink in 1502 on the island of Guanaja in Honduras, on one of his last voyages to the New World. He brought it back to the King and Queen of Spain, who didn’t see the value of the product. It wasn't until 1519 when Hernan Cortes “the conquistador” was invited to drink it by Moctezuma, the Aztec Emperor and then revealed the culture of the cacao for the first time in the Old Continent.

After its introduction to Europe this great product inspired the imagination of artisans, and cooks all over the world who have transformed it into delightful treats.

When you eat a piece of chocolate don’t forget the history and culture behind that delicious taste.


November 11 is Veterans' Day. President Woodrow Wilson first declared the date Armistice Day in commemoration of the end of The First World War, occurring at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. 100 years this past July, WWI began. It lasted four awful years and changed how we think about war. Historians still debate the exact causes of the conflict but they agree that the level of carnage and horror was to that point, and maybe since, unmatched.

At the outset, the war was a patriotic rallying point on all sides, for all levels of society. Poets were not immune to the zeal of fighting for king and country, but they also reacted to the hideousness of trench and gas warfare. Here are two poems. The first was written by the English poet Rupert Brooke in 1914:


The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

By the end of the war Brooke’s poem was criticized as an example of a mindless patriotism that contributed to the zeal for war.  In high contrast the following poem was written by another English poet, Wilfred Owen, in 1917:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The Latin of the last line translates to “it is sweet and right to die for your country”.

In the United Kingdom November 11th is called Remembrance Day.  A hundred years on, the importance of remembering the horror of that violence is something no one should find controversial.



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