Not Your Father’s Ancient History

Do you like your historical biographies bold and unapologetic? Do you want to learn something new from a set of seemingly old and exhausted primary sources? Want to hear the tale of a person constrained by crushing societal forces, but striking out in an unconventional and incredibly effective way? Finally, are you o.k. with expletives and current cultural references while learning about the ancient world? If so, let me recommend to you the thrilling, fascinating, well researched and bitingly funny Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World by Emma Southon. Read on to find out more.

If you haven’t heard of Agrippina before (technically Agrippina the Younger but, as Southon points out, the Romans were super unoriginal when it came to giving a child a name) you have probably run across some of her notorious relations. She was the granddaughter of the first emperor Augustus, the sister of the emperor Caligula (yes, that one!), the wife of the emperor Claudius, her own uncle (Ewww), and the mother of Nero (oh, my!).

So with an interesting pedigree like that, why haven’t you heard more about her? Well the elephant in the room when it comes to telling the story of a woman in the ancient world, and much of history alas, is who does the telling. The two primary surviving historical accounts of her time are written by two senators, Tacitus and Suetonius, roughly a hundred years later. Both had a major axe to grind when it came to the idea of a woman stepping out of her ‘proper’ role and, heaven forbid, wielding a little power for herself.

Southern does an excellent job of demonstrating how Agrippina only shows up in the historical record at all as a foil or reaction to a male protagonist. Because of this, there are huge gaps when it comes to trying to form a cohesive narrative of her life. Most historians look at the gaps and just give up on trying to tell her story at all. Not Sothern. Instead she embraces the ambiguity and speculation with gusto and produces a convincing and entertaining account.

It is really hard to do her style justice by just describing it, so I’ll just quote a great passage here concerning Agrippina’s mother, yet another Agrippina, and her return to Rome after her husband’s death:

Agrippina the Elder returned to Rome in 19CE with two symbolic middle fingers raised in Tiberius’s direction, while Tiberius sulked in his palace. The atmosphere went slowly downhill from here. But they were family, and – like Michael Bluth – the Julio-Claudians put family first. They couldn’t just avoid one another and get on with their lives, and Agrippina the Elder didn’t want that anyway. Agrippina the Elder wanted revenge.

So clearly this is not your father’s ancient history. But if you give this excellent history a chance, you will be thanking the gods that it isn’t when you finish.

Did You Know? (Brain Sand Edition)

That your pineal gland produces tiny gritty bone particles that are called ‘brain sand?’

I found this on page 12 in the book A World of Information by James Brown and Richard Platt. If I was going to have just one reference book, this would be it! Planets, anatomy, music, morse code, roman numerals etc, etc. are all in here. Perfect for answering all the questions kids (and adults) have. Descartes and others wrote of the pineal gland (which is pine cone shaped) with great reverence. It has been called the seat of the soul and referred to as the ‘third eye.’ It is a split pea sized endocrine gland located in the geometric center of the brain, and it gathers an increasing amount of mineral deposits or ‘brain sand’ as you age.

It appears that the Freemasons and other secret societies have referred to the awakened pineal gland as the Philosopher’s Stone. The Source Field by David Wilcock talks all about this and the symbolism of pine cones through out history.

Becoming Supernatural by Dr. Joe Dispenza tells us about the pineal gland, energies in your body, brain chemistry, your bodies’ electrical fields, the movement of cerebrospinal fluid, heart rhythm patterns and much more. He describes how the pineal gland works with adrenal hormones, melatonin, and serotonin. According to the author, it is your bodies’ energy center. This revolutionary book is touted as a “body of knowledge and a set of tools that allow ordinary people … to reach extraordinary states of being.” I’ll admit, I just kind of skipped around and read bits of it. It seemed to me rather technical, but Dr. Dispenza made it fairly easy to understand, in spite of all the big words!

For children, or for those of us with an aversion to big words, the Ultimate Body-pedia by Christina Wilson has excellent pictures of the body and all of its systems, including the endocrine system showing. It also explains all of the glands in the body, including the pineal gland.

Imagine how much brain sand it would take to fill a beach. I think I’d rather just have regular sand on my beach! Two fun stories featuring beach sand are Pig Kahuna Pirates by Jennifer Sattler where Fergus and little brother Dink make a sand castle pirate ship, and If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano to the Beach, DON’T by Elise Parsley. Parsley’s book is a cute story telling the dangers of having your piano at the beach.

And then, there is quicksand! Quicksand is a colloid hydrogel consisting of fine granular material (such as sand or silt), clay, and water. Quicksand forms in saturated loose sand when the sand is suddenly agitated. When water in the sand cannot escape, it creates a liquefied soil that loses strength and cannot support weight. Quicksand can form in standing water or in upward flowing water (as from an artesian spring).

Finally, there is the novel Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito which is touted as the Best Swedish Crime Novel of the year for 2016. Maja and Sebastian have a ‘relationship.’ A mass murder shooting occurs at the high school they attend and Maja is one of the few people to survive. She is accused of pulling the trigger for some of the murders, but this gripping story will make you wonder if she was really to blame. Maja finds herself sinking as if in quicksand as the trial goes on. Hmmmmm….. Maybe her glands made her do it?

Did You Know? (Hotcake Edition)

That the difference between pancakes, griddlecakes, johnnycakes and hotcakes depends mostly on if they are made with flour or corn meal?

In researching for this blog, every time I thought I had it figured out I’d find another recipe that contradicted it! Mostly from what I’ve seen, pancakes and johnnycakes (more about them below) are made with corn meal and griddlecakes and hotcakes are made from flour. That excludes buckwheat pancakes which are made with buckwheat, which is also known as Kasha.

Buckwheat, with its origins in China, was produced in Europe in the 1900s and was used in traditional crêpes (pancakes) and galettes (flat cakes) according to The Story of Food (page 239) from DK publishing.

In the UK, flapjacks are made out of sugar, butter, oats, and honey, but in the US, they are synonymous with hotcakes.

I think pretty much anywhere in the world you will find some version of hotcakes. Some are sweet and others are savory. Some are topped and others are filled. Here is a list of a few of the options:

Asian nonya spring roll pancakes

Brazil’s panqueca de carne moida are meat-filled crêpes.

Chinese bao bing (a thin pancake)

Dutch poffertjes (made with a yeast-raised recipe)

French crêpes (crêpes is French for pancake)

Korean hotteok sweet stuffed pancakes

Korean seafood pancakes are reminiscent of egg foo young.

German pfannkuchen (crêpe)

Hungarian palacsinta (crêpe)

Japanese okonomiyaki is the savory, saucy single pancake meal of your dreams.

Nigerian diet are gorgeous, spicy, chewy pancakes.

Spanish panqueques rely on fluffy whipped egg whites to make them incredibly light. (crepe)

Thai roti cooked with egg and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk. Thai roti are folded over and over to get beautiful layers when you bite into it. It looks like baklava.

Vietnamese Bánh Khot are tiny, crispy, savory seafood pancakes that are perfect two-bite morsels.

The website What’s Cooking America has a great article all about johnnycakes. They are made with cornmeal and are the New England equivalent of tortillas. They are known under a variety of names: Johnnycakes, johnny cakes, jonnycake, ashcake, battercake, corn cake, cornpone, hoecake, hoe cake, journey cake, mush bread, pone, Shawnee cake, jonakin, and jonikin. They are all regional names for this cornmeal flatbread.

The origin of the name johnnycakes is something of a mystery and probably has nothing to do with the name John. They were also called journey cakes because they could be carried on long trips in saddlebags and baked along the way. Historians also think that “janiken,” a Native American word that means “corncake,” could possibly be the origin.

Waffles, Crêpes and Pancakes by Norma Miller has all kinds of recipes for the titled items. I can’t wait to try the Tiramisu Pancakes!

Paul Bunyan Swings his Ax by Dell J. McCormic has a story about Paul Bunyan’s logging camp and the 10-acre griddle used to make hot griddlecakes so large that it took 5 men to eat one!

So the next time you are having a short stack, think about all the different things people call them, and the fact that around the world there are probably thousands of people eating a hotcake right now.

To the Moon

As you have no doubt heard by now, July 20th is the 50th anniversary of human beings landing on the moon. One of the side benefits of all the hype is the fact that the library now has a slew of new books on this important technological achievement, the moon in general, and other quirky space exploration topics. There are so many new books, in fact, that it might just be hard to sift through them all. Never fear, your trusty librarian is here to guide you through all of the goodies.

So whether you want to revel in a technological marvel, examine the geopolitical forces that made the launch possible, examine firsthand astronaut’s experiences, find out about the moon itself or contemplate future explorations, we have a book to pique your interest. There is also a little something for the cynic (great, we have another pristine resource to exploit) or the grump (why isn’t there a freakin’ moon base after 50 years!) to enjoy as well.

The Mission

There is no denying that the mission to the moon was an impressive technological achievement. But it certainly wasn’t easy. Or safe. Or guaranteed to succeed. Learn all the harrowing details in these tense and fascinating books documenting the mission and those who succeeded in pulling it off.

The Politics

While the astronauts operated in a vacuum, the Apollo missions definitely did not. Large amounts of political intrigue, historical factors, and taxpayer funding was required to get those rockets off the ground. Check out these books to get some historical perspective on the Apollo missions and gain some insight into the controversies surrounding the program to this day.

The People

What does it take to walk on the moon? What is it like to be blasted into space? What does it feel like to live out the rest of your life tethered to the earth and considered a hero? Find out with these books from the astronaut’s perspective.

For the Graphically Inclined

The moon landing provided some stunning visuals, so it is only appropriate to have this reflected in books celebrating the anniversary. Also included are two excellent graphic novels that depict the Apollo program and the historical landing.

A Different Take

While traditional historical narratives are great, I always appreciate a book that tries to take a different approach to a well-known topic. These two books examine the moon landing by focusing on a few, or one, key object and telling the story from there.

The Moon Itself

We often take our closest celestial neighbor for granted, but the moon is actually more important and interesting than you might imagine. These books examine the moon from a cultural and scientific perspective, revealing it to be much more than a simple lifeless chunk of rock.

What Next?

Sure landing on the moon 50 years ago was an impressive feat, but what happens now? Will we revisit the moon and expand outward into the solar system? Should we? Check out these books to speculate about the future of the moon, humanity, and space travel.

So come on into the library and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing by checking out a book or two. The future is yours!

The Truth is Out There (But Probably Not in Textbooks)

Dedicated to all American history teachers
who teach against their textbooks
(and their ranks keep growing)

And so begins the updated edition of Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. “Every teacher, every student of history, every citizen should read this book,” said Howard Zinn. The San Francisco Chronicle called it, “an extremely convincing plea for truth in education.” My husband exasperatingly declared, “I can’t believe you still haven’t read this book, Carol!”

Since this month’s reading challenge is to read a book about American history, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to see what all the buzz is about–and finally let my husband rest his weary voice.

First, let’s be clear: the author is not bashing teachers! He knows that teachers need to teach from the textbooks provided. And the books are only as good as their authors. Some authors are better than others, but overall the state of textbooks–American history textbooks specifically–need to be reformed. As the author points out in the introduction when discussing how most textbooks are 1,200 pages or more:

Indeed, state and local textbook committees should not select *any* 1,200 page hardcover book. As the introduction to the second edition points out, there is no pedagogical justification for such large tomes. Their only reason for being is economic. These textbooks now retail for more than $100 and cost more than $70 even when ordered in quantity by states and school districts. It’s easy to understand why publishers keep on making them. It’s harder to understand why school districts keep buying them.

Topics range from the Vietnam War, the truth about Columbus, and how we have a bad habit of creating heroes out of people who were, at best, regular folks and at worst, total monsters. The book focuses on educational texts, sure, but the point it’s really trying to get across is that we need to educate children and teens to think critically and apply skepticism, not cynicism, to everything they consume: books, internet sites, news reports, and social media posts. This starts in the classroom and it starts with teaching critical thinking skills.

Let me reassure you that there are photographs. Sure, they’re in black and white, but I’m always reassured that a history book won’t be too dry and boring if I can find illustrations, maps, photographs, or other visual helpers to keep my brain engaged if it wants to wander. Many of the images in this book come directly from the textbooks the author reviewed.

Sometimes the representative textbook photos are good, like showing two images representing early Native American societies, one showing an organized society and the other showing people on horseback seemingly wandering. The caption asks students to discern which happened before white settlers arrived and which was after. This builds critical thinking skills and encourages students to find information to support their conclusions. It also busts the lie we’ve been told about how indigenous communities were uncivilized people who welcomed white saviors.

Other times, the representative textbook photos are reeeeeally not good. For instance, a racist cartoon that is still printed in high school textbooks with either no context or a skewed viewpoint. Stating your opinion–especially when it’s racist and contrary to reality–as fact does not make it a fact. But this is what students are taught and tested on. When we teach our children racist views as a requirement of their education, is it any wonder our society has problems with systemic racism and the inability to tell fact from fake news?

This all means that often the illustrations included in textbooks do a great disservice to the students forced to use them in class. It’s just one layer upon many that make up the cracks in our educational foundation. A foundation that is in serious need of repair.

I just checked this book out today. I’ll be reading it this month to complete the reading challenge and I just know I will be completely insufferable as I plague friends and strangers alike with the misinformation, misrepresentations, censorship, and outright lies we’ve all been fed. But this is good, and it’s exactly what the author was going for. He wants people to think and learn and grow and challenge the way we’ve been taught American history. We must stand up for facts, and push back against the BS.

Have you read this classic? I’d love to hear the most shocking or surprising fact you learned from the book. From what I can tell so far skimming, there are an embarrassing amount to choose from.

Did You Know? (Breathing Edition)

That softshell turtles can breathe through their bottom?

Turtles have a cloaca. It is an orifice on their bodies that they urinate, defecate, lay eggs, and (in some species) can absorb oxygen from. While it is not their main way of breathing, it helps while they are eating, laying eggs and especially when they are submerged for extended periods of time.I found this information on page 151 of The Totally Awesome Book of Useless Information by Noel Botham.

You will learn more details about this ability on page 208 of Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins by Ronald Orenstein. He also tells us there are about 30 breeds of soft shell turtles. One example is the Fitzroy River Turtle which lives in fast running water where it can remain submerged for days, or even weeks at a time. Mr. Orenstein’s book has wonderful photographs of all aspects of these amazing animals. It also explains the differences between turtles, including the different ways they pull their heads into their shells: the Pleurodira, which translates to “side neck”, fold their necks sideways while the Cryptodira, known as hidden-necked turtles,pull their heads straight back into their shell.

Sea turtles can be amazingly large. A sea turtle can weigh as much as a water buffalo! Mission Sea Turtle Rescue by Karen Romano Young is full of fun facts, photos and valuable information about conserving the species. This is a must read for anyone planning on vacationing near a tropical beach. Another great book is Sea Turtles by James R. Spotila.

Turtles aren’t the only ones with shells! Shell by Alex Arthur tells about all kinds of shells: sea shells, egg shells, fossilized shells and many others are all in this book.

Lastly, turtles “cry.” This is their way of forcing the extra salt from their bodies that they ingest from drinking sea water. I don’t think that “turtle tears” will catch on nearly as well as “crocodile tears” but who knows?

Depression isn’t forever

Writing of a personal nature— sharing a part of my life, I take the risk of allowing myself to be exposed.

I grew up in a big family and as a kid I felt loved and secure, but once I got into my teens my world turned upside down. During those years music and books impacted me. The spellbinding music of the 60’s and 70’s coupled with books like Go Ask Alice, published anonymously in 1971, and I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, published in 1964, fueled my young easily-influenced brain, tightening the tentacles of darkness. I experienced a deep depression and was ripe for self-destruction. I considered thoughts of taking my life.

Sadly, there are many people (young, old and in between) who out of desperation view suicide as the only solution to their pain. Depression is a tough subject to discuss, yet it’s a conversation that cannot be ignored. Consider the character of Eleanor in Gail Honeyman’s debut novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The reader quickly discovers that Eleanor is not fine. She fastidiously maintains her Monday through Friday job keeping to herself, then on Friday night with equal purpose she stops off to pick-up a frozen pizza and 2 bottles of Vodka which she proceeds to drink over the weekend.

It is easier to discuss a complex character in a book than it is to admit you may be struggling with depression or suicide. It’s awkward, no one knows what to say, so often nothing is said at all — It is my sincere intent to open up the dialogue in hopes that lives may be saved. Indeed it is a hard subject to discuss because those who suffer feel stuck and weighed down by the stigma of shame.

Today more and more resources are becoming available, which is encouraging, because the truth is that mental illness comes in a multitude of manifestations, depression being one of them. I recently came across two books in the Library’s collection that offer insight and hope.

Just Peachy: Comics About Depression, Anxiety, Love, and Finding the Humor In Being Sad by Holly Chisholm is a great little book, a quick read and an outstanding example of the power of art as a tool for recovery.

If You Feel too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped for is a collection of personal essays by Jamie Tworkowski. The book evolved after he wrote an earlier story about helping a friend in her struggle with depression, drugs and self-injury. The piece was called “To Write Love on Her Arms.The piece went viral and the outcome led to the organization TWLOHA an internationally recognized leader in suicide prevention worldwide.

Grace June’s “Phil”

Last October my daughter-in-law, who bravely admits her own struggle with depression, received grant funding to develop a forum bringing light on the subject of suicide. She used the medium of photography to convey a message of hope and healing dubbing the project Survivor Series. The photo essay was compiled into a book of individuals who had either lost a loved one to suicide or had contemplated taking their own life.

For the culmination of her yearlong project, she hosted an event inviting the community and those photographed for the project. Photos were on display with a brief synopsis of each story. A portion of the evening was an open mic in a second building where a poetry group kicked things off, followed by anyone who wanted to standing up and share their story.

The evening was successful and affirming for those in the infancy of their grief as well as for others who, like my husband who lost his brother 20 years ago, have been grieving for a much longer time. It also was a catalyst for change in the Spokane community. The exhibit is currently on display at the Spokane Public Library.

Next month my husband and daughter will team up with hundreds of people to walk through the night on the streets of San Francisco in the Out of Darkness Overnight. The walk serves to raise money and bring attention and support to our nation’s increasing number of suicide deaths.

Thank you for reading this blog. It takes courage and honesty to admit the need for help. We’re not meant to walk this life alone. If you want more information on suicide prevention, there are people who are trained to help at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.