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1. Microbes matter

By John Archibald

We humans have a love-hate relationship with bugs. I’m not talking about insects — although many of us cringe at the thought of them too — but rather the bugs we can’t see, the ones that make us sick.

Sure, microorganisms give us beer, wine, cheese, and yoghurt; hardly a day goes by without most people consuming food or drink produced by microbial fermentation. And we put microbes to good use in the laboratory, as vehicles for the production of insulin and other life-saving drugs, for example.

But microbes are also responsible for much of what ails us, from annoying stomach ‘bugs’ to deadly infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and plague. Bacteria and viruses are even linked to certain cancers. Bugs are bad; antibiotics and antivirals are good. We spend billions annually trying to rid ourselves of microorganisms, and if they were to all disappear, well, all the better, right?

This is, of course, nonsense. Even the most ardent germaphobe would take a deep breath and accept the fact that we could no more survive without microbes than we could without oxygen. No matter how clean we strive to be, there are 100 trillion bacterial cells living on and within our bodies, 10 times the number of human cells that comprise ‘us’. Hundreds of different bacterial species live within our intestines, hundreds more thrive in our mouths and on our skin. Add in the resident viruses, fungi, and small animals such as worms and mites, and the human body becomes a full-blown ecosystem, a microcosm of the world around us. And like any ecosystem, if thrown off-balance bad things can happen. For example, many of our ‘good’ bacteria help us metabolize food and fight off illness. But after a prolonged course of antibiotics such bacteria can be knocked flat, and normally benign species such as ‘Clostridium difficile’ can grow out of control and cause disease.


Given the complexity of our body jungle, some researchers go as far as to propose that there is no such thing as a ‘human being’. Each of us should instead be thought of as a human-microbe symbiosis, a complex biological relationship in which neither partner can survive without the other. As disturbing a notion as this may be, one thing is indisputable: we depend on our microbiome and it depends on us.

And there is an even more fundamental way in which the survival of Homo sapiens is intimately tied to the hidden microbial majority of life. Each and every one of our 10 trillion cells betrays its microbial ancestry in harboring mitochondria, tiny subcellular factories that use oxygen to convert our food into ATP, the energy currency of all living cells. Our mitochondria are, in essence, domesticated bacteria — oxygen-consuming bacteria that took up residence inside another bacterium more than a billion years ago and never left. We know this because mitochondria possess tiny remnants of bacterium-like DNA inside them, distinct from the DNA housed in the cell nucleus. Modern genetic investigations have revealed that mitochondria are a throwback to a time before complex animals, plants, or fungi had arisen, a time when life was exclusively microbial.

As we ponder the bacterial nature of our mitochondria, it is also instructive to consider where the oxygen they so depend on actually comes from. The answer is photosynthesis. Within the cells of plants and algae are the all-important chloroplasts, green-tinged, DNA-containing factories that absorb sunlight, fix carbon dioxide, and pump oxygen into the atmosphere by the truckload. Most of the oxygen we breathe comes from the photosynthetic activities of these plants and algae—and like mitochondria, chloroplasts are derived from bacteria by symbiosis. The genetic signature written within chloroplast DNA links them to the myriad of free-living cyanobacteria drifting in the world’s oceans. Photosynthesis and respiration are the biochemical yin and yang of life on Earth. The energy that flows through chloroplasts and mitochondria connects life in the furthest corners of the biosphere.

For all our biological sophistication and intelligence, one could argue that we humans are little more than the sum of the individual cells from which we are built. And as is the case for all other complex multicellular organisms, our existence is inexorably linked to the sea of microbes that share our physical space. It is a reality we come by honestly. As we struggle to tame and exploit the microbial world, we would do well to remember that symbiosis—the living together of distinct organisms—explains both what we are and how we got here.

John Archibald is Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Dalhousie University and a Senior Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Program in Integrated Microbial Biodiversity. He is an Associate Editor for Genome Biology & Evolution and an Editorial Board Member of various scientific journals, including Current Biology, Eukaryotic Cell, and BMC Biology. He is the author of One Plus One Equals One: Symbiosis and the Evolution of Complex Life.

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Image credit: Virus Microbiology. Public domain via Pixabay

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2. Occupational epidemiology: a truly global discipline

By Katherine M. Venables

Occupational epidemiology is one of those fascinating areas which spans important areas of human life: health, disease, work, law, public policy, the economy. Work is fundamental to any society and the importance society attaches to the health of its workers varies over time and between countries. Because of the lessons to be learned by looking at other countries as well as one’s own, occupational epidemiology is a truly global discipline. Emerging economies often prioritize productivity over other issues, but also can learn from the long history of improvement in working conditions which has taken place in developed countries. Looking the other way, the West can learn from fresh insights gained in studies set in low and middle-income countries.

Exposures are usually higher in emerging economies and epidemiological methods are an important tool in detecting and quantifying outbreaks of occupational disease which may have been controlled in the West. A recent study of digestive cancer in a Chinese asbestos mining and milling cohort provides additional evidence that stomach cancer may be associated with high levels of exposure to chrostile asbestos, for example. This was a collaborative study between researchers in China, Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States, and illustrates the way that studying an “old” disease in a new context can provide results which are of global benefit.

Issues in occupational epidemiology are never static. Work exposures change along with materials and processes. The ubiquitous printing industry, for example, is always developing new inks, cleaning agents, and processes. A cluster of cases of the rare liver cancer, cholangiocarcinoma, was noted in Japanese printers and this finding was replicated in the Nordic printing industry by using one of the large Nordic population-based databases. This replication is important because it shows that the association is unlikely to be due to a lifestyle factor specific to Japan.

Woman smoking a cigarette“Big data” sharpens statistical power and there are now specific data pooling projects in occupational epidemiology, to supplement the use of existing large databases. The SYNERGY study, for example, pools lung cancer case-control studies with the aim of teasing out occupational effects from behind the masking effect of smoking, which remains by far the most important driver for lung cancer. A recent analysis with around 20,000 cases and controls was able to show that bakers are not at increased risk of lung cancer, whereas the many previous smaller studies had given inconsistent results.

The addition of systematic reviews to the toolkit has strengthened the evidence base in occupational epidemiology, allowing policy about occupational risks and their prevention to be made with confidence. Health economics, also, can be applied to findings from occupational epidemiology to clarify policy issues.

Development brings its own issues to which occupational epidemiology can be applied. We now live longer in the West, and we will have to work into old age, often while carrying chronic diseases. Despite frequently-expressed concerns about an ageing workforce, a recent study in an Australian smelter confirmed others in that the older workers maintained their ability to work safely and the highest injury rates were in young workers. Patients with previously fatal diseases survive into adult life and, potentially, the workforce; a survey of patients with cystic fibrosis, for example, found that disease severity was less important as a predictor of employment than social factors such as educational attainment and locality. A loss of heavy industry in the West, combined with cheap transport, means that many of us spend most of our waking hours sitting down, promoting obesity and its complications. A sample of UK office workers spent 65% of their work time sitting and did not compensate for this by being more active outside work. The economic downturn is a major political and social preoccupation, bringing uncertainty about future employment, which may fuel dysfunctional behaviour such as ‘presenteeism’. A Swedish study suggested that this may be associated with poor mental wellbeing.

Katherine M. Venables is a Reader in the Department of Public Health at the University of Oxford. Her research has always focused on aetiological epidemiology. At Oxford, she has worked on a cohort study of mortality and cancer incidence in military veterans exposed to low levels of chemical warfare agents, and also on the provision of occupational health services to university staff. She is editor of Current Topics in Occupational Epidemiology.

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Image: Woman smoking a cigarette by Oxfordian Kissuth. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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3. SDCC ’14: Fairy Tale Remix Panel Recap

By Matthew Jent

The Fairy Tale Remix panel, moderated by author Shannon Hale, brought together more than half a dozen authors of young adult and fantasy fiction in front of a packed panel room. Hale a confident and fun tone, promising a fight to first blood by the panelists if things got boring. Full disclosure? I took a seat in this panel to get a good spot for a later panel in the same room that I wanted to cover for the Beat — but Fairy Tale Remix has proven to be the highlight of my SDCC 2014 experience so far. It was a symposium on fairy tales, storytelling, writing and the search for magic in real life. No first-blood-fights were required, and there wasn’t an empty seat in the room. The audience included mostly women, from kids on up, with more than a few cosplayers. Before the panel began, there were a number of kids (and their accompanying grown-ups) having their pictures taken with some folks who cosplayed the Frozen sisters Elsa & Anna and if you weren’t yet caught up on this season of Once Upon a Time, it was a bad audience to eavesdrop on.

Shannon Hale holds court.

Shannon Hale holds court.

After introducing the panel members as Marissa “The Mauler” Meyer, Katherine “No Safe” Harbour, “The Hammer of Lore” John Peck, “The Baroness Schadenfreude” Cornelia Funke, Tony “The Terror” DiTerlizzi, Ben “The Equalizer” Tripp (dressed in a Georgian England costume, complete with white wig), and Danielle “Toto’s Bane” Paige, Hale began with a quote from Albert Einstein: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be moreintelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Asking how the panelists were introduced to fairy tales, it was across the board as children.

“It was the first time I realized, everything is a metaphor,” Tripp said, “These stories are all about something else.”

Funke, after explaining that she is German and so was naturally raised with the original, brutally violent versions of the tales, said she hated them as a child. They were full of death and dismemberment, and swans who had to knit sweaters for their brothers.

Meyer added that her first fairy tale love was Disney’s film version of The Little Mermaid, and upon subsequently reading the original version by Hans Christian Andersen, in which Ariel dies at the end, she wondered, “What else is Disney not telling us?”

That discomfort and that desire to know more was a strong motivator for the writers to tell their own versions of Rapunzel, Oz, or Puss N Boots. Meyer got her start as a writer with Sailor Moon fan fiction, and writing new versions of fairy tales was a logical progression. When Hale asked the panel if it was fair to call what they were doing fan fiction, everyone agreed.

“How is rewriting fairy tales different from fan fiction?” Hale asked.

They’re basically the same thing, the panel agreed, but “You can take fairy tales in more directions than fan fiction,” said Meyer. Tired of passive princess characters, Meyer wanted to get back to the older versions of very old tales — where Little Red Riding Hood rescued herself from the Big Bad Wolf, instead of waiting for the Woodsman to appear.

Fairy tales come to represent the times and the places in which they are written. Adding something new to those tales — characters, points of view, social agendas or social awareness that did not exist when they were first told — is part of a storytelling tradition that goes back to Shakespeare, and earlier. Peck added that no story was worth retelling without adding something new.

The panel ended with a Q&A from the audience, many of whom were writers and storytellers themselves. One audience member asked where the writers found magic in the modern world to write about.

“Where do you not find it?” Funke said. “Look at the people in this room, the hundred million stories in these chairs, in these costumes. There is so much in this room I would call magic. We are just the reporters of that. We are in pretty magical times.”

A parent asked how she could encourage her daughter, who wanted to be a writer.

“Forbid it,” said Tripp, whose own son was studying medicine and science.

“Don’t give too many instructions,” Funke said. “And give her beautiful, empty notebooks.”

It sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale.

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We’re so excited to share with you I AM A WITCH’S CAT, available this week, written and illustrated by Harriet Muncaster.

I Am a Witch's Cat

We in the HCCB School & Library department are pretty huge fans of tiny things (dollhouse food, figurines, these amazing things . . . you name it), and we couldn’t be more delighted to have found a kindred spirit in Harriet Muncaster. Harriet’s book tells the story of a little girl who believes that her mother is a good witch and that she is a special witch’s cat, and it’s illustrated with photographs of handmade miniatures—characters, furniture, accessories, and details, all lovingly crafted and composed into scenes. We just love it to pieces.

Harriet was kind enough to give us a behind-the-scenes looks at her process for creating the fantastic art from I AM A WITCH’S CAT.

Harriet Muncaster:

I have always been fascinated by tiny things. When I was young I spent my time making miniature houses and clothes and writing minuscule fairy letters. That love of tiny things has never left me, and so, when I took illustration as my degree at university, it felt almost natural to start making my pictures in 3D. I create dollhouse-sized scenes (or sets, as I call them) out of cardboard and fabric and then photograph them to make a flat picture.

In these photos, you can see some of the process I go through to make the scenes. If it is a room, I usually start with a box-like shape and then put in the flooring and wallpaper. I either paint the wallpaper on or make it on the computer and stick it on as you would proper wallpaper (like in the bedroom scene below)!

Beginnings of the bedroom scene

Beginnings of the bedroom scene


The furniture is made from card stock. It gives me a lot of freedom to make everything from card because I can literally make it into any shape I like. I can use the card to make something really fancy or really plain and in whatever style I like.

I also like the way one can use lighting when creating a 3D picture. It is possible to really set the mood by using different sorts of atmospheric lighting. My favourite bit of lighting in the book is the scene where Witch’s Cat is saying goodbye to her Mom at the door and the coloured glass in the door is shining against the wall in a rainbow pattern. I got this effect by using coloured cellophane sweet wrappers and then shining a light behind them.


Experimenting with some lighting filters made from coloured cellophane chocolate wrappers as seen in the hallway scene


The hardest thing to make in the book was the trolley in the supermarket scenes. It took me absolutely ages and was extremely difficult and fiddly to make! It’s definitely the most delicate thing in the whole book.


The checkout scene in full, with trolley


One of my favourite things to make in the book was the patchwork quilt on the bed. I just love the colours in it, which are quite autumnal. I tried to incorporate a lot of autumnal colours into the room scenes, as it is a Halloween book.


Trying the mom character for size, with close-up of patchwork quilt


It feels very magical when a scene becomes finished and you can look right into it and touch it. It’s a real, tiny little world of its own with its own atmosphere and feel to it. I love how tangible it is!


Kitchen scene in the early stages


Food boxes all ready to be put into the scene.

Thank you so much, Harriet!

Check out Harriet’s great blog for a whole lot of miniature inspiration, including a post about how she created the cover art for I AM A WITCH’S CAT. And in case you haven’t quite had your fill of tiny for the day, here are some bonus photos:

Hallway wallpaper design

Hallway wallpaper design

Design for some of the the food boxes in the shopping scene ready to be printed, cut out and folded into 3d boxes

Design for some of the the food boxes in the shopping scene ready to be printed, cut out, and folded into 3D boxes

Mom character. Checking everything is good with her position and the way she is holding the vacuum cleaner

Mom character. Checking everything is good with her position and the way she is holding the vacuum cleaner

Characters, furniture and accessories all neatly boxed up to be transported for exhibition

Characters, furniture, and accessories all neatly boxed up to be transported for exhibition

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5. The month that changed the world: Friday, 24 July 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, is blogging regularly for us over the next few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel

By mid-day Friday heads of state, heads of government, foreign ministers, and ambassadors learned the terms of the Austrian ultimatum. A preamble to the demands asserted that a ‘subversive movement’ to ‘disjoin’ parts of Austria-Hungary had grown ‘under the eyes’ of the Serbian government. This had led to terrorism, murder, and attempted murder. Austria’s investigation of the assassination of the archduke revealed that Serbian military officers and government officials were implicated in the crime.

A list of ten demands followed, the most important of which were: Serbia was to suppress all forms of propaganda aimed at Austria-Hungary; the Narodna odbrana was to be dissolved, along with all other subversive societies; officers and officials who had participated in propaganda were to be dismissed; Austrian officials were to participate in suppressing the subversive movements in Serbia and in a judicial inquiry into the assassination.

When Sazonov saw the terms he concluded that Austria wanted war: ‘You are setting fire to Europe!’ If Serbia were to comply with the demands it would mean the end of its sovereignty. ‘What you want is war, and you have burnt your bridges behind you’. He advised the tsar that Serbia could not possibly comply, that Austria knew this and would not have presented the ultimatum without the promise of Germany’s support. He told the British and French ambassadors that war was imminent unless they acted together.

Sergey Sazonov, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sergey Sazonov, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

But would they? With the French president and premier now at sea in the Baltic, and with wireless telegraphy problematic, foreign policy was in the hands of Bienvenu-Martin, the inexperienced minister of justice. He believed that Austria was within its rights to demand the punishment of those implicated in the crime and he shared Germany’s wish to localize the dispute. Serbia could not be expected to agree to demands that impinged upon its sovereignty, but perhaps it could agree to punish those involved in the assassination and to suppress propaganda aimed at Austria-Hungary.

Sir Edward Grey was shocked by the extent of the demands. He had never before seen ‘one State address to another independent State a document of so formidable a character.’ The demand that Austria-Hungary be given the right to appoint officials who would have authority within the frontiers of Serbia could not be consistent with Serbia’s sovereignty. But the British government had no interest in the merits of the dispute between Austria and Serbia; its only concern was the peace of Europe. He proposed that the four ‘disinterested powers’ (Britain, Germany, France and Italy) act together at Vienna and St Petersburg to resolve the dispute. After Grey briefed the cabinet that afternoon, the prime minister concluded that although a ‘real Armaggedon’ was within sight, ‘there seems…no reason why we should be more than spectators’.

Nothing that the Austrians or the Germans heard in London or Paris on Friday caused them to reconsider their course. In fact, their general impression was that the Entente Powers wished to localize the dispute. Even from St Petersburg the German ambassador reported that Sazonov’s reference to Austria’s ‘devouring’ of Serbia meant that Russia would take up arms only if Austria seized Serbian territory and that his wish to ‘Europeanize’ the dispute indicated that Russia’s ‘immediate intervention’ need not be anticipated.

Berchtold made his position clear in Vienna that afternoon: ‘the very existence of Austria-Hungary as a Great Power’ was at stake; Austria-Hungary must give proof of its stature as a Great Power ‘by an outright coup de force’. When the Russian chargé d’affaires asked him how Austria would respond if the time limit were to expire without a satisfactory answer from Serbia, Berchtold replied that the Austrian minister and his staff had been instructed in such circumstances to leave Belgrade and return to Austria. Prince Kudashev, after reflecting on this, exclaimed ‘Alors c’est la guerre!

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914.

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6. Polygamous wives who helped settle the west

By Paula Kelly Harline

Happy Pioneer Day! The morning of 24 July in downtown Salt Lake City, thousands of Westerners watch the “Days of ’47” parade celebrating the 1847 arrival of Mormon pioneers; in the afternoon, they attend a rodeo or take picnics to the canyons; at night they launch as many fireworks as they did for Fourth of July.

What may be less known than the role of Brigham Young in all this is the contribution made by polygamous women. When Brigham Young parceled out Salt Lake City land plots, he allowed polygamous husbands to draw a lot for each of their wives, and this pattern continued exponentially as polygamous wives sometimes moved without their husbands to settlements in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico, supporting themselves as teachers, hat-makers, landlords, post mistresses, boarding house proprietors, laundresses, venders, and farmers.

Photo of Martha Heywood

Martha Heywood. Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society, all rights reserved.

For example, in 1850 not long after 39-year-old Martha Spence Heywood arrived in Salt Lake City, she became the third wife of the 35-year-old captain of her wagon train. After a few months of living in the family’s Salt Lake house, Martha moved 90 miles south to the new settlement of Nephi where she had the first of two babies in a wagon with one Church sister attending. She tried to establish herself as a teacher but wrote in her diary that there were “considerably hard feelings” against her “as a school teacher,” maybe because she was sometimes sick or maybe because townspeople resented her husband who did not live in Nephi but had a supervisory role in their struggling settlement. Along with teaching, Martha made hats that her husband advertised in the Salt Lake Deseret News. After a few years in Nephi, she moved to southern Utah and claimed a vacant “good adobe” house. Once again taking up school teaching, she even accepted produce as payment so that any child could attend school and, over the years, established herself as a legendary school teacher. The Heywood family owned homes in three towns.

Photo of Mary Ann Hafen

Mary Ann Hafen. Courtesy of International Society Daughters of Utah Pioneers.

Starting in 1890, Mormons no longer officially sanctioned new polygamous marriages, but those who were already married like second wife Mary Ann Hafen carried on until the polygamous generation died out. In 1891, she moved 50 miles away from her “general merchant” husband John (who lived in Santa Clara, Utah, with his first wife) to Bunkerville, Nevada, where they could get cheaper land. Mary Ann wrote in her autobiography that in the “first year” when she and her children were “just getting started” in Bunkerville, her husband came down from Santa Clara “frequently” and “helped [them] a good deal.” But as time went on, “he had his hands full taking care of his other [three] families,” so she cared “for her seven children mostly by [her]self” because, as she explained, “I did not want to be a burden on my husband, but tried with my family to be self-supporting.” John had provided them with “a house, lot, and land and furnished some supplies.” Mary Ann rented out her twenty-five-acre farm up the road—the 1900 census listed her as a “landlord.” Sometimes she and her children used the farm to grow cotton and sorghum cane that she could exchange at mills for cloth and sorghum sweetener. She sewed the family’s clothing on the White sewing machine she saved up for. They preserved peaches and green tomatoes and ate from their large garden, and they kept a couple of pigs, a cow, and some chickens.

Photo of David and Lydia Ann Brinkerhoff Family

David and Lydia Ann Brinkerhoff Family. Courtesy of Joanne Hadden, family descendant.

In yet another example, first wife Lydia Brinkerhoff settled in the town of Holbrook, Arizona, while the second wife Vina and their husband settled on farmland outside town—the two locations multiplied the family’s financial prospects. In town, Lydia took in boarders, did laundry for hotels, sold vegetables from the farm, and managed the town’s mail contract.

Settling new land was not easy, and, in general, frontier women worked hard sewing linens and clothing, churning butter, making cheese, raising chickens, planting vegetable gardens, preserving jams and jellies, curing meat, cooking, producing soap and candles, and washing clothes. Mormon polygamous wives also took seriously their responsibility to nurture their children into their faith.

During the historical reflection that accompanies Pioneer Day, we can see how polygamous wives also participated in the Western American dreams of independence and expanding land ownership.

Paula Kelly Harline has been teaching college writing for over 20 years for the University of Idaho, Brigham Young University, and Utah Valley University. She has also worked as a freelance writer and artist. She currently lives with her husband, Craig, in Provo, Utah. She is the author of The Polygamous Wives Writing Club: From the Diaries of Mormon Pioneer Women.

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7. Echoes of Billie Holiday in Fancy Free

When Leonard Bernstein first arrived in New York, he was unknown, much like the artists he worked with at the time, who would also gain international recognition. Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War looks at the early days of Bernstein’s career during World War II, and is centered around the debut in 1944 of the Broadway musical On the Town and the ballet Fancy Free. This excerpt from the book describes the opening night of Fancy Free.

When the curtain rose on the first production of Fancy Free, the audience at the old Metropolitan Opera House did not hear a pit orchestra, which would have followed a long-established norm in ballet. Rather, a recorded vocal blues wafted from the stage. Those attending must have been caught by surprise, as they were drawn into a contemporary sound world. The song was “Big Stuff,” with music and lyrics by Bernstein. It had been conceived with the African American jazz singer Billie Holiday in mind, even though it ended up being recorded for the production by Bernstein’s sister, Shirley. At that early point in Bernstein’s career, he lacked the cultural and fiscal capital to hire anyone as famous as Holiday. The melody and piano accompaniment for “Big Stuff” contained bent notes and lilting rhythms basic to urban blues, and the lyrics summoned up the blues as an animate force, following a standard rhetorical mode for the genre:

So you cry, “What’s it about, Baby?”
You ask why the blues had to go and pick you.

Talk of going “down to the shore” vaguely referred to the sailors of Fancy Free, as the lyrics became sexually explicit:

So you go down to the shore, kid stuff.
Don’t you know there’s honey in store for you, Big Stuff?
Let’s take a ride in my gravy train;
The door’s open wide,
Come in from out of the rain.

“Big Stuff” spoke to youth in the audience by alluding to contemporary popular culture. It boldly injected an African American commercial idiom into a predominantly white high-art performance sphere, and its raunchiness enhanced the sexual provocations of Fancy Free. “Big Stuff” also blurred distinctions between acoustic and recorded sound. It marked Bernstein as a crossover composer, with the talent to write a pop song and the temerity to unveil it within a high-art context.

Billie Holiday by William P. Gottlieb. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Billie Holiday by William P. Gottlieb, c. February 1947. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Billie Holiday was “one of [Bernstein’s] idols,” according to Humphrey Burton. He admired her brilliance as a performer, and he was also sympathetic to her progressive politics. In 1939, Holiday first recorded “Strange Fruit,” a song about a lynching that became one of her signatures. With biracial and left-leaning roots, “Strange Fruit” was written by the white teacher and social activist Abel Meeropol. Holiday performed “Strange Fruit” nightly at Café Society, a club that enforced a progressive desegregationist agenda both onstage and in the audience. Those performances marked “the beginning of the civil rights movement,” recalled the famed record producer Ahmet Ertegun (founder of Atlantic Records). Barney Josephson, who ran Café Society, famously declared, “I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.”

Bernstein had experience on both sides of Café Society’s footlights. In the early 1940s, he performed there occasionally with The Revuers, and he played excerpts from The Cradle Will Rock in at least one evening session with Marc Blitzstein. Bernstein also hung out at the club with friends, including Judy Tuvim, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, listening to the jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and boogie-woogie pianists Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. Thus Bernstein had ample opportunities to witness the intentional “blurring of cultural categories, genres, and ethnic groups” that historian David Stowe has called the “dominant theme” of Café Society.

Robbins also had an affinity for the work of Billie Holiday. In the summer of 1940, he choreographed Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” and performed it with the dancer Anita Alvarez at Camp Tamiment. “Strange Fruit was one of the most dramatic and heart-breaking dances I have ever seen—a masterpiece,” remembered Dorothy Bird, a dancer there that summer.

As a result of these experiences, the music of Billie Holiday had crossed the paths of both Robbins and Bernstein before “Big Stuff” opened their first ballet. While Billie Holiday’s voice was not heard the evening of Fancy Free’s premiere, only seven months passed before she recorded “Big Stuff” with the Toots Camarata Orchestra on November 8, 1944. The fact that Holiday made this recording so soon after the premiere of Fancy Free bore witness to the rapid rise of Bernstein’s clout within the music industry. Over the next two years, Holiday made six more recordings of “Big Stuff,” and when Bernstein issued the first recording of Fancy Free with the Ballet Theatre Orchestra in 1946, Holiday’s rendition of “Big Stuff” opened the disc. Both she and Bernstein recorded for the Decca label. Holiday recorded her final three takes of “Big Stuff” for Decca on March 13, 1946, and that label released Fancy Free the same year.

Musically, “Big Stuff” links closely to the worlds of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen, whose songs drew on African American idioms. Like some of the most beloved songs by these composers — whether Arlen’s “Stormy Weather” of 1933 or Gershwin’s “Summertime” of 1935 from Porgy and Bess – “Big Stuff” used a standard thirty-two-bar song form. With a tempo indication of “slow & blue,” “Big Stuff” has a lilting one-bar riff in the bass, a classic formulation for a jazzbased popular song of the day. The riff retains its shape throughout, as is also typical, while its internal pitch structure shifts in relation to the harmonic motion. Both the accompaniment and melody are drenched with signifiers of the blues, especially with chromatically altered third, fourth, sixth, and seventh scale degrees, and the overall downward motion of the melody is also characteristic of the blues, with a weighted sense of being ultimately earthbound.

Carol J. Oja is William Powell Mason Professor of Music and American Studies at Harvard University. She is author of Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War and Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s (2000), winner of the Irving Lowens Book Award from the Society for American Music.

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8. If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?

By Howard Rachlin

‘I know these will kill me, I’m just not convinced that this particular one will kill me.’
–Jonathan Miller to Dick Cavett on his lit cigarette, backstage at the 92nd Street Y in New York

Jonathan Miller’s problem is actually a practical form of the central problem of ancient Greek philosophy (a problem that continues to haunt philosophy up to the present day): the essential relationship between the abstract and the particular. Miller is right. No particular cigarette can harm a person, either now or later. Only what is essentially an abstraction (the relationship between rate of smoking and health) will harm him. Can it be that Miller is just not a very smart person incapable of understanding abstractions? No way. He is a “public intellectual,” a British theater and opera director, actor, author, humorist, and sculptor. And on top of that a medical doctor.

No matter how smart we are, we all tend to focus on the particular when it comes to our own behavior. Only when we observe someone else’s behavior or when circumstances compel us to experience the long-term consequences of our own behavior, are we able to feel their force.

Image Credit: Cigarette Butts. Photo by Petr Kratochvil. Public Domain CC0 via publicdomainpictures.net

Cigarette Butts. Photo by Petr Kratochvil. Public Domain (CC0) via publicdomainpictures.net.

How then can we use our brains to bring our behavior under the control of its wider consequences? First, and most obviously, to control our behavior we have to know what exactly that behavior is. That is, we must make ourselves experts on our own behavior. It is this step – self-monitoring – that is by far the most difficult part of self-control. Modern technology can make self-monitoring easier, but I myself prefer to just write things down. At points in my life where I need to control my weight I keep a calorie diary in which I write down everything I eat, its caloric content, and the sum of the calories I eat each day. Then I make summaries each week. If I were trying to control my smoking I would record each cigarette and the time of day I smoked it – or, each glass of scotch, each heroin injection, each cocaine snort, each hour spent watching television or doing crossword puzzles when I should be writing, etc. Every instance goes down in the book. There is no denying it – this is hard to do. For one thing, it is socially difficult. You don’t want to interrupt a dinner party by running into the bathroom every five minutes to write down that you’ve bitten your nails again. This is one reason it’s good to be married (I’m serious). Your spouse (whose objective view is necessarily better than your own subjective view) will remember until you get home. Or you can (and should) train yourself to remember over short periods.

You may say that by recording your behavior you are constricting your freedom, but in this regard it is good to remember the poet Valerie’s advice: “Be light like a bird and not like a feather.”

This first step – self-monitoring – is so important, and so difficult, that it should not be mixed up with actual efforts at habit change. First make yourself an expert on yourself. Make charts; make graphs, if that comes naturally. But at least write everything down and make weekly and monthly summaries. Sometimes this step alone, without further effort, will effect habit change. But do not at this point try in any way to change whatever habit you are trying to control. Once you become an expert on yourself, you will be 90% there. The rest is all downhill.

After you have gained self-observational skill, you are ready to proceed to the second step. For example, Jonathan Miller’s problem is that, so to speak, each particular cigarette weighs too little. How could he have given it more weight? Let us say that Miller has already completed Step 1 and is recording each cigarette smoked and the time it was smoked. (Note that this already gives the cigarette weight. It doesn’t just go up in smoke but is preserved in his log.) Let us say further that the day of his encounter with Cavett was a Monday. On that day Miller smokes as much as he wants to. He makes no effort to restrict his smoking in any way. (He is still recording each instance.) However, on Tuesday he must force himself to smoke exactly the same number of cigarettes as he did on Monday. If necessary he must sit up an extra hour on Tuesday to smoke those 2 or 3 cigarettes to make up the total. Then on Wednesday he is free again, and on Thursday he has to mimic Wednesday’s total. Now, when he lights a cigarette on Monday he is in effect lighting up two cigarettes – one for Monday, and one for Tuesday. As he keeps to this schedule, and organizes his behavior into 2-day patterns, it should be coming under control of the wider contingencies. Once this pattern is firmly established, he can extend the pattern to three days, duplicating his Monday smoking on Tuesday and Wednesday, then Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, etc., always continuing to record his behavior. Eventually, each cigarette he lights up on Monday will effectively be 7 cigarettes – one for each day of the week. The weight of each cigarette will thus increase to the point where he no longer can say, “I’m not convinced that this particular cigarette will kill me.”

At no point is he trying to reduce his smoking or exerting his willpower. Willpower is not a muscle inside the head that can be exerted. It is bringing behavior under the control of wider (and more abstract) contingencies. This is a power that anyone can do who has the intelligence and is willing to invest the effort and time. And the exercise of this power can make a smart person happy.

Note: There is yet a third step – or rather a flight of steps. I have not mentioned social support. I have not mentioned exercise. Both of these are economic substitutes for addictions of various kinds. If either is lacking in an addict’s life, programs need to be established for its institution. I am assuming that we’re talking about the happiness of someone who already has an active social life, who already is as physically active as conditions allow. Addiction is not an isolated thing. It has to be regarded in the context of a complete life.

Howard Rachlin was trained as an engineer at Cooper Union and as a psychologist at The New School University and Harvard University. He has taught at Harvard University and at Stony Brook University. His current research, supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, lies in the development of methods for fostering human self-control and social cooperation. He is the author of The Escape of the Mind.

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9. The Great War letters of an Oxford family

The First World War has survived as part of our national memory in a way no previous war has ever done. Below is an extract from Full of Hope and Fear: The Great War Letters of an Oxford Family, a collection of letters which lay untouched for almost ninety years. They allow a unique glimpse into the war as experienced by one family at the time, transporting us back to an era which is now slipping tantalizingly out of living memory. The Slaters – the family at the heart of these letters – lived in Oxford, and afford a first-hand account of the war on the Home Front, on the Western Front, and in British India. Violet and Gilbert’s eldest son Owen, a schoolboy in 1914, was fighting in France by war’s end.

Violet to Gilbert, [mid-October 1917]

I am sorry to only write a few miserable words. Yesterday I had a truly dreadful headache which lasted longer than usual but today I am much better . . . I heard from Katie Barnes that their Leonard has been very dangerously wounded they are terribly anxious. But are not allowed to go to him. Poor things it is ghastly and cruel, and then you read of the ‘Peace Offensive’ articles in the New Statesman by men who seem to have no heart or imagination. I cannot understand it . . . You yourself said in a letter to Owen last time that [the Germans] had been driven back across the Aisne ‘We hope with great loss.’ Think what it means in agony and pain to the poor soldiers and agony and pain to the poor Mothers or Wives. It is useless to pretend it could not be prevented! We have never tried any other way . . . No other way but cruel war is left untried. I suppose that there will be a time when a more advanced human being will be evolved and we have learnt not to behave in this spirit individually towards each other. If we kept knives & pistols & clubs perhaps we should still use them. Yesterday Pat & I went blackberrying and then I went alone to Yarnton . . . the only ripe ones were up high so I valiantly mounted the hedges regardless of scratching as if I were 12 & I got nice ones. Then I went to the Food Control counter & at last got 5 lbs. of sugar . . . It was quite a victory we have to contend with this sort of sport & victory consists in contending with obstacles.

Gilbert to Owen, [9 February 1918]

I have been so glad to get your two letters of Dec. 7th & 18th and to hear of your success in passing the chemistry; and also that you got the extension of time & to know where you are . . . I am looking forward to your letters which I hope will make me realise how you are living. Well, my dear boy, I am thinking of you continually, and hoping for your happiness and welfare. I have some hope that your course may be longer than the 4 months. I fear now there is small chance of peace before there has been bitter fighting on the west front, and little chance of peace before you are on active service. I wonder what your feelings are. I don’t think I ever funked death for its own sake, though I do on other accounts, the missing a finish of my work, and the possible pain, and, very much more than these, the results to my wife & bairns. I don’t know whether at your age I should have felt that I was losing much in the enjoyment of life, not as much as I hope you do. I fear you will have to go into peril of wounds, disease and death, yet perhaps the greater chance is that you will escape all three actually; and, I hope, when you have come through, you will feel that you are not sorry to have played your part.

Second Lieutenant Owen Slater ready for service in France

Second Lieutenant Owen Slater ready for service in France. Photo courtesy of Margaret Bonfiglioli. Do not reproduce without permission.

Owen to Mrs Grafflin, [3 November 1918]

This is just a very short note to thank you for the knitted helmet that Mother sent me from you some time ago. It is very comfortable & most useful as I wear it under my tin hat, a shrapnel helmet which is very large for me & it makes it a beautiful fit.

We are now out at rest & have been out of the line for several days & have been having quite a good time though we have not had any football matches & the whole company is feeling rather cut up because our O.C. [Officer Commanding] has died of wounds. He was an excellent [word indecipherable] father to his men & officers.

Margaret Bonfiglioli was born in Oxford, where she also read English. Tutoring literature at many levels led to her involvement in innovative access courses, all while raising five children. In 2008 she began to re-discover the hoard of family letters that form the basis of Full of Hope and Fear. Her father, Owen Slater, is one of the central correspondents. After eleven years tutoring history in the University of Oxford, James Munson began researching and writing full-time. In 1985 he edited Echoes of the Great War, the diary of the First World War kept by the Revd. Andrew Clark. He also wrote some 50 historical documentaries for the BBC.

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10. Which witch?

By Anatoly Liberman

To some people which and witch are homophones. Others, who differentiate between w and wh, distinguish them. This rather insignificant phenomenon is tackled in all books on English pronunciation and occasionally rises to the surface of “political discourse.” In the thirties of the past century, an irritated correspondent wrote to the editor about “the abuse of such forms as what, when, which, wheel, and others”: “Dictionaries in vain lay down the law that the h should be heard in such words. If heard at all it will probably come from the lips of Scotsmen, as they do give full value to the h. In this way the difference of a nationality can, as a rule, be detected. Long ago I had to be present at King’s College when the prizes were given away. A Mr. Wheeler was a winner of the Elocution prize; but he was called out as Mr. Weeler by, save the mark, the Professor of Elocution himself.” We’ll save the mark and go on.

In Old English, many words began with hl-, hn-, hr-, and hw-. In the beginning, the letter h stood for ch, as in Scots loch or gh as in the family name McLaughlin. Later it was weakened to h and lost. The same change occurred in the other Germanic languages, except Icelandic and, if I am not mistaken, Faroese. Sounds seldom disappear without a trace. Thus, when h was shed, it devoiced the consonant after it. In Icelandic, voiceless l, n, and r can easily be heard, but elsewhere they merged with l, n, and r in other positions. Only hw developed differently. It either stayed in some form or devoiced w.

It has never been explained why consonants tend to disappear before l, n, r, and w. A classic example of this process, not related to the subject being discussed here, is the fate of kn- and gn-, as in knock and gnaw. One can of course say that such groups are rare and inconvenient for pronunciation. But such an explanation is illusory, because it presents the result of the change as its cause. Outside English, kn- and gn- cause speakers no trouble. Besides, the loss of k- and g- happened at a certain time. Why did it “suddenly” become inconvenient to articulate the groups that had not bothered the previous generations? We will accept the history of hw as we find it and leave it to others to account for the change.

The reverse spelling (wh- for hw-) goes back to Middle English and can only confuse those who believe that modern spelling is a good guide to etymology. The letter writer, whose displeasure with dictionaries we have just witnessed, made no mistake. The speakers of London, where in the late Middle Ages the Modern English norm was being forged, lost h before w and accepted voiced w (this happened as early as the end of the fourteenth century), while northern England, Scotland, Ireland, and, to some extent, American English have either hw or voiceless w.

Yet some authorities who taught as late as the first half of the eighteenth century insisted on the necessity to enunciate h before w. They may have trusted the written image of the words in question. In 1654 and the subsequent decades, such opinions could no longer be heard. After voiced w had won the victory in southern speech, the “true” (historical) pronunciation was often recommended as correct and returned to solemn recitation and sometimes even to everyday speech. Such cases are not too rare. Consider the pronunciation often and fore-head, which owe their existence to modern spelling. Some people believe that the more “letters” they pronounce, the more educated they will sound. “Ofen” and “forid,” rhyming with soften and horrid, strike them as slipshod.

It is instructive to look at some Modern English words beginning with wh-. Quite a few, including when, where, what, and why, did once have hw- at the beginning. As a result, southerners have homophones like which ~ witch, when ~ wen, whither ~ wither, whale ~ wail, and so forth. (Shakespeare could not know that woe and wail are related, but his ear and instinct made him write the unforgettable alliterating line in Sonnet 30: “And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.”)

The pernicious habit of writing wh, sometimes for no obvious reason, resulted in the creation of several unetymological spellings. Whore, from Old English hore (a common Germanic noun), is akin to Latin carus “dear” (Italian caro, etc.). The Old English for whole was hal (with a long vowel). According to the OED, the spelling with wh-, corresponding to a widespread dialectal pronunciation with w, appeared in the sixteenth century. But why should this dialectal pronunciation have prevailed to such an extent that the spelling of an old and very common word was affected? Home also has a dialectal variant whoam, but, luckily, we still stay at home, rather than at whome. Equally puzzling is whelk (from weolc); here the influence of welk “pimple” has been pressed into service. Whig traces, though in a circuitous way, to a verb meaning “to drive”. Its wh- has no justification in history. Naturally, whim was bound to cause trouble, the more so as its earliest attested meaning is “pun”; no record of whim predates the seventeenth century. Then there is whiffler “an attendant armed with a weapon to keep the way clear for a procession,” from wifle “javelin” (Od Engl. wifel).

The consonant group hw- must always have made people think of blowing and light sweeping motions. Whistle, whisper, and whisk are rather obvious sound-imitating words (which does not mean that whisky ~ whiskey, from Gaelic, should have wh-; whisker, however, is derived for whisk, and its original sense was “brush”). Whir and whirl seem to belong with other onomatopoeic formations. Whew, an exclamation of astonishment, is an onomatopoeia pure and simple. Wheedle is late and has an obscure history.

Inglewhite, Lancashire.  (Cowfield. Grazing south of Langley Lane. Photo by Chris Shaw. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Inglewhite, Lancashire. (Cowfield. Grazing south of Langley Lane. Photo by Chris Shaw. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

By way of conclusion, I may mention several thw- words in which thw- once alternated with hw-. Today we remember only the verb thwart, but the adjective thwart “obstinate, perverse” also existed, and over-hwart has been attested. Another archaic word thwite “to cut” is a cognate of whittle. Thwack and whack used to alternate, and thwack is a synonym of dialectal thack. Apparently, thw- too had a sound-imitative value. In the place name Inglewhite (Lancashire), the second element was thwaite “meadow.” The last name Applewhite goes back to the place name Applethwaite in Cumberland. The change of thwaite to white is a product of folk etymology.

All this is very interesting, except that wh- is often an unnecessary embellishment. For the benefit of those who like learned words I may say that this group is sometimes otiose.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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11. Roll over, Rimbaud: P. F. Kluge, Walt Whitman, and Eddie and the Cruisers

By Kirk Curnutt

Ask folks who came of age in the 1980s what they remember about the movie Eddie and the Cruisers and one of the following responses is likely:

  1. It spawned the great rock-radio staple “On the Dark Side” and briefly made MTV stars of the improbably named John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.
  2. It was such a shameless Bruce Springsteen rip-off that Boss fans considered it as sacrilegious as devout Christians do Jesus Christ Superstar.
  3. It had a whiplash-inducing twist ending that Roger Ebert called “so frustrating, so dumb, so unsatisfactory that it gives a bad reputation to the whole movie.”
  4. It was a box-office flop that thirty years ago this month shocked Hollywood by becoming a surprise HBO hit.
  5. It was a movie you rented repeatedly during the decade’s video boom because it fit perfectly VHS’s promise of cheap home entertainment: undemanding, toe-tapping, and eminently re-watchable, it was an ideal 99-cent diversion that helped you forget VCRs cost $500 and were as boxy as Samsonite suitcases.

What you’re less likely to hear, unfortunately: it was based on one of the best, most criminally underappreciated rock ‘n’ roll novels ever.

In a preface to Overlook Press’s 2008 reissue (the book’s first widely available trade paperback), no less than Sherman Alexie admits he never knew Eddie was originally a novel by P. F. Kluge until deep into his own career, long after “obsessing” over the movie as a high-schooler. It’s indicative of how the film overshadows its source material that Kluge’s Eddie doesn’t even make this supposedly comprehensive list of rock novels published since the 1950s.

The novel’s relative obscurity is a shame, for as Alexie notes, it has literary “ambitions and secrets and qualities” that far surpass the movie’s “mainstream” pleasures. Director Martin Davidson, who co-wrote the script with his wife, Arlene, made several changes to Kluge’s tale of a Jersey rock star who may or may not be haunting former bandmates twenty years after his supposed death. The most significant is seemingly the most cosmetic. Whereas Kluge conceived hero Eddie Wilson as a Dion-esque doo-wop rocker, Davidson turned him into an awkward splice of Springsteen and Jim Morrison. In so doing, the filmmaker altered the literary inspiration that in Kluge gives the musician a model for imagining rock ‘n’ roll as an art form instead of mere entertainment. The change is decisive to how differently each version of Eddie depicts the purpose of popular music.


Une saison en enfer, Arthur Rimbaud, Bruxelles, Alliance typographique, 1873. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the movie, college dropout Frank “Wordman” Ridgeway, the story’s Nick Carraway, introduces Eddie to the 19th-century French symboliste Arthur Rimbaud. Literature spurs the hunky frontman to make “serious” music instead of cranking out bar-band favorites for Jersey beachgoers: “I want songs that echo,” Eddie insists. “The [music] we’re doing now is like bed sheets. Spread ’em, soil ’em, ship ’em out to laundry. Our songs — I like to fold ourselves up in them forever.” Soon enough, Eddie pens a concept album called A Season in Hell, after Rimbaud’s most famous work. His slimy record-company owner refuses to release it, however, because the music sounds “like a bunch of jerkoffs making weird sounds.” The rejection sends Eddie squealing away in his ’57 Chevy, which hurtles off the Raritan Bridge, either an accident or a suicide. The Cruisers are forgotten for two decades later until an Entertainment Tonight-type reporter begins hyping Hell as an ominous foreshadowing of the late sixties, “a new age, an age of confusion, an age of passion, of commitment!” Suddenly, someone claiming to be the dead rock star is stalking the surviving Cruisers, intent on finally releasing the missing opus so the public can recognize Eddie’s brilliance.

Serious scholarly papers have drawn parallels between Eddie and Rimbaud, but the script’s invocation of the poet never really rises above literary window dressing. Davidson mainly uses Rimbaud to allude to Morrison, who idolized the literary libertine and who, according to a farcical urban legend, faked his 1971 death to escape the rock biz (much as Rimbaud abandoned literature before he was twenty). The movie asks us to believe that the Beatlemania-era Eddie predicted the Dionysian extremes of the Doors’ “The End” or (God help us) “Horse Latitudes,” but the song that’s supposed to illustrate his visionary genius, “Fire,” hardly qualifies as “weird sounds”. It’s merely an arthritic gloss on Springsteen’s “Adam Raised a Cain” with none of the Boss’s blistering vitality.

Walt Whitman by George C. Cox (1851–1903, photo) Adam Cuerden (1979-, restoration). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Walt Whitman. Photo by George C. Cox, restoration by Adam Cuerden. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

For Kluge’s Eddie, by contrast, the spirit father isn’t Rimbaud but Walt Whitman, and Eddie’s magnum opus is Leaves of Grass. Having seen Leaves appropriated to do everything from woo interns to expose unlikely meth kingpins, I’ll be the first to say that the Good Gray Poet’s popularity as the Go-To Lit Reference sometimes leaves me craving a Longfellow revival. Yet his role in Kluge isn’t gratuitous. Whitman inspires Eddie to reimagine rock ‘n’ roll as the vox populi, a medium not for becoming famous but for creating the true song of democracy. To produce his rock version of Leaves, Eddie recruits black and white greats from Elvis to Sam Cooke to Buddy Holly (the novel is set in 1957-58, a half-decade earlier than the film). Their mission is to snip the American barbed wire of segregation through a series of secret jam sessions designed to “to bring off the impossible, some fantastic union of black and white music.” What breakthroughs Eddie achieved before his supposed death is as compelling a page-turner as the mystery of who’s harassing the surviving Cruisers. (Spoiler alert: Eddie does not predict “Ebony and Ivory”).

In ditching Whitman for Rimbaud, Davidson’s film became a story not about the Gordian knot of race in American music but about rock-star greatness and fame. That point is bashed home like a gong by the movie’s trick ending, which reveals Eddie is indeed alive but indifferent to the hullaballoo the media creates when his masterwork is finally released. Despite the adaptation’s defects, Kluge speaks appreciatively of it, and rightly so: as a cult favorite, the movie kept the novel’s name alive during the decades the book was out of print. Besides, when the other movie based on your writing is Dog Day Afternoon, you can afford to be generous.

Nevertheless, the lack of attention Book Eddie receives feels like a missed opportunity for rock novels in general. The genre is a diverse, unruly one. Some of its entries are romans à clef that do little more than pencil fictional names into legends rock fans already know by heart (Paul Quarrington’s Brian Wilson-retelling Whale Music). Many others are coming-of-age novels in which that form’s traditional theme of lost innocence plays out like a Behind the Music episode, all downward-spiral cocaine and coitus. Still others are less about music-making than about the grotesquery of fame and fan worship (Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street). What rock novels aren’t nearly as often about is race — or, at least, the alchemies of ethnic interchange explored in such great nonfiction music histories as Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (1986). A handful of exceptions do come to mind, Alexie’s own Reservation Blues (1995) most notably. Yet for the most part storylines about ahead-of-their-time geniuses predominate, and frankly, the plot of making personal art instead of appeasing a hits-happy public is as tired as the playlist at my local oldies station.

The idea of rock ‘n’ roll as both the promise and impasse of a racially egalitarian barbaric yawp, on the other hand… That’s a song in fiction we still don’t hear nearly enough.

Kirk Curnutt is professor and chair of English at Troy University’s Montgomery, Alabama, campus, where Scott Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre in 1918. His publications include A Historical Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald (2004), the novels Breathing Out the Ghost (2008) and Dixie Noir (2009), and Brian Wilson (2012). He is currently at work on a reader’s guide to Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Read his previous OUPblog posts.

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12. Ginger the cat and other newly listed books

Having enjoyed our summer break it’s now time to start replenishing the shelves. This is a quick preview of some newly listed items.

Ginger the cat - the strange tale of a tail. A Tuck Book published by Raphael Tuck in 1945. If ever there was a bold, bad cat, it was Ginger! Beautifully illustrated in full colour by Harry Woolley.
Ginger the cat is now sold, thank you for your interest.

What to look for in autumn illustrated by the wildlife artist C. F. Tunnicliffe (1901 – 1979) published by Ladybird books in 1960. C.F. Tunnicliffe was commissioned to illustrate five books for Ladybird: What to look for in spring, What to look for in summer, What to look for in autumn, What to look for in winter (first published 1959-1961) and a ‘Learning to read’ book The Farm.

A selection of fun annuals; 

The British Legion Children's Annual c1930s.    Jolly Jack's Annual from 1940. The Toby Twirl Annual from 1946 and two Teddy Tail Annuals from the 1950s.  Browse all annuals in stock here
The Teddy Tail annual featured here is now sold but we do have others in stock.

Sardine Crackers anyone?  Set of two Nursery Rhyme Cookery Books;

The Teddy bears picnic and the frog and Miss Mouse's wedding. Cookery for the very young,  simple and safe.Colour illustrations throughout both books by Jill Mackley Hall. Recipes with ingredients that are simply assembled and need little supervision. All kinds of delights for the youngest child to try including crispy nutty delights, sardine crackers, Queens tarts, orange iceberg drink, banana spread, chocolate ice cream cups and corned beef whirls. Covers just a little rubbed on edges and some darkening to edges of pages else very good. Published in 1973. Priced at just £6.00 for the two.

A nice collection of the ever popular Pookie books by Ivy Wallace. Further details here

Ivy Wallace became a publishing phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s with a series of children's books chronicling the adventures of Pookie, the flying rabbit who leaves his home in the Bluebell Wood to seek his fortune with a red spotted bundle tied on a stick; in the 1990s, she became one of the few writers to be rediscovered in her own lifetime.

A keen amateur artist, Ivy Wallace created Pookie during the Second World War. The books, beautifully illustrated by their author with every flower drawn from nature, became a worldwide success with the stories being translated into several languages and Pookie clubs as far afield as Australia, Canada and South Africa. (The Telegraph online) Read more

Cuckoo Cherry-Tree by Alison Uttley. A book of twelve original fairy tales for all ages, imbued with country lore and magic, with a background of woods and fields and cottages where simple folk live. Published by Faber & Faber in 1944. How nice it is to have the original dust jacket with this pretty book.

All the books featured here are available (unless previously sold) to view or purchase at March House Books. Please use the quick search boxes on the home page or follow the links. Thanks to everyone who called in to wish me a happy holiday. I will be catching up with all your blogs just as soon as I can.

I was lucky enough to visit the magical Hay-on-Wye ‘book town’ and the wonderful Alfies Antiques Market in Marylebone and will be sharing some of the 'photos in a later post.
A few of the books acquired on my recent travels, some of which are available in my shop, others will be listed in the next few days.

And just to prove I did more than lounge around on my holiday...
Well, a girl can dream!   

I will be listing other interesting things over the next few days so if you have a few minutes to spare why not pay a visit to March HouseBooks where you will find...
My books are full of pictures of interesting places -
of circus tents and lions and clowns with funny faces!

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13. The exaltation of Christ

By Christopher Bryan

Every Good Friday the Christian church asks the world to contemplate a Christ so helpless, so in thrall to the powers of this age, that one might easily forget the Christian belief that through it all, God was with him and in him. Therein lies the danger of serious misunderstanding: for if any were so distracted by the pain of the crucifixion as to forget that it was God who in Christ consented to be there humiliated, then, from a Christian point of view, they would have robbed the event of its chief significance. If God were not in Christ on that first Good Friday, then Jesus’ cross was simply another of the world’s griefs, one more item in that tally of blood and violence that marks our history from the biblical murder of Abel, through Auschwitz and Hiroshima, to the latest act of inhumanity in our own time. The cross of Jesus is different precisely because in a unique way God was involved in it. Good Friday shows Christians what prophets and psalmist had spoken of through the ages: the pathos of God, who is afflicted in all our afflictions.

But then, as the climax of Easter, the church at Ascensiontide presents the world with an altogether different picture: a picture of Jesus “exalted with triumph” and “ascended far above all heavens,” as the various Collects associated with the Ascension have it. This is a picture so full of divine glory that one might be tempted to fall into the opposite error. One might be tempted to forget that amid this glory it is humanity—our humanity—which is here raised to the right hand of God. From a Christian point of view, if it is not our humanity that is here exalted, then the Ascension is no more than the pleasing story of a god, and has little to do with us. The exaltation of Jesus means that humanity is bound to God in God’s glory. The Ascension of Jesus is therefore a promise, a sign, and a first-fruit of our human destiny.

The Ascension by Giotto (c. 1305). Public domain via WikiArt.

The Ascension by Giotto (c. 1305). Public domain via WikiArt.

To put it another way, Christ’s ascension reminds Christians that the risen life that they are promised will have a purpose, just as this life has a purpose. That purpose is union with God. Human beings in all their evident fragility are, as Second Peter puts it, to be “partakers of the divine nature,” perfectly united with the ascended Christ and with each other, beholders of and sharers in the glory which was (according to the Fourth Evangelist) Christ’s before the foundation of the world. Of course Christians do not claim to know yet what that will mean, though many would suggest that from time to time they catch glimpses of it—in the noblest human endeavors (which as often as not come from the humblest among us), in the greatest of human art and performance, and (in another way) in the gospels’ accounts of the Transfiguration of Christ. Christians are, however, assured of this: that, as Saint Paul says, the risen life will have a glory to which the sufferings of this present age are “not worth comparing.” Perhaps First John puts it best of all, “My little children, already we are God’s children, and it is not yet manifest what we shall be. But we do know this, that when he is manifested we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

It is in the light of that promise that Christians dare open their hearts to the Spirit of God and attempt those lunatic gestures to which the gospel invites them, such as forgiving their enemies, doing good to those who do evil to them, and turning the other cheek. They do not attempt this behavior because they think it leads to successful lives as the world counts success, or because they think it leads to clear consciences. If they did, they would be very naïve. Most likely such living leads to a cross, if they are good at it; or to a continuing sense of their own guilt and failure if (as is more usual) they are not. Why then try it at all? Simply because they believe that God is like this, forgiving those who do evil, and causing gracious rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. And they try to be like God because as Christians they believe that that is their destiny.

Christopher Bryan is a sometime Woodward Scholar of Wadham College, Oxford. He was ordained deacon in Southwark Cathedral on Trinity Sunday 1960, and priest in 1961. He taught New Testament at the University of the South until his semi-retirement in 2008. He continues to write, teach, and serve local parishes as a priest. He is presently editor of the Sewanee Theological Review. In 2012 The University of the South awarded him the degree of Doctor of Divinity honoris causa. He is the author of several books on the Bible, including Listening to the Bible and The Resurrection of the Messiah, and also two novels, Siding Star and Peacekeeper.

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14. Mindful Sex

By Jeff Wilson

Mindfulness seems to be everywhere in North American society today. One of the more interesting developments of this phenomenon is the emergence of mindful sex—the ability to let go of mental strain and intrusive thoughts so once can fully tap into sexual intercourse.

But how do we truly let go of various pervading thoughts and completely immerse ourselves in the sexual moment? Mindful sex is practiced in a variety of medical, religious, and spiritual ways.

In my research I’ve noticed three broad streams for the mindful sex movement. The first category is the scientific discussion of using mindfulness to treat sexually-related problems in a patient or client population. In the past six years more than a dozen clinical studies of the effectiveness of mindfulness in treating sexual problems have been published in respected peer-reviewed medical and psychological journals.

A leader in this field is Dr. Lori Brotto. She created a program for women who experienced lowered levels of sexual arousal following treatment for gynecologic cancers, and mindfulness meditation was a primary element. As Brotto explains, “After a foundation of mindfulness skills was established, we introduced more sensually-focused mindfulness exercises in which women were encouraged to notice sensations in the body while engaged in a progressive series of activities, for instance while having a bath, while examining her genitals in a mirror, while applying light touch to her genitals… Finally, they were introduced to erotic tools such as visual erotica, fantasy, and vibrators as reliable methods of boosting the sexual arousal response followed by a mindfulness of body sensations immediately afterward while they took note of any triggered arousal sensations in the body.” Initial results were encouraging, and subsequent studies seemed to support the assertion that mindfulness practice can help mitigate some problems for women experiencing significant sex-related conditions, especially decreased interest in sexual activity due to psychological or medical trauma.

Detail of the hands of an ancient stone Buddha statue. © Natalia_Kalyatina via iStockphoto

Detail of the hands of an ancient stone Buddha statue. © Natalia_Kalyatina via iStockphoto

Studies such as Brotto’s are designed for the consumption of elite audiences with sophisticated training in the study and treatment of serious human maladies. They use Buddhist practices for clinical purposes, hoping to move their patients away from the effects of disease and biomedical treatment, defined in these studies as greater ability to engage in sexual activity and reduction of sex-related pain.

The second category of works on mindful sex—those belonging to the self-help genre—take these impulses further. These books and articles are often written by medical doctors, therapists, and other specialists, but their target audience is mainstream North Americans without any particular credentials or connection to the health industries. As such, they reach a vastly larger audience than the medicalized mindfulness studies. Books in this category are no strangers to the bestseller lists, and these mindful sex promoters tout their expertise on impressive websites and through popular TED talks.

A good example of this category is A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex, by Dr. Laurie Mintz. As she states, “If you are among the astonishingly large group of women whose chief complaint is that chronic fatigue and stress from balancing multiple demands has led to a disinterest in sex, this book is designed to help you. The goal of this book is to get you feeling sexual again.” How does one achieve this goal? You guessed it: mindful sex. As Mintz explains, “Mindful sex is sex in which you are totally and completely immersed in the physical sensations of your body.”

The goal here is taken beyond dealing with serious medical illness, as in the scientific studies, and reoriented now toward providing what Mintz calls “awesome sex.” Using Buddhist practices in pop cultural applications, these promoters try to move their audience closer to a state of well-being, defined as getting past the regular difficulties of mainstream North American life and achieving more and better orgasms, along with increased emotional intimacy with one’s partner.

The third category is spiritual applications of Buddhist mindfulness to sex. These are typically promoted by people without formal medical or psychological credentials who operate outside of overtly Buddhist institutions. They offer mindful sex as part of a package of techniques and perspectives for personal enhancement.

An example is Orgasmic Yoga. As co-founder Bruce Gether explains in his manifesto, Nine Golden Keys to Mindful Masturbation:

“Mindful masturbation is a simple, yet powerful practice. It requires dedication, and becomes its own reward. Just pay full attention while you masturbate. Don’t let yourself get distracted by imagination. Keep your primary focus on yourself, your own body, your penis and your own sensations. This path of self-pleasure can take you into realms of ecstasy you have never before experienced.” 

Mindful sex is framed in religious language here, rather than medical or psychological ones. As Gether says, “your penis is sacred… Your penis is an organ designed to provide you with the awareness that you are one with all things.” These spiritual applications of mindful sex go even further than the self-help ones, using Buddhist practices to help initiates achieve self-growth and transcendental bliss.

What are the points that I want to make with all of this? First, North Americans use Buddhist practices to enhance their desires, rather than retreat from or conquer them. Mindfulness of the body used to be an ascetic monastic practice designed to eliminate sexual feelings and break down the erroneous sense of an enduring personal self. Mindful sex is a pleasure-enhancing practice designed for laypeople to rekindle their sexual fires, promote self-esteem, and variously lead the practitioner to mind-blowing orgasm, greater bonding, or perhaps metaphysical oneness with all.

This transformation may be seen as ironic, but it is not without precedent, as Buddhism has been used for achieving these-worldly benefits more or less since its creation, be they faith-healing, safe childbirth, protection from harm, and so on. This sort of flexibility is what allows complex religious traditions such as Buddhism to cross cultural borders and find niches in new societies. By appearing in scientific, self-help, and spiritual modes, mindfulness is able to influence a far larger percentage of North Americans than the relatively small number of formal Buddhist adherents.

Jeff Wilson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies at Renison University College (University of Waterloo). He is the author of Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America, Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South, and Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture.

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15. Debussy and the Great War

By Eric Frederick Jensen

When war was declared in the summer of 1914, Claude Debussy was fifty-one. Widely regarded as the greatest living French composer, he lived in Paris in a fashionable, elegant neighborhood near the Bois de Boulogne. Politics had never held much interest for him, and as the movement toward war increased in both France and Germany, Debussy’s focus was on more personal matters. He worried about his growing debt, a result of consistently living beyond his means. And he was frightened by his lack of productivity: in the past few years he’d produced only a handful of compositions.

When France’s armies were mobilized, Debussy was genuinely astonished by the fervor it aroused. He himself was not a flag-waver, and took some pride in observing that he had never “had occasion to handle a gun.” But he was drawn into a more active role as family and friends became involved, and as the German invasion threatened to overrun Paris.

That September he witnessed the repulse of the German forces from temporary asylum in Angers, and grew increasingly horrified by daily reports in the French press of “Hun atrocities” against civilians in Belgium and France. The violation of Belgian neutrality by the Germans (“the rape of Belgium”) served as the basis for what became a well-organized propaganda campaign, one that soon drew on Debussy’s fame.

One of the first publications intended to broaden support for the Allies appeared in November 1914: King Albert’s Book. A Tribute to the Belgian King and People from Representative Men and Women Throughout the World. The popular English novelist, Hall Caine, was listed as “general organizer,” and there were more than 200 contributors from all branches of the arts, including Edward Elgar, Jack London, Edith Wharton, Walter Crane, Maurice Maeterlinck, and Anatole France. Debussy was one of the few composers approached to be part of the project, and contributed a short piano piece, Berceuse héroïque. He described it as as “melancholy and discreet . . . with no pretensions other than to offer a homage to so much patient suffering.”

Claude Debussy. Ink drawing by Joseph Muller. Digital ID: 1147651. New York Public Library.

Claude Debussy. Ink drawing by Joseph Muller. Digital ID: 1147651. New York Public Library.

The Berceuse was followed by two brief piano pieces similar in intent: Page d’album and Elégie. Page d’album was composed in June 1915 for a concert series created to supplying clothing for the wounded. Debussy’s wife, Emma, was involved with the project, and that helps to explain his participation. The Elégie, a simple and solemn piece, was published six months later in Pages inédites sur la femme et la guerre. Profits from sale of the book were intended for war orphans.

That same month Debussy completed his final work directly inspired by the war effort: Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus des maisons (Christmas for Homeless Children). Here Debussy presented children as an illustration of the horror and atrocities of war. He composed both words and music. Its recurrent refrain—“Revenge the children of France!”—gives an indication of its mood. (The following year Debussy started work on a cantata about Joan of Arc, Ode à la France, set in Rheims—whose cathedral, destroyed by German shelling, had become a symbol both of French fortitude and German barbarity—but completed only a few sketches.)

Life in Paris during the war years became more and more of a challenge, with increasing shortages of food and fuel, and a steady escalation in their cost. In time it became difficult for Debussy simply to earn a living. Concert life was reduced, as were commissions for new compositions. Debussy’s last surviving, musical autograph—a short, improvisatory piano piece—was presented as a form of payment to his coal-dealer, probably in February or March 1917.

It came as a surprise to Debussy that, in the midst of all these hardships, he began to compose more than he had in years, including works more substantial in size and broader in their appeal. Among them were En Blanc et Noir (for two pianos), the Etudes (for solo piano), and a set of sonatas, including ones for violin and cello. These were not propagandistic pieces, but the war affected them nonetheless. They were created, Debussy confided to a friend, “not so much for myself, [but ]to offer proof, small as it may be, that 30 million Boches can not destroy French thought . . . I think of the youth of France, senselessly mowed down by those merchants of ‘Kultur’ . . . What I am writing will be a secret homage to them.” For the sonatas, the last compositions completed before his death, he provided a new signature: “Claude Debussy, musicien français”—an indication not just of Debussy’s nationalism during a time of war, but of the heritage he drew upon in writing them.

Debussy died of cancer on 21 March 1918, at a time when Paris was under attack as part of a mammoth, final German offensive. But by that time his perception of the war had altered. The years of carnage had made a straight-forward patriotic stance simplistic. “When will hate be exhausted?” Debussy wrote. “Or is it hate that’s the issue in all this? When will the practice cease of entrusting the destiny of nations to people who see humanity as a way of furthering their careers?”

Eric Frederick Jensen received a doctorate in musicology from the Eastman School of Music. He has written widely in his areas of expertise: German Romanticism, and nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French music. His studies of Debussy and Robert Schumann are in the Master Musicians Series.

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16. Tag! I’m it…

"Do you run?" you might ask.

"Only when chased." I would reply.

"Do you blog?" you might ask.

"Only when  tagged."

So thank goodness for K.G. Campbell tapping me on the virtual shoulder and saying... "You're it!"


Last week, the funny and fabulously talented K.G. Campbell was "it" in this 4 question game of blog tag.  A game in which a bunch of authors and illustrators are running about tagging each other's blogs, answering questions about their working process.


Here is a link to Mr. Campbell's Q and A.

And here is mine...

Ready. Set. Go!


What am I currently working on?

I'm usually juggling 3 projects simultaneously.

This is what is on my desk today...

















Work in Progress from SEA REX (Summer 2015, Viking) @mollyidle via Instagram


I'm also scribbling away on sketches for ZOMBELINA DANCES THE NUTCRACKER, by Kristyn Crow (Fall 2015, Bloomsbury).

And... FLORA AND THE PEACOCKS (Spring 2016, Chronicle)


How does my work differ from others of it's genre?

This is an interesting question. I think that if I were a writer of thrilling crime mysteries, or satire, or historical fiction, it might be easier to find a genre basis of comparison, and then to say how my work differs. But picture books aren't really a genre. They're a medium. They are means to tell a story, like a novel, or a comic strip, or a movie. There are as many different ways to utilize the medium of picture books as there are different people making them... that's one of the things I love most about them (picture books and picture book makers).

And while I don't constrain myself to any particular genre when working within the medium of picture books, I do find that the stories I gravitate towards, the stories I want to tell, do tend to  have a few elements in common.... improbability, theatricality, sincerity and humor.


Why do I write what I write?

Because I enjoy it!  And because I love a challenge.

An idea for a story will strike me, and the prospect of telling it, and telling it well, is at once tantalizing and terrifying.

The terror is what causes me to procrastinate.

I know the depth of the work involved in getting a story just right. It's daunting. No sane person would willingly spend months, or years, fussing over 32 pages and  200 words, or 50 words, or one word... or no words! So, often, I will sit on idea, mulling it over for ages in my mind before I ever put pencil to paper.

But the terror is inevitably overcome by the tantalizing vision I  had in that moment when an idea lit. That warm mental lightbulb glow... The vision of how awesome the story could be... So, I start scribbling.


How does my storytelling process work?

Does my storytelling process work? This questions supposes that it does...and I like that idea...so I'm running with it! (This is the only other instance in which you will see me run.)

I sometimes wish fervently that I had a set process which worked for every story...

Every story, every project, seems do demand it's own way of working. And so, I find I'm reinventing the wheel whenever I start something new.

Sometimes the words come first, sometimes an image, sometimes a whole world magically appears out of nowhere and it seems all I have to do is take dictation.

But however it begins, I find myself amassing a bunch of words scribbled in my notebook and a bunch of earnest, if unintelligible, lines drawn in my sketchbook.  They look like this...


penguin notes_photo












When I think I have everything figured out, I start working on constructing full sentences and/or full sketches. That is to say, that I think I have everything figured out to make the story work. But that is a very different thing than having everything figured out that will make the story work as a picture book.

Those are two very different things. I mean, can make a really beautiful drawing that works compositionally... But that doesn't matter a lick, if it doesn't work in the context of the book. Pacing, page turns, design, all this gets figured out when I start working to scale on the sequential images. Like this...














That's the uphill work for me. Once the sketches are done, the rest of the process feels like coasting...













FLORA and the PENGUIN (September 2014, Chronicle)



I am out of questions, out of answers, and out of breath from all this virtual running.


Tag, Greg Pizzoli - you're it!




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17. The Gardener of Versailles

The Gardener of Versailles by Alain Baraton is a delightful book whether you are interested in gardening or Versailles. Baraton has been the Gardener in Chief at Versailles since 1982. Don’t you just love that title? He was the youngest ever installed in the position. He began working at Versailles in the 1970s with no intent on becoming a gardener. As a teen all he wanted was to have enough money to afford his scooter and the hobby of photography he decided to take up. He mowed lawns and weeded for cash. He had no real aspirations for anything so his parents enrolled him in horticulture school. Afterwards, he got a job at Versailles selling tickets at the gate and after a little while there was an opening for a novice gardener and he was given the job which he only took because the chief gardener at the time told him he would be able to live free in the gardens in one of the employee apartments.

As a young man who didn’t believe himself to be very attractive to women, he found that being a gardener at Versailles and living on the grounds had its perks. He was able to provide private tours to willing young women who suddenly found him very attractive. Heh. Years later he met his wife at Versailles. She was visiting the gardens alone and got caught in a downpour and he invited her into his house to dry off and warm up.

The Gardener of Versailles is an enjoyable mix of memoir, history, and personal opinion from an experienced gardener. I fell in love with Baraton at the start when he talks about the trees of Versailles:

I’m not an overly sentimental or nostalgic person; I don’t wring my hands in pity over a broken vase, and I don’t play Mozart for my hydrangeas. But a tree is a living thing. After living alongside my trees for more than thirty years, I’ve acquired more than simple know-how. I feel something like botanical sympathy; I can tell whether a tree needs attention, whether it is suffering or flourishing.

There was a severe and devastating storm that hit Versailles in 1999. The garden lost more than 18,000 trees that were either uprooted by the storm or were so damaged they had to be cut down. Baraton was heartbroken over the losses and it still haunts him all these years later. Throughout the book he keeps returning to the storm again and again; there was the garden before and the garden after and the garden after is just not the same.

Of course with any top position one finds that one no longer gets to spend as much time doing the things one loves most. Baraton discovered that as Gardener in Chief he spends most of his time worrying about budgets and filling out paperwork. Nonetheless, he still makes it out into the gardens and does he ever have some good stories!

You might think his greatest enemy would be drought or flood or pests but it turns out it is busloads of senior citizens. The elderly women are, more often than not, plant thieves, sometimes uprooting entire plants and stashing them in bags to take home!

On the other end of the spectrum are the young couples who think they will have an exciting and romantic time having sex in a secluded part of the garden. Only many times they only think they are out of the way and have been discovered by tour groups, almost run over by a lawn mower or suffered other indignities. Baraton feels for them though and offers some helpful suggestions for would-be lovers:

dress appropriately. Versailles is infested with mosquitoes, and I’ve seen more than one romantic idyll ruined by the impromptu arrival of a swarm of hostile insects. The destination should be the broad, green allées in the depths of the domain — the air is purer and the landscape will lend a charming country atmosphere to your lovemaking. There are also fewer passersby, and with luck, you might even see some wild animals…Above all else these distant destinations allow you the occasion for a long walk — the distance will allow you to get to know one another better, and as the case may be, fan the flames of your companion’s desires or reassure your companions of your good intentions.

Versailles is used to people making love. The various Louiss (Louis’s? Louisies? Louises?), especially the XIVth, had mistresses galore. The statues even tell tales. Louis XIV had a statue of himself as Eloquence made for the garden. His statue was placed so it looked directly at a statue of the nude huntress Diana, made in the likeness of his favorite mistress. When the statues were revealed the affair was made public. Louis’s wife was incensed and had a couple of yews planted to keep the two statues from looking at each other.

And mixed in with all of that is a dose of gardening advice:

But a good gardener should never lose sight of the fact that gardening is a perpetual balancing act of pleasure and necessity. The healthiest plants are obtained by those who know and respect the laws of nature.


What makes a good gardener? The essential ingredient can be reduced to a single word: joy. Our work may be tiring but it is also extremely gratifying.

Baraton may not have started out wanting to be a gardener but he has grown to love the work and the garden he works in. His love for both shines throughout the book making me want to visit Versailles just to meet him and maybe if I am lucky he would show me some of his favorite trees and tell me their stories.

Filed under: Books, gardening, History, Memoir/Biography, Nonfiction, Reviews

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18. Review – Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre

9781408854457 (1)A remarkable piece of fiction following proudly in the footsteps of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime WalkThe Yellow Birds and Redeployment. Wars never truly end for everyone involved and this is the territory Michael Pitre explores in his impressive debut novel.

On the eve on the Arab Spring in Tunisia three men are grappling with their futures now that their war has supposedly finished. Each is scarred and tainted by what they have witnessed and the decisions they have made. They are changed men returning to a changing world not sure if they achieved what they were fighting for. And if they possibly did whether it was worth the price.

Lieutenant Pete Donovan led a Marine platoon in charge of repairing potholes outside of Baghdad. What sounds like an innocuous responsibility is in fact extremely dangerous work as every pothole Donovan’s platoon must repair contains an IED. Every time.

The novel is told in flashbacks. Donovan has resigned his commission as an officer in the Marine Corps and is studying for his MBA in New Orleans. He is removed and detached from his class mates as well as the men and women with whom he served.

Lester ‘Doc’ Pleasant was the corpsman in Donovan’s platoon. His war ended with a dishonourable discharge. All the doors that Donovan’s service opened for him are closed for Lester who became isolated and detached from the rest of the platoon well before their deployment finished.

The third man is known only as Dodge. He was the platoon’s Iraqi-born interpreter. Through Dodge we see what the war means for Iraqis. The damage it has caused not just physically on the towns, cities and countryside but that damage it has caused to families, friendships and individuals.

Dodge’s story is the most powerful and insightful of the novel. While the lives of Donovan’s platoon are directly in his hands, Dodge’s own life and the people around him are a day-to-day juggling act where loyalties are won and lost, tested and betrayed.

Each man must try to make sense of the senseless violence they have lived and breathed and work out if they can possibly resurrect a new life from the aftermath.

War is never one-sided. It is all-encompassing and personally harrowing. Pitre has captured this aspect of war with compassion, complexity and clarity. It maybe a cliche to say that this is an important book about war that we should all read but it is only a cliche because it is true. We can’t understand a war until we have seen all its sides and Michael Pitre’s powerful debut novel is the first to explorer the pain and destruction wreaked on both sides of this long and different war.

Buy the book here…

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19. The month that changed the world: Monday, 20 July to Thursday, 23 July 1914

July 1914 was the month that changed the world. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and just five weeks later the Great Powers of Europe were at war. But how did it all happen? Historian Gordon Martel, author of The Month That Changed The World: July 1914, is blogging regularly for us over the next few weeks, giving us a week-by-week and day-by-day account of the events that led up to the First World War.

By Gordon Martel

The French delegation, led by President Raymond Poincaré and the premier/foreign minister René Viviani, finally arrived in Russia. They boarded the imperial yacht, the Alexandria, while a Russian band played the ‘Marseillaise’ – that revolutionary ode to the destruction of royal and aristocratic privilege. The tsar and his foreign minister welcomed the visitors before they travelled to Peterhof where a spectacular banquet awaited them.

While the leaders of republican France and tsarist Russia were proclaiming their mutual admiration for one another, the Habsburg emperor was approving the terms of the ultimatum to be presented to Serbia three days later. No one was to be forewarned, not even their allies: Italy was to be told on Wednesday only that a note would be presented on Thursday; Germany was not to be given the details of the ultimatum until Friday – along with everyone else.

In London, Sir Edward Grey remained in the dark. He was optimistic; he told the German ambassador on Monday that a peaceful solution would be reached. It was obvious that Austria was going to make demands on Serbia, including guarantees for the future, but Grey believed that everything depended on the form of the demands, whether the Austrians would exercise moderation, and whether the accusations of Serb government complicity were convincing. If Austria kept its demands within ‘reasonable limits’ and if the necessary justification was provided, it ought to be possible to prevent a breach of the peace; ‘that any of them should be dragged into a war by Serbia would be detestable’.

Raymond Poincaré, President of France, public domain

On Tuesday the Germans complained that the Austrians were keeping them in the dark. From Berlin, the Austrian ambassador offered Berchtold his ‘humble opinion’ that the Germans ought to be given the details of the ultimatum immediately. After all, the Kaiser ‘and all the others in high offices’ had loyally promised their support from the first; to treat Germany in the same manner as all the other powers ‘might give offence’. Berchtold agreed to give the German ambassador a copy of the ultimatum that evening; the details should arrive at the Wilhelmstrasse by Wednesday.

That same day the French visitors arrived in St Petersburg, where the mayor offered the president bread and salt – according to an old Slavic custom – and Poincaré laid a wreath on the tomb of Alexander III ‘the father’ of the Franco-Russian alliance. In the afternoon they travelled to the Winter Palace for a diplomatic levee. Along the route they were greeted by enthusiastic crowds: ‘The police had arranged it all. At every street corner a group of poor wretches cheered loudly under the eye of a policeman.’ Another spectacular banquet was held that evening, this time at the French embassy.

Perhaps the presence of the French emboldened the Russians. The foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, warned the German ambassador that he perceived ‘powerful and dangerous influences’ might plunge Austria into war. He blamed the Austrians for the agitation in Bosnia, which arose from their misgovernment of the province. Now there were those who wanted to take advantage of the assassination to annihilate Serbia. But Russia could not look on indifferently while Serbia was humiliated, and Russia was not alone: they were now taking the situation very seriously in Paris and London.

But stern warnings in St Petersburg were not repeated elsewhere. In Vienna the French ambassador believed as late as Wednesday that Russia would not take an active part in the dispute and would try to localize it. The Russian ambassador there was so confident of a peaceful resolution that he left for his vacation that afternoon. The Russian ambassador in Berlin had already left for vacation and had yet to return; the French ambassador there returned on Thursday. The British ambassador was also absent and Grey saw no need to send him back to Berlin.

In Rome however, San Giuliano had no doubt that Austria was carefully drafting demands that could not be accepted by Serbia. He no longer believed that Franz Joseph would act as a moderating influence. The Austrian government was now determined to crush Serbia and seemed to believe that Russia would stand by and allow Serbia to ‘be violated’. Germany, he predicted, ‘would make no effort’ to restrain Austria.

By Thursday, 23 July, twenty-five days had passed since the assassination. Twenty-five days of rumours, speculations, discussions, half-truths, and hypothetical scenarios. Would the Austrian investigation into the crime prove that the instigators were directed from or supported by the government in Belgrade? Would the Serbian government assist in rooting out any individuals or organizations that may have provided assistance to the conspirators? Would Austria’s demands be limited to steps to ensure that the perpetrators would be brought to justice and such outrages be prevented from recurring in the future? Or would the assassination be utilized as a pretext for dismembering, crushing or abolishing the independence of Serbia as a state? Was Germany restraining Austria or goading it to act? Would Russia stand with Serbia in resisting Austrian demands? Would France encourage Russia to respond with restraint or push it forward? Would Italy stick with her alliance partners, stand aside, or join the other side? Could Britain promote a peaceful resolution by refusing to commit to either side in the dispute, or could it hope to counterbalance the Triple Alliance only by acting in partnership with its friends in the entente? At last, at least some of these questions were about to be answered.

At ‘the striking of the clock’ at 6 p.m. on Thursday evening the Austrian note was presented in Belgrade to the prime minister’s deputy, the chain-smoking Lazar Paču, who immediately arranged to see the Russian minister to beg for Russia’s help. Even a quick glance at the demands made in the note convinced the Serbian Crown Prince that he could not possibly accept them. The chief of the general staff and his deputy were recalled from their vacations; all divisional commanders were summoned to their posts; railway authorities were alerted that mobilization might be declared; regiments on the northern frontier were instructed to prepare assembly points for an impending mobilization. What would become the most famous diplomatic crisis in history had finally begun.

Gordon Martel is a leading authority on war, empire, and diplomacy in the modern age. His numerous publications include studies of the origins of the first and second world wars, modern imperialism, and the nature of diplomacy. A founding editor of The International History Review, he has taught at a number of Canadian universities, and has been a visiting professor or fellow in England, Ireland and Australia. Editor-in-chief of the five-volume Encyclopedia of War, he is also joint editor of the longstanding Seminar Studies in History series. His new book is The Month That Changed The World: July 1914. Read his previous blog posts.

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Image credit: Raymond Poincaré, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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20. July- The Road Goes On Forever, Books, Kids and Dogs

   WizardpathsDorothy Scarecrow
 The stories are endless, told and retold.

 In the early days they travelled throught the spoken word; then, the written word, and now, they are reinterpreted in film and electronic media.

 They are myths, folklore, fairy tales and song.

 They are timeles.

 They are tales of danger and enchantment.

 They are the literature of children and they live on forever.


Reimagining fairy tales...Linda Woolverton, Malificent's storyteller... 

MalificentLinda Woolverton is a writer, mother, and wife who also owns five dogs. She is an extremely talented and inventive screenwriter. She has written scripts for Disney that have captured the interest of hundreds of millions of people around the world. She has done this by reimagining and reinventing fairy tales and myths while retaining essential elements of earlier versions.

Her current success story began after college when she formed her own children's theater company, playing in a variety of venues in northern California, and working as a writer, director and performer. She later worked as a secretary, a substitute teacher, and from 1986-1989, she wrote several animated television series.

She also wrote YA children's books. She used one of them, Running Before the Wind, to help convince Disney of her writing talent.

Her films have brought billions of dollars to Disney.


Among her achievements: Beauty and the Beast (1991) including the Tony Award winning stage musical version; co-writer of the Lion King (1994), for film and stage; Alice In Wonderland (2010), directed by Tim Burton; and, Malificent (2014).

Maleificent has currently grossed over $660,000,000.

 Ms Woolverton's next Disney film is her version of Lewis Carrol's Through the Looking Glass, scheduled for release in 2016.

Here is a link to an entertaining video trailer for Maleficent focused on Reimagining Sleeping Beauty. In the trailer, Ms Woolverton describes Maleficent as a "reinvention".


The Road Goes On Forever...

Sleeping Beauty, a fairy tale from earler centuries, and also known as Briar Rose by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, became Maleficent in today's movie version.

What are the enduring qualities of this story and other classic fairy tales? What are the special qualities that causes kids, young adults, and their parents to respond through the centuries?

These were among the ideas considered in a New York Times editorial, Throw Out the Rules! Read a Fairy Tale. Written by Verlyn Klinkenborg (author, cultural analyst, and Yale GrimmsCoverCruicshankUniversity professor). This unusual topic -- for a Times editorial -- was inspired by Phillip Pullman's retelling of fifty of his favorite stories by the brother's Grimm. Here is an excerpt: 

"And that is the fun of going back to the Grimms. The stories veer vertiginously. There is no narrator to complicate things. They occur in a landscape whose every feature is instrumental to the plot. A castle appears if a castle is needed, a dock if a princess is going to sea. There is never weather for weather’s sake. Everyone has a terrible memory and a dim understanding of consequences. Emotions are powerful but simple — envy, love, selfishness. It is a world where boasting and cleverness can make a tailor a king."



Walter_Crane12"The Fairy tale is...a transcription made on one or more occasions of the words spoken by one of many people who have told this tale. And all sorts of things, of course, affect the words that are finally written down...The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep one version is to put a robin redbreast in a cage." 
 Phillip Pullman in his introduction to Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm


The illustration is by Walter Crane.




 Tolkien...Reimagining Mythology 

LordRings"What he wanted to do was to distil what he saw as the narrative story, the myth, of the English heroes in epics, romances, legends, dream visions, chronicles – BeowulfSir GawainSir Orfeo, English Arthuriana (Wace, Layamon, Malory), PearlPatiencePurityThe Battle of Maldon – and works that may have influenced or impacted on these English works, especially the Volsunga Saga, the WelshMabinogion, and Finnish folk-myths found in the form of the Kalevala."

 Dr. Jane Chance, an authority on medieval mythography, writing about Lord Of The Rings in an exceptional National Geographic


NationalDogDayLogoNational Dog Day is coming -- August 26. 

"National Dog Day is celebrated August 26th annually and serves to help galvanize the public to recognize the number of dogs that need to be rescued each year...Founded in 2004 by pet lifestyle expert and author Colleen Paige, National Dog Day was created to honor dogs more than we currently do, to give them "a day", to show deep appreciation for our long connection to each other -- for their endearing patience, unquestioning loyalty, for their work, their capacity for love and their ability to impact our lives every day in the most miraculous ways..." 



Kids Reading to Shelter Dogs and the Nebraska Canine Connection

The photos tell the story.

They were taken at the Nebraska Humane Society as part of their Camp Kindness Program for NebraskaBoyReadstoCagedDogkids 6-12. I learned about this wonderful program from author CA Wulff (we publish her books*) on her excellent website for dog lovers,Up On The Woof.

Here is an excerpt from her blog:

"The program is not just helpful to improving the skills of young readers, but to the animals who find themselves in this loud and strange environment. A camper’s story helps them feel calm, noticed, and less lonely; giving them some loving companionship. Pam Wiese of NEHS says that any shelter can offer therapy reading to their animals for next to nothing. All that is needed are some 5 gallon buckets (turned upside-down for seats) and a box of books. Children don’t need to come into physical contact with the animals, (and therefore avoid any potential risks) but can sit outside the kennel cages, still providing focus and comfort to the animals."  

Here's a comment by Mom Jennie Wright " Our son is doing this and he is loving it! He loves animals but dislikes reading! Best way to get him to read! Thank you for offering this program!

To read more about this program and how it can be adopted and funded by shelters nationally, read Up On The Woof.  We are donating a set of the Planet Of The Dogs series to Camp Kindness.

CA Wulff's books include Born Without a Tail, Crcling The Waggins and Finding Fido. She is associate publisher at Barking Planet Productions.


The Planet Of The Dogs Book Series

“It was wonderful to witness my students applying character lessons from the books in their POD00000002own peer interactions…my students love them…(these books) are great motivators to encourage young people to read”… Julie Hauck, third grade teacher, Sheboygan WI, creator of Pages for Preston, a pioneer therapy reading dog program.

Librarians, teachers, bookstores...Order Planet Of The Dogs, Castle In The Mist, and Snow Valley Heroes, A Christmas Tale, through Ingram with a full professional discount.

        Read Sample Chapters of the Planet Of The Dogs Series. 

CITM-frontcover-jpg-654x945Our books are available 
through your favorite independent bookstore or via Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Powell's and many more...         

Therapy reading dog owners, librarians and teachers with therapy reading dog programs -- you can write us at planetofthedogs@gmail.com and we will send you free reader copies from the Planet of the Dogs Series...Read Dog Books to Dogs....

The photo, above, of the Pages for Preston classroom reading session is courtesy of teacher Julie Hauck. 


ChinaPODSeriesBookCoversThe Planet Of The Dogs Series is now in China 6
Our Chinese publisher, Beijing Chongxianguan Books Co, Ltd,g, has created new illustrations for Chinese children...

Here is a link to the Chinese website.


Balance between audience sales and creative effort is a never ending quest. The influence of customer data analysis on the books, films, videos, and games for kids, the YA market, and adults is growing all the time.  

Andrew Leonard decribed the situation in this excellent article for SALON


How Netflix is Turning Viewers into Puppets

"I hit the pause button roughly one-third of the way through the first episode of “House of Cards,” the political drama premiering on Netflix Feb. 1. By doing so, I created what is known in the world of Big Data as an “event” — a discrete action that could be logged, recorded and analyzed. Every single day, Netflix, by far the largest provider of commercial streaming video programming in the United States, registers hundreds of millions of such events. As a consequence, the company knows more about our viewing habits than many of us realize.  Netflix doesn’t know merely what we’re watching, but when, where and with what kind of device we’re watching..."

Question: Does this mean that violence will continue to overcome  content? Perhaps Peter Jackson, who has become Tolkien's movie storyteller, has the answer.

The illustration by Darth is courtesy of the Atlantic, a great source of information on this and related issues.  


Nebraskadouble-Tornado-Tornadoes Hit Farmhouse, Shelter, and Gardens of Way Cool Dogs

I have long been a fan of Nancy Houser's Way Cool Dogs website for the never ending flow of quality information, news and insights for dog lovers. Alas, mother nature, in the form of tornadoes, brought destruction to her area of Nebraska. Here's an excerpt from her report...

"On Saturday evening, June 14, 2014, the Wilcox area … where we live … was hit during the evening by three tornadoes in the area and a high straight wind of over 90 mph. The first thing I noticed was when our large wheel barrow soared by the front of the house into the corn field on our west side, and we could not see in front of our hand.

It was as if our world was wrapped in a gray cellophane with high winds drowning everything around it. We could not even hear the emergency sirens coming from Wilcox, about one-quarter mile from us. But a preliminary count of 9 tornadoes landed that night, from Wilcox-Hildreth-Minden area on northward, leaving a trail of damage that resembled a war zone...

Read more: Way Cool Dogs

Recovery: This post, written by Nancy with affection and a sense of humor, is for all:

Reasons Why I Love My Dog

WCDJoyfulJasmineThere are many reasons why I love my dog, starting with the massive amounts of unconditional love my dog has for me. In fact, unconditional love is a key word in every relationship, whether it involves your partner or your pet. I went out and did a little researching on dog love,, while listing reasons that work for me and the girls. Enjoy!..

Read all of this delightful post by clicking the title link above. Nancy took the photo of her dog, Joyful Jasmine.

Measuring Canines and Cancer...Nancy has also posted regarding a pioneering scientific study at Vanderbilt University that is studying the effect of therapy dogs and children with cancer (over 13,000 children diagnosed with cancer every year in the USA).
Here is the link: Children's Cancer and Canine Connection.


DancingIf ever there is tomorrow when we're not together... there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart... I'll always be with you.” ...A.A. Milne


Always # Like A Girl


I found this important, eye-opening video on Maria Tatar's Breezes from Wonderland blog. The video deals with self esteem, puberty, and being a girl.

Here is the Link; Like A Girl...Created by Always.com 


An Age of the Imagination

ArthurRackhamAliceTeaParty "The story of the child is the story of literature itself: of finding characters that fit your mold; of telling tales about yourself to audiences skeptical or censoring; odealing with parental stricture, pedagogic task, and social expectation in ways that preserve the inner self while at the same time keeping on the mask of conformity.

Girls and boys do it differently, but what their stories always tell us is that childhood is an age of the imagination, and that every time we enter into fiction, we step back into a childhood of 'what if' or 'once upon a time'."

Seth Lerer in his book, Children's Literature, A Reader's History from Aesop to Harry Potter. The illustration is by Arthur Rackham.


Book War Intensifies

David Streitfeld writes in the New York Times...

"The confrontation between Amazon and Hachette is growing louder and meaner, as the 
HachetteBookscombatants drop all pretense that this is a reasonable dispute among reasonable people...

For more than six months, Amazon has been trying to wring better e-book terms out of Hachette. The publisher, which is the fourth largest in the United States and whose imprints include Little Brown and Grand Central Publishing, is energetically resisting.

Amazon has responded by delaying shipments of Hachette books and making it harder for customers to order them. Hachette authors have responded by publicly excoriating Amazon.

With its newest proposal, Amazon is trying to break the impasse by getting Hachette’s writers to switch allegiances"... Here's the link to read it all:  Book War 


 Wags for Mags 


PGI "Wags for Mags" is a student-led organization at Bradley University that has teamed up with Paws Giving Independence to train service dogs to assist those with disabilities. "Wags For Mags" was launched in 2012 to involve students with the service dog training process.

Paws Giving Independence (PGI) was started 5 years ago by Donna Kosner, a third grade teacher, her daughter, Michelle, a physical therapist, and her daughter's best friend, Brandi, an ER nurse. At that time, both Michelle and Brandi were students at Bradley University.


ChesterPGI (service dog)PGI is training and providing service dogs free of charge to people with a variety of disabilities ; they are also providing support to encourage independence. PGI also educates the public to the benefits of service dogs and a great many of their dogs come from shelters and rescue groups.

We salute the growth, dedication and life changing work of PGI. Visit their site: PGI

 Here's a heartening video of PGI working with three disadvantaged 3 kids: PGI Video 



Start Reading to Children at Birth!
In an article by Motoko Rich in the  New York Times,  62,000 pediatricians advocate early reading to nourish the brain...Here are excerpts:

Rackhamfalling_leaf"In between dispensing advice on breast-feeding and immunizations, doctors will tell parents to read aloud to their infants from birth, under a new policy (from) the American Academy of Pediatrics ...

With the increased recognition that an important part of brain development occurs within the first three years of a child’s life, and that reading to children enhances vocabulary and other important communication skills, the group, which represents 62,000 pediatricians across the country, is asking its members to become powerful advocates for reading aloud, every time a baby visits the doctor.

'It should be there each time we touch bases with children,' said Dr. Pamela High, who wrote the new policy. It recommends that doctors tell parents they should be 'reading together as a daily fun family activity” from infancy'"...The illustration is by Arthur Rackham


Kidlitosphere_centralKidLitoSphere..."is the go-to site if you are looking for blogs focused on children's or YA literature...Here's an excerpt from their website that sums it up:

"The 'KidLitosphere' is a community of reviewers, librarians, teachers, authors, illustrators, publishers, parents, and other book enthusiasts who blog about children’s and young adult literature. In writing about books for children and teens, we’ve connected with others who share our love of books. With this website, we hope to spread the wealth of our reading and writing experience more broadly."  

Here is  a link to visit Kidlitosphere



BFPBeaglesThe  Beagle Freedom Project has an important mission... In their own words: "The Beagle Freedom Project is a mission to rescue beagles used in animal experimentation in research laboratories and give them a chance at life in a loving forever home."

CA Wulff alerted me to this special video of their latest success: Beagle Freedom Project TEX-MEX Rescue - July 8th 2014



Sunbearsquad-logo"We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it. Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace." 

—Albert Schweitzer, "The Philosophy of Civilization" -

I found this quote on Sunbear Squad where guidlines, free wallet cards, and "how to" save a dog in distress information are available at no cost for all good people. 


"Sir, he's a good dog, and a fair dog; can there be more said?" William Shakespeare. The Merry Wives Of Winsor


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21. 10 questions for Jenny Davidson

Each summer, Oxford University Press USA and Bryant Park in New York City partner for their summer reading series Word for Word Book Club. The Bryant Park Reading Room offers free copies of book club selections while supply lasts, compliments of Oxford University Press, and guest speakers lead the group in discussion. On Tuesday 22 July 2014, Jenny Davidson, Professor of English at Columbia University, leads a discussion on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.

Jenny Davidson_PhotoWhat was your inspiration for choosing this book?

The book I’ll be talking about is Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park. It doesn’t tend to be a favorite with readers, though I’ve always loved it; I especially appreciated it when I was a graduate student, as there is something about the status of the novel’s protagonist Fanny Price as hanger-on and dependent relation that resonated with my own station in life! I write a little bit in my new book Reading Style: A Life in Sentences about how there is a perfect Austen novel for every stage of life: I loved Pride and Prejudice the most when I was young, Sense and Sensibility as a teenager, Emma in bossy adulthood, and Persuasion now that I have fully come into my own professionally as a literary critic. I am not a huge fan of Northanger Abbey, but I do love Austen’s juvenilia, the short tales like Love and Friendship and so forth. I think in many ways they show us how we might want to read the novels of Austen’s adulthood.

Did you have an “a-ha!” moment that made you want to be a writer?

I wanted to write books for as long as I can remember. (Here is the evidence: it’s my first known work, age three or so, as dictated to my mother.) I wrote compulsively throughout childhood and adolescence, but it wasn’t until my first year of college that I realized that though I really still wanted to write novels as well, my true vocation would be as a professor of literature. It still seemed an almost insurmountably long road, but from that point onward I was sure what direction I should point myself in.

Which author do you wish had been your 7th grade English teacher?

Well, many authors would have been very poor teachers – but I would have to say Anthony Burgess, whose book 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 was my guide for reading throughout my teenage years. He would have been disreputable – unreliable, frequently hungover – but brilliant. Gore Vidal would have been another interesting one to have in the classroom.

What is your secret talent?

Punctuality. I have a very bad sense of direction – all places look the same to me, and I can get lost even in places I know very well – but it is easy for me to be on time and also to have a sense of how time’s passing. You would have to ask my students to know if this is really true, but I pride myself on not wasting their time in class and ending a little early whenever possible.

What word or punctuation mark do you most identify with?

The exclamation point! I do have a soft spot for the semi-colon, of course, and I can’t do without commas and periods. I am also rather partial to the em-dash and the hyphen, each of which has its own charms. I will hyphenate whenever possible.

Where do you do your best writing?

The truthful answer: anywhere with no Internet! I like to go to a cafe where there’s a bit of background buzz – easier for me to concentrate against a backdrop of minor noise than in full silence – and either write by longhand, with no distractions in the way of the internet.

Do you read your books after they’ve been published?

No, but I sometimes have to look up something or remind myself of what exactly I said in the past. My novel The Explosionist was written because I’d fallen in love with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books and Garth Nix’s Sabriel books, and was haunting the bookstore wishfully hoping for something similar. When there really wasn’t anything new along those lines, I realized that I would have to write it myself.

Do you prefer writing on a computer or longhand?

I am still on longhand for a lot of draft-writing. Occasionally I have a project that seems to call out for typing rather than handwriting, but it’s less common. The couple things I always write on the computer, that come easily and enjoyably and wouldn’t feel the same in handwriting: blog posts and lectures.

What book are you currently reading? (And is it in print or on an e-Reader?)

Just finishing Alice Goffman’s wonderful On the Run, which I highly recommend. I love my Kindle Paperwhite, and read most of my pleasure reading on it these days. My apartment is also full of stacks of library books right now that I’m dipping into to make a new fall-semester syllabus.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I have toyed with the idea of taking up “kitten socializer at animal shelter” as a secondary job description. More seriously: neurologist; epidemiologist; copy editor. It would be hard for me not to be an academic of one kind or another, though I suspect I’d be in the hard sciences, computer programming or mathematics if I weren’t a humanist.

Jenny Davidson is a Professor of English at Columbia University in the City of New York. She is interested in eighteenth-century British literature and culture; cultural and intellectual history, especially history of science; and the contemporary novel. He latest book is Reading Style: A Life in Sentences. She blogs at Light reading.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook. Read previous interviews with Word for Word Book Club guest speakers.

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22. Bioscience, flies, and the future of teleportation

By William Hoffman

In pondering how rapidly animal, plant, microbial, viral, and human genetic and regulatory sequences travel around the world over wireless and fiber optic networks, I’m transported back to the sci-fi movie The Fly I watched as a boy. Released in 1958, the film was based on a story George Langelaan published in Playboy. In it, an experiment has gone awry: a matter transporter device called the disintegrator-integrator manages to hybridize the scientist who built it with a housefly. The fly sneaks into the action while the scientist is trying to dematerialize and transport himself from one chamber to another nearby. Two creatures result: a man with the head and left arm of a fly — the head retaining the scientist’s mental faculties — and a fly with a man’s miniature head and left arm.

Hybrid life forms are nothing new in biology. When neuroscientists outfitted laboratory mice with human brain cells, it prompted fears of “nightmare scenarios in which a human mind might be trapped in an animal head,” nightmare scenarios like that of The Fly. Leo Furcht and I noted the ethical concerns surrounding experiments that fused human embryonic cells with rabbit eggs, and human DNA with cow eggs, in The Stem Cell Dilemma. Ananda Chakrabarty, whose name is associated with the 1980 US Supreme Court decision ruling that genetically modified organisms can be patented, raised the question “What is human? This is not a question of the moral dilemma to define a human but is a legal requirement as to how much (human) material a chimpanzee must have before it is declared a part human….”

Hermann Muller employed radioactivity to induce point mutations in the fruit fly Drosophila, sometimes with bizarre results, though there is no evidence (of which I am aware) that George Langelaan was influenced by such experiments in conceiving his story. The technologies that captured Langelaan’s imagination had more to do with communications and information. Communications and culture run the show in his story: the telephone, a constant annoyance that drives the scientist to search for an escape; the typewriter, which he turns to when his voice is altered by the failed experiment; and above all a metamorphic miscommunication made possible by a crude teleporter and a fly. Science and culture scholar Bruce Clarke sees Langelaan’s story and the film as an allegory of modern media.

Another allegory of modern media was the 1960s TV series Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry, its creator, had not read or viewed The Fly when he initially conceived of the “beam me up, Scotty” transporter that Star Trek made famous. Quantum physics tells us it’s not quite that simple to convert a person or object into energy, beam the energy to a target, and then reconvert it into matter. But physicist and author Michio Kaku has predicted that a teleportation device similar to that in Star Trek would be invented by the early 22nd century. (Roddenberry’s fictional device was invented in the early 22nd century by Dr. Emory Erickson.)

The "transporter" on the starship Enterprise. Image Credit: Konrad Summers via Wikimedia Commons.

The “transporter” on the Starship Enterprise. Photo by Konrad Summers. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

J. Craig Venter, who led teams that sequenced the genomes of both the fly (Drosophila) and Homo sapiens, described a “biological teleporter” in Life at the Speed of Light. What he and his research team created is manifestly not a matter disintegrator-integrator but a biological code conversion system. The machine, called a digital biological converter, transforms digital-biological information transmitted in electromagnetic waves into proteins, viruses, and even single microbial cells. Unlike the teleporting machines Langelaal and Roddenbery imagined, Venter’s is based on what is actually known about biology, physics, chemistry, materials science, and informatics. Venter’s converter incorporates a variety of technologies including nucleotide synthesis and 3D bioprinting. Though enveloped in myth, the biological teleporter/converter “is not a myth,” says Venter, whose project was funded by DARPA’s “Living Foundries” program. It is already being used to develop and produce vaccines over great distances, and in short order.

On the subject of great distances, Venter wants to use his system to detect life on Mars and bring it to earth. “Although the idea conjures up ‘Star Trek,’ the analogy is not exact,” the New York Times reported. “The transporter on that program actually moves Captain Kirk from one location to another. Dr. Venter’s machine would merely create a copy of an organism from a distant location — more like a biological fax machine.”

chart - hoffman

The technology timeline above shows the accelerating growth of biological technologies and their convergence with other technologies. Unlike Michio Kaku we do not speculate about human teleportation. We suggest that a self-replicating microbe created entirely from computer code may make its debut in the not-too-distant future. Teleporting it to Mars should be eminently feasible with existing technology. It would be a modest step until the day when mechanisms for our own disintegration and distant reintegration become available, mechanisms equipped with regulatory safeguards to protect us against complications posed by house pests.

William Hoffman has been a writer and editor in the University of Minnesota Medical School for more than three decades. He is the co-author of The Biologist’s Imagination: Innovation in the Biosciences with Leo T. Furcht. He has worked closely with faculty in genetics and bioengineering and with the medical technology and bioscience industries. He has also coauthored books and articles on genetics, stem cell research, and heart disease.

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23. Oh Monday!

My internet was out last night so I wasn’t able to post even though I wrote everything up. Now this morning I seem to have misplaced some files. Happy Monday! Perhaps later I will get it all together and have the post and some photos. In the meantime, I do have a video! Scratch that, to go along with the theme of Monday, I can’t get it to upload. Sigh.

Since I am off to work, it won’t be until tonight that I will likely be able to fix it all. I hope your Monday is going better than mine is!

Filed under: Books

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24. Soliciting opinions on things

First of all, I had a “wow, the banner i created in 2007 using my minimal Photoshop skills is kind of terrible-looking” moment this morning. Is that just me, or…?

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The other thing is that I’ve been looking through one of my many lists of books to read, and it’s kind of overwhelming. So, regular readers of this blog, what’s the one book you feel like I should have reviewed, but haven’t?

Tagged: poll, rqhousekeeping, stuff

16 Comments on Soliciting opinions on things, last added: 7/22/2014
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25. The Turned-About Girls

Cathlin recently recommended The Turned-About Girls, by Beulah Marie Dix, and it was already sort of in the back of my head, because someone else — Mel? — was reading it recently. And I’ve been reading a whole string of things trying to avoid reading any more of Bulldog Drummond, so I started it almost immediately. And it’s really, really good.

The girls in question are Jacqueline Gildersleeve, a wealthy orphan on her way to spend the summer with her father’s aunt and cousin, and Caroline Tait, a poor orphan being send to live on her aunt’s farm. Neither of them has ever met the relatives in question, and neither of them is eager to. So when they meet on the train and discover they’re headed for the same town,  Jacqueline, who’s just read The Prince and the Pauper, hatches a plan for them to switch places.

Both of them are clearly happier with each other’s relatives than they would be with their own. Caroline, who is quiet and dreamy and musical, gets pretty things and piano lessons and two women who come to dote on her. Jackie, who is active and fearless and headstrong, gets kids to play with, new skills to learn as she helps out around the house, and an aunt and grandmother who come to love and depend on her, which is more satisfying than the sheltering kind of love that Caroline gets from Aunt Eunice and Cousin Penelope.

If there’s a major flaw in The Turned-About Girls, that’s it. Dix alternates between Jackie and Caroline’s points of view, and succeeds in making both of them sympathetic, but as the book progresses, it’s hard to avoid noticing that Jackie is growing as a person and Caroline is not. Jackie is the one who does things. It’s not just that she’s working hard on Aunt Martha’s farm while Caroline is being pampered in town — Jackie is actively learning new things. Her new skills go with lessons learned. When she learns to cook, it’s not just a new skill; it goes and in hand with her growing desire to be helpful to Aunt Martha and Grandma. When she gets into scrapes, it’s because she’s learning to have consideration for other people’s belongings. Caroline makes use of and improves upon skills she’s already got – sewing, playing the piano — but there’s no corresponding character growth. The closest she comes to growing is prompting growth in Cousin Penelope. And she spends most of the book scared or hiding or on the verge of tears. Jackie acts. Caroline is acted upon.

I actually started out wanting to focus on Caroline, and getting impatient with Jackie’s sections. Caroline, I think, is meant to be the real protagonist of the book. But Jackie is the one that makes the book compelling.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, because the key thing is that the book is compelling. It just makes the ending a little less satisfying, because Caroline is the one  who gets to stay with her family of choice. Jackie will help out the Conways financially, but I can’t be the only one who finished the book worried about how Aunt Martha was going to cope without Jackie or Caroline to help her out around the house. Right?

Tagged: 1920s, beulahmariedix, childrens, girls

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