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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: biography, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. The Man Who Invented Christmas (2008)

The Man Who Invented Christmas. Les Standiford. 2008. Crown. 241 pages. [Source: Library]

Different readers will have different expectations when they see the full title of this one: The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.

The focus is not so much on Christmas, as it is on Charles Dickens: his private and public life, his writing career, his inspirations, his fears and worries, his relationship with his publishers. The focus isn't solely on A Christmas Carol. Yes, this work gets discussed in detail. But the same can be said of many of Dickens' novels. The book, despite the title, focuses on Dickens' career as a writer or novelist. This book mentions and in some cases discusses most of Dickens' published works. Not just his books published BEFORE A Christmas Carol, but his whole career.

A Christmas Carol gets special treatment in this one, perhaps, not because it has a Christmas theme, but, because it is a significant to his career. Before A Christmas Carol, he'd had a few really big bestsellers. But. He'd also experienced some failures. His last three books were disappointing to his fans. They didn't sell as well. The critics didn't like them. His publishers were discouraged and worried. Dickens needed his next book to be something wonderful, something that would sell, something that would be loved by one and all. He needed a success: a feel-good success, something to give him confidence and something to give his publishers confidence in him again, and a financial success, something to get him out of debt, something to pay his bills.

The secondary focus of this one is not Christmas. Readers might expect it to be related to Christmas, the history of Christmas, its invention, or reinvention. But. Something gets more time and attention than Christmas. And that is the writing and/or publishing industry. The book gives readers a history lesson in publishing. How books were written, illustrated, printed, published, sold. Not just what went on BEFORE it was published, but also what typically happened next. How novels were adapted to the stage by others, by many others. How little control--if any--that the publisher and author had over their books, their stories, their characters and plots. Plays could do justice, at times, to the books they were based upon. But they could also be absolutely dreadful. The lack of copyright laws or international copyright laws. How publishers in other countries could steal entire books, republish them, not paying the author anything at all. The book even has a chapter or two on fan fiction. Not that he calls it fan fiction. But he writes of how other writers could "borrow" characters and give them further adventures and publish them.

Does the book talk about Christmas at all? Yes. It does. It tells of two extremes: those in the past who celebrated Christmas too wildly, too wantonly, and those in the past who refused to celebrate it all, who would have it be illegal. Either extreme seems a bit hard to believe, perhaps, for modern readers. The book tells of traditions. Some traditions being somewhat established before A Christmas Carol, and other traditions becoming more established by being described in A Christmas Carol. What I probably found most interesting was his mention of how traditionally it was goose served for the Christmas feast UNTIL the publishing of A Christmas Carol. When Scrooge buys a turkey to give to Bob Cratchit and his family, it seems he inspired his readers to change their traditions. Turkeys becoming more and more popular.

For readers interested in the life and death of Charles Dickens, his whole career, this one has some appeal. It provides plenty of details about his books and the publishing industry, how he was received by the public.

For readers looking for a quick, feel-good holiday read, this one may prove to be a chore to get through.

I liked it well enough. I've read a good many of his novels. I have some interest in his life. It worked for me. It was packed with plenty of information.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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2. Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos  by Stephanie Roth Sisson Roaring Brook Press, 2014 ISBN: 9781596439603 Grades K-4 The reviewer borrowed a copy of the book from her local library. Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos is an engaging picture book biography that will inspire young readers to ask "why" and "how" as they wonder about the universe. Stephanie

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3. Ivan Pavlov in 22 surprising facts

An iconic figure of 20th century science and culture, Ivan Pavlov is best known as a founding figure of behaviorism who trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell and offered a scientific approach to psychology that ignored the “subjective” world of the psyche itself.

While researching Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science, I discovered that these and other elements of the common images of Pavlov are incorrect. The following 22 facts and observations are a small window onto the life of a man whose work, life and values were much more complex and interesting than the iconic figure with whom we are so familiar.

  1. Pavlov didn’t use a bell, and for his real scientific purposes, couldn’t. English-speakers think he did because of a mistranslation of the Russian word for zvonok (buzzer) and because the behaviorists interpreted Pavlov in their own image for people in the U.S. and much of the West.
  2. He didn’t use the term and concept “conditioned reflex,” either – rather, “conditional,” and it makes a big difference. For him, the conditional reflex was not just a phenomenon, but a tool for exploring the animal and human psyche – “our consciousness and its torments.”
  3. Unlike the behaviorists, Pavlov believed that dogs (like people) had identifiable personalities, emotions, and thoughts that scientific psychology should address. “Essentially, only one thing in life is of real interest to us,” he declared: “our psychical experience.”
  4. As a youth, he identified worriedly with Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov – fearing that his devotion to rationality might strip him of human morality and feelings – but also believed that science (especially physiology) might teach humans to be more reasonable and humane.
    Daniel P. Todes - Pavlov 2
    Ivan Pavlov. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
  5. Although one would expect that this investigator of reflexive reactions would think otherwise, he believed in free will.
  6. Pavlov was from a religious family and trained for the priesthood, but left seminary for science studies at St. Petersburg University. He pondered the relationship of science, religion, morality, and the human quest for certainty throughout his life. Although an atheist, he appreciated religion’s cultural value, protested its repression under the Bolsheviks, and supported financially the local church near his lab at Koltushi. (His wife was deeply religious and their apartment was full of icons.)
  7. Pavlov’s beloved mentor in college was fired as a result of student demonstrations against him as a Jew, a political conservative, and (most importantly) a hard grader. This was a great blow to Pavlov and left him on his own as he attempted to make a career.
  8. He first got a “real job” at age 41 – as a professor of pharmacology.
  9. He didn’t win his Nobel Prize (1904) for research on conditional reflexes, but rather for his studies of digestive physiology.
  10. He more than doubled the budget for his labs by bottling the gastric juice he drew from lab dogs and selling it as a remedy for dyspepsia. (A big hit, not just in Russia, but in France and Germany as well.
  11. Like Darwin, Pavlov believed that dogs had full-fledged thoughts, emotions and personalities. His lab dogs were given names that captured their personalities and were routinely described in lab notebooks as heroic or cowardly, smart or obtuse, weak or strong, good or bad workers, etc. Pavlov constantly interpreted his own biography and personality in terms of his experiments on dogs (and interpreted dogs according to what he thought he knew about himself and other people).
  12. He was famous for his explosive temper –“spontaneous morbid paroxysms,” as he put it. Students and coworkers all had their favorite stories about these vintage explosions. Afterwards, he would make his apologies and get on with his work.
  13. Pavlov was an art collector – with a massive collection of Russian realist art in his apartment. His best friends before 1917 were artists.
  14. To maintain a “balanced” organism, Pavlov spent three months every year at a dacha (summer home) where he avoided science entirely. A devotee of physical exercise, he spent these months gardening, bicycling, and playing gorodki (a Russian sport in which the players throw heavy wooden bats at formations of other heavy bats, trying to knock them down in as few throws as possible; Pavlov was a champion player even in his old age).
  15. He seriously contemplated leaving Russia after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, but finally decided to stay. His Western colleagues helped him financially during the hungry years of civil war (1918 – 1921), but did not offer to support him as a scientist in the West: they thought that, at age 68, he was washed up – but the research on conditional reflexes that would make him an international icon continued full blast for another two decades.
  16. He corresponded with Communist leaders Nikolai Bukharin and Vyacheslav Molotov and was one of very few public critics of the Bolsheviks’ political repression, persecution of religion, and terror in the 1930s. He also praised the state for its great support of science and highly respected some of his Communist coworkers, who succeeded in changing his opinion about some important scientific issues.
  17. Publically always very confident, privately he suffered constantly from what he called his “Beast of Doubt” – his fear that the psyche would never yield its secrets to his research.
  18. Pavlov’s closest scientific collaborator for the last 20+ years of his life, Maria Petrova, was also his lover.
  19. During a trip to the U. S. in 1923 he was mugged and robbed of all his money in Grand Central Station, and wanted to go home “where it is safe,” but was convinced to stay and had a great visit.
  20. When the Communist state sent a political militant to purge his lab of political undesirables, Pavlov literally kicked him down the stairs and out of the building.
  21. When he died, Pavlov was working on two surprising manuscripts that he never completed: one on the relationship of science, Christianity, Communism, and the human search for morality and certainty; the other making an important change in his doctrine of conditional reflexes.
  22. According to Pavlov, the most terrible, frightening thing in life was uncertainty, unforeseen accidents (sluchainosti), against which people could turn to religion or – his choice – science.

How many of the above facts did you already know about the life of Ivan Pavlov?

Featured image: Pavlov, center, operates on a dog to create an isolated stomach or implant a permanent fistula. After the dog recovered, experiments began on an intact and relatively normal animal, which was a central feature of Pavlov’s scientific style. Courtesy of Wellcome Institute Library, London. Used with permission.

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4. Biography in Poetry



Hello, I'm Johnny Cash
by G. Neri
illustrated by A.G. Ford
Candlewick Press, 2014

As I noted last Wednesday, J. Patrick Lewis' anthology title says it all: "Everything is a Poem." Last Thursday, we looked at science in poetry, Monday we looked at nature in poetry. Yesterday, the focus was on history in poetry, and today we'll take a look at biography in poetry. In one final post in this series, we'll have fun with imagination in poetry.

I grew up listening to my parents' Johnny Cash albums, and his Greatest Hits CD (The Essential Johnny Cash) is one of my go-to "setting up/cleaning up/putting to bed the classroom" sound tracks. I didn't know that much about his early life until I read this collection of poems.

Here is an excerpt from the final poem, "The Man in Black:"

"Hello,
I'm
Johnny
Cash"
is how he started
every concert from then on.
that simple statement
said it all.

Johnny Cash,
the poor country boy
from the cotton fields,
traveled the world
many times over,
where he sang
for presidents
and the homeless,
businessmen and farmers,
soldiers and prisoners alike.
It didn't matter how famous he got,
he never forgot
what it felt like to be cold,
miserable, and hungry.
Momma didn't have to
remind Johnny
that his gift was special.
He knew he was not its owner
but its caretaker.

Here's Johnny Cash in 1958, singing "I Walk the Line." Check out that wink at about the 50 second mark! **swoon**

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5. SPIC-AND-SPAN! by Monica Kulling

Spic-And-Span!: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen By Monica Kulling; Illustrated by David Parkins Tundra Books. 2014 ISBN: 9781770493803 Grades 4-6 To evaluate this title for review, the publisher sent me a copy of the book. Candian author, Kulling, adds a new title in Tundra’s Great Idea series. Spic-And-Span! looks at the life of efficiency expert, industrial engineer, and

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6. Anthony Trollope on literary criticism

Anthony Trollope’s autobiography is a classic study of the working life of one of English literature’s best-known writers. His strong opinions on working practices, contracts, deadlines, and earnings have divided opinion ever since. Below is an extract from Trollope’s An Autobiography and Other Writings, edited by Nicholas Shrimpton, in which he shares his views on literary criticism and the critics themselves.

Literary criticism in the present day has become a profession,—but it has ceased to be an art. Its object is no longer that of proving that certain literary work is good and other literary work is bad, in accordance with rules which the critic is able to define. English criticism at present rarely even pretends to go so far as this. It attempts, in the first place, to tell the public whether a book be or be not worth public attention; and, in the second place, so to describe the purport of the work as to enable those who have not time or inclination for reading it to feel that by a short cut they can become acquainted with its contents. Both these objects, if fairly well carried out, are salutary. Though the critic may not be a profound judge himself; though not unfrequently he be a young man making his first literary attempts, with tastes and judgment still unfixed, yet he probably has a conscience in the matter, and would not have been selected for that work had he not shown some aptitude for it. Though he may be not the best possible guide to the undiscerning, he will be better than no guide at all. Real substantial criticism must, from its nature, be costly, and that which the public wants should at any rate be cheap. Advice is given to many thousands, which, though it may not be the best advice possible, is better than no advice at all. Then that description of the work criticised, that compressing of the much into very little,—which is the work of many modern critics or reviewers,—does enable many to know something of what is being said, who without it would know nothing.

I do not think it is incumbent on me at present to name periodicals in which this work is well done, and to make complaints of others by which it is scamped. I should give offence, and might probably be unjust. But I think I may certainly say that as some of these periodicals are certainly entitled to great praise for the manner in which the work is done generally, so are others open to very severe censure,—and that the praise and that the censure are chiefly due on behalf of one virtue and its opposite vice. It is not critical ability that we have a right to demand, or its absence that we are bound to deplore. Critical ability for the price we pay is not attainable. It is a faculty not peculiar to Englishmen, and when displayed is very frequently not appreciated. But that critics should be honest we have a right to demand, and critical dishonesty we are bound to expose. If the writer will tell us what he thinks, though his thoughts be absolutely vague and useless, we can forgive him; but when he tells us what he does not think, actuated either by friendship or by animosity, then there should be no pardon for him. This is the sin in modern English criticism of which there is most reason to complain.

Cartoon portrait of Anthony Trollope by Frederick Waddy [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Cartoon portrait of Anthony Trollope by Frederick Waddy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It is a lamentable fact that men and women lend themselves to this practice who are neither vindictive nor ordinarily dishonest. It has become ‘the custom of the trade,’ under the veil of which excuse so many tradesmen justify their malpractices! When a struggling author learns that so much has been done for A by the Barsetshire Gazette, so much for B by the Dillsborough Herald, and, again, so much for C by that powerful metropolitan organ the Evening Pulpit, and is told also that A and B and C have been favoured through personal interest, he also goes to work among the editors, or the editors’ wives,—or perhaps, if he cannot reach their wives, with their wives’ first or second cousins. When once the feeling has come upon an editor or a critic that he may allow himself to be influenced by other considerations than the duty he owes to the public, all sense of critical or of editorial honesty falls from him at once. Facilis descensus Averni.  In a very short time that editorial honesty becomes ridiculous to himself. It is for other purpose that he wields the power; and when he is told what is his duty, and what should be his conduct, the preacher of such doctrine seems to him to be quixotic. ‘Where have you lived, my friend, for the last twenty years,’ he says in spirit, if not in word, ‘that you come out now with such stuff as old-fashioned as this?’ And thus dishonesty begets dishonesty, till dishonesty seems to be beautiful. How nice to be good-natured! How glorious to assist struggling young authors, especially if the young author be also a pretty woman! How gracious to oblige a friend! Then the motive, though still pleasing, departs further from the border of what is good. In what way can the critic better repay the hospitality of his wealthy literary friend than by good-natured criticism,—or more certainly ensure for himself a continuation of hospitable favours?

Some years since a critic of the day, a gentleman well known then in literary circles, showed me the manuscript of a book recently published,— the work of a popular author. It was handsomely bound, and was a valuable and desirable possession. It had just been given to him by the author as an acknowledgment for a laudatory review in one of the leading journals of the day. As I was expressly asked whether I did not regard such a token as a sign of grace both in the giver and in the receiver, I said that I thought it should neither have been given nor have been taken. My theory was repudiated with scorn, and I was told that I was strait-laced, visionary, and impracticable! In all that the damage did not lie in the fact of that one present, but in the feeling on the part of the critic that his office was not debased by the acceptance of presents from those whom he criticised. This man was a professional critic, bound by his contract with certain employers to review such books as were sent to him. How could he, when he had received a valuable present for praising one book, censure another by the same author?

While I write this I well know that what I say, if it be ever noticed at all, will be taken as a straining at gnats, as a pretence of honesty, or at any rate as an exaggeration of scruples. I have said the same thing before, and have been ridiculed for saying it. But none the less am I sure that English literature generally is suffering much under this evil. All those who are struggling for success have forced upon them the idea that their strongest efforts should be made in touting for praise. Those who are not familiar with the lives of authors will hardly believe how low will be the forms which their struggles will take:—how little presents will be sent to men who write little articles; how much flattery may be expended even on the keeper of a circulating library; with what profuse and distant genuflexions approaches are made to the outside railing of the temple which contains within it the great thunderer of some metropolitan periodical publication! The evil here is not only that done to the public when interested counsel is given to them, but extends to the debasement of those who have at any rate considered themselves fit to provide literature for the public.

Headline image: Classical writing © Creativeye99, via iStock

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7. Biographies: Creating Connections

Writers of biographies must draw their readers into the story.

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8. Biographies: Creating Connections

Writers of biographies must draw their readers into the story.

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9. Celebrating Alan Turing

Alan Mathison Turing (1912-1954) was a mathematician and computer scientist, remembered for his revolutionary Automatic Computing Engine, on which the first personal computer was based, and his crucial role in breaking the ENIGMA code during the Second World War. He continues to be regarded as one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century.

We live in an age that Turing both predicted and defined. His life and achievements are starting to be celebrated in popular culture, largely with the help of the newly released film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing and Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke. We’re proud to publish some of Turing’s own work in mathematics, computing, and artificial intelligence, as well as numerous explorations of his life and work. Use our interactive Enigma Machine below to learn more about Turing’s extraordinary achievements.

 

Image credits: (1) Bletchley Park Bombe by Antoine Taveneaux. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Alan Turing Aged 16, Unknown Artist. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Good question by Garrett Coakley. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

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10. The Right Word

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant illustrated by Melissa Sweet Eerdman's, 2014 Grades K-5 ISBN: 9780802853851 The reviewer borrowed a copy of the book from her school library. Jen Bryant and Melissa Stewart are the dream team of children's nonfiction picture books. A River of Words won a Caldecott Honor in 2009, and A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin won a

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11. The Port Chicago 50: Review Haiku

A infuriating story,
masterfully told.
Justice not served.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin. Roaring Brook, 2014, 208 pages.

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12. Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day is a memorial day observed in Commonwealth of Nations member states since the end of the First World War to remember those who have died in the line of duty. It is observed by a two-minute silence on the ’11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month’, in accordance with the armistice signed by representatives of Germany and the Entente on 11 November, 1918. The First World War officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919. In the UK, Remembrance Sunday occurs on the Sunday closest to the 11th November, and is marked by ceremonies at local war memorials in most villages, towns, and cities. The red poppy has become a symbol for Remembrance Day due to the poem In Flanders Fields, by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae.

You can discover more about the history behind the First World War by exploring the free resources included in the interactive image above.

Feature image credit: Poppy Field, by Martin LaBar. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

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13.

Edward Hopper Paints His World By Robert Burleigh; Paintings by Wendell Minor Christy Ottaviano Books: Henry Holt and Company. 2014 ISBN: 780805087529 Grades 2-12 To write this review, I checked this book out of my local public library. Little Edward Hopper had many dreams.  But one dream was biggest of all—he was going to be a painter when he grew up. In Edward Hopper Paints His

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14. Jawaharlal Nehru and his troubled legacy

Jawaharlal Nehru’s contribution would have had a much longer life had not members of his family systematically tarnished it. From breaking the Congress organization in 1969, to the declaration of Emergency, to the initiation of caste wars, to the encouragement of Sikh militancy, to the decision on Shah Bano, to the opening of the Babri Masjid, and the list goes on, it was Nehru’s bloodline that most effectively downgraded his memory. Experts and commentators connived in this for they were blindsided by the family connection and failed to see the break that was being repeatedly wrought on Nehru’s memory first by his daughter, then his son and then his daughter-in-law and great grandson. So when the time came, and come it would, the haters and baiters of the first Prime Minister easily positioned his memory in the short hairs of their blunderbusses and shot it down.

As it is, Nehru tripped himself up on a number of policies he had staked his reputation on. In times of economic crisis or border threats — as from China — he sidestepped non-alignment and turned to America first. Or, when it came to socialism, he made it known that he would never stand for the Soviet model and preferred the mixed economy instead. That this position was supported by India’s fledgling entrepreneurs of the time only made Nehru’s claim to be a socialist”’ somewhat contrived. Even if socialism were to be interpreted as “welfare statism”, he did precious little on issues like universal health and education.

Nehru, however, played a sterling role in keeping India together in its most critical years after Independence. He was not alone in this, but without his whole hearted support to the making of the Indian Constitution, we would have been a poorer Republic. He weighed in heavily in favour of anti- untouchability, minority rights, and the abolition of feudal privileges which, together, make our Constitution so outstanding. India was a young Republic in 1950, but it looked, talked and walked like a seasoned democratic nation-state. True, he was not alone in this, but as Prime Minister, it was Nehru, more than anybody else, who fleshed out these most singular aspects of our Constitution. It would have been the easiest thing to renege on them given the tensions and uncertainties India faced in the early post- Independence years, but Nehru remained firm.

What made Nehru stand out was his insistence on the principle of fraternity. Unfortunately, it is not difficult to undermine him on this score as fraternity is fashioned on intangibles; it is not made of brick and mortar, nor can it be measured monetarily. Yet, without this all important attribute, neither liberty nor equality makes much sense- they actually ring hollow. Nehru’s contribution to fraternity came through in his insistence on secularism which went all the way from anti-casteism to anti religious sectarianism. He made no compromises on any of these but, unfortunately for him, these can easily be shafted in the name of political expediency. And this is exactly what his daughter, grandson and the succeeding generation did. Secularism has been the single greatest casualty in the five decades of Congress rule after Nehru. It is for this reason that ‘secularism’ today has become the butt of ridicule, and even half literates have a field day in mocking it.

US President John F. Kennedy speaks with Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru at the White House, 1961, from the US Embassy new Delhi. CC-BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.
US President John F. Kennedy speaks with Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru at the White House, 1961, from the US Embassy New Delhi. CC-BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.

Nehru’s industrialization programme required a long gestation period which people, with a limited time horizon, found difficult to accept. Further, for the mixed economy to succeed, state enterprises had to be super efficient in infrastructure creation. Without laying out this groundwork it would be difficult for the other half of the mixed economy to come of age. This was the true meaning of self-reliance as Nehru saw it and all autarkic versions of it put out by his enemies, and some admirers too, are contrary to this vision. None of this could be accomplished overnight by token gestures and oratorical flourishes; they all required careful calculation, and hard core research and development. Mistakes were made, plans recalibrated, Constitutional impasses overcome and before any of these could be firmed up, Nehru was gone.

Perhaps his record as Prime Minister would have been different had he lived longer. True, he had set himself a gigantic task by standing up for India’s economic sovereignty and battling ceaselessly against traditional prejudices. Yet, sadly and oddly, he failed most monumentally in his lifetime not so much on these grounds as he did because he was an extremely prickly nationalist. Whenever India’s physical integrity faced a threat, even imaginary ones, he was unable to take a proper democratic decision. He blundered on Kashmir and we are still paying for it; he totally miscalculated on China; he did not understand the Sikhs or the sentiments that had been stirred up in the North-East. One could possibly excuse him for these sins for India had just emerged as a Nation-State and the fear of Balkanization was very real in the minds of many. In fact, he feared the breakup of India so profoundly that he was even against the formation of Maharashtra and Gujarat as well as the unilingual state of Punjab.

That is not quite all. Nehru could have set an example and kept his daughter out of politics instead of making her the Congress President. This was the first big nepotistic step in Indian politics which was later justified on all kinds of specious grounds by many Nehru acolytes. The other unpardonable thing he did was to choose Teen Murti, the biggest house in the capital, as his official residence. This encouraged pomp and splendour among ministers and bureaucrats, and this strain has only become worse over time. The subsequent conversion of Teen Murti as Nehru Memorial Museum and Library has also set up a negative precedence. Since then, children of many departed Prime Ministers and political heroes have turned their dead ancestor’s home into public monuments.

In balance, Nehru’s legacy is on its way out. It is, however, in our national interest to keep alive his devotion to the cause of “fraternity”. This can best be done if we do not see the regimes of Indira or Rajiv or Rahul as a continuation of what Nehru stood for. If ever fraternity truly becomes relevant in our country again, nobody will remember that Jawaharlal Nehru was its prime mover once upon a time.

Headline image credit: Lord Mountbatten swears in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Prime Minister of free India at the ceremony on August 15, 1947. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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15. Eleanor Roosevelt’s last days

When Eleanor Roosevelt died on this day (7 November) in 1962, she was widely regarded as “the greatest woman in the world.” Not only was she the longest-tenured First Lady of the United States, but also a teacher, author, journalist, diplomat, and talk-show host. She became a major participant in the intense debates over civil rights, economic justice, multiculturalism, and human rights that remain central to policymaking today. As her husband’s most visible surrogate and collaborator, she became the surviving partner who carried their progressive reform agenda deep into the post-war era, helping millions of needy Americans gain a foothold in the middle class, dismantling Jim Crow laws in the South, and transforming the United States from an isolationist into an internationalist power. In spite of her celebrity, or more likely because of it, she had to endure a prolonged period of intense suffering and humiliation before dying, due in large part to her end-of-life care.

Roosevelt’s terminal agonies began in April 1960 when at 75 years of age, she consulted her personal physician, David Gurewitsch, for increasing fatigue. On detecting mild anemia and an abnormal bone marrow, he diagnosed “aplastic anemia” and warned Roosevelt that transfusions could bring temporary relief, but sooner or later, her marrow would break down completely and internal hemorrhaging would result. Roosevelt responded simply that she was “too busy to be sick.”

For a variety of arcane reasons, Roosevelt’s hematological disorder would be given a different name today – myelodysplastic disorder – and most likely treated with a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, in 1962 there was no effective treatment for Roosevelt’s hematologic disorder, and over the ensuing two years, Gurewitsch’s grim prognosis proved correct. Though she entered Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City repeatedly for tests and treatments, her “aplastic anemia” progressively worsened. Premarin produced only vaginal bleeding necessitating dilatation and curettage, transfusions temporary relief of her fatigue, but at the expense of severe bouts of chills and fever. Repeated courses of prednisone produced only the complications of a weakened immune system. By September 1962, deathly pale, covered with bruises and passing tarry stools, Roosevelt begged Gurewitsch in vain to let her die. She began spitting out pills or hiding them under her tongue, refused further tests and demanded to go home. Eight days after leaving the hospital, the TB bacillus was cultured from her bone marrow.

Eleanor Roosevelt with grandchildren Buzzie and Sistie Dall. Harris & Ewing, photographer, 1934. Public domain via Library of Congress.
Eleanor Roosevelt with grandchildren Buzzie and Sistie Dall. Harris & Ewing, photographer, 1934. Public domain via Library of Congress.

Gurewitsch was elated. The new finding, he proclaimed, had increased Roosevelt’s chances of survival “by 5000%.” Roosevelt’s family, however, was unimpressed and insisted that their mother’s suffering had gone on long enough. Undeterred, Gurewitsch doubled the dose of TB medications, gave additional transfusions, and ordered tracheal suctioning and a urinary catheter inserted.

In spite of these measures, Roosevelt’s condition continued to deteriorate. Late in the afternoon of 7 November 1962 she ceased breathing. Attempts at closed chest resuscitation with mouth-to-mouth breathing and intra-cardiac adrenalin were unsuccessful.

Years later, when reflecting upon these events, Gurewitsch opined that: “He had not done well by [Roosevelt] toward the end. She had told him that if her illness flared up again and fatally that she did not want to linger on and expected him to save her from the protracted, helpless, dragging out of suffering. But he could not do it.” He said, “When the time came, his duty as a doctor prevented him.”

The ethical standards of morally optimal care for the dying we hold dear today had not yet been articulated when Roosevelt became ill and died. Most of them were violated (albeit unknowingly) by Roosevelt’s physicians in their desperate efforts to halt the progression of her hematological disorder: that of non-maleficence (i.e., avoiding harm); by pushing prednisone after it was having no apparent therapeutic effect; that of beneficence (i.e., limiting interventions to those that are beneficial); by performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation in the absence of any reasonable prospect of a favorable outcome; and that of futility (avoiding futile interventions); by continuing transfusions, performing tracheal suctioning and (some might even argue) beginning anti-tuberculosis therapy after it was clear that Roosevelt’s condition was terminal.

Roosevelt’s physicians also unknowingly violated the principle of respect for persons, by ignoring her repeated pleas to discontinue treatment. However, physician-patient relationships were more paternalistic then, and in 1962 many, if not most, physicians likely would have done as Gurewitsch did, believing as he did that their “duty as doctors” compelled them to preserve life at all cost.

Current bioethical concepts and attitudes would dictate a different, presumably more humane, end-of-life care for Eleanor Roosevelt from that received under the direction of Dr. David Gurewitsch. While arguments can be made about whether any ethical principles are timeless, Gurewitsch’s own retrospective angst over his treatment of Roosevelt, coupled with ancient precedents proscribing futile and/or maleficent interventions, and an already growing awareness of the importance of respect for patients’ wishes in the early part of the 20th century, suggest that even by 1962 standards, Roosevelt’s end-of-life care was misguided. Nevertheless, in criticizing Gurewitsch for his failure “to save [Roosevelt] from the protracted, helpless, dragging out of suffering,” one has to wonder if and when a present-day personal physician of a patient as prominent as Roosevelt would have the fortitude to inform her that nothing more can be done to halt the progression of the disorder that is slowly carrying her to her grave. One wonders further if and when that same personal physician would have the fortitude to inform a deeply concerned public that no further treatment will be given, because in his professional opinion, his famous patient’s condition is terminal and further interventions will only prolong her suffering.

Evidence that recent changes in the bioethics of dying have had an impact on the end-of-life care of famous patients is mixed. Former President Richard Nixon and another famous former First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, both had living wills and died peacefully after forgoing potentially life-prolonging interventions. The deaths of Nelson Mandela and Ariel Sharon were different. Though 95 years of age and clearly over-mastered by a severe lung infection as early as June 2013, Mandela was maintained on life support in a vegetative state for another six months before finally dying in December of that year. Sharon’s dying was even more protracted, thanks to the aggressive end-of-life care provided by Israeli physicians. After a massive hemorrhagic stroke destroyed his cognitive abilities in 2006, a series of surgeries and on-going medical care kept Sharon alive until renal failure finally ended his suffering in January 2014. Thus, although bioethical concepts and attitudes regarding end-of-life care have undergone radical changes since 1962, these contrasting cases suggest that those caring for world leaders at the end of their lives today are sometimes as incapable as Roosevelt’s physicians were a half century ago in saving their patients from the protracted suffering and indignities of a lingering death.

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16. A history of Bonfire Night and the Gunpowder Plot

The fifth of November is not just an excuse to marvel at sparklers, fireworks, and effigies; it is part of a national tradition that is based on one of the most famous moments in British political history. The Gunpowder Plot itself was actually foiled on the night of Monday 4 November, 1605. However, throughout the following day, Londoners were asked to light bonfires in order to celebrate the failure of the assassination attempt on King James I of England. Henceforth, the fifth of  November has become known as ‘Bonfire Night’ or even ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ – named after the most posthumously famous of the thirteen conspirators. Guy Fawkes became the symbol for the conspirators after being caught during the failed treason attempt. For centuries after 1605, boys creating a cloaked effigy – based on Guy Fawkes’ disguised appearance in the Vaults at the House of Lords – have been asking for “a penny for the Guy”.

Below is a timeline that describes the events leading up to the failed Gunpowder Plot and the execution of Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators. If you would like to learn more about Bonfire Night, you can explore the characters behind the Gunpowder Plot, the traditions associated with it, or simply learn how to throw the best Guy Fawkes Night party.

Feature image credit: Guy Fawkes, by Crispijn van de Passe der Ältere. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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17. Miriam Toews: The Powells.com Interview

Some people are compelled by a restlessness from within; others are shaped by the unwieldy forces around them. In Miriam Toews's poignant new novel following two sisters raised in a small Canadian Mennonite community, siblinghood is a bond strengthened by this dynamic. Elf is now a world-famous concert pianist with a happy marriage, while her [...]

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18. Celebrating Dylan Thomas’s centenary

Today, 27 October sees the centenary of the birth of the poet, Dylan Marlais Thomas. Born on Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, and brought up in the genteel district of Uplands, Thomas’s childhood was suburban and orthodox — his father an aspirational but disappointed English teacher at the local grammar school.

Swansea would remain a place for home comforts. But from the mid-1930s, Thomas began a wandering life that took in London’s Fitzrovia — and in particular its pubs, the Fitzroy Tavern and the Wheatsheaf — and then (as a dysfunctionally married man) the New Forest, squalid rooms in wartime London, New Quay on Cardigan Bay, Italy, Laugharne in Carmarthenshire, and from 1950 the United States where he gained a popular student following and where he died in Manhattan, aged thirty-nine.

For all his wanderings, few of Thomas’s poems were written outside Wales. Indeed, half of the published poems for which he is known were written, in some form, while he was living at home in Swansea between 1930 and 1934. As Paul Ferris, his Oxford DNB biographer writes, “commonplace scenes and characters from childhood recur in his writing: the park that adjoins Cwmdonkin Drive; the bay and sands that were visible from the windows; a maternal aunt he visited” — the latter giving rise to one of Thomas’s best-known poems, “Fern Hill.” In literary London, and in numerous bar rooms thereafter, Thomas’s “drinking and clowning were indispensable to him, but they were only half the story; ‘I am as domestic as a slipper’ he once observed, with some truth.”

Dylan_Thomas_-_Was_there_a_time
Dylan Thomas, “Was there a time” by Biccie. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to its life of Dylan Thomas, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography includes entries on his wife Caitlin Thomas (1903-1994) and David Archer (1907-1971), the London publisher who brought out Thomas’s first collection Eighteen Poems — as well as a guide to Thomas’s fellow bohemians who haunted the saloons, cafes, and bookshops of inter-war Fitzrovia.

The Oxford DNB’s life of Dylan Thomas is also available as an episode in the ODNB’s biography podcast.

 

Or download the podcast directly.

Headline image credit: Swansea Panorama by Sloman. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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19. An Autobiography Agatha Christie

An Autobiography. Agatha Christie. 1977/1996. Berkley. 635 pages. [Source: Bought]

Agatha Christie's autobiography has been on my tbr pile for years now. I have looked forward to reading it for so long! I must admit the length had me a little intimidated. But once I started reading this one, I found myself completely absorbed in it. It is truly a fascinating read cover to cover. I think this one could prove appealing to a variety of readers.

Do you love history? I found Agatha Christie's Autobiography to be fascinating. This book is rich in details. Readers learn in great detail about her family and her growing up years. What Christie is describing is a way of life, and the way she saw the world around her. Her thoughts on her parents, grandparents, siblings, the family servants--the cook and the maids and nannies. You get a real sense of what it was to be a child (and teen) growing up in England in the 1890s and 1900s. She was "out" (ready to date) a year or two (or even three) before World War I began.

Are you interested in World War I? in World War II? Christie details what life was like during the war years. She was a nurse for a great part of World War I. She also assisted in dispensing drugs. She fell in love and got married during this time. During World War II she again did her part in the war effort. I believe volunteering in a hospital. She was in and around London during the War. She recalls how she rarely (if ever) took shelter during the raids because she was afraid of being buried alive under all the rubble. She had a grown daughter by that point. A daughter who fell in love, got married, and had a child during this time.
England was at war. It had come. I can hardly express the difference between our feelings then and now. Now we might be horrified, perhaps surprised, but not really astonished that war should come, because we are all conscious that war does come; that it has come in the past and that, at any moment, it might come again. But in 1914 there had been no war for--how long? Fifty years--more? True, there had been the "Great Boer War," and skirmishes on the Northwest frontier, but those had not been wars involving one's own country--they had been large army exercises, as it were; the maintenance of power in far places. This was different--we were at war with Germany. (257)
Are you interested in archaeology? in world-traveling? She spends a good deal of time recalling her travels around the world. She accompanied her first husband on an extended trip--covering several continents. (She left her (quite young) daughter with her mother and sister.) After her divorce--he fell in love with another woman and blamed her for it--she traveled on her own. On one of her trips to the Middle East, she met the man who would become her second husband. He was an archaeologist. While she did not stay with him the duration of all of his digs, she accompanied him on some, and visited on others. Readers learn that Christie LOVED, LOVED, LOVED to travel.

Are you a rehab addict? Christie loved looking at houses, buying houses in need of repair, fixing them up, renting them out, and selling them. She owned many properties at various points in her life. I believe the book said she owned eight during World War II. The book talks about her remodeling and redesigning houses.

Are you interested in writing, in her writing life? You'll find plenty to delight you within her autobiography. She talks about different sides of her writing life. Her novels. Her mystery novels. Her plays. Her short stories. Her poems. She talks about her mistakes and successes. Readers learn about which books she liked best and which book she really, really hated!
It was while I was working in the dispensary that I first conceived the idea of writing a detective story. (289)
People never stop writing to me nowadays to suggest that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot should meet--but why should they? I am sure the would not enjoy it at all. Hercule Poirot, the complete egoist, would not like being taught his business by an elderly spinster lady. He was a professional sleuth, he would not be at home all in Miss Marple's world. No, they are both stars, and they are stars in their own right. (502)
Do you love to read? Christie shares her thoughts on her favorite writers and books!

I want to emphasize the fact that you do not have to love mysteries in order to find this autobiography of a mystery writer fascinating! I marked so many passages that I wanted to share with you. Too many to actually share. It would overwhelm any post. So just trust me, read this one!

I will choose a quote which happens to bring to mind a certain song from Frozen.
One of the first things that happens when you are attracted to a man and he is to you is that extraordinary illusion that you think exactly alike about everything, that you each say the things the other has been thinking. (228)

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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20. The Oxford DNB at 10: biography and contemporary history

Autumn 2014 marked the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In a series of blog posts, academics, researchers, and editors looked at aspects of the ODNB’s online evolution in the decade since 2004. In this final post of the series, Alex May—ODNB’s editor for the very recent past— considers the Dictionary as a record of contemporary history.

When it was first published in September 2004, the Oxford DNB included biographies of people who had died (all in the ODNB are deceased) on or before 31 December 2001. In the subsequent ten years we have continued to extend the Dictionary’s coverage into the twenty-first century—with regular updates recording those who have died since 2001. Of the 4300 people whose biographies have been added to the online ODNB in this decade, 2172 died between 1 January 2001 and 31 December 2010 (our current terminus)—i.e., about 220 per year of death. While this may sound a lot, the average number of deaths per year over the same period in the UK was just short of 500,000, indicating a roughly one in 2300 chance of entering the ODNB. This does not yet approach the levels of inclusion for people who died the late nineteenth century, let alone earlier periods: someone dying in England in the first decade of the seventeenth century, for example, had a nearly three-times greater chance of being included in the ODNB than someone who died in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

‘Competition’ for spaces at the modern end of the dictionary is therefore fierce. Some subjects are certainties—prime ministers such as Ted Heath or Jim Callaghan, or Nobel prize-winning scientists such as Francis Crick or Max Perutz. There are perhaps fifty or sixty potential subjects a year about whose inclusion no-one would quibble. But there are as many as 1500 people on our lists each year, and for perhaps five or six hundred of them a very good case could be made.

This is where our advisers come in. Over the last ten years we have relied heavily on the help of some 500 people, experts and leading figures in their fields whether as scholars or practitioners, who have given unstintingly of their time and support. Advisers are enjoined to consider all the aspects of notability, including achievement, influence, fame, and notoriety. Of course, their assessments can often vary, particularly in the creative fields, but even in those it is remarkable how often they coincide.

Our advisers have also in most cases been crucial in identifying the right contributor for each new biography, whether he or she be a practitioner from the same field (we often ask politicians to write on politicians—Ted Heath and Jim Callaghan are examples of this—lawyers on lawyers, doctors on doctors, and so on), or a scholar of the particular subject area. Sadly, a number of our advisers and contributors have themselves entered the dictionary in this decade, among them the judge Tom Bingham, the politician Roy Jenkins, the journalist Tony Howard, and the historian Roy Porter.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at the Lucerne Festival. CC-BY-2.5-CH via Wikimedia Commons.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at the Lucerne Festival, by Max Albert Wyss. CC-BY-2.5-Switzerland via Wikimedia Commons.

Just as the selection of subjects is made with an eye to an imaginary reader fifty or a hundred years’ hence (will that reader need or want to find out more about that person?), so the entries themselves are written with such a reader in view. ODNB biographies are not always the last word on a subject, but they are rarely the first. Most of the ‘recently deceased’ added to the Dictionary have received one or more newspaper obituary. ODNB biographies differ from newspaper obituaries in providing more, and more reliable, biographical information, as well as being written after a period of three to four years’ reflection between death and publication of the entry—allowing information to emerge and reputations to settle. In addition, ODNB lives attempt to provide an understanding of context, and a considered assessment (implicit or explicit) of someone’s significance: in short, they aim to narrate and evaluate a person’s life in the context of the history of modern Britain and the broad sweep of a work of historical reference.

The result, over the last ten years, has been an extraordinary collection of biographies offering insights into all corners of twentieth and early twenty-first century British life, from multiple angles. The subjects themselves have ranged from the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to the godfather of punk, Malcolm McLaren; the high tory Norman St John Stevas to the IRA leader Sean MacStiofáin; the campaigner Ludovic Kennedy to the jester Jeremy Beadle; and the turkey farmer Bernard Matthews to Julia Clements, founder of the National Association of Flower Arranging Societies. By birth date they run from the founder of the Royal Ballet, Dame Ninette de Valois (born in 1898, who died in 2001), to the ‘celebrity’ Jade Goody (born in 1981, who died in 2009). Mention of the latter reminds us of Leslie Stephen’s determination to represent the whole of human life in the pages of his original, Victorian DNB. Poignantly, in light of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, among the oldest subjects included in the dictionary are three of the ‘last veterans’, Harry Patch, Henry Allingham, and Bill Stone, who, as the entry on them makes clear, reacted very differently to the notion of commemoration and their own late fame.

The work of selecting from thousands of possible subjects, coupled with the writing and evaluation of the chosen biographies, builds up a contemporary picture of modern Britain as we record those who’ve shaped the very recent past. As we begin the ODNB’s second decade this work continues: in January 2015 we’ll publish biographies of 230 people who died in 2011 and we’re currently editing and planning those covering the years 2012 and 2013, including what will be a major article on the life, work, and legacy of Margaret Thatcher.

Links between biography and contemporary history are further evident online—creating opportunities to search across the ODNB by profession or education, and so reveal personal networks, associations, and encounters that have shaped modern national life. Online it’s also possible to make connections between people active in or shaped by national events. Searching for Dunkirk, or Suez, or the industrial disputes of the 1970s brings up interesting results. Searching for the ‘Festival of Britain’ identifies the biographies of 35 men and women who died between 2001-2010: not just the architects who worked on the structures or the sculptors and artists whose work was showcased, but journalists, film-makers, the crystallographer Helen Megaw (whose diagrams of crystal structures adorned tea sets used during the Festival), and the footballer Bobby Robson, who worked on the site as a trainee electrician. Separately, these new entries shed light not only on the individuals concerned but on the times in which they lived. Collectively, they amount to a substantial and varied slice of modern British national life.

Headline image credit: Harry Patch, 2007, by Jim Ross. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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21. Sebastian Robertson's ROCK & ROLL HIGHWAY: THE ROBBIE ROBERTSON STORY

Decades ago--and now, too--I revel in the music of The Band. I was amongst those who went to see the film The Last Waltz. Of course, I bought CDs, too. At the time, I knew Robbie Robertson was Native, but didn't know much else about him. Today, I'm pleased as can be to share Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story. Here's the cover:



Thanks to this book, I've had the opportunity to learn a lot more about Robertson. Released this year (2014) by Henry Holt, the biography is written by Sebastian Robertson (yeah, Robbie's son). The illustrations by Adam Gustavson are terrific.

Robertson is Mohawk.

The second page of Rock and Roll Highway is titled "We Are the People of the Longhouse." There, we learn that his given name is Jaime Royal Robertson. His mother is Mohawk; his father is Jewish.

Allow me to dwell on the title for that page... "We Are the People of the Longhouse." That is so cool... so very cool... Why? Because this book is published by a major publisher, which means lots of libraries are likely to get it, and lots of kids--Mohawk ones, too!--are going to read that title. And look at young Robbie on the cover. Sitting on a car. Wearing a tie. The potential for this book to push back on stereotypes of Native people is spectacular!

In the summers, Robertson and his mom went to the Six Nations Indian Reservation where his mom grew up (I'm guessing that "Indian Reservation" was added to Six Nations because the former is more familiar to US readers, but I see that decision as a missed opportunity to increase what kids know about First Nations). There were lots of relatives at Six Nations, and lots of gatherings, too, where elders told stories. The young Robbie liked those stories and told his mom that one day, he wanted to be a storyteller, too.

That life--as a storyteller who tells with music--is wonderfully presented in Rock and Roll Highway. Introduce students to Robertson using this bio and his music. Make sure you have the CDs specific to his Mohawk identity. The first one is Music for Native Americans. Ulali, one of my favorite groups, is part of that CD. Check out this video from 2010. In it, Robertson and Ulali are on stage together (Ulali's song, Mahk Jchi, is one of my all time favorites. It starts at the 4:39 mark in this video):




The second album is Contact from the Underworld of Redboy. Get it, too.

Back to the book: Ronnie Hawkins. Bob Dylan. They figure prominently in Robertson's life. The closing page has terrific photographs of Robertson as a young child, a teen, and a dad, too.

Teachers are gonna love the pages titled "An Interview with My Dad, Robbie Robertson" in which Sebastian tells readers to interview their own parents. That page shows a post card Robertson sent to his mother while he was on the road. Things like post cards carry a good deal of family history. I pore over the ones I have--that my parents and grandparents sent to each other.

Deeply satisfied with Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story, I highly recommend it.  

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22. On Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured

I'm always sorry to finish a book, to let go of characters I love, people I've struggled to understand for years, people who evolve before me. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, I've never had the sense I was "making up" a character. It feels more like watching people reveal themselves, ever more deeply, more intimately. [...]

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23. Coded letters reveal an illicit affair and a woman of substance

When an old friend told me he had saved the former Edward Everett Hale house in Matunuck, Rhode Island from demolition and gifted it to a local historical society with an endowment fund for its restoration, I remembered there was a significant collection of E. E. Hale letters at the Library of Congress that might throw light on the house. How could I have guessed this would lead me to uncovering the revered minister’s decades-long love affair with a forgotten, much younger and truly remarkable woman named Harriet E. Freeman?

First I had to unlock the code the writers used in passages throughout some 3,000 surviving letters. As I transcribed the letters, I recognized the “code” as a defunct shorthand, which I traced to its inventor, Thomas Towndrow. Hale taught himself this shorthand while a student at Harvard, and Towndrow’s 1832 textbook became my “Rosetta Stone” to unlocking an intimate, sometimes passionate, and mutually supportive relationship — the nature of which was concealed by the two of them, their families, and generations of Hale biographers.

Hale to Freeman, September 29, 1884. Hale-Freeman Special Correspondence, Hale Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Hale to Freeman, September 29, 1884. Hale-Freeman Special Correspondence, Hale Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Day13.EdwardEHale
Edward Everett Hale in about 1884. Harriet E. Freeman Papers, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School.
Day3.HattieFreeman.HelenAtkins.1862
Fifteen-year-old Hattie Freeman and her cousin Helen Atkins, 1862. Courtesy of Phoebe Bushway.

Hale’s public life and career are well documented, but who was this Harriet Freeman? As I discovered from reminiscences in the letters, Hale’s special relationship with Freeman had its origins in his close friendship with the wealthy Freeman family, his parishioners since her teenage years. In her early twenties, Freeman began working as a volunteer in Hale’s church, the South Congregational Church in Boston’s South End, just a block away from the Freeman’s town house. Soon, she became his favorite literary amanuensis, to whom he dictated more than half of his sermons and a significant number of his fifty books and countless articles. Their coded expressions of devotion to each other in the letters that begin in 1884, when Hale, married with six surviving children, was 62 and Freeman 37, often seem “over-the-top” in typical Victorian fashion, but the longhand portions of the letters are rich in evidence of their shared intellectual and activist interests and love of the outdoors. Quite simply, they were soul mates.

Day20.Freeman&Hale.Matunuck.1887
Freeman and Hale were photographed in adjoining canoes on Wash Pond behind the Hales’ summer house during her late summer 1887 stay at Matunuck. Copy print in Harriet E. Freeman Papers, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School.

Far from being just an adjunct to an older man’s life, Freeman fashioned a full and useful life of her own. She had a passion for botany and geology, which she studied at the Teacher’s School of Science (a venture of the Boston Society of Natural History and Boston Tech, later MIT) and then as a special student at Boston Tech, when she participated in multiple field trips in North America. Active in leadership roles in a number of the women’s clubs and organizations that pursued philanthropy and reform in women’s higher education and human rights, she also became a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club once women were allowed to join in 1879. Spending her summers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where Hale joined her for the month of August and other shorter visits, she was an activist for preserving the severely threatened forests of the region, persuading Hale to lend his authority to the cause when he became chaplain to the US Senate in 1904.

Lowe-072
Freeman, at second left, greets a cousin and is accompanied by her naturalist traveling companion and friend Emma Cummings and nephew Fred Freeman at the start of a week-long hike in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains in July 1902. From an album of photographs documenting the hike, courtesy of Alan Lowe.

The story of Harriet Freeman and Edward Hale is valuable for two reasons: it sheds new light on the already celebrated E. E. Hale and it comprehensively documents the life of a truly remarkable woman. I began by thinking that “Hattie” could only be overshadowed by the overpowering legend and charismatic personality of Edward Everett Hale. Instead, I found multiple reasons why he felt she transformed his life. At last, and 84 years after her death, the formerly obscure Harriet Freeman is recognized with a profile in American National Biography Online.

Hattie'sgrave.4.2.09
Sara Day at Harriet Freeman’s grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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24. The 100th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s birth

On 27th October 1914 Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea, South Wales. He is widely regarded as one the most significant Welsh writers of the 20th century.Thomas’s popular reputation has continued to grow after his death on 9th November, 1953, despite some critics describing his work as too ‘florid‘. He wrote prolifically throughout his lifetime but is arguably best known for his poetry. His poem The hand that signed the paper is taken from Jon Stallworthy’s edited collection The Oxford Book of War Poetry, and can be found below:

DYLAN THOMAS

1914–1953

The hand that signed the paper

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;

Dylan_Swansea
Statue of Dylan Thomas, Maritime Quarter, Swansea, by Tony in Devon. CC-BY-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,

Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;

These five kings did a king to death.

The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,

The finger joints are cramped with chalk;

A goose’s quill has put an end to murder

That put an end to talk.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,

And famine grew, and locusts came;

Great is the hand that holds dominion over

Man by a scribbled name.

The five kings count the dead but do not soften

The crusted wound nor stroke the brow;

A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;

Hands have no tears to flow.

                                                                                            1936

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25. El Deafo by Cece Bell

El Deafo Written and illustrated by Cece Bell Amulet Books; an imprint of Abrams. 2014 ISBN: 9781409710209 Grades 3-12 To write this review, I borrowed a copy of this book from my local public library. Everyone has a superpower. What is yours? In El Deafo, author-illustrator Cece Bell shares her experience growing up deaf.  I was a regular little kid. I played with my mom’s stuff. I

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