Author Archives: Katherine

Katherine’s Bookshelf – The American Woman’s Encyclopedia of Home Decorating

The title of the book on the spine in gilt letters.
The cover isn’t very exciting. It’s green. That’s it.

This book from Katherine’s Bookshelf is, exactly as the title suggests, an encyclopedia of interior design… from 1947. Hmm. So, what were fashionable home interiors like in 1947? Let’s see:

What's rose and green and colonial all over? This living room.
If that sofa pattern qualifies as “a soft plaid”, I don’t think I can handle a bold plaid.

Having flashbacks to grandma’s house yet? In 1947, Colonial is in. Nothing says 18th Century Colonial like a giant plaid sofa. Also: ashtrays, ashtrays everywhere. There’s an ashtray on every single table and end table in this picture. I like the rug though. I can definitely appreciate a nice hooked rug. It’s huge. All you need to make a hooked rug is a small crochet hook, some burlap, yarn, and time – lots and lots of time.

Chartreuse walls and some kinda weird painted window border instead of moulding.
Baffling as it is now, the paint job here must have taken ages. Even with a stencil, this represents a monumental undertaking. Look at the figures on the closet door! Also, I can’t figure out how the window curtain works here. There’s no blind, so I guess sunlight just blasts through it. There must be a rail on the bottom too so that the whole thing can be pulled aside? I don’t know.

Basically, the entire book is exactly like this, which points up the problems with many interior decorating and home improvement books. If it’s incredibly fashionable, it’ll go out of fashion eventually. On-trend rapidly mutates into dated, exactly because it’s so evocative of the time period in which it was popular. Warm gray wall paint and white tile are headed that way very soon.

Another interesting aspect is that it’s fundamentally aspirational. Nobody buys a book on home improvement if their home is already improved. You don’t need advice for painting if you’ve already painted. Everything in this book is about how things should be, but aren’t yet. In the same sense that the styles shown within might be evocative of grandma’s house, few people in 1947 actually had houses that already looked like this. Like us, they made do with hand-me-down furniture and their walls were already painted. Not everyone was moving into new houses in Levittown. Some people had apartments, and some people had 1920s Cape Cod houses, or Victorian era townhomes, or shotgun houses. It’s important to read books like The American Woman’s Encyclopedia of Home Decorating to remind ourselves that the actual Mid-Century as it was actually lived in wasn’t entirely Mid-Century Modern. For every hilarious Uranium Red Fiestaware plate, there’s a whole lot of very bland porcelain teacups. Cultural memory is highly selective, filtering through only the most novel and iconic designs. The past as we remember it is not the past as it was lived.

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee

The Hottest Best Selling Books… From 125 Years Ago

The gross, time worn cover of The Shuttle.

I just so happen to own a dusty, crusty, musty old copy of The ShuttleHere it is. I have read it, and I assure you that it is incredibly boring soppy domestic melodrama, cover to cover. It does not read well to post-modern sensibilities, aesthetic or moral. Will the Gilded Age American heiress marry into English nobility?? Spoiler alert: of course she does. I keep it as a curiosity, a piece of historical flotsam because I personally post-date atomic weapons by forty years (exactly: 1945 – 1985). I just can’t get emotionally invested in this.

Ever wanted a time machine, but for what people thought and felt in the past? To be able to imagine what it was like to live in the head-space of English-language readers before the Great War? Through the magic of digital archives, record keeping, and a healthy dash of imagination, you can try, but ultimately, you can’t. From our perspective, we know that the Great War will be just the first of two World Wars.

I found, on Project Gutenberg, a list of the top ten best-selling books of every year, from 1895 – 1923. With links to those that they have in digital form for free download. Nice. Intriguingly, these seem to be derived ultimately from the Publisher’s Weekly lists. How, exactly, Publisher’s Weekly compiles these lists is a trade secret, so I wouldn’t completely trust it. However, it’s still very, very interesting. The New York Times would begin keeping their own best sellers list in 1931, in case you were wondering.

Please, feel free to go to Project Gutenberg’s Bookshelf of American Bestsellers, and have an extensive look. If you want to read them in paper form, you might have to luck out and discover one at a book sale, and check our collections, although most of them will be very hard to find. How, exactly, best selling books end up falling so far into obscurity is another question, so here are my own observations of the list. I’ll cover the earliest ones, from 1895 up until WWI, in 1914.

I haven’t even heard of most of these books.

It’s true. Most of them are completely unfamiliar to me. Even if it’s a smash hit in its own time, a book can clearly just drop off the popularity cliff and into the void in the course of a few generations. That’s a sobering thought. Maybe it’ll happen to Game of Thrones or Harry Potter or anything by James Patterson or Steven King too, just like it did to 1900’s Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley. I know it sounds impossible, but clearly it can happen.

The ones I have heard of.

Special Case: The Shuttle

Oh, hey, it’s The Shuttle. I only know it exists because I found a copy super cheap once. I didn’t realize it was that popular in its time. I think I’ll write a Reader’s Corner post about it. And now you’re reading it. Awesome.

Aside from this one, there’s three rough categories the other books I know fall into: famous author, famous book, and movie books.

Famous Author

People clearly just ate up whatever Winston Churchill wrote. Not too familiar with the books, but I do know about Winston Churchill. Other authors I’ve heard of, although I’m not familiar with these particular titles on Project Gutenburg: J. M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, and that’s pretty much it.

The Book  Itself is Famous – A Timeless Work of Literature?

Alright, now for the actually famous works in here, and what they’re famous for. If I can recognize a book by title, not author, and I can give you a rundown of what it’s about even if I haven’t read it, it’s on the list. These are the elite few that are still in print, over a century later:

  • The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. It’s short, sweet, and set during the American Civil War. I remember reading this one in middle school, and probably a lot of you did too.
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the classic Sherlock Holmes novella – a perfect short read for Halloween!
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, classic social commentary novel about the hypocrisy of upper-crust moral rectitude.
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Mostly famous today for the meat-packing plant scene. Everybody likes sausage leaf lard, but nobody wants to see how sausage leaf lard is made. Arguably contributed to the formation of the FDA. Lovely. If you’ve read it at all, it was probably for history class.
  • Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter. I know about this one, but haven’t read it. Named after its endlessly-optimistic heroine… which isn’t necessarily seen as a heroic quality these days, which tells you a lot about why the rest of these books are so obscure. Calling someone a Pollyanna is not a compliment.

Cultural drift over time has made the majority of the books on the list very boring and/or difficult reads.

Movie Books

Continuing on the theme of cultural drift, there’s the third, weirder category. This time period coincides with the rise of cinema, so there are a handful of books that are definitely still sort-of-well-known to very-well-known, but they’re famous for the movie that’s based on them, no longer necessarily in their own right. Ultimately, the movies are more famous than the book.

  • First, there’s The Prisoner of Zenda, which is also the most obscure, being a clutch of movies that were themselves adaptations of the book, play, and then other movies, for decades. IMDB suggests that the most recent adaptations were a very straight 1984 TV miniseries, and a sports-comedy adaptation in 1993. Weird.
  • Second, The Clansman, is arguably the most famous of these movie-books, because the film it was made into – The Birth of a Nation – is standard watching in film classes, for the fact that this movie represents the invention of modern film editing. As for the story, it’s awful, gut-churningly racist propaganda about the KKK being heroes. In case anyone wanted to plead “but morals were different back then” – no, I’m going to nip that in the bud right here. The director, D. W. Griffith, immediately made another film – Intolerance – to try to absolve himself of contemporary accusations of racism, so, for the record, it was definitely seen as racist at the time. His efforts didn’t work, in large part because The Birth of a Nation was, by far, the most popular, and overshadowed everything that he did after, and also because as a rebuttal after all that, Intolerance was incredibly weak, and also a flop so catastrophic that it ruined him. So, ultimately, the answer is that racism was incredibly popular in 1911.
  • Third, The Virginian. This is a very quirky book, and arguably the first true literary Western. Before, there were plenty of Westerns, but they were relegated to dime-novel adventure stories and cheap entertainment. This book was adapted to a play, several movies, and in very broad-strokes terms, a well-known 1962 television show.

Whether for pop-cultural or historical reasons, nearly as many books survive as movies as they do as books. Maybe this will be the fate of books like Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, where the book was certainly popular, but the movie franchise even more so. Only time will tell.

The Path to Timelessness?

So, in the end, only very few of these best-selling monster smash hits actually managed to pass a full century in the public imagination. I’m also fairly sure it must have been difficult to predict which of these works would make it. Let’s not forget that nearly half of them are known purely because they had the good fortune to be made into movies. And remade. Lots. If you ever hear people complain about how today’s movie theaters are stuffed with bland safe remakes, remember this: a quick search for the title “The Prisoner of Zenda” on IMDB turns up no less than eight movies or TV series with that exact title. This isn’t a new problem, really.

Ultimately, if you want your book to become a true classic, you need luck, specifically the luck to treat a major concern of your own time, which also will go on to be a major concern of the future, or at least be relevant to future history classes. How was Frances Hodgson Burnett to know in 1907 that the phenomenon of American heiresses marrying English nobility would represent an entire world killed stone dead by two whole world wars bookending a global financial collapse? She couldn’t have known. Nobody really could in her day. Even the list-dominating book is a pinball in the arcade of history. Only few people can claim a spot on the eternal literature high-score list. But, if you want to give luck an extra boost, though, definitely sell the movie rights if you can.

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee

Big Ideas: Historical Narrative

It’s time for Big Ideas! Welcome to a mini-series-within-a-series on history and how it is made.

One way to think about history is as a story, a series of events that happened, and when. Get comfy, and settle in, because this post will explore the events of the Wars of the Roses, from the lead up through the aftermath – one of the most headache-inducingly complicated historical narratives I could think of. In the end, after the dust settles, and the Tudors take over, I’ll discuss the value of treating history this way, and what we can really learn from it.

Story Time (Skip to the Relationship Map if you Feel Your Eyes Glaze Over)

A long time ago in England (about 600 years ago), King Edward III had three sons (who survived to adulthood and are important to this story). His first son, Edward the Black Prince, had a son, who became King, Richard II. His second son, Lionel of Antwerp, went on to have kids, and that branch would be the House of York (White Rose). Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt, had a son, who would depose Richard II, and become King Henry IV. Descendants of John of Gaunt are the House of Lancaster (Red Rose). John of Gaunt also had another son, by a mistress, and his name was John Beaufort, and he was legitimized later, so he could inherit and hold titles. So, for those keeping score at home, the new King, Henry IV, and John Beaufort are half brothers through their father.

Henry IV has a son who becomes king, Henry V, who marries Catherine of Valois. They have a son, who becomes king too: Henry VI. After Henry V dies, Catherine of Valois goes on to marry a second time, this time a wealthy Welsh landlord, Owen Tudor. This marriage produces another son, Edmund Tudor. Remember the half-brother of King Henry IV, John Beaufort? He had a daughter, Margaret Beaufort, and she marries Edmund Tudor.

Meanwhile, the latest King, Henry VI, marries Margaret of Anjou. He has increasing trouble keeping up with all his kingly duties, though, so she’s actually the one in charge of things, and he has two advisers, also. One of these advisers is the wealthy and influential descendant of Edward III’s second son Lionel of Antwerp, Richard of York. The other is another wealthy power-broker, Richard Neville, AKA Warwick the Kingmaker. Richard Neville married his daughter Anne Neville to Henry VI’s son and heir, Edward of Westminster. You hanging in there? Breathe into a paper bag if it gets too complicated and you need a break.

So, Richard of York and Margaret of Anjou basically hate each other, because he figures that the House of York descends from the second son of Edward III, and not the third, like the House of Lancaster, so by rights, he should be King instead. He gets Richard Neville’s support and fights with Margaret of Anjou and the House of Lancaster to get Henry VI deposed. In one of these battles, Edward of Westminster, the King’s heir, is killed. THEN Richard Neville has his daughter, the newly widowed Anne Neville, marry Richard of York’s youngest surviving son, also confusingly named Richard. He also marries off his oldest daughter, Isabel Neville, to Richard of York’s third surviving son, George. Then, Richard of York dies in battle, too. His oldest surviving son eventually wins the fight, and deposes and replaces (and, let’s face it, probably has murdered) poor Henry VI, who has been held hostage, rescued, and then re-captured, and ends his life in the Tower of London. Richard Neville switches sides, and mounts a rebellion with George against Edward IV. Richard Neville is killed in battle, Edward IV puts down the rebellion, and has his brother George drowned in a butt of wine for his backstabbing ways. Somehow, the new King Edward IV actually dies of natural causes, and has a son, the new King Edward V.

BUT WAIT, there’s more! It turns out that Richard of York’s youngest son Richard thinks that HE should be king, and has Edward IV’s marriage declared illegal, so that King Edward V is now illegitimate, and has him thrown in the Tower of London with his younger brother (they’re both just kids at this point). He’s declared King Richard III, and then the two “Princes in the Tower” just… disappear. (Again, probably murdered on the order of Richard III.) So… remember Edmund Tudor, from waaaaay back there? He had a son, who figures that he’s as close as anybody to being King, and comes back from France and defeats Richard III, who dies in battle, and, in the distant future, is discovered buried under a parking lot (confirmed by DNA testing in 2013). The End.

That was complicated and horrible, so here’s a relationship map, to help you figure out what happened:

A disgustingly complicated chart of all the major relationships of all the major players in the Wars of the Roses
This is like the seventh draft of this chart. I should’ve stuck with my original plan for this series to follow up rocket science with quantum mechanics. Ugh.

Fun fact: my history knowledge strong points are really East Asian and African history, not European, so I didn’t really know most of this until I researched this article. In fact, I picked this particular topic purely because I didn’t know much about it. We’re learning together! Yay! It really doesn’t help things that nearly every dude is named either Edward or Richard. At least the various Henrys are numbered. So that’s the story of the Wars of the Roses. But, in the end, after all that, what has changed? England has a different king. The family in charge is now these guys, not those guys. The Tudors would continue the foreign policy aims of trying to get back France, so that didn’t change. The social structure is the same. The economic structure is still the same too. It’s a story dramatic enough for a whole batch of Shakespeare plays, but is the series of events actually important enough to how the world turned out to remember in detail?

On one hand, you can argue that without the Wars of the Roses, there isn’t a Henry VIII to have a succession crisis and kickstart the Catholic vs Protestant divide that would dominate the politics of later England (and then the United Kingdom, and everything including the potato famine in Ireland, and even a really scary undertow of Brexit negotiations much later).

For want of a nail a horseshoe was lost

For want of a shoe, a horse was lost

For want of a horse, a rider was lost

For want of a rider, a battle was lost

For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail

On the other hand, the horseshoe nail approach ads nothing to our understanding. Sure, it’s easy to say that future events come from events in the past, but that’s the very definition of what “past” even is: it’s the events that led here, so of course that’s what they do. There’s a lot of value in looking deeper, and asking more questions. If it wasn’t Henry VIII, would it have been someone else anyway, due to rules of succession and legitimacy being what they were? Could someone in a position of power have simply done the same thing, with their own pivotal decisions? Or, if you prefer, would the real reason be the way that English culture passed property on to children, and the critical role of religion in supporting this system? These questions are the core of historiography – the discipline of how history is written.

In a very literal sense, history is the practice of finding meaning in events of the past. History is writing about events of the past, but FOR the sake of the present and ultimately the future. Otherwise, why remember it? For everything you know about history, consider all that has been forgotten, or left unknown. History is what we choose to remember, and how we choose to remember it. As for historiography, narrative alone isn’t bad, and can be compelling. Remember, the narrative of the Wars of the Roses itself – with lots of spin, of course – was good enough for Shakespeare. Next time, we’ll dive into the dueling perspectives of historiography, and the question of whether it is pivotal decisions or socioeconomic forces that drive this narrative.

— Article by Katherine

The Bottle Imp and the Limits of Logic

Logic! It’s fantastically useful stuff. Use it all the time for sorting out your options, thinking up plans, and generally making your life easier. There’s some very real limits to it, though, and whether an idea checks out logically doesn’t always have anything to do with its relevance to the real world. Here’s the test: can this idea be used to predict what will happen?

vintage photo of a dog in a top hat and white tie suit
Very dapper, but will this dog hunt? (Also proof that dogs have been putting up with the human impulse to dress them in clothes for a very long time.)

There’s a Robert Louis Stevenson story called The Bottle Imp. Go read it in this collection, here, if you like. No plot spoilers, but I will be discussing the premise of the story, so if you want to read it before we get to that, do. The main idea of the story is this: there’s a bottle that contains an evil imp. It can grant any wish except to prolong the bottle owner’s life, and if you die with the bottle in your possession, you go straight to Hell. The only way you can get rid of the bottle is to sell it to someone for less than you paid for it. Here’s where it gets interesting.

A display of ancient glass bottles of various murky clear shades
Some 17th Century glass bottles in a museum. Probably not full of evil, though.

Truth and Consequences

Let’s play a game, and think about the Bottle Imp problem logically. Eventually, there’s an ultimate loser: someone stuck with the bottle who bought it for a single penny, and they can’t sell it. So, following that, the next person up, who sold it to them, bought it for two cents, and must have known that they wouldn’t be able to sell it to someone for one cent. There must have been someone above them who got it for three, but should have known that they couldn’t sell it for two, because the person who got it for two would have to convince someone to take it for one, which nobody would ever do. Theoretically, nobody should ever take the bottle for any price, because the problem of not being able to sell it for a cent should cascade up the chain of prospective bottle owners. This is, of course, assuming that everyone involved is thinking logically (and whenever you hear that phrase, you should also assume that this perfectly spherical, frictionless dog hunts perfectly spherical, frictionless partridges in a vacuum).

The trouble here is that real people just aren’t rational actors, any more than real hunting dogs are spherical and frictionless. Realistically, everybody in the chain, down to perilously close to the bottom, is probably going to think “eh, I’ve got plenty of time, and I’m sure I can find some sucker to sell the bottle to” – and, in the main, they’d probably be right. The existence of the whole idea of gambling in general testifies to the idea that people – real people – generally do a terrible job of thinking logically and rationally. If the odds could really be in your favor in the long term, casinos wouldn’t exist.

a shack by a creek, with a man and a dog sitting outside
Las Vegas in 1895, before the gambling industry really took off.
a view of the Vegas strip in 2011. Reasonably recent.
A view of the Las Vegas strip. Practically a monument to the irrationality of humans. Keep feeding those one armed bandits, guys…

Sometimes, especially when dealing with real human behavior in the real world, logic does a truly wretched job of predicting real-world outcomes and decisions. There’s a distinction between logic, and actual utility. Most of the time, logic is very useful, but sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with questions of real human behavior, not so much.

— Article by Katherine.

The Tiger: a True Story of Vengeance and Survival

Cats are adorable little serial killers, as The Oatmeal would say. What if the cat in question were about fifty times bigger, and actually did decide to turn its predatory instincts on humans? It does happen, occasionally, that a big cat decides to put soylent green on the menu, and go hunting for long pork.

Cover art of The Tiger

Make a housecat fifty times bigger: the scariest thing you can think of, or the scariest thing possible to think of? Oh, and you’re trapped in the taiga with it. On the other side of Siberia. Good luck with that…

There have been other books about tigers, lions, leopards, and even lots of other non-cats that eat people. We have told stories of predators eating people for as long as stories have been told. Below: mammoth ivory carving of a cave lion, Panthera leo spelea, about 40,000 years old, from Vogelherd Cave. This is literally one of the oldest works known to be from our own species.

mammoth ivory carving of a cave lion's head.

By Rainer Halama (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

With head reattached to the recently-recovered body:

whole cave lion figurine

By Museopedia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By the late 19th Century, the stories people told were different: dangerous big cats were obstacles in the way of progress, and tigers were treated as vermin to be exterminated, prizes to be shot and counted.

a stack of dead tigers after a hunt

You get the idea. A large, relatively slow-breeding animal with a low rate of survival to adulthood and huge energy and space needs can’t make it against this kind of pressure.

As human settlement encroached on tiger territory, and old patterns of human and tiger behavior that kept both insulated changed, tigers came into increasing conflict with people. In this context, professional hunter Jim Corbett wrote the landmark book Man-Eaters of Kumaon, detailing why – in his experience – big cats became predators on humans, and that humanity and Earth would lose a part of their heritage and soul if they were to become extinct. Nature’s reserves were not infinite, and could be hunted to exhaustion.

cover of a new edition of man-eaters of kumaon.

A modern reprint of the classic. To give the book it’s due, it cemented the common wisdom that cats that eat people do so because they can’t catch their usual prey, and our world is richer for having tigers in it. Without this book, maybe all of our nature reserves and parks would be without any large predators in them.

The Tiger by John Vailiant adds to this robust body of literature, and, as it is written in the shadow of Corbett, far from being a straightforward “hunter vs man-eater” tale, touches on the instinct, myth, religion, and folklore of feline predators. Although in the main, this doesn’t go beyond a means to build up the beast into an almost supernatural force of vengeance, and ultimately it feels incomplete, as if in fleshing out this killer tiger tale with these details, there is another, more academic treatment that goes down to the bone marrow waiting to be made into its own book. Overall, while it left me hungry for more, this read is more modern, nuanced, and substantial than the earlier hunter-savior-proto-conservationist genre, epitomized by Jim Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaon.

— Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

History Nuggets – Chicken

Three bite-size non-fiction reviews tied together with a delicious topical dipping sauce!

The theme: chicken. Underappreciated, delicious, and nutritious. But the ubiquity of chicken on our plates and eggs in our frying pan only became possible due to advances in chicken nutrition itself. Meet the Red Junglefowl.

Red Jungle Fowl rooster and two hens.

By Lip Kee Yap [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Red Junglefowl is to the domestic chicken as wolves are to dogs. They live in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. Since they’re a tropical bird, they can lay eggs year round, and they some breeds of domestic chicken lay an egg every day. Up until the last several decades, though, chicken was very expensive to eat. If you sheltered your chickens in a shed, and fed them corn, trying to farm them in large groups, then they’d get rickets. It wasn’t until the discovery and addition of Vitamin D to chicken feed that it was possible to farm chickens in large numbers, driving down the cost, and transforming the bird from a Sunday treat to cheap chicken nuggets. Advances in understanding nutrition didn’t just put an end to several deficiency diseases, it changed the availability of the food we eat. If you’re looking for an upshot to how all life on Earth really is (in the literal sense) one big family, this is it. You’re close enough to a chicken that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Roast duck with sauce.

By cyclonebill from Copenhagen, Denmark (Andebryst) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Like this, but vitamins. Also, this is duck.

Want to take a closer look at nutrition and poultry keeping?

Vitamania cover.

Surprisingly gripping reading about the interplay of marketing and the nutrition revolution of the early 20th century.

Before the discovery of vitamins and essential nutrients, people’s relationship with food was mostly based around how filling and energy-packed it was. Even before germ theory really took off and the adoption of first-generation antibiotics, vitamins were the first “miracle cure” for several fearsome and debilitating diseases. Vitamins completely changed our relationship with food, and opened up whole new horizons of marketing for food manufacturers and medicine.

Tastes Like Chicken cover.

Read this to explore in greater depth the rise of chicken as a cheap source of protein.

Tastes Like Chicken details the monumental changes in the way Americans have raised chicken over the course of the 20th Century. From a cost-effective sideline for farmers, to the focus of a massive industry in its own right, chicken has had a strange journey to the factory farms of today. As conventional farming practices for chickens face more criticism, it pays to have a good grounding in how the animals we eat came to be kept the way they are.

Chicken Whisperer's Guide cover.

Which brings us to this book, whether you want to raise your own chickens or just know more about them, this comprehensive treatment is a good starting place.

Keeping chickens at home is making a roaring comeback, as objections to conventional intensive farming rise, and prices for free range chickens and eggs remain high. The lure of endless eggs is a powerful draw. Chickens and vitamins are a reminder that everything is connected, sometimes in weird and unexpected ways.

Reviews by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

History Nuggets – Gold

Three bite-size non-fiction reviews tied together with a delicious topical dipping sauce!

The theme: Mansa Musa, Sultan of Mali, was arguably the wealthiest person ever to live. No kidding. You know you’ve reached mythological levels of lucre when you show up on maps made by people living halfway across the known world with an annotation about how much gold you have. Mali was such a rich kingdom because the territory it controls – centered around the city Timbuktu – is situated on the Niger River and in a position to control trade across the Sahara to and from the European subcontinent.

Ivory Coast jewelry

By Papischou (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Akan people of Ghana and Ivory Coast are still known for the quality and quantity of their goldwork. A stupefying amount of trade flowed through Timbuktu, with most of it paid for in gold, mined out of ore-bearing seams just to the South. There’s a reason we call the ocean-border of Ghana the Gold Coast. Did I mention the gold?

I like to imagine Sultan Mansa Musa swimming in it like Scrooge McDuck. But that would probably understate how much gold he had. According to legend, Mansa Musa had so much gold, that when he went on the Hajj he took an enormous caravan including camels with sacks of pure gold dust on their backs, and crashed the unsuspecting economies of entire city states with inflation because their markets literally could not handle the influx of gold. Did this actually happen? Historical accounts disagree (with most saying it did happen). However, we do know that the Sultan bankrolled a massive building boom in Mali, with new mosques, libraries, and colleges sprouting up in cities all over the kingdom.

Great Mosque of Djenne

By BluesyPete (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Above is a prime example of Malian architecture, the Great Mosque of Djenne. These are not cheap to build. Here’s another one, financed by the Sultan himself.

Another massive public building paid for by the Sultan.

By KaTeznik (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 fr (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

If the style of these buildings look weirdly familiar, like they belong to a desert planet orbiting twin suns in a galaxy far far away, it’s because Star Wars Episode IV: a New Hope was filmed on a relatively tiny budget, largely on location in Tunisia, which has some of the same classically Northwest African architecture. The Skywalker home was an actual house, which is now Hotel Sidi Driss. Bits of Star Wars set are strewn all over parts of the Tunisian desert. Understanding history is all about making connections, after all, so put on that John Williams soundtrack, and read on!

 

Salt, Kurlansky

Sodium Chloride makes for some seriously gripping reading. Doesn’t hurt that it’s really well written.

As for the big picture of what (aside from gold) the Kingdom of Mali was built on, and where Timbuktu fit in on the world stage of the international salt trade, Mark Kurlansky’s excellent overview Salt: A World History will put it nicely in context.  Salt was first published in 2002, but it’s every bit the excellent true world history it’s ever been.

 

Timbuktu book cover

I like my histories dense and well-seasoned with primary material. Bonus points for Ibn Battuta!

If, however, what you wanted was a history of the city of Timbuktu – the center, but not the capitol, of Mali – read Timbuktu: the Sahara’s Fabled City of Gold. This book gives a very thorough treatment of the history of the city, especially the establishment of the trade and the Kingdom of Mali, and the heyday of the city as a hub of trade for caravans across the Sahara.

 

Librarians of Timbuktu

I couldn’t resist.

For an even more focused view on the world of Sultan Mansa Musa and how it intersects with our own there’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of TimbuktuThe Kingdom’s wealth and economic connections meant a massive heap of documentation, making the medieval libraries and colleges of Timbuktu a treasure-trove of manuscripts. When Mali’s most recent rebellion broke out in 2012, the race was on to secure and hide the priceless documents before the historic buildings and the knowledge they housed were destroyed by Islamist forces. History is littered with tragic library-burnings – Alexandria, Hanlin Academy – but, this time, the books were saved, and our world is truly richer for it in wealth of knowledge, not gold.

Reviews by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Classic Adaptations: Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Liu Bei hears Zhuge Liang's plans for dividing the state, but contending for power.

“Should you wish to take the overlordship, you will yield the Heaven’s favor to Cao Cao in the north, and you will relinquish the Earth’s advantage to Sun Quan in the south. You, General, will hold the Human’s heart and complete the trinity.”

Remember, folks, it’s not spoilers if it happened almost two thousand years ago. In this episode of Classic Adaptations, we explore the work that represents the richest mother lode of adaptations I’ve found yet: the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three KingdomsThere’s a lot of ground to cover here, so I’ll be moving pretty fast, but this is still a really long post.

Note: Chinese names have the form – Familyname Givenname – so that the first name is the family someone belongs to, and the second is their personal name. People who share a family name are, at least in theory, related by blood (or adoption) on their father’s side. There is also the courtesy name also called style, or zi, which was used when it would be impolite to use the given name.

Example: Zhao Yun, styled Zilong.

Is this confusing? Yes, but only for a little while, until you get used to it. The real headache is that some translations use different romanization schemes than others…

 

The History

The Three Kingdoms period followed on the collapse of the (Latter) Han Dynasty, and officially lasted from 220 to 280. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is historical fiction, itself an adaptation of folklore, in turn adapted from well-known history. We’re in for quadruple or even quintuple adaptations, with this classic!

History writing in Han Dynasty China (as in nearly all Chinese states) wasn’t a hobby for the educated, as it was in contemporaneous Rome, it was the foundation of any new regime. Official histories collected the previous dynasty’s paperwork, and stitched these records into a narrative, generally calculated to make the first Emperors of any government look as good as possible, and the last ones as bad and incompetent as possible, to justify not only the current regime, but also the structure of dynastic succession itself.

As to that succession, the one, overarching principle is that of the Mandate of Heaven. Unlike in Europe, where Kings and Emperors were considered God’s regents on Earth, if a previous Emperor had done a bad enough job to provoke natural disasters or uprisings that undermined the stability of the state, then he could be replaced. Anyone who successfully unseated the previous Emperor and united the other Chinese states became the next Emperor, preferably in a formal ceremony, in which the previous Emperor handed over power (and the Mandate of Heaven) to the new Emperor, establishing a new dynasty. A central concern, therefore, is from whom, and on what grounds, a dynasty claims succession of the Mandate of Heaven.

This political bias leads to some fascinating interactions, when this model for history is adapted to fiction. In an official history, someone loses the Mandate of Heaven because he’s incompetent and a bad guy, and the new ruler is, by default, a good guy, because that’s politically expedient for everybody. In fiction, someone’s a bad guy, because it makes a better story that way. Writing a Chinese historical fiction novel could get you into trouble, if you craft a villain out of the wrong person. In this context, it’s not touchiness to read an allegory for contemporary politics into historical narrative, it’s just common sense.

If you want to read more about the history behind this novel, and its many, many spin-offs, there’s actually a fan website that covers many of them, and provides timelines, and a who’s who section, including fan translations of the biographies in the Records of the Three Kingdoms – the official history of the era, written when the Jin Dynasty came to power.

 

The Classic

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

By Luo Guanzhong

Romance of the Three Kingdoms cover image

I own this book. It’s about 800 pages long. See that “Volume I”? You better believe there’s a second volume, just as fat as the first. The introduction is a single page that boils down to “if you have this book you know why you’re here.” I love that.

In all seriousness, though, this is a loooo-oooooo-oooonnng book, up there with Les MisérablesMost translations weigh in at around 2000 pages. Given that the plot spans a century, it goes by FAST, though. Characters can be introduced and killed off within a single paragraph. This isn’t a novel about a close study of individual psychologies, it’s about the grand sweep of history. No time for navel-gazing here. Or romance. If there’s a marriage, it’s about politics, or maybe it’s an assassination plot or honey trap. That’s not to say that the main characters aren’t well developed. It’s just that there’s a couple dozen of them. In a small miracle of storytelling economy, the author lets the actions of these characters speak for themselves, and leaves the rest to the reader’s inference.

Since Luo Guanzhong‘s 15th Century audience for the novel would have been very familiar with this history, he doesn’t change the major events, but rather paints the characters in a heroic or villainous light, to conform to his own era’s biases as to who was the most fit to rule, and often at odds with the official histories, which in turn, were biased in their own way. Five centuries have passed since the novel was written, and we, as readers from a different time, and half a world away, have our own filters to deal with. The choices the author makes, to adapt this history to his own time, and then the reader’s interpretations layered on top of it, mean that a story told primarily through actions develops complex and ambiguous outcomes in the reading – and this is where it gets really interesting.

EXAMPLE: Sun Jian

Qing Dynasty edition illustration of Sun Jian

Qing Dynasty illustration of Sun Jian with the Imperial Seal. Whether he even finds it – and what happens next – depends on the adaptation.

Sun Jian’s character, although not as obviously as some of the others, has been tinkered with by the authors of the novel. He did, apparently, fight a bunch of pirates when he was a teen (!!!). He did, according to his official biography, eventually become a general under Yuan Shu for the Han Dynasty against the tyrant, Dong Zhuo. His biography in the Records of the Three Kingdoms says nothing about the Imperial Seal. In the novel, however, one of his followers finds the seal in a ruined well, and gives it to Sun Jian, who lies to Yuan Shu about finding it (showing how power-hungry Yuan Shu is, and also how Sun Jian harbors ambitions of his own). The novel doesn’t mention that he restored the looted tombs in Luoyang, and also credits his killing of enemy officer Hua Xiong to another character (Guan Yu, incidentally, who got a massive heroism upgrade due to being literally ascended to godhood in the course of intervening centuries, as we will see).

Subtly, fiction molds real, complicated people into emotionally resonant roles in a story.

When the actions that define a character have gained, lost, or changed meaning across time and cultures, however, the real test of a story is how well it can weather such an unanticipated and cataclysmic journey. Romance of the Three Kingdoms succeeds spectacularly, telling a universal and deeply compelling tale, including heroic weeping into sleeves, baby tossing, and the odd incident of virtuous cannibalism.

 

The OTHER Adaptations

It’s hard to overstate just how significant Romance of the Three Kingdoms is in terms of how far it’s permeated the culture of China, and the East Asian cultural sphere in general. If you’ve so much as eaten in an American Chinese restaurant, I can just about guarantee you that you’ve seen a representation of at least one of the characters of the novel. Specifically, Guan Yu, who rocketed to the heights of apotheosis via a heroic treatment in the novel, several excellent Chinese opera suites, and Imperial patronage. The following are just a few of the many, many adaptations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and each one is definitely worth a look, on its own, with unique perspectives, and takes on each character (who, by and large, were real, historical, living people).

  • Chinese Operas (Too many to count!)
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1994 TV series)
  • The Ravages of Time (2001 manhua – Chinese comic book – series)
  • Three Kingdoms 2010 (2010 TV series)
  • Red Cliff (2008 motion picture)
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (video game series)
  • Dynasty Warrior(video game series)

 

Postscript:

Temporary Guan Gong shrine at the Umbrella Movement barricade.

By David290 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Above is a picture of the improvised Guan Yu temple at a roadblock during the Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong in 2014. Although often called a God of War, as if he were an analogue of Ares or Athena, Lord Guan is rather a god of brotherhood in a united cause, and self-improvement by reading literature. Really, there’s no better choice of patron deity for a (mostly) student protest movement.

Highlights of the above picture: under the oranges on the altar, hand-drawn angry chibi-style Lord Guan with an umbrella; to the right of that, a poster with the character model of Guan Yu from the Japanese video game Dynasty Warriors 5! In this image, we have history from the 3rd Century mutating into a novel which spawns a video game series centuries later in a different country, which ricochets back for religious and political use.

God of literacy in a library blog For The Win!

Guan Yu reading

By Fred Hsu on en.wikipedia (Photo taken and uploaded by user) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Classic Adaptations: Hamlet

In this installment of the Classic Adaptations series, I seize the opportunity to rant about biological realism in cartoons. Also, it’s about Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

 

The Classic

Hamlet

By: Shakespeare

Hamlet cover art

You know this story, guys, come on. I’m dead certain you’ve seen at least one adaptation, too.

This particular edition is my favorite, with lots of annotations, and scholarly essays and such. You’ll probably need lots of annotations, too, to deal with Shakespeare unfiltered. Even then, most modern editions are kind enough to “correct” the spelling. You’ll probably also notice that Shakespeare’s language is pretty filthy. Hamlet‘s probably the filthiest of his plays, in terms of language, too. (Titus Andronicus is way more gratuitously violent and offensive to the modern tastes, though. There’s a reason it’s not often staged… if it were a movie, it would be NC-17 for Everything.) Let’s just say that “get thee to a nunnery” – in a Tudor (+ subsequent… “unrest”) England when Catholics vs Church of England was Serious Business of the highest order – doesn’t refer to a literal nunnery, and leave it at that. Basically everything Hamlet says, especially to Ophelia, is some form of bawdy innuendo, or just straight-up bawdy. If you haven’t read Shakespeare since high school, just remember: your English teachers may have taught you everything you know, but they didn’t necessarily teach you everything they know.

You know this story, though. Hamlet’s father’s ghost(?) says his brother murdered him. Hamlet (pretends to be insane? actually goes insane?) to lure his uncle, the new king, into a false sense of security, so he can investigate the crime, stall for time, and ultimately try to kill him. Everybody dies. The end.

Countless adaptations have been made of Hamlet, from stage productions to motion pictures, but we will be focusing on just one, in particular.

 

Adaptation

The Lion King

Lion King DVD cover art.

Hamlet cleaned up for kids, with cartoon lions, and a happy ending.

This is, seriously, one of the most successful movies of all time. You know that already. You’ve probably seen it already. Yes, it’s mostly Hamlet with lions. I saw it at a drive-in theater with my family as a kid. The scale was incredible. The animation was amazing. Nothing really matches how big and vibrant this movie feels to watch. They were also pretty gutsy about killing major characters off nearly on-screen. We owned this on VHS, and I saw it almost monthly, for a while, not the least because my brother also liked it.

Here’s the basic plot of The Lion King: Mufasa’s brother Scar kills him and takes over the pride, driving out his son, Simba (Hamlet), who fritters away his adolescence in an oasis with Pumbaa and Timon (Horatio, and Rosencrantz/Guildenstern). Simba sees an apparition(?) of his father which convinces him to return home to defeat his sinister uncle, and take back the pride. Conveniently, the hyenas kill Scar, so that the protagonist keeps his paws clean.

Even now, I’m fascinated by lions, and love animals in general. The Lion King is a great movie, but it definitely doesn’t have anything like realism, regarding its wildlife cast. Let’s learn a bit about lions, and what this can teach us about adaptations.

There’s a few very good reasons male lions don’t return to the pride of their birth, as Simba does. Lionesses remain with their mothers (like Nala does), generally, so that a lion pride is composed of related lionesses, who are all sisters, mothers, aunts, and sometimes grannies of each other. When male lions mature, they are driven out by the resident male. Sometimes, as seen in The Lion King, two or so related males form a “coalition” and work together to drive resident males from a pride, and take their place. On taking over the resident male position in a pride, male lions immediately massacre any cubs they can find. Cannibalism may or may not be involved, depending on how hungry they are.

Labeled picture of a lion pride.

Composition of a pride of lions.

If these were real lions, given the cub massacre, Simba and Nala have to be Mufasa and Scar’s children. They’re at least first cousins on their father’s side. And, given that lionesses are usually related, they’re probably double first cousins. We know they don’t have the same mother, but their father(s) are at least brothers, if not the same individual. Eugh. Don’t even get me started on spotted hyenas, either, although making Whoopi Goldberg the leader was a solid choice: they’re matriarchal. (And have a far more complex and sophisticated social life than lions, too. I could do a whole post on spotted hyenas alone.)

The Lion King isn’t really Hamlet with lions, then. It’s Hamlet – a very human story about a kingdom in distress, and a conflicted protagonist confronted with competing values and ethical systems – as played by emphatically make-believe lion-shaped cartoons.

Common Clownfish

Nature isn’t obliged to follow human expectations.

Did you know clownfish are protandrous sequential hermaphrodites? Now you do. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

In all seriousness, though, taking a look at stories adapted to a telling through animal actors gives us a unique chance to see the limitations and frameworks of our own society and point of view as a species. The advent of computer animation (and limitations of early rendering to perform best with smooth textures) led to a flurry of movies in the late 1990’s and 2000’s starring eusocial insects like bees and ants:

All of these movies portray these insects as if they were human-like societies, with a monarch, and equal sex ratios. But bees aren’t little fuzzy insect people. And there’s no such thing as a male worker honeybee.

Antz DVD cover art

Inaccuracies don’t necessarily make a movie bad.

Bee Movie DVD cover art.

Sometimes, a movie must be inaccurate to be comprehensible, let alone sympathetic and engaging.

I’d argue, though, that most people wouldn’t want to see a movie starring actual, realistic bees. A fantasy kingdom of people in ant suits is far more relate-able than the very real behaviors of honeybees.

Worker bee.

A mature worker bee, doing what she does best: collecting provisions for the hive, and pollinating flowers. Without bees, flowering plants produce no fruit or seeds. This is why you should care about bees.

Could you make a realistic version of The Lion King? As close as possible to “Hamlet With Lions”? Sure. But I doubt anyone would care what happens to Mufasa if they see him slaughtering and eating lion cubs.

P. S. – Support your local pollinators!

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Classic Adaptations: The Count of Monte Cristo

This is the first of a series of posts on works of classic literature and their adaptations. Classic literature is usually classic for a reason (especially if they’re older than 100 years or so) ; these works tap into central concerns and universal themes. Given all of this, they’re especially prone to being remade over time, as people tell and re-tell the stories – usually while trying to knock off the jagged edges of the age and culture in which it was originally written. Taking a good hard look at classic adaptations can lend a lot of insight into cultural differences and changes over time, and also into what does not change, that universal core of experience.

My pick to launch this project is, naturally, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

Here’s my reasoning:

  1. It’s good (really good), especially if you like broody, psychological revenge tales.
  2. Counts as a double adaptation, since I read English, and the original is in French.
  3. This post will involve space vampires. Of course.

Before we dive right in, let’s establish some ground rules. “Classic Literature” refers to the super-stars of the literature world. These are the most famous works in the canon of their respective cultures, proverbially famous, even, and endlessly re-told. I’m also only counting works over a century old, since it would take at least that long for the culture to change around it enough to see if the story can truly stand the test of time. Until then, it’s just a best-seller.

Due to how well-known these stories are, there’s no such thing as spoilers for the most part. I mean, imagine this situation:

Romeo and Juliet’s puppy love for each other [SPOILER ALERT guys! Highlight with your mouse between the asterisks to read the spoilers!] * Doesn’t end well, because they’re impulsive teens. They both die. The end. * [Spoilers end here!]

Yeah, it’s sort of silly. If it’s been out for four centuries, and/or it’s grade school level history, it can’t be spoiled. That said, I won’t assume you know everything about it, and I’ll step lightly on the plot to keep it fresh. The focus here is on how the story is told, and how it changes in adaptations. Let’s get this party started!

 

The Classic

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

This cuddly photo of the author is completely unrepresentative of the contents. Perfect cover choice, guys.

If you haven’t read this book, read this book. Right now. It’s not like you’re on a library website or anything like that. Get to the catalog, and get a copy. It’s that good. It’s also very very long, but it covers a huge span of time, lots of characters, and a complex plot. If you like juicy, scandalous, vicious revenge stories, this one is the granddaddy of them all. There’s romance, intrigue, and action aplenty. Arguably, what makes this book a classic is how credible the characters are, and the interactions, motivations, and mental states behind what they do. This level of detail lends extra weight to the central concern of the book – revenge measured against redemption and mercy. This is heavy, good stuff right here. It’s like a rich, dark chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and drizzled in hot fudge made of more chocolate and utter ruin.

 

The Adaptations

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

This is the movie poster for the 2002 Count of Monte Cristo adaptation.

Here’s the cover art for the DVD, and I think it does a very good job of conveying what it’s all about.

This is some tremendously ambitious stuff, right here. The unabridged novel is a real doorstop of a book, and the aim in this case is to make an adaptation that fits into a standard feature-length film, with a run time of about two hours. Do they succeed??

Maybe: it’s an entertaining movie, gripping, action packed, fun to watch. I remember catching it on TV re-runs once, though, and was utterly confused about the last third or so, where it diverges wildly from the novel. Also, given only about an hour and fifteen minutes of Count of Monte Cristo, much of the psychological richness that makes the original successful gets lost in the compression to film. The storytelling would have to be incredibly compact to begin with, to fit in a complete adaptation, so maybe taking an alternate path as the filmmakers did is the better choice? But I have a hunch that they made the changes to conform to what a modern audience expects in a feature film: we want action, suspense, and a “love story” where the main character has a romance and ultimately gets the girl. The novel has no love stories in this sense, given that all of the relationships are immensely complicated by the social, economic, and political environment in which it is set, to say nothing of the plot’s impact. Any of the novel’s female characters, however, are infinitely more interesting and complete as credible characters than the stock “love interest” of most of our feature films.

In sum, a good movie, but only a very loose adaptation.

 

Gankutsuou: the Count of Monte Cristo (originally aired 2004)

Gankutsuou DVD cover art.

Any still image is a very poor representation of what this anime is like. Imagine a breathtakingly elaborate animated digital collage.

I promised you space vampires, didn’t I? You know how I implied in the movie review that an adaptation of such a long book would be more nuanced and complete if it had longer than two hours to develop characters and motivations? If it was, perhaps, a miniseries? This is that miniseries. In the future. In SPACE.

(Why yes, it IS an anime, too. How could you tell??)

Despite the changes to the setting, this is still the most faithful and complete adaptation of the book that I have seen. Told over 24 episodes, the series does make changes to the original, but keeps the engine of the plot running strong fueled by sensitive characterization and giving the story a chance to pace itself and develop to maturity. In terms of major plot points, none are lost in the telling, and only a few are shuffled around in order to accommodate the run time.

Visually, this is an impressive work of art as well ; where many series use computer animation and coloring to take cheap shortcuts, this anime uses it to render the entire series in a unique style, with each scene a moving collage of textures and patterns. The largest difference between this adaptation and the book, apart from medium and setting is what, precisely, happened at the island prison (space station) Château d’If, therefore changing the Count’s true motivations in his quest for revenge. The series begins during Carnival on the Moon, and is told completely through the point of view of Albert de Morcerf, the trusting and innocent son of one of the Count’s enemies – this choice conveniently focuses all 24 episodes on the revenge plot itself, leaving the Count’s imprisonment and escape to brief allusions. It’s worth watching even a few episodes of this riveting series, if just to admire the artistry and vision of the creators.

 

In the case of these versions of The Count of Monte Cristo, the changes made in the course of adapting the work, even in the most successful adaptations, are generally due to the constraints of space available for the plot to play out in (2 hour run length), as well as face-lifts intended to improve the attractiveness of the story to a different audience and culture than it was initially written for (love story, space vampires, the Count’s motivations). As we will explore in future installations of this series, changes to the original story don’t necessarily make an adaptation a bad one, even if it starts with Carnival on the Moon.

Alexandre Dumas, Sr.

I’ve never seen a picture of Dumas, Sr. not looking cuddly, though. Like everybody’s storytelling grandpa. Seriously, though, the Dumas family has an incredibly interesting history. Like one of his novels, actually. Specifically, The Count of Monte Cristo.

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch