Tag Archives: Katherine

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, and Black Beauty

Rather than a collection of books, here’s a pair of books that enrich each other if read together!

Content Warning: contains depictions of animal abuse. (Yes, especially for Black Beauty. Wait, you don’t remember that? Read the unabridged version, they probably cut all the really harrowing bits to make it more palatable for kids.)

Let’s talk about the changing place of animals in society!

Cover art for Some We Love Some We Hate Some We Eat by Hal Herzog. Bright yellow and aqua.
This 2010 treatment of how cultural factors influence our relationship with animals provides a good overview, and makes for some thought-provoking and informative reading.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat by Hal Herzog is built on the premise that animals that live in close association with humanity are framed by human cultures in terms of three broad categories: pets, vermin, and livestock. Different cultures might construct the categories along different lines, or even apply them to individuals rather than entire species, but the book nevertheless seeks to apply this theoretical framework to all of them in order to better understand the place of animals in the human world. Interesting topic, and the first of two books to bookend this discussion.

Complications and Guinea Pigs

While Herzog’s book is certainly valuable, there’s a lot of nuance in current and historical cultures that complicate things, and for that, let’s talk about the very strange ride guinea pigs have had. Today, in the continental USA, we see them as pets, a popular choice for the classroom, or children. Alternatively, they’re the proverbial lab animals, which isn’t quite the same as a pet or livestock, but isn’t vermin, despite the fact that the other major lab animal, rats, are definitely thought of as pests before pets outside an experimental setting. Guinea pigs as a species already occupy a complex place in our society, and it used to be even weirder.

Historically, and currently, in the cultures of the Andes which created the domestic guinea pig, the animal is a highly regarded food source, called cuy in Peru (cuyes, plural). Okay, so I might have to have to ease you into this if you didn’t know already. You know how there’s the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and Cattlemen’s Beef Association, dedicated to promoting the use of beef in American kitchens? It’s what’s for dinner. They’ve got beef recipes, and information, and function as a means for beef producers to communicate about the state of the industry, as well as make beef look as good as possible to the public. There’s a similar industry and promotional board in Peru, for guinea pigs, and they have a website, too: Cuy Peru. More than worth a click if you can read Spanish, and even if you can’t. Just brace yourself for whole roasted guinea pig, like we do chicken here. (Scroll almost to the bottom for recipes.) So, pet in one culture and livestock in another, simple, right? No. The guinea pig had a long breakout career in Europe as a status symbol, more akin to a fancy watch, designer purse, or car than a pet or even a purse dog.

At the time the Spanish brought guinea pigs back, European cultures had a very different relationship with animals than we do today, mostly because the framework of morality in general was very different. In this context, it didn’t matter whether animals could think and feel, because morality was about sin, and the God-given order. This is how there were pig trials in the middle ages – a killer pig was acting out of this order, and it was up to human ecclesiastical court systems to put it to rights. (If you’re wondering why a pig would kill someone, the answer is that they’re seriously omnivorous, and are absolutely capable of killing and eating people, especially if the person is unconscious or can’t get up under their own power at the time. That’s why it’s such a big deal in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy falls in the pig pen. At the time, I guess people would have known this. Modern audiences probably don’t have enough experience with farm animals to recognize the danger. Anyway, just go to your search engine of choice and look for “killed and eaten by pigs” for a nicely horrifying roundup of the recent cases.) Animals, in this framework, were there to be used by humanity as we saw fit. This led to a huge amount of horrible animal abuse, society-wide and often formalized. I’m not talking about bullfighting alone, either, more like bull-baiting, bear-baiting, rat-baiting, anything-baiting, organized fights between basically any animal that will fight, goose pulling, cock throwing, and fox tossing, just to list a few.

Old engraving of fox tossing in Dresden.
Fox tossing. Foxes were released in a closed area and popped in the air when they ran across a blanket until they died. Note guys lining up the dead animals on the right. Looks like piglets were also killed at this particular event.

I chose the fox tossing example above, because this is the time period that saw the rise of the guinea pig in European culture. Arriving from South America with the silver galleons, guinea pigs acquired an association with this trade, and the power and wealth that came from it. Guinea pigs featured in portraits to underline elite status, and guinea pigs also played a starring role in still life paintings, whose purpose was often a visual treatise on the dominance of the expanding European trade empires. Here’s some weird European guinea pig art.

Three frilly English children from the Elizabethan age, with guinea pig and nearly dead songbird.
This image nicely encapsulates the attitude toward animals in European society at the time. The guinea pig is front and center, and held gently because it’s expensive, but the songbird is casually getting crushed in the hand of the child on the right, because it’s not seen as a pet, it’s a toy. Images like this complicate the pet/pest/livestock framework. This image is possibly the earliest portrait with a guinea pig in it.

Britain and Horses

Eventually, though, there was a major shift in the calculus of European morality, a key part of which was an equally major re-evaluation of the way in which animals were treated. Beginning in the late 1600’s, and concluding in the mid 1800’s, new measures of morals emerged, focusing on the idea of avoiding doing harm and being compassionate. It was believed that compassion shown to animals mirrored a person’s capacity for compassion to their fellow human beings, and so kindness became a new standard of behavior. The series of prints by Hogarth, The Stages of Cruelty, presents a moral along these new lines, just as the idea began to get popular traction, and here’s a link to the Tate Museum’s online exhibit on the print series so you can examine it in further detail. In a nutshell, the inevitable end result of animal cruelty is that it becomes cruelty to humans, which ends in the murderer’s corpse getting dissected by surgeons in public, as was the practice at the time.

Protip: if you have to propagandize about morals, they’re new and need to be taught.

Although modern ideas of the right way to treat animals come from the Enlightenment and Victorian Sentimentalism, a much more similar place than the earlier medieval framework, there are some key differences. Emerging nationalism also played a vital role, and in the case of Britain, the way in which people should treat horses in particular became a defining cultural touchpoint that persists to this day. In case you were curious, here’s a retrospective on the Great Horsemeat Contamination Scandal of 2013. The book that in large part forged this identity was Black Beauty.

Fancy embroidery cover art for Black Beauty.
You might have read it as a child, but come back to it as an adult, knowing how it changed English speaking society. It’s well worth it. Get an unabridged version for grownups, like this one.

Black Beauty follows the life of the eponymous horse through a series of thoughtless and cruel masters, highlighting the way in which horses were used and abused, and advocating for better treatment by tugging at the readers’ heartstrings rather than laying out a rational argument, in contrast to Hogarth.

Ultimately, filtering down to us from Hogarth’s time, and Anna Sewell‘s, our own cultural sorting scheme for animals settles into the categories outlined by Hal Herzog in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. It has only been two and a half centuries, yet we take this understanding for granted.

Available in book, downloadable ebook and audiobook formats.

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee

Katherine’s Bookshelf – Etiquette by Emily Post

Dark blue with gold lettering Etiquette by Emily Post.
I love books on etiquette. I have a few, but this is the one I wanted to share. More could well be on their way.

This is the grand dame of the bookshelf, an early-ish edition of Etiquette by Emily Post. When it comes to the bookshelf collection, I don’t really care whether I get a first edition. But I do like my etiquette books to be from a range of dates, and this one, whose publication history to this point spanned almost the entire 1920’s, shows just how much American society was changing. Take a close look at that list of editions!

The editions of Etiquette by Emily Post, up to the publication of this particular copy. Lots of them.
The editions of Etiquette by Emily Post, up to the publication of this particular batch in 1929. Lots of them. I love appendices, end pages, indices, endnotes, and so on. I hardcore judge history books by how fat their endnotes are.

End pages and such are anything but boring. Read closely: the use of the word “edition” indicates that the book was altered and edited for the print run. If it was just being reprinted to meet explosive demand for the book, they would be labeled “printings” instead – as you can see after the publication of the New and Enlarged Edition in 1927. So, something was actually being changed in the content of the book, continuously, from July 1922 through November 1927. There are five editions in 1923 alone. I would hope that the core content of the book was ready for publication with its first edition, but this is a huge number of subsequent tweakings, and I would wager that they weren’t all simply fixing typos. Given that it’s an etiquette book, it looks like it’s being edited to keep up with the changing expectations of society.

Polite behavior is, as nearly every etiquette manual points out, a matter of being considerate and compassionate. That doesn’t change. What does change is whether you’re expected to know what an ice cream knife is for, and if visiting cards are necessary, or if you must be able to play bridge and golf in order to survive in business. These details can change very quickly.

Super fancy 19th Century ice cream knife. Solid silver.
This is an ice cream knife, 19th Century. Until the ice cream scoop, they used big ol’ knives with a ledge on the end to cut ice cream and serve it. The ledge is to keep the ice cream from slipping off the broad face of the knife. Weirdly specialized silverware was very common 100 years ago, and although asparagus tongs are pretty much extinct, along with sugar snips, and critically endangered cake breakers, you might still run into fish forks and knives in the wild, at a very, very formal dinner.

We don’t use ice cream knives, and bridge is no longer so vital to building business and social connections. Dining has become steadily less and less formal, too. However, the fancier the occasion, the more it might conserve practices of a century ago. If you find yourself faced with the prospect of a twelve-course dinner, Emily Post has you covered.

very formal place setting anticipating lots of seafood before the main course.
Don’t panic. You can use the table setting to anticipate what will be served, if you neglected to read the menu. Caviar (tiny mother of pearl spoon on extreme right), escargot (rightmost fork resting in spoon, the tongs to hold the snail shells arrive with the snails), seafood cocktail (leftmost two-pronged fork), soup (round spoon on right), fish (broad fork second to left and broad rightmost knife), lobster (lobster pick third from left), salad (fork, second knife from right), main course presumably steak (tall fork fourth from right and steak knife), dessert (three tined fork closest to plate and knife closest to plate).

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee

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

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

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

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

Beat Cabin Fever

Now that the weather’s actually acting like winter after a gray and soggy December, Cabin Fever is starting to set in, but spring won’t be here for a few months. Here’s four things you can do to beat cabin fever, and get yourself through to the spring thaw.

Get Organized

Don’t wait for spring cleaning to get organized, channel all that squirrelly energy you have right now into getting your living space in shape. Ditch the stuff you don’t need. Tidy up the things you do need. Do just a little bit a day, and feel productive and smug. Smugly productive.

Seriously, though. This book is better than any 10 books on "cleaning" out there. I mean, for real, get ORGANIZED.

Seriously, though. This book is better than any 10 books on “cleaning” out there. I mean, for real, get ORGANIZED.

Make checklists, and post them where you have to deal with them – physically touch them – every day. I post mine on a whiteboard with my daily schedule on it above my wall calendar, and put active checklists on top of my laptop. There are apps for this sort of thing, too, with reminders, and checklists, but those are easily disabled, or ignored. I’m talking about changing your behavior. A physical checklist forces you to deal with it.

Think about processes: “what do I do with and in my space?” Analyse behaviors: “why do these behaviors happen, and how can they be improved?” When dealing with an item while cleaning, don’t think “what should I do with this?” think “Triage.” If it’s DOA, ditch it.

Learn a New Skill

Your library is stuffed with books that can teach new skills, from the ground up.

You like snuggly scarves and warm mittens, and fuzzy sweaters. Everybody does.

crochet

Learn to crochet and make some.

afghans

Make an entire afghan.

amigurumi

Make stuffed animals.

Make cozies for things. Make cozies for everything. If you don’t have a couch-side holster for your remote controls, you should make one. Your exercise bike doesn’t have a drink rest? Make one. That’s what you can do with a new skill: use it in creative ways to improve your life. Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to pay people to maintain your computer for you? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could alter the couch to match the walls? Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to get someone in to patch that hole in the drywall?

Fix Things

You won’t want to find out why the bathtub drains slowly when it’s April and sunny. Get in there right now with a pipe snake and fix it. If you don’t know how, then learn how:

dare to repair

You’ll feel better.

I dragged a wad of hair out of the bathtub drainpipe once that was the size and weight of a sodden guinea pig. I should have sold it to a circus. Fixing it felt GREAT. (And probably saved a truckload of money, which felt even better.) Fix everything you can indoors while the weather’s bad, and there will be less to deal with later. The more organized you are, and the more skills you have, the more time and effort and money you can save. Get organized now, and fix small problems before they become big ones. It’s easier that way.

(I’m not lazy: I prefer “efficient.”)

Make Plans

Plans give you something to look forward to, to work toward. They’re the best kind of leverage out of the depths of the mid-winter dumps.

Plan a garden.

Plan a garden.

Plan a road trip.

Plan a road trip.

Make any kind of long-term, complex plan you want. It’s even better, if you make it with friends. They’ll keep you to it. You know what goes great with complex, long-term plans? Organization and checklists.

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

 

Science and History with Conan the Barbarian!

pulpmagazines

Pulp fiction – real pulp fiction – has a reputation for being brainless fluff. I’m talking here about Conan the Barbarian, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Zorro, and Tarzan. These stories, now generally bound as collections in books, were originally published in weekly magazines printed on very cheap wood pulp paper. This is popcorn reading: predictable, lurid, and exploitative – calculated to shock and play into the prejudices of their readers. However, like an iceberg, most of the substance is deep under the surface.

Pulp fiction is the domain of early detective stories, the entire Noir genre, the primordial soup out of which rose comic books, fertile ground for science fiction and modern horror writing. Most of our entertainment today – the themes of our hit movies, television shows, video games, books – owes a great deal to these cheap pulp stories. These tales grew out of the social environment of the 1920s and 1930s, and, while there’s plenty of sexism and racism to go around, there’s also a stunning amount of science history embedded in the fabric of the stories and the worlds they are set in.

conanbook

Let’s look into some science history with Robert E. Howard’s Conan (featuring H. P. Lovecraft):

Hyborea isn’t quite a fantasy universe.

(NOTE: All of the following uses Robert E. Howard’s posthumously published essay on the setting of the Conan stories, The Hyborean Age. Free eBook here at Project Gutenberg.)

Conan the Cimmerian’s world is actually our world, in our own distant past, one we remember only through garbled mythology. The fact that continents move was just coming into acceptance at the time these stories were being written in the 1930s – plate tectonics as we know it found acceptance in the 1950s and 1960s, with the discovery of seafloor rift zones. The actual rate of this movement was not yet known, allowing Howard’s world to have a different shape than our own, including hypothetical “lost continents” such as Lemuria and Atlantis – popular with occultists and mystics at the time.

Human history, too, it was becoming clear, was much longer than once thought, allowing the fictional Hyborean Age plenty of temporal elbow room for lost empires and forgotten gods: these stories take place in the bronze age, on the cusp of the adoption of iron. The people of Conan’s world, similarly, derive from projecting backwards in time from theories of race current in the 1930s (now discredited). According to Howard, Conan’s own people, the Cimmerians, would eventually become the Celts. Both the geography and the population of the Conan stories owe a lot to cutting-edge geology and archaeology of the first few decades of the 20th Century. Although these stories are fiction, they were founded, as much as possible, on the most current science available, and even though we’ve advanced our understanding of the world since, they still present a snapshot of the state of science and corresponding social anxieties in the first part of the 20th Century.

Howard and H. P. Lovecraft kept up a correspondence, and both authors’ bodies of work are interrelated. The stories of Conan interlock with the early human history of Lovecraft’s fiction, and share some of the same place names and even background characters. Lovecraft based much of the horror in his own writing on a new understanding in science in the 1920s that the universe was far larger than previously thought.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” — The Call of Cthulhu (excerpt) by H.P. Lovecraft

That is not the outlook of fiction with a sense of security in humanity’s central place in the universe. Howard’s evil gods and abyssal horrors share this template, and even some of the literary and conceptual background, especially the new scientific outlook that made it possible. From cosmology to geology, and even anthropology and history, the Conan stories may be pulp fiction, but, like their protagonist, they’re definitely far more intelligent than they look.

Cover art for The Best of Robert E. Howard: Crimson Shadows

A very nice compilation, to get you started on Howard’s pulp fiction in general – it even includes some Kull stories, which fit into the distant past of the Conan narratives.

Or, if comic books are more your speed…

Cover art for Conan: the God in the Bowl and Other Stories

Kurt Busiek is one of my favorite comic book writers, creator of the incomparable Astro City series. This adaptation is fantastic! Cary Nord ’s art fits the world and characters well, with primal rage fairly rippling off the page.

Related Science Resources:

Enjoy!

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type), Graphic Novel

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch