Sunday, December 28, 2014

Avast Mateys! Books About Pirates

By Jeff Burns

The Golden Age of Piracy has long been romanticized in popular culture, from at least the 18th century through the present.  Tales of real characters like Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, and Calico Jack have become blurred with fictional characters of Long John Silver, Jack Sparrow, and Captain Blood.  Here are three recent works that attempt to set the story straight.


Colin Woodard’s  The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down  is specifically about the Golden Age, roughly 1715 to 1725 when pirates were so powerful that one group established a literal republic of pirates, untouched by British authorities until one man, Woodes Rogers, determines to break their hold.  There are a lot of flamboyant characters, including Blackbeard, and a lot of information about the average pirate, who was anything but average.  Pirates were ne’er-do-wells, criminals, runaway slaves, hustlers – from all walks of life, including some forced into piracy.  This book is a fast-paced history of them all.


Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly is billed as a “revisionist history,” written by the former director of the U.K.’s National Maritime Museum. Like Woodard, he refutes many myths created by Hollywood, like “walking the plank” for example, and portrays the true, often violent life of the pirate.  He also spends time examining the popular culture myth of Pirates, the how and why of the romanticization. 

At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton by Gregory Flemming is the story of one particular pirate, Phillip Ashton.  Ashton was one of those unlucky men who was forced into service on board the pirate ship that seized his own.  He was captured at age 19 off the coast of Nova Scotia by one of the most bloodthirsty pirates, Edward Low.  He survived nine months as a pirate before escaping on a deserted island in Caribbean, where he survived another year before rescue.  He wrote a memoir of his experiences, and Flemming deftly weaves his personal narrative with trial records, logbooks, and lots of other archived sources.  It is not only an exciting and interesting account of the life of pirates, but also a riveting story of one man’s survival.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Coloring Books: Not Just Kids’ Play

By Jeff Burns

I don’t do it often enough  these days, but I do enjoy it, and I plan to get back in the habit.  What habit?  Coloring  I’m generally not very artistic, but I do find myself doodling in meetings, and I like coloring with pencils.  But coloring’s just for kids, right?  Not at all.  A recent article touts the benefits of coloring for adults. Coloring produces, according to the studies cited, wellness and reduces stress, while stimulating creativity, mental activity, fine motor skills and the senses.  Creating coloring books for adults is apparently a trend for publishers around the world.

One company that has been ahead of that curve is Dover Publications.   I’ve been aware of Dover’s great historical coloring books from my first days as a teacher.  Back in the olden days, before powerpoints and smartboards an color copiers and printers, I bought Dover’s coloring books and copied the pages to make overhead transparencies, bulletin boards, and activities.  (Even high school students love to color.)  And I often found myself coloring pages as well.


Dover produces great coloring books covering just about every history topic imaginable. The illustrations are accurate, detailed, and accompanied by informative and well-researched captions.  They’re inexpensive, too, so you’ll never run out of material to color.    The books are available in most bookstores and from the website. While at the website, Dover’s other offerings:  activity books, sticker books, paper dolls, model kits, etc. I’ve also used many of these formats in class in one way or another.

So do yourself a favor, improve your health, reduce stress, and learn some history at the same time! Buy some historical coloring books and colored pencils for yourself and your children and get started.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Pop Culture Icons

By Jeff Burns

If you were around in the second half of the twentieth century, your life was touched by television and music.  There’s no way around it.  Now, as adults,  deeper into the 21st century, we grow nostalgic and many of the icons  of our younger days are passing, from life and from memory.  This fall, publishers have released a number of notable biographies and autobiographies of major celebrities.  They provide fascinating insight into the subjects’ lives and the times that they had a large part in shaping.

I’ve just completed Norman Lear’s autobiography Even This I Get to Experience.  Norman Lear is perhaps the most successful television creator of all time, dominating 1970s television; at his height – at a time when only 3 networks existed – he was the creator of nine different shows on the air, including some of the most controversial, groundbreaking, popular, and critically acclaimed shows of all time, including All in the Family, Good Times, Maude, The Jeffersons, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Lear spares no details about his childhood and tumultuous family life, his marriages and his own shortcomings as a father and husband, his political activity, and his professional career which spanned 50 years of radio, television, and movies.  I didn’t know, for example, of his close relationship with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at their height in the 1950s.  It was also interesting to learn about the relationships and conflicts behind the scenes of the shows I grew up watching, among the network executives, creators, actors, and political groups.

Next up is Jerry Lee Lewis:  His Own Story by Rick Bragg.  Rick Bragg is a journalist and author of great books about his own southern family’s story that reflect the 20th century history of the South.  In this book, he has collaborated with rock and roll legend Jerry lee Lewis.  It is exactly what you’d expect a candid autobiography of Jerry Lee Lewis should be:  full of wild and crazy, full speed ahead, rock and roll experiences.  Even his birth was wild and crazy; Lewis was a breech baby delivered by his own father because the doctor was passed out drunk. 

The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, released an autobiography  about 15 years ago, co-written with noted musical biographer David Ritz.  Then, it was criticized for being superficial and glossy.  Now, Ritz has written his own biography which digs deeper and uncovers more stones,  Respect:  The Life of Aretha Franklin.  While it’s not a smear in any way, it does reveal facts about her life and personality that she did not want revealed before.  It’s still a respectful rendition, that treats her more like a real, fully formed personality, with the good and the not-so-good on display.

Finally, in the music arena, there’s Fleetwood:  My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac.  For a long time, Fleetwood Mac’s album Tusk was the biggest selling album in the world, and nobody expected it to be surpasses until Thriller  came along.  The band has an incredibly long and chaotic career, engaged in a sold-out tour currently, after 40 plus years.  Fleetwood doesn’t hold back revealing the rock and roll, drug fueled excess and the relationship issues within the band that not only fueled some of its greatest work but also caused tremendous stress and strain.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Four Daughters

By Jeff Burns

There seems to be a whole sub-genre of historical fiction out there that tells stories from the point of view of daughters, characters who can be both observers and participants in the action and historical events around them.  Here are some recommend options if you’d like to explore.

German author Oliver Potszch has written a series of novels that follow a Bavarian family in the 17th century, starting with The Hangman’s Daughter.  He embarked on writing the series after discovering that his own family, the Kuisls,  were renowned Bavarian executions.  Not only was execution a family business passed down from generation to generation, but the job involved much more than simply execution.  Executioners and their families were an ostracized, but important, element of society at the time.  They not only carried out executions, but many other punishments in those days when prison was not an option, and criminal offenders were tortured, flogged, and mutilated.  As part of their profession, executioners also were practiced in the art of healing and even a little alchemy.  The titular hangman is a veteran of the Thirty Years War that devastated the German states and has his own demons as a result.  He and his daughter, meanwhile find themselves involved in a series of murders that cause them to run afoul of civic and church officials.  While the hangman is the main character, his headstrong and challenging daughter always takes an active role in the investigations.  The books are exciting, fun to read mysteries, and their packed with historic detail.  I love the fact that the author always includes thorough notes in which he talks about the actual locations, events and people that inspired his work.  Subsequent titles include:  The Dark Monk, The Poisoned Pilgrim, and The Beggar King.

Linda Lafferty writes another 17th century tale, this time set in Bohemia, called The Bloodletter’s Daughter.  The title character also comes from a station in life deemed necessary but unseemly, and relegated to the lowest ranks of society.  Her father is not only the town bloodletter, the closest most people got to a trained physician in those days, but he also operated the town bathhouse.  Marketa, the daughter, finds herself the object of the deranged passion of a Hapsburg prince.  Another great murder mystery and thriller based on real life royal figures and a scandal that nearly toppled the dynasty.

From American history, there’s The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent.  It is the story of the Salem Witch Trials, told from the point of view of sarah, the daughter of Martha Carrier, one of the first women to be accused and executed for witchcraft.  Kent herself is a 10th generation descendent of Martha Carrier.  It’s a detailed and complex tale of Puritan New England and the of the hysteria that accompanied the trials that led to hundreds of people being jailed and twenty being executed .  There’s one error in the book that got me, Giles Corey, the man pressed to death for refusing to confess, is called Miles, at least in the Kindle edition of the book. 

Moving into the nonfiction realm, there’s Galileo’s Daughter, by  Dava Sobel.  Ostensibly, a biography of Galileo’ daughter, whom he sequestered in  a cloistered nunnery , the book is really a great biography of Galileo, called by Albert Einstein the “father of modern science.”  Sister Maria Celeste’s life, and that of her father, is presented through 124 letters written to her father, in which they touch on a multitude of subjects, including the cloistered life, the Black Death,  his experiments, and of course his persecution by the Catholic Church for heresy. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Sampling of Wild West Classics in Comics

By Margaret Duncan, Ed.D.

I fully admit I am an adult that still gets excited to go into a comic book shop.  I am also a parent who has used children’s books, as well as comics to introduce reading to my girls. I have also used comics in my classroom to help get students more excited about a certain time period.  Classics Illustrated was a series of comics that ran for thirty years (1941-1971) and would adapt well known novels into comic book form.  Think of it as an earlier version of CliffNotes with pictures for students.  Many of the Classics Illustrated comics hold up well, they were beautifully adapted and illustrated.  For my girls, they enjoy the comics as much, and in some cases more than the original book. So, let us take a trip down memory lane with some classic western adapted novels from Samuel Clemens, James Fenimore Cooper, Francis Parkman, and Owen Wister.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (No. 50), by Samuel L. Clemens 
This Classics Illustrated Comic is about a young boy, Tom Sawyer, growing up along the Mississippi River. The story is set in the fictional town of St. Petersburg but was inspired by Hannibal, Missouri, where Clemens/Twain had lived. The story is about Tom, an orphan who lives with his Aunt Polly and his half-brother Sid, and his adventures with his friends Becky Thatcher, Huckleberry Finn, and Joe Harper.  Also included in the comic is a biography on Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. As well as a story Bulldog Courage, a biography of George Westinghouse and an overview of the opera, Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. 

The Prairie (No. 58), by James Fenimore Cooper
Although The Last of the Mohicans is Cooper’s most famous novel, The Prairie is the third novel written by Cooper featuring Natty Bumppo. However, the fictitious frontier hero Bumppo is never called by his name, but instead referred to as "the trapper" or "the old man."  It depicts Bumppo in the final year of his life and he continues to be helpful to people in distress on the American frontier. Also included in the comic is a biography of James Fenimore Cooper, considered by many to be the first great American novelist.  There is also a biography of Hippocrates, the father of Medicine, and a dog hero story, Tunney, the Champ.

The Oregon Trail (No. 72), by Francis Parkman
The Oregon Trail is a first-person account of the two month summer tour in 1846 of the U.S. states of Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas.  The book covers the three weeks Parkman spent hunting buffalo with a band of Oglala Sioux. The book is dated in its portrayal of Native Americans and the title is misleading, the book only covers the first third of the trail.  Also included in the comic is a biography of Francis Parkman, who many consider to be an authoritative source of early American Western history. There is also a biography on Edward Livingstone Trudeau, the isolator of the tuberculosis germ, a story about the famous opera, La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini, and a dog hero story about Duke, the Seeing Eye Cop.

Buffalo Bill (No. 106), no author given
According to the comic tease, this is one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.  It is the story of the American West and the men who conquered it, including one of the most celebrated, William Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill.  Also included is the biography of William Quantrill, part of the Bad Men of the West series, a biography of Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, and a story of Early America, Wreck Ashore!.

The Virginian (No. 150), by Owen Wister
The Virginian is a novel set in the Wild West and describes the life of a cowboy at the Sunk Creek Ranch in Medicine Bow, Wyoming.  The Virginian’s real name is never given.  The Virginian does have an ongoing romance with the newly appointed schoolmarm, Miss Molly Stark Wood.  Also included is a biography of Owen Wister. Also there is a story about the person Wister dedicated The Virginian to, Theodore Roosevelt, T.R. and the Thieves, and a story about the Capture of Geronimo.

One thing I really like about Classics Illustrated is that each contains a bio on the author.  It is really nice that the reader can read the novel in comic/graphic form and then learn all about the person who wrote it.  Another great thing is that each story also ends with the same challenge: “Now that you have read the Classics Illustrated edition, don’t miss the added enjoyment of reading the original, obtainable at your school or public library.”

These are just a few American West classics, what novel would you like to read as a comic book?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Famous and Not-So-Famous Men

By Jeff Burns


 
In 1936, the United States was still very much in the grip of the Great Depression.  There were some positive signs of economic progress in some sectors, but the American South was still experiencing misery unknown to the rest of the country, to the point that, in many ways, it was more like a separate country.  Fortune  Magazine dispatched two famous men to document southern conditions.  Walker Evans was a famous photographer, known for his work documenting the effects of the Depression for the Farm Security Administration, the same New Deal agency that employed Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White.  James Agee was a critically acclaimed novelist, poet, journalist, and film critic, most famous for writing A Death in the Family.  For eight weeks, the two men travelled and lived among several poor sharecropping families in Alabama, documenting their lives.  Fortune ultimately decided not to publish their work, and it was instead released as a book titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  The book only sold a few hundred copies and seemed destined for oblivion.  However, it has since been recognized as tremendously important work, hailed by the New York Public Library as one of the most influential books of the century.  Agee’s prose and Evans’ photographs combine to present a poignant and enlightening view of men and women whose lives would otherwise have never been noted.  It’s a moving document of southern sharecroppers and their stories, stories that are seldom told.

            In 2013, more photos and a manuscript from that journey were published as a book called Cotton Tenants: Three Families. I didn’t know this book existed until now, but I just ordered it, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

            I first read Famous Men in high school.  I found it in a bookstore’s clearance section.  It immediately struck a chord with me because my mother’s family was a family of sharecroppers and small farmers in South Georgia.  She was born in 1936 on a farm, and she had an aunt and uncle who continued to work as sharecroppers until the 1980s.  In many ways, what I read and saw in the book was the life that my mother, grandparents, aunts,  and uncles had lived.  Some of the few family pictures we have from the 1930s and 1940s would have been right at home in the book.  Later, I found a book of walker Evans’ photos from the same trip called Something Permanent, which even hit closer to home.  On the cover, was a photo of an iron bed, the same model that then sat in my parents’ guest room, and now belongs to my brother.  It was a Sears catalog bed, costing about $10 or less around 1900.  According to family lore, it was the bed on which my grandmother and her 10 siblings had all been born.

            A few years later, I made another discovery in the clearance aisle:  And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.  Maharidge and Williamson recreate the journey taken by Agee and Evans, going to the same locations and meeting some of the original families of Famous Men and their descendants, documenting their lives in the 1980s, long after the demise of King Cotton.  It is an awesome companion piece, and I’ve read both books more than once, a rarity for me.

            If you’re interested in southern history, agricultural history, or the history of the not-so-famous men and women who are too often neglected in history’s pageant, I urge you to read these books and discover Walker Evans’ photographs.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Home is Where the History is

By Jeff Burns

I’d be willing to bet that for most people history connections are made through the little things, the ordinary things of everyday life.  We connect family histories to objects passed down through generations.  Seeing objects in an antique store or museum display often triggers memories of similar objects in a family home long ago.  The same is true of my students.  Many have stories or relate the  objects they see in class to something in their own family, and they are full of questions about how people – the famous and non-famous alike – actually lived on a day to day basis.  There are several fascinating books that illuminate that history.

Charles Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things is encyclopedic in scope, the origins of more than 500 everyday items, expressions, and customs--from Kleenex to steak sauce, Barbie Dolls to honeymoons.

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley is organized so that the reader goes from room to room learning about the evolution of objects from medieval times to the present.  The book is entertaining popular history, designed to accompany a British television series, not meant to be a scholarly work, and it shows.  There are lots of stories about the intimacies of the family home- the things that people are most likely to be interested in.

Famous author Bill Bryson wrote a similar book called At Home: A Short History of Private Life.  It’s also organized by rooms, but the difference between it and Worsley’s book is that he was inspired by his own family’s Victorian home and decided to write “a history of the world without leaving home.”  His rooms each start him off on journeys that cover 10,000 years of human civilization in his trademark insightful and humorous style.

Step back to Victorian England again with Daniel Pool’s book, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England. As the title implies, this book is designed for literature lovers as well as history buffs. Fans of works by Dickens, Austen, and the Bronte sisters, just to name a few, often come across words and scenes that leave them confused.  Pool tells the story of those words and activities and truly describes the world that the authors were part of and wrote about.

Check out one or more of these books and answer those questions about everyday life that you didn’t even know you had.  

Friday, September 26, 2014

Discovering Great Books About the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration

By Jeff Burns
 
Trends in history and historical writing come and go.  Lately, some historians and historical commentators have been downplaying the importance of the Renaissance, arguing that the concept of the Renaissance was only created generations later by Eurocentric historians who ignored the fact that the great advances of the period were truly the result of a major period of globalization.  (Watch John Green’s Crash Course video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vufba_ZcoR0 )

No matter how the history of the 15th and 16th centuries is written, the world was forever changed.  Here are a few interesting books about the period you should consider.

Author Charles Mann has written two great books on the subject of globalization:  1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  1491 presents the latest scholarship on the Americas before the voyages of Columbus.  It’s a fascinating and thorough account of cultures throughout the two continents, and it introduces many ideas that run counter to longstanding conventional wisdom.  1493 examines the effects of European exploration on the entire world, not just the Americas and Europe, environmentally, economically, culturally, and politically. 
 
 
Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors by James Reston Jr also focuses on 1492.  As the title says, Reston writes about the three pivotal events that created Spain and transformed Europe and the world in the process.  Detailed and thorough, it’s a very entertaining read, and Reston’s narrative brings the central characters to life.

Stephen Greenblatt examines the origins of humanist thought, the driving force behind the Renaissance in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.  It’s part biography, part detective story, his search for information on a papal librarian who discovered an ancient Roman poem written 1000 years earlier, called “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius.  Lucretius’ poem set down ideas that the Church and the European establishment deemed to be dangerous, and it had been  locked away and forgotten.  Greenblatt holds that its rediscovery inspired the greatest minds of the Renaissance.
 
The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: Da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped by Paul Strathern is about three of the most important men of the Renaissance and their very brief, but impactful, interaction in 1502.  The book is a real insight into three of the most brilliant, and disparate, geniuses of their day.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Band of Giants, The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America's Independence

By Nina Kendall
The American mythos is marked with celebration of the great acts of ordinary individuals. The leaders of the American Revolution are often portrayed as heroic figures fighting together in the name of liberty. Band of Giants, The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America's Independence by Jack Kelly is a fast paced account of early American leaders from the French and Indian War to the Treaty of Paris, 1783. Kelly uses a unique blend of personal accounts and military strategy to engage the reader and reveal the lives of military leaders in the late 18th century. If the American Revolution serves as the origin story for America’s early leaders, Jack Kelly is going to introduce them to you in a whole new way.

Band of Giants offers the reader as chance to follow the Continental Army into battle.  You can march with Benedict Arnold into Canada and learn about Knox’s rescue of cannon for the Colonists. This book is a chance to get inside the head of America’s first military leaders. Kelly helps you get to know the leaders of American forces and their challenges as he mixes military maneuvers with excerpts from correspondence. What led Henry Knox and Nathaniel Greene to choose to go to war?  How did untested soldiers learn the practice of war?

What did George Washington know of war? In Band of Giants, you can come to know George Washington as a general. Learn of his early experience in the Ohio territory. How did he emerge as a leader in the Revolution? With careful research, Kelly reveals Washington’s growth as a leader and internal struggle during the war. Jack Kelly illustrates the relationships Washington has with key figures in the American Revolution that shape the course of the war. The strife with Charles Lee and the betrayal of Benedict Arnold strain Washington’s reserves. Yet, he draws strength from the support of the Marquis de Lafayette.

Jack Kelly gives the reader insight into to circumstances that influenced many of America’s military leaders.  Military leaders whose names dot the American landscape like Lafayette, DeKalb, and Greene emerge from the page as historical figures. Carefully woven prose makes clear the vital support America received from abroad and the risk is commanders faced on the front.  Who helped the Continental Army? What risks did they take? Delve into the mind of the young Marquis de Lafayette who risks his life and wealth in support of liberty during the American Revolution. Kelly clearly connects the contributions of men like Baron von Steuben to the success of the Continental Army.

Take the opportunity to read Band of Giants and dig into the lives of ordinary men who helped fight for American independence.  See leaders of the American Revolution as you never have before.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Reading about the Great War

By Jeff Burns

June 28, 2014 marked the centennial of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event that started World War I. Over the next month or so, the greater and lesser powers of Europe found themselves dragged into what was known at the time as the Great War, or optimistically the War to End All Wars.  Eventually the United States too was dragged in.  Much is being written about the legacies of the war.  In the short term, a generation of Europeans was lost through death, injury, and displacement and the effects of the war and peace that followed would of course lead directly to World War II a quarter century later.  The spirit of nationalism that was one of the causes of the war led to colonial independence movements throughout Africa and Asia.  Even now, we see the geopolitical effects of the war.  Here are just a few books I recommend on the subject.

            Journalist Tim Butcher’s new book, The Trigger:  Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War traces the life of Gavril Princip, the nineteen year old who assassinated the Archduke.  I wrote about Butcher’s last book, Blood River, his book following Stanley’s expedition on the Congo River to find Livingstone in an earlier blog. The Trigger  follows a similar template.  Butcher travels to rural Bosnia to begin the story of Princip, a boy from a poor subsistence farming family  whose descendants still live in the tiny village, much as they have for generations and follows his path from there to Sarajevo, then Belgrade, then back to Sarajevo for the fateful act.  Butcher is a great storyteller and a consummate old-school journalist, and it comes through in his work.  First, he immerses himself in research and then he talks to people and faithfully tells their stories.  However, the book is not just about the assassination.  Butcher himself was a war correspondent who covered the Balkans in the 1990s.  He manages to weave the story of the assassination into the intricate fabric of the Balkans, a region shaped by hundreds of years of conflict.  It’s a fascinating read.

Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History is a great book if you’re looking for a more thorough history of the Balkans and the ethnic and religious conflicts that culminated in the wars and genocides of the 1990s.
 
 
 If you’re looking for the classic history of the war, the must-read is Barbara Tuchman’s  The Guns of August.  Tuchman re-creates the first month of the war, and all the steps and machinations leading to the conflict.  This was required reading for a college history course for me, but it was not a chore.  Tuchman is an excellent writer who told an exciting, suspenseful story that happened to be true.
Personally, I’m not a huge military history buff, so my interest in war history is mostly interest in causes and effects.  Another classic about the causes of the war is Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie.  Dreadnought is specifically about the naval arms race between Britain and Germany, part of the militaristic fervor that propelled Europe into war, but the book is not a dry naval  history – pun intended.  When I read this book, I learned so much about the European military leaders and royals whose drive to achieve military superiority, in this case by building the greatest battleship, was a major factor leading to the war.
 
           Turning to fiction, I have a couple of recommendations.  All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the greatest war novels ever written.  In fact it is very much an anti-war novel written by German war veteran Erich Maria Remarque.  The reader experiences the build up to the war, the horrors of the war itself, and their effect on the men involved, through the eyes of its protagonist, Paul Baumer and his comrades.   The book was unique for its time, not a jingoistic, super-patriotic glorification of war, but a realistic portrayal.  In fact, it was one of the first books banned in Nazi Germany because of its anti-war message.  It’s one of my favorite classic novels.
            In an earlier blog, I wrote about Ken Follett’s historic epics, The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End about medieval England and the Century Trilogy.  Book One of the Century Trilogy is The Fall of Giants,  and it follows five families (British, German, Russian, and American as they experience the war , the Russian Revolution, and the British women’s suffrage movement.  And when I say epic, I mean epic.  It’s a huge book, but I was thoroughly engaged from the beginning and finished it very quickly.  As one would expect from Follett, it’s full of historical detail, and is an education in itself about the effects of the war on all segments of society.
 
 
 
 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Forgotten Presidents, Unforgettable Books


By Jeff Burns
            Even though I teach American history, it’s sometimes hard to generate a lot of excitement in class when we get to the Gilded and Progressive ages, roughly 1880 to 1910.  Odd, since there was a lot going on during that time, the closing of the frontier, the rise of big business, and the beginnings of American imperialism.  America changed from agricultural to industrial and stepped out onto the world stage like never before.  The face of America itself was changed as waves of new immigrants arrived, making tremendous contributions to the country as they assimilated.
            In spite of all this, the period can be kind of a blur for students.  I sometimes call it the “forgettable president” era, since most of the presidents of this time were rather weak executives, overshadowed by the big business tycoons of the day.  They tend to blend together in a bearded mass, and many Americans today are hard-pressed to remember their names.  Lately, however, I’ve read some really great books that bring a real vibrancy to the era.
            Two of the books are about the two lesser known presidential assassinations:  Garfield and McKinley.  Candice Millard wrote Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, about James Garfield and his assassin, Charles Guiteau.  Millard’s previous book River of Doubt (reviewed in another blog) tells the story or Theodore Roosevelt’s Amazon expedition.  Destiny of the Republic is, in many ways, every bit as exciting.  She tells the parallel stories of the two men.  I never really knew much about Garfield; after all, he was president for only a few months.  Millard paints a picture of an outstanding man of character, willing to stand up for his principles.  He was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. On the other hand, Charles Guiteau was a mentally ill man who, in his mind, was doing God’s will by killing the president.  While the stories of the two men are fascinating in their own right, the story doesn’t end there.  After the shooting, Garfield lingered for months while there was an intense power struggle erupted among the doctors, a power struggle that ultimately cost his life.  Millard tells the story in riveting fashion.


 
            The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century by Scott Miller is another page-turner, about Leon Czolgosz’ assassination of William McKinley, but it’s much more.  It is a thorough history of the United States at the turn of the century, with full accounts of the Spanish American war, the war in the Philippines, the Haymarket Square Riot, and Emma Goldman and the anarchist movement.
            Pulitzer prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism is the typically epic work that we expect from her, nearly 1000 pages researched and written over a decade. Goodwin tells the stories of TR and Taft, two great men with two vastly different approaches to politics and the presidency, who were best of friends until politics drove them apart in 1912. She interweaves their stories with the rise of the muckraking press.

       

Friday, August 1, 2014

History, Yum!

By Nina Kendall

                Do you have a taste for history? Are you looking for a good book to sample? Do you want to get someone hooked on history? Try food history.  Food reflects who we are and who we were as a people. It illustrates the influence of technology on society and reveals the cultural traditions and diversity of a region. Food is both an artifact and a motivator. The Columbian exchange transformed the world in part because of the food it introduced to new lands.

            Mark Kurlansky has written several books about history and food.  His works document both the role of food in society and how food reflects change over time. Well researched and accessible, Kurlansky's work is worth checking out.  Salt is an account of food as force of change. Salt made food preservation possible and once served as unit of exchange. This work illustrates how one commodity can influence population, and impact international relations.

In The Food of a Younger Land, Mark Kurlansky uses records from the Federal Writers Project administered by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to create a picture of food and eating habits in America in the 1940’s. The WPA employed out of work writers to conduct interviews and record traditions during the Great Depression. Mark Kurlansky shares a collection of recipes and stories that describe a land were food is traditional, seasonal, and regional. Kurlansky gives you a glimpse of American food habits before technology and transportation advancements.

The Histocrats are going to use The Food of a Younger Land as inspiration for a hunt for recent history. We have read about the history of drink and Soul Food. We have visited the Coca-Cola Museum Now we are going to hunt for the food of a modern land.  What do we eat now? How have traditions changed? How can we use what we learn to teach students about history?  What would you find if you went hunting in your hometown? Happy eating! May the history you find be delicious.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Sampling of Classics Illustrated Sci-Fi Comics

By Margaret Duncan, Ed.D.

I fully admit I am an adult that still gets excited to go into a comic book shop.  I am also a parent who has used children’s books, as well as comics to introduce reading to my girls. I have also used comics in my classroom to help get students more excited about a certain time period.  Classics Illustrated was a series of comics that ran for thirty years (1941-1971) and would adapt well known novels into comic book form.  Think of it as an earlier version of CliffNotes with pictures for students.  Many of the Classics Illustrated comics hold up well, they were beautifully adapted and illustrated.  For my girls, they enjoy the comics as much, and in some cases more than the original book. So, let us take a trip down memory lane with some classic sci-fi adapted novels from H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. 

H.G. Wells
You can read H.G. Wells classics like The Time Machine (No. 133) and The Frist Men on the Moon (No. 144). The Time Machine (originally published in 1895) is about an English scientist and the time machine he creates and uses. He uses his machine to travel to 802,701, where he meets the Eloi and the Morlocks.  Unlike the original novel, in the comic adaption the Time Traveller is not set in Victorian England but instead contemporary 1950s.  Also, the bonus feature in the comic is part of a 12 part series on The Story of Great Britain. 

The First Men in the Moon (originally published in 1901) is about a journey to the Moon by a businessman, Mr. Bedford, and an eccentric scientist, Mr. Cavor. Long before we would actually go the moon, Wells let us know about things like weightlessness, and that Moon travel was possible.  Unfortunately, he was wrong about finding a civilization of insect-like creatures called the Selenites.  Sadly, there is no bonus feature in this comic.  However, there is extra info on The Mysterious Moon and Celestial Streaks (Comets).

Jules Verne
Some of the great Jules Verne adaptions are Around the World in 80 Days (No. 69), Off on a Comet (No. 149), and Master of the World (No. 163). Around the World in Eighty Days (first published in 1873) is the story of Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passepartout as they attempt to circumnavigate the world in 80 days thanks to a £20,000 bet. The extras in the comics are about Der Meistersinger by Richard Wagner, Smoky The Quick Thinking Dog and Thomas Wedgwood, the inventor of the camera.

Off on a Comet (originally published in 1877) is about the comet Gallia.  When it collides with Earth it carries a part of it off including 36 people. As they travel on the comet, they are able to explore the solar system and eventually return back to the Earth. Extras in the comic are about Mercury and Jupiter, and one on the constellations.

Master of the World (first published in 1904) is a sequel to Robur the Conqueror. In the comic, Robur has perfected his new invention, the Terror. It is a vehicle that can be many things, a speedboat, submarine, automobile, or aircraft. It is up to John Strock to find him and the Terror. The extras in the comic are Who Knows?, a short story, and The Bride comes to Yellow Sky.  There is also a short comic about Socrates.

One thing I really like about Classics Illustrated is that each contain a bio on the author.  It is really nice that the reader can read the novel in comic/graphic form and then learn all about the person who wrote it.  Another great thing is that each story also ends with the same challenge: “Now that you have read the Classics Illustrated edition, don’t miss the added enjoyment of reading the original, obtainable at your school or public library.”

These are just a few sci-fi classics, what novel would you like to read as a comic book? 
 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Georgia in Mind

By Jeff Burns

I’m a proud native Georgian, but like every state, Georgia has many dark episodes in its past.   These blights cannot be ignored or glossed over.  As Maya Angelou wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” 

These three books highlight three different aspects of racial injustice in Georgia and the South during the 20th century, and I highly recommend them.
 
Like other southern states, Georgia actively practiced Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (by Douglas Blackmon).  Most people know about the perpetual cycle of sharecropping that kept blacks and poor whites (Many of my white ancestors were sharecroppers.) in bondage to landowners who needed cheap farm labor.  This book investigates the state and corporate sponsored enslavement whereby black men and women, arrested and/or convicted of crimes, petty or major, guilty or not, were forced to do hard labor as their sentence.  This labor force not only did work for county and state governments, but were also “rented” out to landowners and business owners for back-breaking free labor in the private sector.
 
Without Mercy: The Stunning True Story of Race, Crime, and Corruption in the Deep South by David Beasley is the account of the two- term (1936-1940) Georgia Governor E.D. Rivers, the leader of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan, and the pardon racket that he actively ran that allowed white murderers to escape the death penalty and even earn pardons, while the justice system was totally stacked against black defendants.  Beasley tells the stories of a handful of white and black men convicted of murder and their fates.  In the process, he details the massive corruption of Governor Rivers, who made life and death decisions based on race and literally and openly sold pardons to white defendants.
 
University of Georgia history professor Robert Pratt wrote We Shall Not Be Moved: The Desegregation of the University of Georgia, a thoroughly researched history relying on both archived materials and extensive oral histories that begins with the unsuccessful 1950 law school application of Horace Ward and moves on to the integration of Hamilton Earl Holmes and Charlayne Alberta Hunter in 1961.  Even in Georgia, history classes learn about the integration efforts at the Universities of Alabama and Mississippi, but often learn little about the integration of the University of Georgia, perhaps leading people to believe that it was relatively peaceful.  Pratt reveals the fallacy of that inference and exposes the deliberate and organized opposition to their integration.  It’s a fascinating read about a topic that is too often forgotten.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

What so Proudly We Hailed: A Biography

By Nina Kendall

     Summer in the United States is a time of patriotic splendor.  Fireworks, flag displays, and celebrations of important Americans entice people to bask in communal festivities. I treasure memories of the National Fiddle Contest, Flag Day parades, and concerts ending with fireworks.  Summer fun can be extended with a great history book.  This year you can combine your summer celebration with a new book about early America.

     America in the early 19th century was a country of contradictions.  Francis Scott Key led a life that epitomizes those contradictions. Marc Leepson has written a new biography about Key.  In What So Proudly We Hailed, Leepson shares the life of Francis Scott Key who is best known for writing the “The Star Spangled Banner.”  Mr. Key is an American icon whose life is largely unknown. An active citizen, Key was involved in local, regional, and national issues. A lawyer by trade, Key also pursued his interest in religion, public education, and colonization.  

     Leepson makes his research clear in his revelation of the life of Francis Scott Key.  While recounting the events surrounding the writing of the account of the events surrounding the writing of “The Star Spangled Banner”, we learn that Key did not write of the events directly. Leepson’s writing is based on a letter written by Roger B. Taney and the John Skinner’s memories. Both works were written decades after the War of 1812. Key himself only made one public reference to the poem despite delivering numerous public speeches on a variety of topics.

     Key struggles with the issues of the time. He has concerns about how the future of the country will be affected by the resolution of questions surrounding slavery. At times Key defends slaves who sue for their freedom.  Yet, he also works for people who seek the return of slaves. He is troubled by the struggle to create the Missouri Compromise and a huge supporter of the American Colonization Society. Marc Leepson presents these actions to the reader without judgment so that they can draw their own conclusions.

     What So Proudly We Hailed, Francis Scott Key, A Life paints a clear picture of the life of a man who represents the challenges of early America. This is a good book for tying all the pieces of early 19th century America together. Key was a public figure in a period of growth and debate in American history.   Key, the son of a wealthy planter, has well connected relatives and influential friends.  Yet he still strives to be faithful to his religion, improve his community, and influence the future of his country. 

     Connect your summer fun with the enjoyment of early American history. Pick up a book and make a connection with the past.