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.