Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Johnstown Flood of 1889

As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the Johnstown Flood of 1889. It might have started when I discovered a book on my parent's bookshelf called The History of the Johnstown Flood by Willis Fletcher Johnson. I have no idea where the book came from, but it was published in 1889, and contains many photos, like the one above, and many very inaccurate stories. I was hooked! It wasn't until I was in my 30s, though, that I was actually able to make a trip to Johnstown.

There was so much I didn't know about the flood and why it happened, but after my trip to the Johnstown Flood Museum I knew a lot more. What I didn't learn at the museum I discovered in David McCullough's book, The Johnstown Flood. It offers a fascinating look at what lead to that momentous day, May 31, 1889.

In observance of the anniversary of the flood, here are some things I learned from my visit and David McCullough's book:

  • Johnstown had been prone to flooding for many years, so when the heavy rains started people knew there could be flooding. But the residents of Johnstown were not prepared for the possibility of the dam at Conemaugh Lake, 14 miles away, bursting and sending a wave of water over 30 feet high to destroy their town. 
  • The dam had been built between 1838 to 1853 as part of the canal system that became obsolete in 1854.
  • The South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club owned Conemaugh Lake and the dam at the time of the flood. The members of this club were the elite businessmen of their age. Most of them were from Pittsburgh. A few of its famous members were Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, and Andrew Carnegie.
  • After the club purchased the lake and surrounding area, they made a few changes to the dam that were not improvements. They put screens across the spillways to keep the fish from escaping and they lowered the dam by several feet so that carriages could cross it. An earlier owner had removed the drainage pipes so that the lake could not be drained, and they were never reinstalled.
  • The dam contained 20 million tons of water, which is about the same amount of water that goes over Niagara Falls in 36 minutes.
  • A telegram was received in Johnstown sometime in the afternoon of May 31 that warned that the dam was likely to break. No one is sure when it was received and, unfortunately, not enough people actually saw it. The ones who did see it did not take it seriously, since there had been many false alarms over the years.
  • The wave of water that hit Johnstown was 30 to 40 feet high and traveling at 40 miles per hour when it hit Johnstown, after hitting other small towns along the way. The dam broke sometime after 3 PM and hit Johnstown at 4:07 PM.
  • More than 2,200 people died, including 99 entire families. More than 750 people were never identified and are buried in the Plot of the Unknown in Grandview Cemetery, Johnstown. There were bodies found as far away as Cincinnati. Bodies were still being discovered in 1911.
  • The Johnstown Flood was the single largest one-day loss of civilian life in the United States before September 11, 2001.
  • Clara Barton and the Red Cross arrived in the area on June 5, 1889 to help in the rescue and relief effort. This was the first major peacetime disaster relief effort for the organization.
  • The flood was the biggest event of that era. Because of the coverage of newspapers, the world knew of the flood within days and donations started arriving from all over the world shortly after.  The first relief train from Pittsburgh arrived on June 1. 
  • The South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club was never held legally responsible for the flood.
  • Johnstown would again experience devastating floods in 1936 and 1977.

If you are interested in history, especially Pennsylvania history, make sure you get to the Johnstown Flood Museum and the Johnstown Flood Memorial to see first hand what happened there on May 31, 1889.

More Information:

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough (1968)

Johnstown: The Day the Dam Broke by Richard O'Connor (1957)

Through The Johnstown Flood: By A Survivor by Rev. David J. Beale (1890)


-- Post by Tracy

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Summer Reading 2012

Summer Reading 2012 @ Monroeville Public Library!

Monday, June 4 kicks off our Summer Reading Programs here at MPL -- for kids, teens, and adults alike. Read on to find out more about our programs for you and your family this summertime season!

For Kids:

We are very excited to announce that MPL is one of 20 libraries to pilot Questyinz -- a  brand-new, interactive, online game that engages students entering K-5 in reading and exploring their own interests. Children can read, write, and complete discovery quests to win badges and points towards virtual rewards for their avatar, and even real-world rewards for themselves!

Stop in the Library beginning June 4 to get all the details -- and to pick up your password, which will let you log in and be part of this exciting new program.

*Students entering 6th grade are not eligible to play the game, but can be part of the Children's Room's traditional SRC or join the Teen Program.

For Younger Kids:

June 4 is also the kick-off for Think Big -- Read, the Read-to-Me Club for younger children. Parents keep a list of the books they share with their child over the summer. Kids get stickers and rewards for returning their completed list. Pick up the list and other details at the Library!

For Teens:


On June 4th, Monroeville Public Library will kick off its annual Teen Summer Reading (TSR) program. TSR is open to all teens (or any students who have completed grades 5-12) to participate.

Students read all summer to participate in a Chinese auction of prizes -- as well as getting the chance to attend a variety of summer activities, from movie marathons and writing workshops to rock concerts and book clubs. There are special weekly drawings for extra prizes, and every teen who reads at least 10 books or writes three book reviews will be eligible for a special gift card. We'll wrap up the summer with our annual ending program party. (Keep up to date on our teen programs here.)

Login here starting June 4th to register and track your Summer Reading.

For Adults:

Check out what’s “Between the Covers” this summer!  Join Monroeville Public Library’s Adult Summer Reading Program about all things nocturnal. The Adult program will run concurrently with the children’s and teen’s programs, so you can get your whole family involved.

Starting June 4th, adults can register at the Library or online. Spend your summer reading (or listening to audiobooks), and you'll be eligible to win prizes from fine forgiveness coupons to an iPod shuffle!  Just record your books and audiobooks online (or on paper) -- the more you read, the better your chances of winning. (You can find out all the details by stopping by the Adult Reference Desk at the Library.)

Login here starting June 4th to register and track your Summer Reading.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Happy Towel Day

"A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value -- you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes; you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

"More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with."

-- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

MS. B: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a science-fiction/satire novel -- although that definition hardly does the book justice. But then, the thing about Hitchhiker's is that it's nearly impossible to explain -- it's one of those things you just gotta see for yourself.

Created by English author Douglas Adams, the sci-fi phenomenon (and believe me, it's a phenomenon) started life as a 1978 radio series. First broadcast by the BBC, the story kicks off with mild-mannered Arthur Dent, an average human guy who is having something of an off day. He wakes up to find his house about to be knocked down (it's in the way of the new superhighway). An hour later, he uncovers a more pressing problem: the Earth itself is about to be destroyed. Just before the planet's blown up (by a group of aliens making way for a new intergalactic expressway; irony intended), Arthur is saved by his best friend, Ford Prefect, who just happens to be an alien himself.

Turns out that Ford's been on Earth doing research for a travel guide called "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (hence the radio show's title). What follows is an inexplicable sci-fi adventure involving a two-headed alien whose President of the Galaxy, a depressed robot, a spaceship whose engine runs on improbability, and a supercomputer that comes up with the answer for life and the universe (although, trust me, it's not the answer you think).

The radio program did well enough that, the following year, Adams wrote a novel adaptation of the show. And, like the radio series, the book is not so much a story with a gripping plotline, but rather a story of ideas. Not to mention being very, very funny.

The original book cover

TRACY: My friend Cathy first introduced me to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 9th or 10th grade. As you know from earlier posts, I was already a fan of sci-fi films and television, but I hadn’t really been exposed to a lot of sci-fi books at this age. I was definitely ready for this book! By this point in my life, I was also discovering that I liked and appreciated the British sense of humor.

Arthur Dent was a character that I could identify so much with, even at such a young age. Arthur is a man who seems like he is comfortable with his life, but is actually quite bored with it. He has no idea what lies in store for him on that fateful day when the bulldozers show up at his house! Not that I wanted to find out that my home (my house or my planet) was going to be destroyed, but a part of me had always longed to have a friend like Ford Prefect that would drag me along on some great adventure.

The teaser for the 2005 film adaptation

MS. B: The first book adaptation of the radio series would become a series itself, with Adams eventually writing five Hitchhiker's novels -- which fans and publishers alike often refer to the Hitchhiker's Trilogy. (Yes, a trilogy in five parts; it's that kind of series, what can I say.) A television miniseries and computer game would follow in the 80s, and other adaptations have included record albums, stage shows, and even a towel. (Of course, a towel; see the top quote above for more.) And then, in 2005, a film adaptation finally made its debut. Sadly, it was a movie premiere that Douglas Adams did not get to see -- he'd passed away, quite unexpectedly, in 2001 at the age of 49.

TRACY: By the time I read the book the first time, it had already been in print for a few years. Likewise, the BBC television series had already been shown in England, but was just being shown on our local PBS station. It was a cheesy production, but so much fun. I now know that Douglas Adams was not that happy with the television series. But I loved it! Unfortunately, I don’t feel the same way about the film version from 2005. For me, it just didn’t capture everything that I loved about the book. A lot of the performances were just flat and lacked the fun and silliness of the book, let alone the BBC version.

I'm not explaining this; you're just going to have to read the book

MS. B: The movie was, indeed, not particularly well-received by fans or critics alike. This is a particular shame given that Adams had been trying for decades to get the film to the big screen, and the film was definitely produced with a lot of love and respect for Adams in mind. 

But the simple truth of the matter, at least in my opinion, is that an idea-filled, plot-light story like Hitchhiker's is simply not meant to be a movie. In a series -- be it book, radio, or television -- you've got the time to stretch out and explore Adams's inimitable style and completely unique way of looking at the world (not to mention the galaxy). Compress it into a movie, and much of the magic is lost.

Still, I myself appreciated the film for its great casting (Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell!), stunningly gorgeous special effects, and some genuine moments of great humor. And the affection for the source material on the part of the filmmakers is undeniable.

Don't forget to bring your towel

MS. B: Hitchhiker's fans the world over have celebrated Towel Day on May 25th for over a decade. The original Towel Day was held in 2001, two weeks after the death of Douglas Adams. Dreamed up by fans and promoted online, Towel Day was a chance for Hitchhiker's aficionados to spend the day carrying around a towel in order to pay tribute to Douglas Adams. It's been celebrated by fans every May 25th ever since.

For my part, I didn't bring a towel into work today (though I'm happy to report I took one with me to the movie theater when the 2005 film premiered!). I've certainly got The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on my mind today, though; and if you're interested in a truly unusual book, give this one a try. I promise you'll never look at The Meaning Of Life -- or dolphins, for that matter -- in quite the same way again.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Behind the Great Detective

I probably don't need to remind you that I'm a big fan of Sherlock Holmes -- if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you've most likely picked up on that.

But I'm also a big fan of the author behind Sherlock Holmes -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I'm a fan not only because he created one of my favorite literary characters, and not only because I consider him to be such an exceptional writer. I'm also a fan because, by all accounts, he lived a life as adventurous, colorful, and vivid as his best stories.

So in honor of Conan Doyle's 153rd birthday today, let's take a closer look at some of the littler-known facts behind the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and so many other stories.

Conan Doyle writing

-- Conan Doyle came from an artistic and creative family. His father was a painter, his grandfather a political cartoonist, and his mother was an excellent storyteller in her own right.

-- The author wasn't only a "Sir" ... he was also a doctor!  Before becoming a full-time writer, he served as ship's surgeon on a whaling boat, and later set up his own practice in Portsmouth. (His lack of patients gave him time to devote to his writing.) He spent some years trying to combine his two careers, until a near-fatal bout of influenza led him to the revelation that he was happiest writing -- and so, upon recovering, he turned to writing full time.

Conan Doyle's children at Undershaw

-- His success in writing gave him the funds he needed to design a house for himself, his wife Louisa, and their children. Louisa spent her short life in poor health, and the Conan Doyle family home, Undershaw, was designed with Louisa in mind. (Short staircases kept her from becoming too winded, large windows kept the place light and airy, and the Surrey location was known for its pleasant and beneficial climate for people in poor health.) In addition to writing many of his most famous Holmes stories at Undershaw, Conan Doyle entertained a number of famous friends there, including J.M. Barrie and Bram Stoker. Sadly, the now-historical house is currently in danger of being torn down.

-- While he was partially inspired by previous stories (such as Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin detective tales), Conan Doyle's main inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes was Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell was one of the professors at Edinburgh University while Conan Doyle was attending medical school there, and he served as a sort of mentor to the younger man. Bell was famous for his honed observational skills, which he used to diagnose his patients.

The death of Sherlock Holmes (don't worry, he gets better)

-- After two novels and twenty-three short stories, the reading public had fallen in love with the character of Sherlock Holmes ... but Conan Doyle was getting tired of writing the time-consuming tales. Despite the character's immense popularity, Conan Doyle decided to end the series by killing off his great detective. In the 1893 short story "The Final Problem," Sherlock Holmes is given a thoroughly heroic death, apparently plunging into the depths of Reichenbach Falls as he takes down his archnemesis -- the "Napoleon of Crime," Professor Moriarty.

Despite the heroic send-off, the reading public did not react favorably to the story. Angry letters by the dozens poured into Conan Doyle's mailbox, many of them calling Conan Doyle a "murderer." Nonetheless, Conan Doyle refused to budge, and left Holmes definitively, and permanently, retired. At least, he did for eight years -- until a local country legend so gripped Conan Doyle's imagination that he resurrected Holmes in order to write the serialized "prequel" novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. (Hound was meant to take place before the events of "The Final Problem.") In 1903, Conan Doyle officially brought the character back to life (it turns out he'd never actually taken the plunge) in "The Adventure of the Empty House."

-- Like his character Dr. Watson, Conan Doyle served in the Army -- if unofficially. In 1900, during the second Boer War, Conan Doyle was desperate to enlist. When he was turned down due to age (and being somewhat out of shape), he volunteered as a medical doctor instead. His time spent in Africa was not easy, as he saw countless soldiers succumb not to battle, but typhoid fever. He was eventually knighted for his service to King and country -- although it's rumored that King Edward VII, an ardent Holmes fan, also knighted Conan Doyle in the hopes of encouraging him to write more stories about the famous detective. (The king, and countless other fans, would get their wish just a few years later.)

The Cottingley fairies photograph

-- One of the things which most fascinates me (and a lot of other people, fans and historians alike) is Conan Doyle's increasing fascination, throughout his life, with spiritualism and the occult. Spiritualism was (and is) the belief in communication with the spirits of the deceased. Determined to find scientific proof of an afterlife, Conan Doyle became more and more involved with the beliefs of what he called "Christian spiritualism," and spent the last years of his life touring the world to share the message of his cause.

One of the most baffling incidents of his life involved the infamous Cottingley fairies. In 1917, two English schoolgirls claimed that to have seen fairies in the field behind the family home. They had soon produced photographed evidence to back up their claim. Public attention soon followed. People were fiercely divided, with some insisting the girls were lying (despite a professional photographer examining the photos and declaring them in no way falsified), and others convinced the photos proved inarguable proof of the existence of the supernatural. A surprising number of people fell into the latter category -- including Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle contacted the family to hear more about the girls' story, and even wrote a (non-fiction) book entitled The Coming of the Fairies.

Years after Conan Doyle's death, one of the girls -- now in her sixties -- came forward to confess the incident as a hoax. The fairies had been paper cut-outs stuck onto hatpins. Many of Conan Doyle's fans see the incident as a humiliating blow: how could the creator of the brilliantly-rational character of Sherlock Holmes be duped by such obviously faked photos?  How could he believe the charlatans of the age who claimed to communicate with the dead?

But when looking at Conan Doyle's life, an alternate explanation begins to emerge. His first wife, Louisa, died in his arms in 1906, after years fighting against tuberculosis. World War I also struck a cruel blow to his family, claiming the lives of Conan Doyle's brother, two brothers-in-law, two nephews -- and his eldest son, Kingsley.

So it's hard, at least for me, to judge the creator of Sherlock Holmes as too illogical or unscientific in his beliefs. Losing as many loved ones as he did, it's easy to see why the drive to prove life after death was so appealing to him. It certainly doesn't make him a lesser author -- just a human one.

Which may be precisely why his stories and characters (and one character in particular) remain so influential and beloved to this day.

Some Recommended Reading:


-- The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard

The adventures of Conan Doyle's D'Artagnan-like hero, the French soldier Gerard. These comical tales take place during the Napoleonic Wars.

-- The Lost World

Surely the inspiration for the title of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park sequel, this early sci-fi adventure has Professor Challenger discovering a world of prehistoric animals still alive in the Amazon basin.

-- The Best Supernatural Tales of Arthur Conan Doyle

Like Edgar Allan Poe, Conan Doyle's talents for mystery and horror seem to go hand-in-hand. Here are some of Conan Doyle's most intriguing stories of a different sort of mystery.

-- The White Company & Sir Nigel

Conan Doyle always considered his historical fiction to be his most significant work. Here are two of his best historical novels, set during the Hundred Years' War.

-- The Maracot Deep

A short sci-fi novel about the lost city of Atlantis.

-- Micah Clarke

Another historical novel, this one a coming-of-age story set during the Monmouth Rebellion in England.

-- The Mystery of Cloomber

An odd little novel, first published in 1889, that hints at Conan Doyle's future fascination with the occult.


-- Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters

A collection of Conan Doyle's correspondence, ranging from 1867 (when he was eight years old and writing his mum from boarding school) to 1920. Not to be missed.

-- The True Crime Files of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Combining his skills as a doctor, author, and the creator of the world's Greatest Detective,  Conan Doyle fought to clear two real-life people of crimes for which he'd felt they'd been unjustly accused -- and he succeeded.

-- The History of Spiritualism, Vol. 1

Focusing on the origins of the spiritualist movement, this makes a great read for anyone interested in the history of the Victorian and Edwardian fascination with spiritualism -- and its effect on the people and culture of the time.

-- Our African Winter

An intriguing slice from the life of Conan Doyle.

-- Through the Magic Door

The author takes a look at the books which have affected his writing and life.

Sherlock Holmes:

-- The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

The first two collections of Holmesian short stories. Probably the best-plotted mysteries of Conan Doyle's tales. The final story is appropriately epic!

-- The Return of Sherlock Holmes

A must-read if only for the first book in the collection, The Empty House, which featured the then-shocking "return" of Sherlock Holmes.

-- The Hound of the Baskervilles

Although Holmes is not prominently featured, this superbly-plotted and appropriately spooky book is considered by many to be the first "contemporary" murder mystery.

-- The Valley of Fear

A lesser-known novel, it features the reappearance of Sherlock Holmes's greatest nemesis: Professor Moriarty.

-- Post by Ms. B

Thursday, May 17, 2012

And Every One Was a Henry

Henry VIII of England will always be best-remembered for two things: starting the Church of England, and having six wives. Anne Boleyn, his second wife, was executed on May 19 in 1536 -- and to mark the day, we're going to take a look back at the many (many) wives of Henry VIII.

1. Catherine of Aragon
STATUS: Divorced

The youngest (surviving) child of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain (yes, the same Ferdinand and Isabella who financed Christopher Columbus's voyage to the New World), Catherine of Aragon was originally betrothed to another man -- Henry VII's older brother, Arthur. When Catherine was fifteen years old, she and Arthur were married, but the marriage lasted less than six months before Arthur died. Catherine, being still quite young (and still in possession of a healthy dowry), was promptly re-betrothed -- this time to Henry, the new heir to the throne. The new couple waited to marry until Henry was old enough, and in 1509 the 23-year-old princess was crowned Queen of England.

Catherine would have four children with Henry, but only one survived infancy -- a daughter named Mary. (As in, y'know, Bloody Mary.) Henry, however, was far more interested in a male heir. The queen's "failure" to give Henry a son might have been a sufficient enough blow to the marriage even without the added complication of Henry's growing obsession with one of his mistresses, Anne Boleyn. When Henry's petitions to the Pope for a marriage annulment proved fruitless, the King of England came up with a different solution: reject the Pope's influence and turn to Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to annul the marriage instead.

Having spent years fighting not to be deposed, Catherine refused to give up her title as Queen (Henry ordered that she been known only as "the Princess Dowager of Wales"). All the same, Catherine was cast out of the royal court and spent several years living in virtual exile, finally dying of ill health (her loyal subjects called it a broken heart) in 1536. She maintained her position as "the true and rightful Queen of England" until the end of her life.

2. Anne Boleyn
STATUS: Executed

Anne was no angel, perhaps, but I've always felt she gets a bit of a bad rap. Born sometime in 1500 or 1501, she grew up, in part, at the court of a duchess, and she spent years at the French Court as an attendant to the queen. Like Cleopatra, Anne's now-legendary beauty may have had more to do with her charisma and spit-fire spirit than her actual appearance (though she was said to have large, dark, beautiful eyes).

Anne was a member of the court of Queen Catherine, and was in fact the second Boleyn sister to be a mistress of Henry VIII. Although, to be accurate, Anne was not technically Henry's "mistress," as she refused to consummate their relationship until after Henry married her and made her his queen. She had had other paramours before Henry (and had seen her own sister discarded by Henry), and was sharp enough to insist on marriage.

She eventually won a promise of marriage from Henry, and by the time they were married in secret in 1533, Anne was already pregnant. Later that year, the Archbishop proclaimed Henry and Catherine's marriage invalid, and Anne's coronation was held later that month.

Both Henry and Anne were convinced Anne was carrying a boy. When Anne gave birth to a girl, Princess Elizabeth, the slight disappointment was taken in stride -- until Anne's next two pregnancies ended in miscarriages. There was no male heir, and Henry's eye had moved on one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. Anne's fate was already sealed.

Arrested on trump-up charges of adultery, incest, and plotting to murder the King, Anne was taken to court, her character smeared despite severe lack of evidence. She was beheaded on May 19, 1536.

(Her daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who would grow up to be Elizabeth I -- one of the most famous and beloved of all English monarchs.)

3. Jane Seymour
STATUS: Died in childbirth

Jane Seymour was betrothed to Henry less than 24 hours after the execution of Anne Boleyn, and they were married ten days later. The following year, Jane became pregnant, and in October she gave birth to the long-awaited prince, Edward.

She may have given her husband the heir he always wanted, but Jane herself died two weeks after giving birth, weakened by her ordeal. Jane, however, is the wife whose grave rests beside that of Henry VIII, in St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. Henry considered her to be his only true wife, probably because it was Jane who finally gave him what he wanted most -- a male heir.

4. Anne of Cleves
STATUS: Divorced

Despite finally having an heir, Henry did not remain a widower. Two years after the death of Jane, Henry requested the portraits of three possible candidates for a new bride, and eventually chose Anne of Cleves (the sister to the Duke of Cleves).

It's a mystery as to why Henry found Anne's portrait properly enticing, only to find her completely unattractive in person. (He's rumored to have privately nicknamed her the "Flanders Mare.") In no short amount of time, Henry began entertaining thoughts of ending the unconsummated marriage and divorcing Anne.

Anne might be my favorite of Henry's wives, simply because it seems to me she had some decent common sense. As Wife #4, she was sharp enough to realize raising a fuss at the possibility of divorce would probably end no better for her than it had for two of her predecessors, and she hadn't been very happy in her life at the English court anyway. Without argument or trouble, Anne agreed to step aside -- and Henry, grateful for her cooperation, gave her the title of "King's Sister" and rewarded her with property and income for the rest of her life. She was even welcomed back to court on occasion as a visitor.

5. Kathryn Howard
STATUS: Executed

On the other hand, some people never learn. Kathryn Howard, a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves, had attracted Henry's attention while he was still married to Anne of Cleves, and Kathryn and the king were married sixteen days after Henry's second divorce. The year was 1540 -- Kathryn was 19; Henry, 49.

No longer a young man by medieval standards, and plagued with weight gain and an ulcerated leg, Henry nonetheless found his spirits lifted by his marriage to the teenage Kathryn. But, while it can't be considered a wise move, it's somewhat hard to blame Kathryn for having something of a flirtatious spirit, given the age difference between herself and her husband. It was not, however, a particularly safe move for the King's fifth bride to flirt with members of the court, and rumors of affairs soon took hold. (Kathryn might have spent some more time thinking through the wisdom of choosing one of her rumored paramours for the job of her personal secretary.)

A year and a half into the marriage, the evidence was piling up. Kathryn was tried, convicted, and executed -- and buried next to her cousin, Anne Boleyn.

6. Katherine Parr
STATUS: Outlived the King!

Onto the hunt for Wife #6!  Although, somewhat remarkably, Anne of Cleves volunteered to put her name back into the running for a re-marriage, Henry eventually chose for his sixth and final bride Katherine Parr, the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Parr (a former member of Henry VIII's court) and Maud Green (a former lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon). Katherine Parr was twice a widower as well as a stepmother (to her second husband's two children) -- and was also deeply interested in the reformed faith, which put her at theological odds with her husband.

There is a delightful account of Henry growing increasingly angry with Katherine's religious views and philosophies -- and, in fact, the conservative religious faction was fighting to get Katherine arrested on charges of heresy. A warrant was actually issued for Katherine's arrest; and, though quickly dropped, the Queen was told of its existence. Exacerbating the situation were Katherine and Henry's frequent theological debate. Katherine's refusal to concede her husband's "superior" points of view were making Henry increasingly frustrated ... and furious.

Katherine knew she was getting close to her husband's breaking point, but was too sharp and experienced a person to get caught in the traps that had claimed most of her precedessors. The next time an angry Henry came to discuss religion, Katherine lost no time in telling her husband that she had spent all this time arguing with him only to give him the opportunity to instruct her weaker, feminine mind to the correct way of thinking. Henry's ego was mollified ...

And Katherine outlived her husband. Talk about living by your wits!

For more on some of history's weirdest and wildest royals, check out Michael Farquhar's fantastic book A Treasure of Royal Scandals: The Shocking True Stories of History's Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes, and Emperors.

-- Post by Ms. B

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

National Women's Health Week

The 13th annual National Women's Health Week, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, kicked off on Mother's Day, and will be celebrated May 13 through May 19, 2012. The theme for National Women's Health Week 2012 is "It's Your Time." This weeklong health observance empowers women across the country to make their health a top priority and take simple steps for longer, healthier, and happier lives.

Here are some tips that the Office of Women's Health recommends that all women should consider:

Here are some additional websites worth checking out:

Medline Plus - Women's Health

American Heart Association - Go Red For Women

Mayo Clinic - Women's Health

Medical Library Association - Top Websites for Women

If you'd rather check out some books to help you to take control of your health, then take a look at these titles:

Our Bodies, Ourselves by The Boston Women's Health Book Collective

The Mommy Docs' Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy and Birth by Yvonne Bohn

Good Housekeeping: Drop 5 Lbs.: The Small Changes, Big Results Diet by Heather K. Jones

Dr. Nieca Goldberg's Complete Guide to Women's Health by Nieca Goldberg

Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book by Susan M. Love

Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective

So, make sure you (or a special woman in your life) start taking control of your health. It's important for you and your loved ones.

-- Post by Tracy

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Motherhood: The Second-Oldest Profession

Mother's Day: May 13

The first official Mother's Day celebration took place in 1908 -- though it wasn't, at the time, anything more than a locally-celebrated holiday. Now celebrated in many countries all over the world, Mother's Day has its roots in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology; the English tradition of Mothering Day; and even the Civil War. (You can read more about the history of Mother's Day here.)

So in honor of this upcoming Sunday, let's take a look at some of the most famous (and infamous!) mothers from history.

(And my thanks to Erma Bombeck for our subject line.)

1. Cleopatra VII

Cleopatra VII (yup, there were six other royal Cleopatras before her) was the last person to hold the pharaoh's throne in Ancient Egypt. She originally ruled Egypt as the consort of her ten-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII (as the Egyptian pharaohs were considered gods, it was common for royal siblings to marry one another, even though the same practice would have been taboo among the average Egyptian citizen). She eventually gained complete power, however, becoming pharaoh in her own right.

She was famous for her romantic relationships with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony (was she motivated by love, political power, or both?  Your call). Less often discussed is the children she had with both men: Caesarion (meaning "Little Caesar") and, later, three children of Marc Antony's.

This mom was able to position three-year-old Caesarion as the "official" king of Egypt, while Cleopatra herself continued to hold the reins of power. After Cleopatra's death (at the age of 39, after a 22-year reign), Caesarion was acknowledged as the true ruler of Egypt by his supporters, but was shortly after murdered. Of Cleopatra's three children with Marc Antony, her daughter, Cleopatra Selene, eventually became the queen of what is now Algeria.

Fun Fact: Cleopatra is famous for being the most beautiful woman in history, but this commonly-known fact may not be true! Her physical appearance is still up for debate; what seems to have made her so attractive to her subjects -- and the rest of the ancient world -- was her wit, charm, and an elegantly cultivated speaking voice. 

2. Helena Augusta 

This mom may have had the biggest impact on Western Civilization of all time -- and yet, precious little is known about her. The mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, Helena gave birth to her son in the late third century A.D. Her husband, Roman Emperor Constantius I Chlorus, eventually divorced her in order to marry someone else. Helena left for Trier (now a city in Germany) and is presumed to have converted to a new religion while she was there: Christianity.

At the time, the new Christian religion was still illegal in Rome. It was Constantine, Helena's son, who became the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity -- and who legalized the religion in Rome. It paved the way for Christianity to become the major religious, political, and social powerhouse that majorly shaped the Western world throughout the Middle Ages (for better or ill!).

It's argued whether it was Helena who implored Constantine to convert to Christianity, or if it was the other way around. But if Helena did indeed convince her son to become a Christian, she had an effect on history that lasted for millennia.

Fun Fact: Helena is now a saint in the Catholic Church, credited with making a pilgrimage to Palestine, having multiple churches built throughout the Empire, as well as -- so the legend goes -- finding the True Cross, the cross on which Jesus was crucified.

3. Eleanor of Aquitaine

If you haven't heard of Eleanor, you might have heard of her son. Richard I of England, or "Richard the Lionheart," is remembered in medieval mythology as the king who came back from the Crusades to save England from the rule of his brother, the evil Prince John -- who was the nemesis of Robin Hood.

The character of Robin Hood is almost certainly not based on any one real person -- but Richard I and Prince John did exist. And their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was not only a real person -- but a powerful figure in her own right.

Highly educated (she'd become a valued patron of poets and writers), Eleanor was only fifteen when the deaths of her father (the duke of Aquitaine) and her brother left her the inheritor of a vast fortune. Already the Duchess of Aquitaine, she would become the queen of both France and England, thanks to her marriage to King Louis VII of France, and -- after Louis divorced her for producing only daughters -- a second marriage to King Henry II of England.

Aside from her own wealth and her arts patronage, Eleanor had a hand in politics as well. She had accompanied Louis on his Second Crusade to Constantinople and Jerusalem, and during Henry's English reign she play an active part in his rule,  traveling back and forth between England and France. Henry would eventually imprison her for conspiring with their two sons to overthrow him; but when Henry died, the new king, Richard, set his mother free. She continued an active role until her second son, John, became King, at which point she returned to Aquitaine and remained engaged in the politics of her duchy until her death.

Fun Fact: Eleanor's first father-in-law, who had also been her guardian, was Louis VI of France -- also known as Louis the Fat.

4. Heloise d’Argenteuil

Heloise and her One True Love, Peter Abelard, shared a true-life tragic romance story on par with Arthur and Guinevere or Romeo and Juliet ... if with, perhaps, a touch more strangeness.

During the twelfth century, Heloise was an ingenious scholar (and probably from a noble family, given that she received an education at all). So ingenious, in fact, that her uncle and guardian hired a tutor for her -- a philosopher by the name of Peter Abelard.

Trouble began brewing when Abelard and Heloise fell in love. The two hid their relationship until Heloise had a son. The two of them were married in secret, but Heloise's uncle -- who eventually became aware of the relationship -- was furious with Abelard, believing that Heloise's husband was trying to distance himself from her in order to keep his scholarly career from being affected by his marriage. Heloise's uncle eventually had Abelard severely beaten and mutilated, and Heloise and Abelard went their separate ways: Abelard to a monastery, Heloise to a convent. Their story survives because they spent the rest of their lives in correspondence with one another -- and those letters have survived to this day. What became of their son is more of a mystery, although he's thought to have joined a monastery himself.

 Fun Fact: Heloise named her and Abelard's son "Astrolabius" -- after the scientific navigational tool. 

5. Abigail Adams

This wife of Founding Father (and second president of the United States) John Adams, Abigail had no formal education of her own but was taught to read and write at home. The daughter of a Congregationalist minister, Abigail had particular interests in philosophy, theology, Shakespeare, history, and government and law.

A decade into their marriage, John Adams went to Philadelphia to start a political career in earnest, while Abigail remained in Boston, managing their household, the farming on their property, and their children. Despite the distance between them, Abigail and John were very much in love -- and (not unlike Heloise and Peter Abelard) they are famous for the the lifelong correspondence they kept with one another. Their letters give today's historians a window not only into the couple's lives, but into the era of the American Revolution.

This mom would go on to receive a semi-official political appointment from the Massachusetts Colony General Court, was something of an early women's-rights activist -- and was not only the wife of a president, but the mother of one, too!  (Her son, John Quincy Adams, was the country's sixth president.)

Fun Fact: Though published posthumously, a collection of Abigail's political letters became the first published book written by a First Lady.

6. Marie Antoinette

She probably never said "Let them eat cake." In fact, if her last words are any indication, she was a kinder woman than history gives her credit for: her final words, "Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it," were directed to her executioner, after she accidentally stepped on his foot on her way to the guillotine. 

The wife of Louis XVI (the last king of France), Marie was heavily involved in politics, and spent her private life in such activities as sleigh racing, opera balls, and gambling. Criticized for her "partying" lifestyle (particularly when so many of her subjects were starving), Marie confessed to an ambassador  that her hobbies were only her attempt at filling a hole in her life: her lack of children.

She'd go on to be a mother of four, two daughters and two sons. One son would die at the age of seven; one daughter did not survive infancy. When Marie and Louis XVI were placed under house arrest, their two children were imprisoned with them -- and their remaining son, ten years old at the time, died from what was probably tuberculosis. 

Marie Antoinette was executed at the age of 37. Her daughter, Marie Therese, was the only surviving member of the family. Marie Therese was released from prison at the age of 17, but lived an unhappy life that was spent mostly in exile from France. She died fifty years later -- and, like her parents, is said to have forgiven those who made her life so miserable.

Fun Fact: To obey the customs of the time, Marie Antoinette gave birth to her children ... in front of the entire royal court. 

7. Julia Ward Howe & Anna M. Jarvis

The inventors of our modern Mother's Day!  Julia Ward Howe was so affected by the brutality and death of the American Civil War that she wrote a poem imploring the mothers of the nation to band together and protest their sons being sent to fight one another. Her initial call for an International Mother's Day was as much a celebration of peace as it was of motherhood.

Though Howe pushed for July 4th as a proper symbolic date for the holiday, Mother's Day initially was placed on June 2. The holiday was celebrated for several years in cities around the country, but the celebrations were being funded by Howe -- and once she stopped funding, the cities stopped celebrating.

But in 1908, Anna M. Jarvis revisited the idea of a day celebrating mothers after her own mother passed away. The first celebration took place at Andrew's Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, the church where Anna's mother had taught Sunday school for over twenty years. That same year, a U.S. Senator proposed making Mother's Day an official holiday, but it was Woodrow Wilson who finally signed the holiday into observance in 1914.

Fun Fact: Julia Ward Howe created more than Mother's Day -- she also wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic!

8. Ma Rainey

Gertrude Pridgett's stage name came about from her husband William "Pa" Rainey, who she married in 1902. Coming from a family of performances, Ma Rainey and her husband toured the country with a song-and-dance act that included popular songs ... and Blues music.

When Ma Rainey signed a recording contract in 1923 with Paramount, she was billed as the "Mother of the Blues." The name was apt. She wasn't just one of the best Blues singers -- she was, quite possibly, the first real Blues star. She is the first female performer known to have blended Blues music into vaudeville, minstrel, and tent shows, and she had spent over a quarter of a century performing before signing her Paramount contract. Over a six-year period at Paramount, she recovered over 100 songs, accompanied by musicians like Louis Armstrong, Tommy Ladnier, Fletcher Henderson, and Coleman Hawkins. Though the popularity of the Blues faded in the 30s, her influence on the world of music is undeniable.

Fun Fact: After retiring from the performance world, Ma Rainey built and operated two theaters of her own in Georgia.

9. Jackie Kennedy

A writer since childhood, Jackie Kennedy received a B.A. in French literature and worked as an "Inquiring Camera Girl" (taking pictures and doing local interviews) for the Washington Times-Herald. 
After her marriage to John F. Kennedy, her occupation would become less official but decidedly political: that of the nation's most-beloved First Lady.

Although it was her style and quiet charisma that she seems to be most remembered for, Jackie's role as First Lady went far beyond that. During the campaign, Jackie gave interviews to the press and wrote a column entitled "Campaign Wife," as well as recording radio spots in various foreign languages. She also helped polish John F. Kennedy's speeches, giving him historical references and literary quotations he could work into his rhetoric.

After the election, Jackie worked hard to shield her children from the public eye. But her duties didn't stop there. Jackie oversaw the restoration of the White House's public rooms to their historical roots, which became part of a larger campaign to draw national interest in historic preservation. She was a patron of the arts, hosting opera performances, ballets, jazz concerts, and Shakespeare plays at the White House. She was also said to have had a passionate interest in the political issues of the day --  but wanting to keep public focus on her history and cultural projects, she tried to steer attention away from her stances on more hot-button issues.

Jackie Kennedy would spend her later years as an editor at Viking Press and Doubleday, returning to her roots as a writer. She never lost her passion for history and the arts -- something she deserves being remembered for just as much as her position as First Lady.

Fun Fact: As "Inquiring Camera Girl," Jackie interviewed Pat Nixon, Vice President Nixon -- and Senator John F. Kennedy.

10. Mother Teresa

This Novel Peace Prize winner was born in Macedonia in 1910. At eighteen years of age, she left home to join the Sisters of Loreto, a group of Irish nuns who often sent missionaries to India. She had been sent there as a teacher for well-off students at St. Mary's High School in Calcutta, but her attention and heart were captured by the poor she saw outside the school walls. At the age of 38, she left St. Mary's to start a school for impoverished children -- and, despite having no money to fund such a school, was soon receiving aid and volunteer help from others. Two years later, she gained permission to start her own order, The Missionaries of Charity.

Mother Teresa seemed tireless. With the single exception of a five-week hiatus in 1959, her work was constant and unending. And yet, in the past few years, recently-discovered correspondence between Mother Teresa and her spiritual advisors reveal that she was filled with her own troubles and doubts. For me, this makes her not less admirable, but more -- at it shows her to be a person with the same fears and struggles as anyone, but who did not let this stop her from working and fighting to help others. That's a "mom" we can all admire.

Fun Fact: A Mother Teresa quote --
"There is a terrible hunger for love. We all experience that in our lives -- the pain, the loneliness. We must have the courage to recognize it. The poor you may have right in your own family. Find them. Love them."

-- Post by Ms. B

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Birthday Biography: Bono

I first heard U2 when I was in high school, and while one of my friends was a huge fan, they just didn't do much for me. Maybe I just wasn't ready for them. I was still quite influenced by the bands that my older brothers listened to, which was mostly groups like Eric Clapton, the Beatles, Yes, and Styx (yes, I know). It wasn't until college that I became more exposed to alternative music. Surprisingly, it took leaving suburban Pittsburgh and moving to little Clarion, PA to find out what great music there was in the world. Between my new friends and the college radio station, I started finding out about bands like The CurePsychedelic Furs, Squeeze, Crowded House, and so many more. By the late 80s, a little radio station called WXXP appeared in Pittsburgh. Finally, there was decent radio in Pittsburgh! This is when I "discovered" U2. After that, there was no stopping me.

 The real moment when my thoughts on U2 began to change was when I saw them perform at Live Aid in 1985. Although I desperately wanted to be in London to see the concert, I was home watching from my living room. But what a performance from U2! This moment was magical!

So, in honor of lead singer Bono's 52nd birthday on May 10, I'm going to review my favorite U2 albums.

War (1983)

War was the first U2 album I owned. After their powerful performance at Live Aid, I started exploring their albums. By then, the band had released 5 albums (Boy, October, War, Under A Blood Red Sky, and The Unforgettable Fire) and one EP (Wide Awake In America). I was aware of the hits, but once I got my hands on this album, I was no longer a casual fan. The world was a crazy place in the early 80s. The Cold War was in full swing and the threat of nuclear war was always just hovering above us all. These topics, along with The Troubles of Northern Ireland, were explored on War. Even though I lived a good, middle class life in America, I yearned for a connection to places outside of my immediate world. This album delivered. Their commitment to social issues and their Christian faith, that was interwoven into their songs, had a strong impact on me.  

Favorite tracks: Sunday Bloody Sunday, Seconds, "40"

Achtung Baby (1991)

This album came after a period when the band came very close to breaking up. After the huge and crazy success of The Joshua Tree (1987) and the release of the film and album Rattle and Hum (1988), Bono made a comment during a concert in late 1989 that the band had to go away and "dream it all up again," which had fans and the media in a frenzy. As we know, they didn't break up, but they needed to work out some issues they were facing as a band. After a long-deserved break, the band headed to Hansa Tonstudios in Berlin to work out their problems. The result is, in my opinion, their best album. It isn't as overtly social or political as their earlier albums, but that didn't stop a song like One from becoming an anthem of sorts for the fight against HIV/AIDS. The band donated a large portion of the proceeds from One to different AIDS charities. This song has proved to be one of U2's most famous songs, which touches so many people in so many different ways. At its heart, it talks about the need for the world to get along, whether we all like each other or not. In the early 2000s, Bono created a group to help fight AIDS, debt, and poverty in Africa, which eventually merged into One in 2008. You can read more about this organization here

Favorite tracks: One, So Cruel, Even Better Than The Real Thing, Until The End Of The World

Zooropa (1993)

This album was meant to be an EP, to be released before the band began the European leg of their Zoo TV tour for Achtung Baby. Initially, I wasn't sure how much I liked this album. It actually took several years before I really began to appreciate it. It's somewhat a continuation of Achtung Baby, but it delves a bit more into the electronic and house music that had been influencing them as song writers. The big hit from this album was Numb, which gave the lead to The Edge, instead of Bono. Personally, I felt this was a waste of the lovely singing voice of The Edge, which we usually only hear in combination with Bono. My favorite on this, and quite possibly any U2 album, is Stay (Faraway, So Close). It's a beautiful and haunting love song that was written for the Wim Wenders film Faraway, So Close and inspired by the style of Frank Sinatra. They don't perform it very often, but I was lucky enough to see them sing this song last summer on their 360 Tour when it came to Pittsburgh. That was a highlight of the show for me and my friend Michele!

While this album isn't as focused as most of the other work, it does have some very special moments, which is why this is one of my favorite albums. 

Favorite tracks: Stay (Faraway, So Close), Zooropa, Lemon, The Wanderer.

This album marked another transition for the band. It's a return to more of a pop/rock album than the electronica and dance music they were exploring in the 90s. This album also put them back up on top as the biggest and most well-known band in the world. All is also a return to songs with more personal and social aspects to them. On the personal side is Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of. Bono wrote this in response to the suicide of his good friend Michael Hutchence, lead singer of INXS. As for the social commentary, the song Walk On was written about political activist Aung San Suu Kyi. All also has elements of pure rock 'n' roll fun in Elevation. Every time I have seen U2 perform this song live, it makes the whole arena or stadium vibrate with people bouncing in time to the music. Pure joy!

Favorite tracks: Beautiful Day, Elevation, Walk On, Stuck In A Moment That You Can't Get Out Of

I'm going to end this with another performance video. Just try and keep yourself from bouncing in your seat!

 -- Post by Tracy