Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Good Man

"Happiness is a warm puppy."
-- Charles M. Schulz

Back in elementary school, I used to have a bookmark with a "Peanuts" comic strip printed on the front. The artwork was simple, showcasing Linus and Charlie Brown resting their elbows against a stone wall. "I used to try to take every day as it came," Charlie Brown was explaining. "But now, I have a new philosophy ... I'm only going to dread one day at a time." I had a happy childhood, but I definitely had moments where I could relate to a sentiment like that. I think we all can.

I'd wager most people relate to the trials, tribulations, and occasional triumphs of Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Schroeder, Sally, Peppermint Patty and Marcie -- and, of course, Snoopy the beagle dog and his little yellow sidekick, Woodstock. They're all the creation of Charles M. Schulz, who wrote and drew the syndicated comic strip "Peanuts" for a full fifty years.

Born on November 26, 1922, in Minneapolis, Schulz was the son of Carl Schulz (a barber) and his wife, Dena Halverson Schulz. His mother noticed his aptitude for art early on, and eventually encouraged him to take a correspondence course from the Federal School in Minneapolis.

After being drafted and sent to Europe during World War II, Schulz returned to the States and struck out on his art career. Beginning as a free-lancer for a Catholic magazine (while teaching correspondence classes at the Art Instruction Institute), some of his drawings made their way into the pages of Saturday Evening Post. His life would truly change course, however, with the creation of a cartoon for the St. Paul Pioneer Press -- "Li'l Folks." It was the template for the strip that would eventually become "Peanuts."

The renamed "Peanuts" made its grand debut in 1950, appearing in just seven newspapers with the characters of Charlie Brown, Shermy, Patty, and Snoopy. In a year's time, the strip had upped its circulation to 35 papers, and by 1956 it was in over a hundred.

At its height, "Peanuts" ran in over 2,300 newspapers throughout the world. And the strip was so popular it soon began proving itself outside the realm of newspapers. The 1965 animated special "A Charlie Brown Christmas" won a Peabody and an Emmy award. The off-Broadway musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," appearing in 1967, ran for four years. Two years later, NASA astronauts chose to name their command module "Charlie Brown," and their lunar lander "Snoopy." Collections of Schulz's work was being translated into nearly twenty languages, and the faces of "Peanuts" characters began appearing on clothes, toys, games, and calendars.

The last "Peanuts" strip was published on February 13, 2000 -- the day after Schulz himself passed away at the age of 77. Four months later, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Schultz the Congressional Gold Medal, our country's highest civilian honor.

It's easy to rattle off the facts. What's harder is explaining the appeal. The main character of "Peanuts" is Charlie Brown, a kid who is the epitome of ordinariness, with one very specific stand-out quality: his rather inept hopelessness. Whether it's Lucy yanking away a football the instant before he can kick it, the teasing of his schoolmates at his unending mistakes and blunders, a kite-eating tree and a needle-dropping Christmas tree, or even the haughty attitude of his own dog -- Charlie Brown just can't seem to catch a break. There's often a sadness to some of the punchlines of "Peanuts," which could, perhaps, make one wonder where the appeal lies.

But what makes Schulz's storytelling so oddly magnetic, I think, is the weird balance his "Peanuts" stories strike between the bleak disappointments of life and the strangely hopeful, cheerful attitude his characters show in the face of it. Charlie Brown himself seems possessed of a peculiar blend of defeated anxiety and almost reluctant optimism. After all, his most famous catchphrase is an exasperated, "Good grief!" -- and, as the Encyclopedia of World Biography points out in their entry on Schulz:

"Grief was the human condition, but it was good when it taught us something about ourselves and was lightened by laughter."

Charlie Brown's appeal lies precisely in the fact that, though Lucy will never let him kick that football, he'll never quit trying. It's that attitude that transforms Schulz's stories from sad commentaries on life's worries and disappointments into something quite different -- hopeful stories about transcending the disappointments with hope, humor, and happiness.

And most "Peanuts" fans, I think, can get behind a philosophy like that. I'm one of them.

The song "Happiness," from the musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown"


"Sometimes I lie awake at night and I ask, 'Why me?'  Then a voice answers, 'Nothing personal, your name just happened to come up.'"


"There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people. Religion, Politics, and The Great Pumpkin."


"No problem is so big or so complicated that it can't be run away from."


"Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you're the Charlie Browniest."


"I know the answer! The answer lies within the heart of all mankind! ... The answer is twelve? I think I'm in the wrong building."


"You learn more when you lose."
"Well then, I must be the smartest person in the world."


"Life is like an ice cream cone. You have to lick it one day at a time."


"Never worry about tomorrow, Charlie Brown. Tomorrow will soon be today, and before you know it, today will be yesterday! I always worry about the day after tomorrow."


"Be yourself. No one can say you're doing it wrong."

"Well, I can understand how you feel. You worked hard, studying for the spelling bee, and I suppose you feel you let everyone down, and you made a fool of yourself and everything. But did you notice something, Charlie Brown?" 

"What's that?"

"The world didn't come to an end."

-- Post by Ms. B

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Thriller from the King of Pop

Thirty years ago, in a bleak winter of record sales, an album was released by Michael Jackson that would change the music business in ways that no one could have imagined. That album was Thriller, and the date was November 30, 1982. By the summer of 1983, there were not too many people in the United States, or the world, that did not own a copy of this record.

I, like lots of others, grew up seeing Michael Jackson and his brothers performing on television throughout the 70s. But I don't think anyone could have foreseen the success and influence that Jackson would have from 1982 until his death in 2009. Before leaving Motown Records for Epic Records,  Jackson made four solo albums. In 1979, he released Off The Wall, which produced a few hits (Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough, Rock With You). With the release of these singles and a few others, Jackson was getting airplay on R&B as well as Top 40 radio stations at the same time, which was unheard of at the time. So by the time that Thriller was released three years later, there was no question of the album being pushed towards all audiences.

The first single from Thriller was The Girl is Mine, a duet with Paul McCartney. Sales were okay, but it wasn't until the release of next two singles, Billie Jean and Beat It, that sales of the album really took off. Thriller initially entered the charts at Number 11 at the end of December. After ten weeks, it made its way to Number One, and stayed there for 37 nonconsecutive weeks.

Throughout 1983, a combination of factors catapulted the album and Michael Jackson into a pop culture phenomenon. The first was his appearance on the Motown 25th Anniversary Special, where he performed Billie Jean and did his now-famous moonwalk. I clearly remember watching that special and being amazed and impressed by Jackson's skills as an entertainer. I knew while I was watching this performance that I was watching something very special. If you watch the video, you will see how electrifying it was. As soon as the first beats of the song started, the audience was on their feet and stayed there. The place really went crazy when he moonwalked across the stage. It was a spectacular performance!

The second event was the release of the Thriller video. MTV was still in its infancy then (and was actually showing music videos!), and there was great competition with other networks to get the exclusive rights to show the video for the first time. MTV ended up paying $1 million for those rights. More than a year after the release of the album, on December 3, 1983, the video made its premiere on MTV. The anticipation was incredible. I can remember discussing it with my friends and making plans to go to a friend's house to watch it, because my family didn't have MTV at the time. My friends and I were amazed. We had never seen anything like it. The story, the dancing, the makeup -- no one had put that much effort into a music video before, as far as I can remember. And at 14 minutes, it was basically a short film.

I recently listened to the entire Thriller album, which I haven't done in a very long time. While it doesn't hold up as well as some albums have over the years, it still is a remarkable record for the influence it had on American culture and the recording industry.

Some facts about Thriller and Michael Jackson:

  • It is the number one selling album of all time
  • All seven singles (which was twice as many as normally released) made it into the top 10 charts
  • First African American artist to get repeated airplay on MTV because of Thriller
  • Influenced dozens of today's recording artists

While Michael Jackson went on to make news out of his personal life, he should never be forgotten for his influence on pop culture and music. That influence also includes a spoof of Eat It by Weird Al Yankovic!

"Remembering Michael Jackson as 'Thriller' turns 30" -- Quincy Jones, producer of the album, recalls what it was like creating it.

"How 'Thriller' Changed the Music Business" -- A Billboard article on the influence of the album.

"‘Thriller’ video remains a classic 25 years later" -- A look at the iconic video from NBC's Today Show.

"Artists Reflect on Michael Jackson" -- Artists, young and old, talk about the influence of Michael Jackson, after his death in 2009.

Books about Michael Jackson

Performance Videos by Michael Jackson

CDs by Michael Jackson

-- Post by Tracy

Friday, November 23, 2012

We're All Mad Here

 "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don’t much care where --" said Alice.
"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"-- so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you’re sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

The Alice in Wonderland books are those rare things -- stories you enjoy as a kid that you can go back to as an adult, only to find them just as charming as you remembered.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was first published on November 26, 1865, by Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson. (Dodgson used a pen name for Alice in order to differentiate the books from his more serious publications on mathematics.) It was followed up in 1871 by a sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. In these books, seven-year-old Alice finds herself in strange worlds filled with size-altering snacks, illogical rules, and endlessly confusing conversations with endlessly curious characters.

The books actually differ in location; it is only in the first story that Alice actually ventures to Wonderland. (The land through the looking-glass is a strange one, and similar in many ways to Alice's previous adventure -- but the world through the mirror is never called "Wonderland.") The worlds' themes differ slightly: Wonderland ultimately turns out to be inhabited by "a pack of cards;" whereas the world through the looking-glass is set up like a giant chessboard, with Alice determined to make it to the end of the board and earn a queen's crown.

The White Queen, a newly-crowned Alice, and the Red Queen

Charles Dodgson first came up with the story of Wonderland at the request of ten-year-old Alice Liddell. Dodgson had become friends with the Liddell family and served as something of an uncle to Alice, along with her sisters Lorina and Edith, and her brother Harry. Dodgson often took the children for picnic lunches on boat trips along the Thames, with adult friends or family along to share in rowing duties. It was on one such trip in 1862 that the children asked for a story, and Dodgson promptly began telling them about a bored little girl named Alice who got caught up in the most curious adventures. Little Alice Liddell was so delighted with the story that she asked Dodgson to write it down, and two years later, Dodgson presented her with a bound manuscript entitled Alice's Adventures Underground. An expanded version of that story would go on to be published as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

The Alice books are part of that genre known as literary nonsense -- a genre where nonsense itself is used as the basis for the story, either as a joke or with some deeper meaning intended. Since Dodgson's death in 1898, literary scholars and historians alike have worked to unlock the meaning of Wonderland -- to figure out what Dodgson was really saying with his nonsense children's stories -- and their theories are decidedly all over the map.

Alice with her "croquet mallet" -- a flamingo

The current, most popular theory -- one which I've heard referenced many times -- is that Dodgson, a mathematician, put in many references to mathematics in the supposed "nonsense" of the Alice books. The argument is that Dodgson, a traditional mathematician, was contemptuous of the new lines of thought being put forth in his profession. Non-Euclidean geometries and the development of abstract algebra were not to Dodgson's more traditional tastes, and some historians argue that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland contain much criticism about the faulty (to Dodgson) logic of the new abstract mathematics. (You can read more about this particular theory here). 

Not everyone sees the symbolism of Dodgson's stories as mathematical, however. The argument's been made that the stories are actually philosophical, with Dodgson using his writings to argue for the belief in "Non-Being." ("Lewis Carroll and the Search for Non-Being.") Others have made the case for Alice in Wonderland being a political satire of England's War of the Roses. ("The Truth About 'Alice'.") And many people will insist that, given the crazy and wild nature of the stories, the books must have been written as symbolic stories as to the nature of drug use. The lists of theories go on.

Alice at the Mad Hatter's tea party

The problem to me is that, even with the best of these theories (that one about mathematics is awfully convincing), a single flaw remains: Dodgson himself never said anything of the kind. He never claimed that his Alice stories were about mathematics, philosophy, or even drug use. When asked about the meaning behind his Wonderland-esque poem The Hunting of the Snark, he responded:

"I'm very much afraid I didn't mean anything but nonsense. Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means. So, whatever good meanings are in the book, I'm glad to accept as the meaning of the book."

Stories can, of course, have meanings within them that arise without the author being aware of them. But it's harder to say that Dodgson meant the Alice books to be scathing commentary on the history of an English Civil War when Dodgson himself never said or wrote that he meant them as such. Perhaps some parallels between Wonderland and non-Euclid geometry can be made, but proof positive that Dodgson meant the books as anything but "literary nonsense" remains to be discovered.

For my part, I don't remember how old I was when I first discovered the Alice books, mostly because I can't remember a time when I didn't know and love them. I was absolutely captivated by the crazy characters Alice encountered, by the illogically logical inner workings of Wonderland and the world through the looking-glass -- and by Alice herself, who made her way through these worlds with no small amount of confusion, but with a delightful sense of wonder, humor, and good-natured exasperation. To me, there's a sense to be found within the nonsensical of Alice's adventures -- and that, for me, is enough to make these books of "literary nonsense" quite meaningful indeed.

The world through the looking-glass


Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass - both books in a single volume

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition - Notes by Martin Gardner.

Audio versions of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Audio versions of Through the Looking-Glass


Walt Disney's 1951 animated film (starring the voices of Kathryn Beaumont, Sterling Holloway, Bill Thompson, & Verna Felton)

The CBS 1985 miniseries (starring Natalie Gregory, Red Buttons, Carol Channing, Sammy Davis, Jr., & Sid Caesar)

Hallmark's 1999 production (starring Tina Majorino, Gene Wilder, Christopher Lloyd, & Whoopi Goldberg)

Tim Burton's 2010 film (starring Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, & Johnny Depp)

Why is a raven like a writing-desk?


The Looking Glass Wars series - by Frank Beddor

Automated Alice - by Jeff Noon

The Wonderland Gambit trilogy - by Jack L. Chalker

The Looking Glass, or Voyage of the Space Bubble, series - by John Ringo


"Lewis Carroll's Shifting Reputation" - from the Smithonian

"'Lewis Carroll:' A Myth in the Making" - from the opening chapter of In the Shadow of the Dreamchild by Karoline Leach

-- Post by Ms. B

Monday, November 19, 2012

Presidential Odds N Ends

Do you recognize this man? Probably not (and if you do, you are probably one of the few). That is the eleventh President of the United States, James K. Polk. He served 1845-1849. And while he actually had several major accomplishments while in office, he is one of those Presidents from the 19th century that, I think, most of don't know much about.

So in honor of the recent Presidential election, I decided to look at four 19th-century Presidents (all born in November, by the way) and give some bits of information and odd facts.

James K. Polk (1845-1849)

Polk was a Democrat from Tennessee who only served one term because he chose not to seek re-election. He died within a few months after leaving office. He was President during the Mexican War, which added a half-million square miles of new territory to the country.

  • The first use of the telegraph for political news occurred with the announcement of Polk's nomination by the Democratic Party on May 29, 1844.
  • At the age of 17, Polk became an early survivor of surgery. The year was 1812 and there was no anesthesia, so the doctor gave him some brandy, strapped him to a table, and removed gallstones that had been troubling him for most of his young life. 

Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

Taylor succeeded Polk as the twelfth President. He served during the time leading up to the Civil War, with the dispute over the expansion of slavery into the new territories. 

  • Was a member of the Whig party.
  • Had been a professional soldier, and voted for the first time in 1848 when he ran for President.
  • Despite being a slave holder himself, he was a firm nationalist and did not believe in sectionalism.
  • Despite his opposition, Taylor's daughter Sarah eloped with Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy, in 1835. She died three months later of malaria.
  • He died in office after serving one year, 127 days.

Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

Pierce was the 14th President and served during the same turbulent period as Taylor leading up to the Civil War.

  • Two months before he took office, his eleven year old son died, leaving both Pierce and his wife Jane grief-stricken and emotionally exhausted.
  • Was a "dark horse" candidate for the Democratic party. He had served in both house of Congress by the time he was nominated, but he had been out of politics for about 10 years by the time of the convention.
  • Pierce is the only elected President to not be renominated by his party.

James A. Garfield (1881)

Garfield was the 20th President of the United States. He is probably a bit more well-known than the other men profiled here, since he was the second president to be assassinated.

  • Served as a brigadier general during the Civil War.
  • Defeated General Winfield Hancock by only 10,000 popular votes in 1880.
  • Was the last president to have been born in a log cabin.
  • Term served was only 199 days.
  • Garfield survived another 80 days after being shot by Charles Julius Guiteau. 

-- Post by Tracy

Friday, November 16, 2012

Who We Are and What We Write

"It's a great day for geeks!"

I was standing in line, waiting to buy one of the pre-autographed books being offered, when I heard this come from the group of college students behind me. I didn't turn around to look at the speaker, but I could hear the excited smile in his voice all the same.

Besides, I really didn't need to see who was talking. You could tell, just by looking at the faces in the long book line, or standing in clusters throughout the room, or thronging ahead into the theater, that the sentiment was reflected by everybody present. Because if you were here tonight, then you had come to see Neil Gaiman -- an author of novels, short stories, and comic, who I've described to people as "sort of the rock star of sci-fi/fantasy writers."

Author Neil Gaiman

The author behind such books as American Gods, Anansi Boys, Coraline, and the graphic novel series Sandman, Gaiman had come to the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland in honor of the fifteenth anniversary of his novel Stardust. Fans came out in throngs to the Wednesday event, which featured Gaiman talking about the writing process of Stardust (among other things) before doing some readings of his work and answering audience questions. The theater was packed, with fans wildly cheering and applauding when Gaiman arrived onstage.

Why such devotion?  For starter's, there's no denying Gaiman's appeal as a storyteller. It's not just that his written worlds are so unique and wildly weird (though they are), or that he weaves his plots so neatly and tightly (though he does). The style of the writing itself is pleasant to read, simple and poetic at the same time. His words first draw you in; you stay for the fantastical creations he comes up with. A fallen star revealed to be a woman with a broken leg, an infant rescued and brought up by ghosts, an "Other Mother" with buttons in the place of eyes -- no one writes books quite like Neil Gaiman.

But I think another part of Neil Gaiman's appeal to his fans is the overwhelming feeling that he's one of them. Gaiman doesn't just write stories; he loves them, too, and is a fan of many of the same things his fans are. Before publishing two Sherlock Holmes stories and being inducted as a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, Gaiman had already been a lifelong fan of the Conan Doyle stories. He's penned an episode of the long-running British sci-fi series Doctor Who (with a second script currently in production) -- and had been watching the show since his childhood. He read Batman comics as a kid long before he wrote a graphic novel about the character. He understands his sci-fi/fantasy fans because he's one of them.

Gaiman and Cabal

What makes his geek-endearing "rock star" status all the more impressive is the fact that he so obviously doesn't see himself as a star. After gesturing firmly for the wild applause to stop after his entrance onstage, Gaiman proceeded to speak for an hour about the sparks of inspiration that had led him to write Stardust, as well as stories behind some of his other works (including his upcoming novel Ocean at the End of the Lane, due out next year). His speech was given in a warm, polite, very funny, and often deprecating fashion (of his World Fantasy Award for his comic A Midsummer's Night Dream, he remarked that the award is the "silver head of H.P. Lovecraft, looking like Easter Island. Years later, my friend made these little bowler hats and made it infinitely better.").

I see his point.

Later, Gaiman read a selection from Stardust, following later with a preview portion of his upcoming book Ocean at the End of the Lane. Before closing the evening with a poem ("The Day the Saucers Came"), Gaiman took some questions from the audience. Most were simple but interesting: his thoughts on the role of women in the fantasy genre, any tidbits about his upcoming episode of Doctor Whohow he approaches writing novels versus short stories versus comics.

But the best question came from a college student who wanted to know, essentially, what lovers of sci-fi and fantasy could do to find adventure in the mundane on-goings of the real world. How does anybody find adventure?

"I don't think you find adventures, I think you go out and have them," Gaiman said, before going on to tell a story about his recent experiences with Les Machines de l’├«le in Nantes, France. Inspired by Jules Vernes, Leonardo da Vinci, and the history of the city, the "Machines of the Isle of Nantes" feature such attractions as a giant, three-level carousal, and a forty-foot high mechanical elephant which groups of people can ride.

"This is something people wanted to see in the world," Gaiman said, of the team of artists and mechanics who had built Les Machines. "And so they went out and decided to make it. And they made it for other people to share. So, having an adventure ... I think you go out, and you make it."

Whether you're a geek or not -- that's pretty great advice.

"If you put me and John Grisham and Stephen King in front of a deserted boathouse by a lake, Grisham would write about a brave young lawyer who was fleeing the mob and who would hide in that boathouse, and Stephen King would write about the thing in the lake that came out of the lake and ate the people in the boathouse, and I would write about how the boathouse got up on chicken legs and walked away into the woods.

"That's just who we are and that's what we write."

Neil Gaiman in Pittsburgh - The Post Gazette blogs about the night's events.

Author Neil Gaiman Guest DJs at WYEP - The title says it all. Stop by 91.3 FM's website to hear the show!

"Neil Gaiman Writes a Final 'Love Letter to Batman'" - An interview with Wired about Gaiman's thoughts on the Caped Crusader.

Neil Gaiman's Blog - Full of personal anecdotes, news and updates about his writing and appearances, and the occasional Doctor Who reference.

Neil Gaiman's Pep Talk - In honor of National Novel Writing Month, Gaiman was asked to write a "pep talk" to writers struggling to finish their projects. Here's what he had to say about the creative process. (Recommended for all artists.)

- Books by Neil Gaiman

- Audiobooks by Neil Gaiman

- Graphic Novels by Neil Gaiman

- Films written by Neil Gaiman

-- Post by Ms. B

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Elementary Reinvention

"When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before."
-- Clifton Fadiman

You regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that I am watching the new CBS show "Elementary," because of course I am, and that it's become my latest TV favorite, because of course it has. The show -- which places Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in 21st-century New York City -- puts a unique spin on these oft-adapted characters, not just by shaking up the setting but by finding new ways to explore the iconic Conan Doyle stories.

"Elementary" is hardly the only modern re-imagination of Sherlock Holmes -- we've got Sherlock, House, Bones, and Monk, to name but a few -- but I love this one for its characters. Jonny Lee Miller gives us a Sherlock Holmes who is damaged but striving to be better, and Lucy Liu's Dr. Joan Watson (yes, Joan) has found a wonderful balance between supporting the detective but refusing to stand for any insults or nonsense.

But Sherlock Holmes is hardly the only character from classic literature to be reinvented for a more modern age. There's a plethora of films, shows -- and novels -- that take inspiration from the classics, or adapt old stories with a new and fresh twist. I like to think this shows not a failure of imagination on the part of today's authors -- but rather a love for the iconic characters from across literary history. It gives authors and readers alike a chance to take a fresh look at stories that have become a part of the pop culture landscape.

So take a look at these authors' updated "masterpieces," as they add new (and modern!) twists to iconic tales:

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. (King Lear)

This 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winner for Fiction re-imagines Shakespeare's King Lear on a thousand-acre farm in Iowa. Larry Cook has decided to pass ownership of the family farm onto his three daughters, but his youngest objects. What follows is a chain of events which will reveal dark secrets that will twist the family apart forever.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. (Heart of Darkness)

Conrad's Heart of Darkness characters may be traveling the Congo, while Patchett's Marina Singh is navigating the Amazon. But the parallels between stories remain, as Marina enters the Amazon, intent on finding a missing scientist from a research fielding team and reporting back on the team's progress. What she finds, instead, is a shocking medical discovery which head scientist Annick Swenson is determined to keep under wraps.

What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn. (Anna Karenina)

Anna Karenina becomes a modern-day heroine living in a Russian Jewish community in Queens, New York. Like Tolstoy's original, Anna K. is comfortable but somewhat complacent in her marriage to an older, prominent businessman. Then she meets David, a writer who shares Anna's grand dreams for better things. The resulting melodrama provides a contemporary take on Tolstoy's classic.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray. (Don Quixote)

Describing this funny, quirky, satirical YA read is hard enough, when you try to explain the trials and tribulations of 16-year-old Cameron. Cameron just wants to survive high school with as little effort as possible -- which is sort of ironic, since he's just found out that he's sick and is going to die. Luckily for Cameron, he gets some help in the form of a loony, sugar-obssessed angel (who may or may not be a hallucination), who promises Cameron that there's a cure for his disease. He just has to go on a little road trip to find it. Don't worry, he's got one of those yard gnomes to help him out ...

Finding out that Bray structured this wacky, wild adventure on the Cervantes classic only makes its unusual charms that much more engaging. You don't have to be a teen to like this one.

Tighter by Adele Griffin. (The Turn of the Screw)

Inspired by the Henry James ghost story, 17-year-old Jamie has been hired as a summer au pair, only to uncover a shocking tragedy that claimed the lives of a young couple on the New England island of Little Bly. What's more, Jamie finds she has the ability to sense the ghosts of the young couple. Jamie is left fighting to uncover the mystery -- while struggling to keep a clear line drawn between the world of the living ... and the world of the dead.

Batman: Noel by by Lee Bermejo. (A Christmas Carol)

This graphic novel opens by narrating the story of the hapless Bob Cratchett, and, despite the modern-day slang of that narration, there isn't much to differentiate it from the classic Dickens version. At least, until you look at the artwork, and discover that Bob Cratchett is actually a small-time thief -- and Ebenezer Scrooge is none other than Batman himself. But it's not riches that Batman is refusing to share, and the lesson he learns in this Christmas tale -- with some unexpected help from three "ghosts" -- is wholly Batman. With gorgeously illuminated artwork and a clever premise, you can't go wrong with a Christmas read this inspired.

-- Post by Ms. B

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Remembering Our Veterans

This Sunday is Veterans Day (officially observed Monday, November 12th, by the Federal and State governments, since it falls on a Sunday), when we remember and thank those that have served in the military. The holiday began as Armistice Day, as a remembrance of the end of World War I, which officially ended on June 28, 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. But the actual fighting ended on November 11, 1918 at 11 AM, which was the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. A year later, President Woodrow Wilson marked the occasion with these words:
To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nation...

In 1954, President Eisenhower signed a law changing the name from "Armistice Day" to "Veterans Day," and making November 11 a legal holiday. Wilson's original idea was to observe the day with parades and public meetings and a brief, two-minute suspension of business at 11 AM. Today, we still celebrate with parades and memorial services.

Great Britain, Canada, and Australia also honor their veterans on November 11, although they call their holiday Remembrance Day. In Canada, it is used as a day to remember all those who have served in their military, while in Australia, it is a day to remember those soldiers who have died. In Great Britain, the day is celebrated on the second Sunday of November. It is popular in Great Britain and its Commonwealth countries to wear a poppy as a sign of remembrance. This emblem grew popular upon the publication of the poem "In Flanders Fields," by John McRae.

Find out more:

Veterans Day FAQ - The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs answers some frequently asked questions regarding Veterans Day.

Statistics about Veterans - The U.S. Census Bureau provides information about American veterans.

Veterans Day Discounts - Many restaurants and stores provide discounts for veterans. Check out this link for specific places.

Veterans Day Celebrations - A list of the events happening in Allegheny County to honor veterans.

For Further Reading about World War I:

The First World War: A Complete History by Martin Gilbert

The First World War, 1914-1918 by Gerd Hardach

The Last Days of Innocence: America At War, 1917-1918 by Meiron Harries and Susie Harries

When Europe Went Mad: A Brief History of the First World War by Terence T. Finn

A Stillness Heard Round the World by Stanley Weintraub

The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century by Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett

-- Post by Tracy

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Death on Swift Wings

The solid gold coffin of King Tutankhamen

It's one of the most famous faces in human history -- but not for the reasons we think.

November 4th marked the 90th anniversary of the discovery of the entrance to the tomb of King Tutankhamen (originally found in 1922). The discovery of the tomb's entrance came some 31 years after British archaeologist Howard Carter and his workmen had arrived in Egypt to begin studying the history of Ancient Egypt. When Carter arrived, many of the Egyptian rulers had already been discovered in their final resting places -- but the discovery of minor pharaoh Tut had yet to be made. 

It was on that November 4th when Carter and his men found a step leading into the tomb -- and 22 days later, Carter and his fellow archaeologist, Lord Carnarvon, entered the chambers of the tomb itself. 

It took years for the thousands of objects that Carter and his team had found in the four-room tomb to be fully recovered. But the biggest prize was undeniably the red quartzite sarcophagus of the king himself, containing layers of nesting boxes and coffins (the final coffin was made of solid gold) and, finally, the mummy of King Tutankhamen himself. The mummy was over 3,000 years old, still wearing the gold mask in which he'd been buried.

King Tut's Death Mask

King Tut instantly became a sensation. Today, many remember him as one of the greatest kings of Egypt (thanks to the golden treasures of his tomb) -- and also for the deadly Curse of the Pharaohs, known to have killed many members of those foolish enough to disturb his tomb, including Lord Carnarvon himself.

But, like many stories across history, the popularly-known facts don't have it quite right. What's more, the truth of this boy-king (he died in his late teens) is even more fascinating than the myth. 

Debunking the myth of the "King Tut Curse" is simple enough. Lord Carnarvon came to Egypt already suffering from chronic illness, long before he entered the tomb. After his death, however, the media of the day quickly spun sensational stories heralding the mummy's curse, with false stories about mysterious inscriptions ("Death will come on swift wings whoever disturbs the pharaoh"), the death of workmen, and blackouts in Cairo. (Read more about the debunked myth here.)

But of greater interest, at least to me, is the story of King Tut himself, who is remembered as one of Egypt's most powerful and beloved pharaohs. But the truth is that Tutankhamen himself was a relatively minor pharaoh from Egyptian history. The exquisite treasures found in his tomb would actually have been standard fare for any king of Egypt; what sets Tutankhamen apart is that he was one of those few pharaohs to not have his tomb disturbed and desecrated by grave robbers.

Tutankhamen's stepmom, Queen Nefertiti

Tutankhamen was born in 1341 BCE. His father was King Akhenaten, who created an uproar during his time as pharaoh with the creation of a mostly-monotheistic new religion. In a time when Egyptian religion centered around an entire pantheon of deities (including the sun god, Ra; and the god of all creation, Amun), Akhenaten decreed a new religion, worshipping only Aten, the sun. At Akhenaten's side in this new religion was Queen Nefertiti, Akhenaten's wife -- and Tutankhamen's stepmother.

After Akhenaten died, and Tutankhamen took over as king (in 1333 BCE), Tut did his best to return the traditional deities and belief system of Egypt. He restored Thebes as the religious capital of Egypt, and Memphis as the administrative center of the kingdom (his father had moved both the administrative and religious capitals to the city of Akhetaten). Tut went so far as to change his name to Tutankhamen (he had been born "Tutankhamun").

The new king's devotion to the old ways restored the ancient religion to Egypt -- but Tutankhamen's rule was short-lived. He died around the age of 19, and went down in history as a relatively minor king ... until the twentieth century.

Find out more:

King Tut Revealed - National Geographic takes a look at the results of modern forensics and high-tech imaging on the mummy of King Tut.

A Frail King - The Ancient Egyptians viewed their royalty as gods, but most were all-too-human. Genetic testing revealed the physical weaknesses of King Tut.

The Process of Mummification!  I recommend waiting until after you've eaten to read this one.

For further reading:

Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King by Joyce Tyldesley.

Treasures of Tutankhamun published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Genesis of the Pharaohs: Dramatic New Discoveries Rewrite the Origins of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson.

Egyptian Art, In the Days of the Pharaohs, 3100-320 BC by Cyril Aldred.

Nefertiti: Egypt's Sun Queen by Joyce Tyldesley.

-- Post by Ms. B

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Golden Age of Radio

KDKA, November 2, 1920 - East Pittsburgh, PA

Are you sick and tired of all the political ads that are being shown almost non-stop on television? Are you tired of phone calls for one of the many candidates up for election on November 6th? For most of us, it's hard to imagine a time when we weren't inundated with all of this political advertising. But there was a day when the American people weren't connected with the world 24/7. There was a time when people got all of their information from their local newspaper. There was no television, no radio, and definitely no cell phones! Most people didn't even have a regular landline phone in their home.

On November 2, 1920, right here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, the age of information (kind of) started. On that night, from a room on top of one of the Westinghouse buildings in East Pittsburgh, four hours of election results were broadcast. Communication would never be the same. At the most, a thousand people heard that first broadcast. Those people found out before the rest of the country that Warren G. Harding was to be the next President of the United States. Everyone else would have to wait for the next edition of their local newspaper.

By the next Presidential election, all of that would change. In 1922, WEAF in New York City (which later became WNBC) became the first commercial radio station. Its advertising wasn't as we know it today, but it established the precedent that commercial broadcasting was viable.

The 1920s saw the growth in the number of stations throughout the country and the number of radios in American homes. By the 1930s, about 90 percent of Americans owned at least one radio. This was the beginning of the Golden Age of radio.

The basic format was music, news, and other programming. Much of the programming would be theatrical productions, such as dramas, comedies, soap operas, westerns, and such. Many of these radio shows would go on to be television shows as well (Perry Mason, The Lone Ranger, The Guiding Light).

Listen to that historic broadcast here.

So to celebrate the beginnings of radio broadcasting, here are some of the most well-known moments in radio history.

The Hindenburg Disaster

Hindenburg disaster, New Jersey - May 6, 1937

Dirigibles, or Zeppelins as they came to be known, had been around since the late 19th century. They had been invented by a French man, but it wasn't until German Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin that the crafts were remodeled into viable flying machines. By 1937, Zeppelins had been used by the Germans during World War I and had flown across the Atlantic many times. Still, it was always a big event when an airship was going to land in America. So, Herb Morrison, of WLS in Chicago, was in Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937 to cover the landing of the Hindenburg. Little did he know of the horror he was about to witness. His emotional and personal reaction to the disaster would outlive him.

Listen to the original radio broadcast here.

"War of the Worlds" 

Orson Welles, 1938

On the night of October 30, 1938, the world was invaded by Martians! Or, at least, that was what many people thought, when Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater broadcast a radio play version of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. It was done as a Halloween prank and as a way to boost the show's ratings. (It was on the air against the most popular radio show of the time.) Despite the fact that it was announced that this was just a dramatization of the book several times during the broadcast, most people somehow seemed to miss that. Panic ensued because so many people believed this broadcast to be real and that Martians were invading Earth. The belief was so strong that people were fleeing their homes to escape the invasion. Once people realized that there was no invasion, there was anger and frustration. Police were even thinking about arresting Welles. This did not happen, and this "prank" would put Orson Welles on the map and help him establish his acting and directing career. Four years later, Citizen Kane (considered to be the greatest American film) would premiere -- a movie that most likely would never have been made without this moment in radio.

Listen to the original broadcast here. Or you can check out the broadcast on CD from the library. And for another take on the radio play, listen to L.A. Theatre works production (which includes several Star Trek actors!).

The London Blitz

Edward R. Murrow
In 1940, the United States was not yet involved in World War II, but there was still great interest in what was going on in Europe. Edward R. Murrow was just beginning his broadcast career when he began reporting from London for CBS. His live, first-hand accounts during the London Blitz captivated the American public.  These broadcasts would establish him as one of the most well-known and well-respected journalists in the US. After the War, he would return to the States and establish himself as a television journalist who took on many controversial subjects, including Sen. Joseph McCarthy's search for Communists in politics and entertainment.

To listen:
September 20, 1940 - London rooftop during the blitz

From Trafalgar Square during an air raid

Further reading on the history of radio:

Hello Everybody: The Dawn of American Radio by Anthony Rudel

Don't Touch That Dial: The History of Broadcasting by J. Fred MacDonald

Sold on Radio : Advertisers in the Golden Age of Broadcasting by Jim Cox

-- Post by Tracy