Category Archives: history

The Classics (Reader’s Digest Collection)

I love these Reader’s Digest books! The latest one, “The Classics: All You Need to Know, from Zeus’s Throne to the Fall of Rome”, is by Caroline Taggert, the same author of “I Used To Know That”, also in the Reader’s Digest series.

This one does not disappoint. The quality is in keeping with the rest of the collection, from the book’s design to its content.

Like “Cliff Notes”, this book tells you everything you need to know in an easy to read format. Sections of the book include: Classical Languages, Religion and Mythology, Ancient Greek History, Roman History, Classical Literature, Architecture and Art, Math, Science and Inventions, and more.

Some of my favorite sections included: Translations of common Latin phrases, short profiles of Greek gods, and the history of the Olympics.

Conclusion: Another great book from Reader’s Digest and worth adding to your bookshelf!

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The Help

I stayed up several nights until 1 am reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. At a hefty 464 pages, it might be surprising that I wished it would have gone on for 400 more.

The story is told in various voices, but it is not at all confusing as each chapter heading states the character’s name. Set in Mississippi during the 1960’s and the early days of the civil right’s movement, The Help is the story of the black women who served as household domestics and nannies in the homes of rich white people. When one young white woman starts to become uncomfortable with the help’s treatment, she tries to be-friend the wary maids in the homes of her friends to interview them about their lives but the last thing they want to do is spill their secrets to a white lady which would be putting their very lives at risk.

The chapters told in the voices of two of the maids, Aibileen and Minny, use African American vernacular which is so authentic that you’ll do a double take when you see the author’s photograph, (she’s white.) The writing is flawless and beautiful with so many perfect lines that I had to constantly stop and re-read them for the sheer pleasure of it.

Despite the serious subject matter, and sometimes tragic, heartbreaking scenes, The Help is somehow also full of laugh-out-loud humor. Just thinking about some of the stuff the character Minny said and did still makes me snicker.

This book is a total package and definitely, without question, one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Now, somewhat off topic, the book mentions quite a bit of southern cooking, and I never fail to get literary induced cravings, sometimes for foods I’ve never even tasted before. This time it was Minny’s Caramel Cake. This cake was mentioned several times in the book, as Minny was known around town for making the best Caramel Cake.

Well, I never had Caramel Cake before, but that had to change! … So today I sought out a recipe, and while I can’t say whether it’s an authentic southern recipe or not, I can tell you it is AMAZING. One of the best cakes I’ve ever made. If you’re interested, the recipe is over at this food blog called “Piece of Cake“. She actually made cupcakes. I followed the recipe exactly except that I poured it into a round cake pan. (Note: The batter fits in 1 round cake pan, but, um… when it bakes, it sort of overflows… a lot… So if you make a cake instead of cupcakes, use TWO round cake pans and make 2 cakes.)

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A Rainbow in the Night

A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa by Dominique LaPierre, is a fantastic non-fictional history on the region.

Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the nation of South Africa.  For me, the first word that comes to mind when the country is  mentioned is “apartheid”, without really knowing much beyond that. A Rainbow in the Night does devote a great amount of time to the subject of apartheid, and much of the detail is a shocking proof of what human’s are capable of doing to one another, (particularly when driven by a religious sense of entitlement.)

This book surprisingly comes in at less than 300 pages. I say it’s surprising because it seems to cover every inch of South Africa’s very interesting and unique history, (white people came to settle in the area because they wanted to plant lettuce that would be available to crews from spice ships suffering from scurvy.)

Recounting history with names, dates and events can easily become tedious, but LaPierre manages to write an informative book that reads like fiction.

If you want to know more about the country of South Africa, this book is a fantastic choice to give you a well-rounded history very quickly.

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12 Days and 12 Facts for This Holiday Season

I have been authorized to reproduce the following. Enjoy!

12 Days and 12 Facts for This Holiday Season

By Caroline Taggart,
Author of I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot From School

Ever catch yourself saying I Used to Know That?

Each holiday season brings another round of cocktail parties, family get-togethers, and corporate gatherings — and invariably, lots of small talk. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when discussing politics, literature, and other intellectual “stuff,” especially when what is thought to be general knowledge is often long-forgotten. Enter I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot From School. From English and Literature to Math and Science, from History and Geography to Religion and Other-Worldly Topics, this book leaves you equipped to handle any topic of conversation.

Here we’ve cherry-picked twelve fun facts for the holiday season — one for every day of Christmas (or whatever holiday you prefer!) Quiz yourself to see how much “stuff” you need to brush up on before hobnobbing with the boss or office crush.

1. On building sentences: Just what is a “clause”? (Not to be confused with Santa Claus.)

Answer: A clause contains a subject and a verb and may stand alone as a sentence or as part of a sentence (when it is often called a subordinate clause): Santa Claus loves cookies but can’t eat them without milk.

2. How many bones is the spine made up of?

Answer: 26 small bones called vertebrae (Be careful lifting all those heavy holiday boxes.)

3. Acclaimed author Charles Dickens (1812-70) wrote which Christmas classic?

Answer: A Christmas Carol. The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge tries to ignore Christmas and is haunted by the ghost of his former partner, Marley, and by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, who show him the error of his ways.

4. The fist chapter of this famous book opens with “Call me Ishmael.” Name the book and author. (Hint: it makes a whale of a gift!)

Answer: Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Melville is also the author of Pierre and the unfinished Billy Budd.

5. There’s a name for the process of watering your Christmas tree? Who knew?

Answer: Grab the kids and give them this science factoid as they nurture the family tree: Osmosis is a form of diffusion that is specific to the movement of water. Water moves through a selectively permeable membrane (that is, one that lets some types of molecules through but not others) from a place where there is a higher concentration of water to one where it is lower.

6. Can you name all 6 wives of Henry VIII, father of the Church of England?

Answer: (Listed in order) Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Catherine, Catherine. They are often remembered as divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Sure makes you think twice when complaining about bad relatives.

7. Who was the 16th President of the United States?

Answer: Abraham Lincoln (R, 1861-65) and yes — he really was born in a log cabin on a winter’s day. Notably famous for many reasons including his Gettysburg Address: “Four Score and Seven Years ago our fathers brought fourth upon this continent a new nation conceived in Liberty . . . ”

8. ‘Tis the season to be jolly giving! Don’t forget to tip well this season — etiquette coaches will tell you that means no less than 18%. So just how much should you tip on a bill of $50?

Answer: Percent means by a hundred, so anything expressed as a percentage is a fraction (or part, if you prefer) of 100. So 18% is 18 parts of 100, or 18/100 or .18. If your bill is $50, multiply 50 by .18 to get your tip total of $9. If you’re feeling generous, a 20% tip would require you to multiply 50 by .20, for a total of $10.00

50.00 x .18 = 9.00

50.00 x .20 = 10.00

Percentages can also be holiday-relevant when it comes to figuring out in-store sales. In this case, you want to multiply by the inverse of the percentage listed. So if you have a $50 sweater that’s on sale for 25% off, multiply 50 by .75 for your total of $37.50. That same $50 sweater on sale for 40% off would equate to $30, or $50 multiplied by .60.

50.00 x .75 = 37.50

50.00 x .60 = 30.00

9. Brr, it’s cold outside. But just how cold does it have to be to get some snow around here?

Answer: Did you know that the freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit? Keep an eye on the temperature and watch your footing for ice on the ground. (See previous fact about those treasured vertebrae!)

10. Everyone knows Santa and his elves live in the North Pole. But what about the South Pole (aka Antarctica)?

Answer: The South Pole was discovered by Roald Amundsen (1872-1928, Norwegian), who was also the first to sail though the Northwest passage, the sea route from Pacific to Atlantic along the north coast of North America. Antarctica is the only continent that contains no countries — instead, it is a stateless territory protected from exploitation by an international treaty. A good place for the elves to protest low wages?

11. Which Ocean is bigger: the Pacific or the Atlantic?

Answer: The Pacific Ocean is larger at 69,374 square miles — that’s almost double the Atlantic, which comes in at 35,665 square miles. Making it evenmore astonishing that St. Nick can cross the globe in just one night.

12. Remember the reason for the Season! Can you name a few things that both Judaism and Christianity have in common?

Answer: Both are monotheistic religions that share the first five books of the Christian Old Testament. Both religions view Jerusalem as a sacred site, the former for the Wailing Wall (contains the remains of the temple that was thought to be the place where God resides on earth) and the latter for Christ’s burial and resurrection site.

Happy Holidays to all!

©2009 Caroline Taggart, author of I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot From School

Author Bio
Caroline Taggart, author of I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot From School, has been an editor of non-fiction books for nearly 30 years and has covered nearly every subject from natural history and business to gardening and astronomy. She has written several books and was the editor of Writer’s Market UK 2009.

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Across the Endless River

Across the Endless River by Thad Carhart is a historical novel about Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of the well-known Shoshone woman, Sacagawea, who was of invaluable help to Lewis and Clark on their expeditions.

The book’s gorgeous cover art gives you a hint of the beautiful writing that awaits. Carhart successfully transports the reader to the 1800’s and to a world very different from today.

Baptiste, or “Pompy” as he is called by his mother’s tribe, must learn to live life as a white man like his father, and also as a Shoshone like his mother, neither of which feels right. Forced back and forth between living in a house and going to school and church in St. Louis, to spending months in a teepee close to the river, Baptiste isn’t sure where he belongs.

When his mother dies, Baptiste finds he has inherited her love of wandering, discovery, and her ability to slip between worlds. A scientist recognizes Baptiste’s valuable abilities and hires him as a guide, to accompany him on his journeys which include going back to Europe where Baptiste continues to discover the world and himself.

Below, enjoy an article by the author which I have been authorized to share.

Imagining the Past in Paris
By Thad Carhart,


Author of Across the Endless River

To walk in Paris is to walk through multiple layers of the past, more than 900 years of built history that awaits any stroller. Having lived here for twenty years, I’ve seen the city change with new roads and bridges, new museums, new rows of apartments. And yet the deep respect that Parisians have developed for what they call their patrimoine, their inheritance, ensures that old buildings are regularly restored and preserved, integrated into the flux of daily life. The look of the city changes subtly, as it has throughout history.

The biggest transformation in modern times was simply the cleaning of the stone edifices of central Paris, initiated in the 1960’s by de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture, André Malraux. No change could have been more surprising, or more deeply satisfying. When I was a very young boy living in Paris, I was convinced that all of the buildings were made from the same stone, black as night and so softened by centuries of wood and coal dust that the surface was a felt-like matte whose edges looked as if they would soon crumble. This was the “atmospheric” Paris of all those voluptuous black-and-white photos (what blacks and grays there were on every side), the ponderous Paris of Buffet prints and countless tourist posters.

Then the government started to clean the major monuments one by one — Notre-Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre — and the transformation was shocking, almost troubling in its strange newness. The buildings of Paris weren’t black after all, but very nearly . . . white! It took almost two decades of careful cleaning and restoration, but Paris emerged from the process the albino twin of its former self. To appreciate the contrast, buy a vintage postcard aerial view, dating from 1970 or earlier, at one of the bouquiniste stalls along the banks of the Seine, then compare it with the present-day aerial shot: the era of dirt and grime looks like a photographic negative of the light and airy Paris that current tourists will recognize as the “real” Paris.

Walking, however, reveals just one facet of the landscape. Recently, in researching a historical novel, I needed to imagine Paris as it would have appeared in the 1820s. The first stop for any such endeavor is the splendid Musée Carnavalet, the Museum of the City of Paris, whose collection documents in elaborate and fascinating detail every step of the city’s past. As I consulted paintings, prints, and manuscripts, many of the differences were obvious: in 1825 the Champs-Elysées was already a broad, fashionable avenue, but the Arc de Triomphe did not yet grace its rise; the Eiffel Tower wouldn’t appear until 1889; and, of course, Beaubourg, the Pyramid of the Louvre, and the Grande Arche, all sturdy Paris fixtures today, would only appear within the last four decades.

Another clear difference was the absence of cars, though factoring them out mentally also involved imagining the presence of horses . . . lots of horses. As I examined the numberless paintings at Carnavalet, I thought a lot about the look, the sound, and the smell of tens of thousands of horses plying the streets of Paris close to 200 years ago. Merely disposing of their manure — and Paris was very well organized in this department — was a Herculean task daily. And, just as in our day, when playboys often drive Porsches and tradesmen more likely use vans, the paintings reveal fancy thoroughbreds ridden solo by dandies, sturdy draft horses pulling huge wagons, and bony nags hitched to battered carts.

Perhaps the biggest surprise that comes with seeking the past in the Paris landscape, especially after examining the documentary record, it to realize how little the scale of buildings has changed over the centuries. With two exceptions on the Left Bank (the Tour Montparnasse and the university’s Tour Jussieu), no high-rises spoil the illusion in the center of Paris that the modern age has yet arrived. Individual facades, a modern infrastructure, and hordes of cars all tell a different story, but the look and feel of many quartiers — the Marais and the Latin Quarter are simply the best known examples — would feel appropriate to a Parisian of the early nineteenth century. This tenuous, heady relationship to the past is often seductive, and yet it can also feel weighty, old-fashioned, and artificial. How long it can prevail in the face of change is anybody’s guess.

©2009 Thad Carhart, author of Across the Endless River

Author Bio
Thad Carhart, author of Across the Endless River, is a dual citizen of of the United States and Ireland. He lives in Paris with his wife, the photographer Simo Neri, and their two children.

For more information please visit www.thadcarhart.com

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