Tag Archives: History

Saturday Seven: Books That Might Give You Cravings

Saturday Seven is hosted by Long and Short Reviews.

I’m a pretty quiet person in real life. One of the topics that I always like to talk about with anyone who is interested, though, is food. For example, I might ask you what your favourite food is or talk about a delicious meal I made last week. This week’s list is all about books that gave me cravings when I read them.

1. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan.

I could almost do an entire Saturday Seven post on Michael Pollan’s books alone. I really appreciate the fact that he takes such a well-rounded approach to figuring out what and how humans should eat from a nutritional, environmental, and cultural perspective. Then you also need to factor in any medical restrictions (diabetes, food allergies, interactions with certain drugs, etc) you might have on what you can eat.  The answer won’t be exactly the same for every person or geographical region on Earth. I like the flexibility of that. It makes me hungry! Hehe.

 2. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver.

Imagine spending an entire year trying to eat nothing but food you’ve either grown or bought from people who lived nearby. It’s not something I could do year-round in Canada without risking vitamin deficiencies from barely having any vegetables or fruit to eat for months on end, but I do follow many of this author’s principles when the weather allows for it. And now I’m craving Ontario-grown strawberries. They’re mouthwateringly delicious, and they’ll be in season in a few short months.

3. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky.

Salt is common and inexpensive now, but it used to be so valuable that it was used as a form of currency. This is the kind of book I’d only recommend to people who are extremely interested in this topic. It wasn’t a light, fluffy read at all, but it did make me crave salty foods like homemade soft pretzels.

4. French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure by Mireille Guiliano.

I loved the common sense messages in this book about moderation, fitting walking and other forms of exercise into your daily routine, and never being afraid to enjoy what you eat. There’s something about this easy-going approach to life that makes me look forward to my next meal regardless of what it happens to be.

5. Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel.

When I first read this a decade ago, I wondered if I’d live to see the day when the Cavendish banana went extinct. It hasn’t happened yet, and I sure hope it never does. Doesn’t the banana on the cover make you wish you could eat a banana right this second? That sure was my reaction to it.

6. Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook.

This actually made me seek out one of those old-fashioned tomatoes that hadn’t had so much of its flavour bred out of it. It was really good. If only that kind of tomato wasn’t in season for such a short time. I could go for one of them right about now.

7. Tea: The Drink That Changed the World by Laura C. Martin. 

I drink a decent amount of caffeine-free herbal tea, especially during the winter when I want to warm up. If caffeine didn’t make me so jittery, I’d branch out and try more of the teas that this author talked about. They sounded delicious.

Do you read nonfiction books about food or beverages? What are you craving right now?


Why Creative Writers Should Read History Books

The other day I learned something surprising about bananas.

Did you know that bananas were nearly impossible to find anywhere in England during World War Two? As a perishable fruit that had to be imported, it simply wasn’t possible for the government to keep this food source available while there was a war going on.

People improvised all sorts of creative mock banana recipes during those years. One of the most common replacements for this beloved fruit involved boiling parsnips, mashing them, and then adding a little banana essence and sugar. The resulting mixture could be spread on a piece of bread and eaten.

The world changed dramatically between the early 1940s and my childhood. I never would have guessed that bananas had been so hard to find or that people needed to invent replacements for them in the twentieth century. When I was growing up, they were one of the staple snacks in my family due to how inexpensive and healthy they were. I’d often eat a banana after school to tide me over until dinnertime without thinking twice about it.

Study History

True stories like this one are why I think creative writers – especially those in the speculative fiction genre who are often responsible for creating worlds that are very different from the one we live in – should read books about what life was like decades, centuries, and millennia before they were born.

What you and I might consider to be so commonplace that it doesn’t even need to be mentioned was often unthinkable a few generations ago, whether we’re talking about a child’s afternoon snack, a standard medical treatment for a particular disease, a fashion trend, or what the average person might have thought of a specific hot-button issue of their day.

Yes, it’s true that some of these societal shifts are taught in school. There simply isn’t enough time for students to study most of them, though, even if they have a teacher who understands the value of showing exactly how much a society can change in a few short years.

Will I ever write about a world where bananas suddenly don’t exist anymore? Probably not! (Well, unless the Cavendish variety really does go extinct in our world like it was predicted to a few years ago.)

Knowing how a society responds to the loss of a cheap and much-loved type of food can be invaluable, though, if you’re ever hoping to write anything about scarcity or characters whose lives suddenly become slightly worse through no fault of their own.

You never know when a historical anecdote might prove useful. Most of the history books I read tend to be focused on the lives of common folks. That category is broad enough to cover anything from typical diets of a particular age to the evolution of social mores to how different parts of society reacted to certain epidemics, but you can easily specialize in reading narrower slices of history than that if there’s something specific you want to research.

Discover Patterns

Let’s shift gears and talk about Stonehenge for a moment. When compared to what we know about World War Two (and bananas), our knowledge so far of what purpose Stonehenge was meant to fill, who created it, and why they went through all of the trouble of making it could fit into a thimble.

Too much time passed between when it was erected and when future generations developed the tools they needed to study it in depth. The individuals who planned and built it had been gone for so many generations by that point that some of our questions about it will never be answered. All of their knowledge was lost with them.

For example, I don’t think we’ll ever figure out how prehistoric people who hadn’t invented wheels or pulleys yet were able to pull and push such large boulders into place. (I sincerely hope I’m wrong about that, though!)

On a positive note, the cool thing about studying history even casually is that you’ll begin to see certain patterns emerge from one era to the next even if we no longer have all of the details about how something worked. Stonehenge wasn’t the only culturally or religiously significant place that was built and then later abandoned in our world by any means. There are so many other examples of this happening that I can’t possibly list them all.

Extrapolate From the Past and Use It

Our languages, customs, diets, and clothing might have morphed a lot over the course of recorded history, but human beings themselves haven’t changed much at all since we first began writing down our thoughts.

There have been multiple societies who ignored the warning signs of their coming collapse and who crumbled because of that.

There have been many people who were ahead of their time and whose words weren’t taken seriously by most folks until after they’d died.

There have been all sorts of inventions that dramatically improved the lives of the people who adapted it.

There have been diseases, natural disasters, and conflicts that radically altered how a society functioned for as long as humans have been around to form societies.

The more you know about how, when, and why these things happened, the better equipped you’ll be to come up with how similar events could play out in a dragon-infested medieval village or onboard a high-tech star ship thousands of years in the future.


Saturday Seven: History Books About Ordinary People

Saturday Seven is hosted by Long and Short Reviews.

I had mixed feelings about history class when I was in school. The chapters about war and the military honestly bored me to death. Kudos to those of you who like reading about battles and peace treaties, but I have not spent a single moment thinking about any of that stuff since I graduated from college.

On the other hand, the chapters that even briefly mentioned the lives of ordinary people interested me quite a bit. Today I’ll be talking about some of the many books I’ve read that chronicled the experiences of regular folks.

If you have any suggestions for me of other books to read, I’d love to hear them! I know I’m barely scratching the surface of this topic today.

How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman.

How did Victorians wash their hair, cook, clean, take care of sick relatives, and raise children? This book went into vivid detail about the daily lives of people in this era. The best part of it was that the author tried many of the things she was writing about, so she was able to give a highly personalized account of what it was actually like to live this way. The section that talked about how dangerous it could be  to wash clothing back in the day was one of my favourites. I had no idea how easy it was to lose a finger doing that!

Sick Kids: The History of the Hospital for Sick Children by David Wright

For any of my readers who haven’t heard of it, Sick Kids is a renowned children’s hospital here in Toronto. Why am I mentioning such a well-known institution in today’s post? Well, it began as a tiny charity solely run by volunteers in a small, rented house. The handful of children they cared for in the beginning were poor and had no other way to receive the vital medical care they needed. All of the supplies and treatments the children required were donated, too.

While I read the first few chapters, I was in awe of how much good work can be done by completely average people.

 Fever Season: The Story of a Terrifying Epidemic and the People Who Saved a City by Jeanette Keith

Yellow Fever is a horrendous disease. When it struck Memphis, Tennessee, in 1878, some of the pillars of the community fled to safety before they caught this illness. Of the twenty thousand people who remained, seventeen thousand of them became sick. Five thousand people died during this epidemic. Can you imagine digging that many graves or comforting that many grieving loved ones? I sure can’t.

The prostitutes, poor people, and other volunteers who stuck around to take care of the sick and bury the dead were heroes. Some of them died as a result of their decision to take care of those who couldn’t look after themselves.  I only wish more history books talked about stories like this one.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

A hundred years ago, many people had no idea how dangerous radium was. Those who did know it could be deadly worked tirelessly to keep this information hidden from the public. Hundreds of young, working class women who had few other options in life were hired to paint radium dials on watches without any idea of just how dangerous their job was or how much they were permanently damaging their health.

I should warn you that this book contains graphic descriptions of what happens to someone’s body after they’ve received a toxic dose of radiation. Many of these women died gruesome deaths, and others suffered debilitating health problems for the rest of their lives.

Their deaths and permanent disabilities did serve a purpose, however. Some of the strict safety rules that companies that use hazardous materials are required to follow today are a result of the lawsuit these women participated in once they realized that their employers had lied to them about how safe their jobs truly were.

A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression by Jane Ziegelman

Three of my grandparents grew up during the Great Depression, and the fourth was born during World War II when foods like meat, wheat, butter, and eggs were strictly rationed. One of my grandparents was so malnourished early in life that he actually wasn’t expected to survive.

They have rarely spoken about that time in their lives to me, but I thought of the uncertainties of their early childhoods as I read this book. Many of the food-based social programs like free school lunches that exist today were started in order to prevent the deaths and permanent disabilities that happen when people don’t have enough nutritious food to eat.

 Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth

Jennifer Worth grew up in a comfortable, loving, middle class family. She really had no idea what she was getting into when she decided to work as a midwife in a desperately poor part of London called the East End. The contraceptive pill and other forms of reliable birth control didn’t exist back then, so women were constantly getting pregnant regardless of whether or not they actually wanted or could afford to care for another child.

When you mix this in with the grinding poverty and crime of this era, you can imagine just how heartbreaking some of the stories about her clients were. One of the most memorable ones was about a young, heavily pregnant, developmentally-delayed girl Jennifer cared for who knew virtually nothing about sex or reproduction. Imagine trying to explain pregnancy and childbirth to someone who didn’t understand those concepts but who was going to have to give birth soon!

If you haven’t seen the British television TV based on this series yet, I highly recommend checking it out. The first few seasons that were based on Jennifer’s true-life experiences were excellent.

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim Defede.

Does 9/11 count as history yet? I can’t believe it’s been almost seventeen years since the dreadful events of that day. Based on the fact that there’s a memorial museum for the victims of that attack now and some movies have been made about it, I’m going to count it as the final entry on today’s list.

Thirty-eight jetliners that had been flying towards the United States were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland after the terrorist attack. You should know that Gander is a very small town that doesn’t have any of the usual amenities like large hotels to accommodate so many visitors.

Instead, the private citizens of Gander opened up their own homes and schools to all of the stranded travellers so that everyone would have a safe place to stay. They did everything from cook meals for these strangers, to invite them over to have a shower, to empty out their linen closets so that everyone would have a blanket to stay warm and a towel to dry off with. The animals who had been traveling in the cargo section were treated well, too.

When it was all over, the generous people who lived in Gander refused to take any payments for all of the work they’d done because they believed that Americans would have done exactly the same thing for them if their positions had been reversed. There was so much kindness and empathy in this story. I really hope it becomes a movie someday.

Do you like to read books about history? If so, what ones do you enjoy?

Why You Should Be Following the Mystery of Tom Thomson’s Death

Tom Thomson

Tom Thomson was a famous Canadian painter who died nearly a century ago. His landscapes influenced the Group of Seven. Had he lived longer, there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have become an official member and they would have been called the Group of Eight instead.

If you haven’t heard of this artist or the kinds of paintings he and his friends became famous for, the links above will tell you all about them.

For the past few years, he has been tweeting through the last eight months of his life. His tweets are heavily researched and include references to his diary entries, conversations that others remembered having with him, and many other sources.

What I want to talk about right now, though, is why you should be following Tom Thomson on Twitter. He also has a blog, although he is much more active on the former. His tweets about his final months are beginning again today, so now is the perfect time to get to know Tom and his art.

Tom’s paintings are beautiful in an understated way. My favourite one from him is included below, although there is something I like about every piece of art I’ve seen from him so far. They remind me of what it feels like to stand outside on a freezing January morning, or a breezy May afternoon, or a hot and muggy August evening and feel everything that nature has in store for me on that particular day. The weather can’t always be tied up into neat packages, and neither can Tom’s work.

There are many things we know about the ordinary fabric of this artist’s daily life. His tweets discuss everything from what he ate for specific meals to how he liked to spend his free time to what sketches he was working on in the last few weeks and months before he died. More than once I was impressed last year by his descriptions of the small details of his life. One day, for example, he mentioned eating boiled potatoes and stew. I barely remember what I ate for dinner last week, so have those details of someone’s life from a hundred years ago is surprising and fascinating.

In the last nine months or so that I’ve spent getting to know him online, Tom has been kind, funny, and personable. There are times when he seems unsure of himself or when he doesn’t know what he should do next. Yet he still picks himself up the next day and tries again. These are the tweets I’ve come to appreciate from him the most because of how much they reveal about his personality and character. He’s the Monday Blogs Painting Picturetype of person I’d invite out to dinner if we were living in the same century.

Exactly how he died is a matter of debate. We know he was alone at Canoe Lake and that his empty canoe surfaced days before anyone found his body in the water.

Did he have some kind of medical emergency that lead to him falling into the lake and drowning? Did his canoe accidentally tip over or bump into something submerged in the water, leaving him to drown before he could be saved? Did he stumble across someone who was doing something illegal and who didn’t want any witnesses of their crime? Did someone else murder him for another reason?

There are so many different possibilities, and he’ll tell you about all of them as the date of his death grows closer.

I have my own theory about what probably happened to him, but I’ll keep the details of that to myself until we get closer to the end of his saga. The urge to write short, speculative stories about his fate is growing stronger. I don’t know if I’ll give into it, but it is something I’ve been thinking about doing as he gears up to once again chronicle the end of his life.

Which theory you end up believing will be up to you, but I hope you’ll start following Tom and learn a few things about him and Canadian history along the way over the next eight months. I’ve been finding a lot of writing inspiration in his tweets. Who knows? Maybe you will as well!