Friday, January 31, 2014

Historical Heartthrobs Blog Tour: Our Review and Chat with Kelly Murphy!

Well, the book’s been read, our own crushes from history have been listed, and now it’s time for us to review Kelly Murphy’s Historical Heartthrobs!

Title: Historical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes—from
Cleopatra to Camus
Author: Kelly Murphy with Hallie Fryd
Publisher: Zest Books
Publication Date: January 7th, 2014
Read: December 2013
Where It Came From: ARC from publisher*
Genre: Light non-fiction
Rating: 3.5 Smirking Teslas

Historical Heartthrobs is an introduction to the lives of some important people from history, with the fun hook of looking at their potential date-worthiness. If you frequent the My Daguerreotype Boyfriend Tumblr (one of our favorites), this may be something for you. Additionally, if you ever daydreamed in the back of the classroom about the boyfriend or girlfriend potential of some historical figure the teacher was talking about, this may be something for you! And lastly, if you enjoy the stockings of that lady on the cover, this may be something for you.

The book covers quite a diverse sampling of men and women from history, both ethnically—and occupationally—speaking. This is particularly good for those people (cough Susan cough) who can only think of politicians from European or American history when they think of historical figures. Historical Heartthrobs spotlights politicians, authors, entertainers, artists, adventurers—if you’ve got a type, it’s probably in here. Some may be more physically attractive than others (helloooo, Tesla), and some are definitely more attractive than others on a human, intellectual level (probably no one would actually want to dream of dating a Nazi propaganda film maker), but all the people included in the book are ones who made an impact on the world in some way, for better or worse, and are remembered today.

For each of the fifty historical heartthrobs, there is a full-page photo (for assessing hotness, of course), along with their vital stats—the years they were alive, where they were from, what their area of influence was, etc. Then, since everyone knows physical beauty only goes so far, there is a summary of his or her life story to give you a glimpse into the life and personality behind the pretty face. The sex life section that follows is not quite as scandalous as such a title may lead you to believe, but covers any relationships, marriages, or love affairs the heartthrob was involved in. Other bits included for each are a section discussing why the person matters, quotes by or about them, their best feature (usually personality traits, not noses or cheekbones), and a final heat factor rating taking into account looks, personality, AND accomplishments (we ain’t shallow here, y’all!).

To be clear, if you are a hardcore historian or someone looking for some sources to beef up a dissertation, this is not the droid you are looking for. Each heartthrob averages 3 pages of text, so rather than being an exhaustive investigation into these people’s lives, it serves as a fun, compulsively readable introduction that could be a jumping-off point for further reading (indeed, to that end the authors include a “Further Reading” section at the end).

If you find your heart races at the thought of men in breeches/togas/suits of armor (or women of the same periods), this book isn't going to provide many options for you since the focus is mainly on the age of photography. But to its credit, both goodies and baddies are represented in the book, and we were happy to make the acquaintance of quite a few people that we’d never been aware of before, such as filmmaker Maya Deren and swimmer/surfer Duke Kahanamoku. The writing is wry and tongue-in-cheek, and those qualities, combined with its easy flow, can leave you wondering how you managed to read such a large chunk of book in such a short period of time. And while you could certainly sit down and read this book as you would a novel, the style and layout also make it a great candidate for leaving out on the table and paging through at your leisure. The writing style makes us think this book would be particularly appealing to teens and young adults, but we’d say anyone could enjoy it. Especially for an unusual round of Marry/Date/Dump. Overall, though we wouldn't rank it among our all-time favorite books, it was an amusing and diverting read.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

As an extra treat, we had the pleasure of interviewing author Kelly Murphy! She answered our pressing questions about how the book came to be, and humored some of our goofier ones as well. Thanks for joining us, Kelly!

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S & A: You discuss it a little in the book’s introduction, but we were hoping you could expand upon the selection process a bit more. For example, how long was your initial list of historical hotties, and how did you go about winnowing it down to the 50 that appear in the book?

Kelly Murphy: It actually sort of worked the other way - we started with a small, fundamental (or maybe just subjective) list and continued to expand throughout the writing process. Some heartthrobs inspired others. We discovered gaps in history and genre that needed to be filled in.

S & A: We’re also really curious about how the photos that made it into the book were selected. Can you elaborate a bit on that process for us? (Alyssa’s favorite was Albert Camus, while Susan was captivated by Tesla’s smirk—swoon!)

KM: Nice choices, those are both serious QTs. The images basically came down to logistics - we searched databases high and low for the most high-res pictures we could find that captured the heartthrobs in their prime, anatomically speaking.

S & A: On a related note, what strategies did you employ to look beyond the unflattering hairstyles, moustaches, and muttonchops of the day to detect the underlying hotness of these historical figures?

KM: Smarties! Do you ever find that after a couple mind-bending conversations with someone incredibly intelligent, you start to find their weird bone structure more comely? Also, anyone with serious power and/or charisma was a serious contender because there's usually something compelling behind that.

S & A: From reading your book, we met some historical figures we never heard about in school. Were there any heartthrobs you learned about only in the course of your research?

KM: So many! Bessie Coleman, I had no idea who she was and she's a total boss. I also learned a lot about some figures I thought I understood but in fact was completely in the dark about. I never knew Ben Franklin had an illegitimate child, for example, or that Tesla had that weird thing with pigeons.

S & A: In making this book, we imagine you might have talked with people who have strong opinions about who would make it onto their own personal list of hotties from history. Have you had anyone mention any particularly interesting ones that didn’t make it on your list?

KM: I wish I had thought of Lewis Carroll, he’s a serious weirdo.

S & A: You mentioned that Frida Kahlo and Josephine Baker were romantically linked. That got the gears in our brains turning…if you hijacked a TARDIS and were able to engage in a little matching-making across time and space, which of the heartthrobs would you like to set up on blind dates with each other?

KM: Oh, I’ve been thinking about this a bunch! I think Jim Thorpe would've been just Helen Gurley Brown's type. Bugsy Siegel and Dorothy Parker would've probably made a big mess together. Also Lord Byron and like everyone else in the book.

S & A: You’ve done historical hotties, so what’s the next project you’ve got on the radar? (Historical Notties, perhaps?)

KM: Ha! A lot of people have also suggested a contemporary version of Historical Heartthrobs, which I guess would just be Heartthrobs. Definitely taking suggestions, but to be honest, right now, I’m focused on learning to code so I can build pretty spaces for my words to live in.

S & A: And finally, we would like you to arbitrate a dispute for us. Inspired by your book, we made our own lists of historical crushes—Alyssa selected Alexander Hamilton as one of hers, while Susan coincidentally chose his archnemesis and MURDERER Aaron Burr. Who ranks higher for you in the realm of historical hotties? (No pressure.)

KM: Wow, I love you guys. Aaron Burr - bad boys for life!

Hurray, you made it this far through the post and now we have a surprise! Zest Books was kind enough to provide an autographed copy of Historical Heartthrobs and some sweet treats for one lucky contest winner. To enter, just submit via the form below, and we will contact the winner via email after the contest period is over. After that, he or she will need to send us a mailing address to ship the prize to--please reply to us with that within 48 hours, or we'll have to choose another winner! This is our FIRST EVER contest, so please do enter! :)

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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Our historical crushes, and a blog tour!

We are pleased as punch to be participating in the blog tour for Kelly Murphy’s new book, Historical Heartthrobs, and it’s exactly what it sounds like—a book about the lives and times of attractive men and women from the course of human history, with a healthy helping of photos to supplement the text. Our tour stop will be today, and we’ll feature our review of the book and an interview with the author for your reading pleasure! We were relieved to discover that we were not the only nerds in high school who daydreamed about which of the historical figures we were learning about would make the best imaginary boyfriends, and so to celebrate this and lead up to our review of the book, we were inspired to create our own top 10 lists of historical heartthrobs. Read on to learn about our picks and decide for yourself whether they measure up! Let's start this party with...

Alyssa's List!

  1. Frederick Douglass. We formulated our lists prior to paging through the book, but I was very happy to see that the author and I had this one in common. A former slave abolitionist leader AND a supporter of women’s suffrage? There’s not much sexier than a guy who supports equal rights for all. Add to that his skills as a writer and orator (along with that mane of gorgeous hair), and I may need to fan myself. To add some flames to the fire, here’s a powerful quote from him regarding abolition: “It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” Yowza! This is one guy who would definitely impress your parents if you brought him home for dinner.

  2. Voltaire. Okay, so maybe his looks aren’t your cup of tea, but you’ve got to admit he’s kind of cute in a fluffy, 18th century French dude sort of way. Perhaps more attractive is the playful, mischievous quirk to his smile that hints at his wit and sense of humor? Whatever you think of his looks, this guy was a prodigious writer and philosopher of the Enlightenment, but don’t be fooled into thinking that means he was a boring fuddy-duddy. Au contraire (see what I did there?), he was a first-rate satirist who aligned the religious establishment firmly in his crosshairs and touted religious freedom, supported the now-standard separation of church and state, and generally spoke out against intolerance. As you can imagine, this made him a lot of enemies, but he didn’t let that get him down. Throw him the Bastille? He’ll take advantage of the free time and pen a new play! Send him to prison again? He’ll manipulate the system and get shuttled off on an extended vacation to Britain instead! His Candide was perhaps the only required reading in college that actually made me laugh out loud, and was certainly the only text in a particularly torturous French philosophy class that was both instructive and entertaining. Brains, strong belief in what is right, and a sense of humor to boot? Meow!

  3. Alexander Hamilton. In my high school AP US History class I remember thinking he was the bee’s knees, but of the many portraits to be found of him on the internet, I prefer the one from the good ol’ $10 bill. Looks aside, though, I think what drew me to him was the awesomeness of The Federalist Papers and the work he did to get the US Constitution ratified. In fact, according to the internet, the interpretations of the Constitution found in The Federalist Papers are still very influential. While some (both today and contemporaneously) might not agree with his stance of greater federal power at the expense of the individual states and viewed him as leaning dangerously close to monarchy, his force as a founding father cannot be denied. And while he did have an extramarital affair that led to him resigning his post, he ‘fessed up and reportedly became even closer with his wife afterwards. But we all know how his story ends—in a duel with Mr. Sour-Grapes-Wounded-Pride himself, Aaron Burr. Weird dueling rituals aside, Hamilton might not be absolutely perfect husband material, but it’s hard to gainsay the attraction of a man of his convictions.

  4. Jean-Paul Sartre. Okay guys, I know what you’re thinking, but stick with me. He might not be the most handsome fella around, but what he lacks in physical hotness he would more than make up for in scintillating conversation. Another French philosopher (I might have a type…), this time of the mid-ish 20th century, Sartre was all about existentialism. To give you a sense of it without digging out my 20th C. French Lit. notes, he had all kinds of interesting ideas about humanity and existence that are fun to ponder—things like humans being condemned to freedom resulting from the lack of a Creator, our ultimate responsibility for our own actions…y’know, light stuff like that. As with Voltaire, I am impressed by anyone who can make philosophy interesting to me, and Sartre’s plays Huis clos (“No Exit”) and Les mouches (“The Flies”) remain some of my favorite French readings from college. He is responsible for the phrase oft-quoted and oft-interpreted-without-perhaps-the-right-nuace, “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” or, “Hell is other people.” It might all sound very depressing, but I maintain a conversation with him would be intellectually stimulating rather than soul-crushing. I like clever, intelligent, thinky word structurements and often the people who produce them, and Simone de Beauvoir would probably agree with me, as she had a long, mutually open relationship with Sartre. While he might not have been monogamous, neither was she, and the strength of their relationship outlasted any dabbles with other people. They are buried together, which is kind of sweet.

  5. Paul Éluard. He was a French poet and founder of the surrealist movement, and boy, do I love me some surrealists. In addition to being my almost-birthday-twin, Éluard was inspired by Walt Whitman (oh, the connections!) and rubbed shoulders with such luminaries as André Breton, Louis Aragon, Man Ray, Picasso, and Magritte. He also rubbed shoulders, albeit in a different sense, with his wife Gala and Dadaist Max Ernst when they had a ménage a trois living arrangement together, though Gala eventually left him for Salvador Dalí. What drama! Aren’t surrealists fun? During World War II he was involved in the French Resistance, which is awesome, but later in life he joined the French Communist Party and eulogized Stalin, which is less awesome. Still, the dreamlike images and emotional power of his poems are arresting, and those concerning love are especially impactful without ever straying into saccharine territory. For example, here’s an excerpt from “The Earth is Blue,” which might seem a rather straightforward idea for a surrealist, until the first line finishes the thought with “like an orange.” At any rate, here’s the quote: “You have all the solar joys/All the sunshine on earth/On the paths of your beauty.” And since everything looks better in French: “Tu as toutes les joies solaires/Tout le soleil sur la terre/Sur les chemins de ta beauté.” Swoon!

  6. F. Scott Fitzgerald (as played by Tom Hiddleston). Who can resist the lure of the great American novelist? From a physical standpoint, he looks a little like a slightly sinister Daniel Radcliffe, so I often find myself thinking of him instead as played by Tom Hiddleston in Midnight in Paris…but from an intellectual standpoint, the pull of the man who epitomized the glittering lifestyle of the Jazz Age and the lows of the Lost Generation is undeniable. He distilled these experiences into stories with a visceral impact that appealed to both critics and the public, and to this day The Great Gatsby may well be the book most universally loved by students despite being on the class syllabus. Not that he wasn’t without problems—he often had financial difficulties, his relationship with his wife Zelda was tumultuous, and he was a notorious alcoholic. So maybe he’s not the man you’d want to settle down with or bring home to Ma and Pa, but you can bet he’d be great to both party with and debate the finer points of life and writing.

  7. Henry V (as played by Tom Hiddleston in The Hollow Crown). Okay, this one comes perilously close to cheating, and you may be noticing a pattern. The Henry V depicted in Shakespeare’s “Henriad” cycle of historical plays probably has some important differences from the actual Henry V of England, but these plays are called the histories, right? So that means this specific version of Henry V is a viable historical heartthrob, right?!? As you can see in the images above, one is a bit more of a treat to look at than the other (hint for casting directors: if you want to make any male character immediately more likeable, cast Tom Hiddleston). But if we’re going with Shakespeare’s Hal incarnation of Henry V, it’s important to note that he was kind of a drunken playboy for awhile. And he did abandon his friend Falstaff, even if it was so that he could finally grow up and become a worthy king. But a worthy king he did become (if you interpret taking over France to be an action denoting worthiness?), and his speeches to his soldiers are rousing, if not particularly heartthrobby. No, the heartthrobby bit comes at the end of the play in his adorable attempts to woo the French princess Katharine/Catherine of Valois. The sweetness and earnestness of his broken French is enough to stave off even my objections to the love-at-first-sight-iness of what he says, and it was swoon-worthy enough for me to bend the rules and include this semi-historical, semi-literary figure on the list.

  8. William Howe. This one is a shout-out to my high school self. I can vaguely remember a minor fascination with him in the aforementioned AP US History class, and I seem to remember including him in a political cartoon assignment. Aside from that, I remembered nothing and had to turn to Wikipedia to refresh my memory. What I found was not particularly heartening—a British general during the Revolutionary War, he won the Battle of Bunker Hill at great cost, became Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, captured both New York City and Philadelphia, and then resigned and went back home after some poor campaign planning later in the war. His overconfidence going into Bunker Hill was criticized, and after that costly victory he supposedly had issues with self-confidence. Later in life he became the 5th Viscount Howe but died without children, and so the viscountcy died with him. All in all, a bit of a bummer story, and I am perplexed at what my high school self saw in him (isn’t that always the way of it?). Was it an attraction to his bad-boy redcoat leader reputation? A bit of a sympathy crush due to his crisis of confidence? We may never know.

  9. Alexander the Great. While author Kelly Murphy opted not to include Ancient world hotties in her book due to the lack of accurate (photographic) representations available, we had no such qualms. How could we possibly ignore the Ancient world with Classics major Susan around? Thus we come to the second Alexander to grace my list, and ye gods, is he handsome. Not only that, but he had brawn and brains to back up his pretty face. As a teen, the future Macedonian king was tutored by none other than Aristotle, and when he ascended the throne after his father’s assassination he began to forge an empire that would stretch all the way from Greece to what is now Pakistan. Educated? Check. Brave? Check. Intelligent and ambitious? Check and check. It sounds like he could be the complete package, but he unfortunately died at the age of 32. You know what they say—live fast, die young.

  10. Natsume Soseki. Is it a surprise that most of my historical heartthrobs are writers of some kind? Natsume Soseki was a novelist of the Meiji period (mid-1800s to early 1900s), and many consider him to be the greatest writer in modern Japanese history. He has also influenced many important Japanese authors since then, and in that way he’s slightly analogous to F. Scott Fitzgerald. In addition to his literary talents in his native tongue, he also mastered English and spent some time living and studying in London (although he didn’t really like it there). Multilingualism is always a plus for me, and the themes in his work would make for some intense conversation. Add his dapper style on top of that and he’s definitely a date-worthy guy, with the possibility for a romance as epic as his moustache. That’s only if you aren’t hoping to put a ring on it, though—on the occasion of his marriage he purportedly informed his wife that he was a scholar and had no time to fuss over her. Ouch. Fun fact: He used to be on the Japanese ¥1000 yen note, the same way Alexander Hamilton lives on the near-equivalent US $10 bill!

And now we move on to Susan's categorized list of historical politicians...because apparently she's really turned on by power, and struggles to love anyone historical who didn't leave behind a mountain of personal papers and policies. (Though honorable mentions for her included some art-focused people from Langston Hughes to Shah Jahan. Along with another list of politicians whom she knows less about than the ones who made this list.)

Guys Whose Pictures Made Me Pause in History Books

Aaron Burr. There is something about Aaron Burr’s profile that attracts me. Is it his chin? The smirk playing on his lips? His eyes that are looking at something you can’t see? The slope of his nose? I can’t figure it out, but I think his is the most handsome portrait on the cover of Founding Brothers. At the very least, it is the one with the most secrets playing out in the features. And Burr is a totally mysterious and kind of dangerous guy. This is a man who was nearly elected president (thanks to confusion about the Electoral College proceedings), fought an illegal duel with a political opponent, and possibly plotted to commit treason and/or invade Mexico and become its monarch. The other founders (regardless of their political party) tended to distrust Burr, but it turns out he was a lot more principled than they portray him: Burr was unfailingly fair in the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase, and was one of the few populist, antislavery and feminist voices in the early American republic. It seems that historians have traced Burr’s downfall to Jefferson’s paranoia that Burr was trying to steal the Election of 1800, and by the time of the treason trial in 1807, “the president’s hatred for Burr bordered on the pathological” (Smith 2000). So heartthrob summation: this is a guy who hung a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft in his house, made sure his daughter got a Classical education, fought for his honor (and won! Take that, Hamilton-who-chose-to-use-pistols-that-killed-his-son), and dealt with some pretty messed up power plays by Jefferson. Score!

John C. Calhoun. I may have exaggerated Burr’s physical attractiveness, but Calhoun at the age of 40 was hot. In high school when I would get frustrated with the overly poetic writing in my AP US History textbook, I would turn to check out the Calhoun picture again. Thick wavy brown hair, piercing and intelligent eyes, cheekbone structure to die for . . . With the cravat and muttonchops, he looks similar to Colin Firth’s Darcy. I may have turned to this picture frequently. I was obsessed with Darcy at the time, and the book used trite sun metaphors every few pages.

It’s possible that you remember Calhoun from his decades as one of the Great Triumvirate of the Senate, during which time he adopted a crazy hairstyle (thus killing his physical beauty) and extraordinarily ugly policy (all to preserve the institution of slavery, which he thought was a “good” thing), but the young Calhoun was far more attractive. Young Calhoun was brilliant, gentlemanly, and above the sectionalism that was taking over politics at the time. Even John Quincy Adams, a misanthropic prodigy, wrote positively of Calhoun’s intelligence and principles. As Secretary of War under James Monroe, Calhoun opposed General Andrew Jackson’s illegal invasion of Spanish Florida, and formed the Bureau of Indian Affairs to negotiate treaties without having to deal with Congressional delays and political posturing. Sadly, Calhoun became disillusioned with the Federal government, both for its inefficiencies and for its tariff policy that damaged the Southern agricultural economy while favoring Northern industry, and a concurrent break with President Jackson over some absurd personal matters fully alienated Calhoun from nationalist thinking and launched his new career as an ardently pro-slavery senator. But we can gaze admiringly at his 1822 portrait, knowing that he had at least some admirable traits and beliefs then.

Guys Whose Letters Make Me Swoon

Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero is practically the Ned Stark of history: idealistic and moral till decapitation. Living in the age of Julius and Octavian Caesar, Pompey the Great, and Crassus the Too-Rich, Cicero played a dangerous game of moderate politics with some of the most immoderate statesmen in Rome, and ultimately lost. And wow, did he play that game well.

Unlike most of his political foes, Cicero was not from the upper tier of Roman politics; he was a middle-class guy from the provinces whose greatest ambition was to lead the Republic and watch his family rise through the social ranks. Working his tail off, Cicero became the leading lawyer of Rome, and built up a small fortune and political machine of his own to ascend to the Consulship, in which role he saved the Republic from a dastardly treasonous plot. His fiery speeches against Cataline and Verres show his power at its strongest and most morally sound (nobody likes to support people undermining the Republic or abusing their position as a provincial governor), but he becomes a true heartthrob when you read his personal letters, where he shows off, teases, plots, laments, and lives.

I fell in love with Cicero after reading his (very artful and not entirely natural) letter to Marius about Pompey’s games. It is a masterpiece of concern for his friend, sarcasm about Pompey’s lavish games, and sentiment about the humanity of elephants. On the more natural side of letter writing, there is a sequence of letters in 48 BC to his wife, and each one is short and preoccupied with his daughter’s health. When his Tulliola dies about a year later, Cicero’s heartbreak is enough to convince you that if he loved you half as much as his daughter, you’d have a devoted partner.

“In this lonely place I do not talk to a soul. Early in the day I hide myself in a thick, thorny wood, and don’t emerge till evening. Next to yourself solitude is my best friend. When I am alone all my conversation is with books, but it is interrupted by fits of weeping, against which I struggle as best I can. But so far it is an unequal fight.” (Ad Atticus XII.15, Shackleton Bailey trans.)

John Adams. John Adams is my first love. We met while I watched 1776 at the tender age of four, and it was love at first song. Alyssa may specify that her historical crushes must be played by Tom Hiddleston, but I say John Adams is worth checking out without any specific actor in mind. Let’s face it: he’s smart, ethical, madly in love with his wife, hardworking, and self-doubting but arrogant. If you think this all sounds very familiar, it’s because I have a type, and specifically because John Adams spent a good deal of time considering how awesome Cicero was, and mirroring Cicero’s life as far as possible. Arguably by luck, Adams survived to the ripe age of 90, despite unpopularly defending the British troops in Boston, spearheading the independence movement in the Continental Congress, and being massacred in a propaganda war led by Jefferson.

Adams’s prose is not all that elegant, but his correspondence with Abigail reveals a marriage of two ideally matched people, and brings out his humor and tenderness in a way you can’t find otherwise. The more I read of him, the more I love him.

Guys Who Became More Irresistible As I Toured Their Houses

Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. I visited Victoria and Albert’s Osborne House on the Isle of Wight back in 2011, and by the time I left a few hours later, I was obsessed with Albert. I blame the historical site for displaying sweet and sentimental excerpts of the pair’s diaries and letters in the foyer—they gave such a sense of immeasurable love between the two that I got teary-eyed. Everyone knows that Victoria went into deep (and endless) mourning when Albert died at 42, and when you consider what he accomplished it’s a little surprising that the rest of the world didn’t join in. On his deathbed, the man was editing the diplomatic correspondence between Britain and the Confederacy; without his contributions Britain likely would have been embroiled in the US Civil War.

Albert was the ultimate Victorian gentleman. Aside from being skilled at organization and management, Albert had interest in science, art, politics, philanthropy, agriculture, and everything else in between. You would think this would make him a total stick in the mud (and if you listened to the English aristocracy of the time, you’d hear he was one), but even if English hunting parties and pool games bored him, Albert loved to play with his children—even in the mud of a child-size play fort on the grounds of Osborne. Like many of the other people on my list, Albert fell afoul of the thinking of his time, but his social reform efforts, establishments of museums, and appreciation of Darwin hold up to modern examination and add to the general attraction of a brilliant and curious guy who plays with his kids.

On a more shallow note, the biography I read of Albert and Victoria said that Albert was considered the most attractive man in Europe at the time of his wedding to Victoria, after having spent his teen years developing his physique to attract her. For me the appeal is the thick, wavy, dark brown hair. I have a type.

Theodore Roosevelt. TR is the Prince Albert of America. No, really. Very smart, well-read, passionate in love, hands-on-parent, associated with acquisitions for a museum, desirous of greater world peace, high up in politics, into social reform, against wasteful inefficiency, died too young. The major difference between them is that TR seems infinitely more animated in standard pictures than Albert does. Perhaps this is simply because of advances in photography, but it’s likely that TR had more of a sense of humor than Albert, and the much readier smile of a politician. My favorite thing about the house he had built on Long Island is the way that the children's bedrooms are connected. I can easily picture the chaos as they ran through the rooms, likely being chased by their father, the biggest child of the pack.

TR is notable for his achievements in cracking down on crime in New York City, starting the conservation movement, passing progressive legislation, and ensuring the completion of the Panama Canal. All of this is total heartthrob material. TR is also known for a sense of wild adventure. This is less heartthrobbing in a romantic sense and more in a “DON’T DIE” sense. (He came pretty close when he was exploring a tributary of the Amazon.)

Added bonus: Appearance-wise, TR looked pretty hot as a 17-year-old: the muttonchops here seem to define his square bone structure. As an adult, I can’t say TR looks as good, but the look he has while posing with his children makes me happy.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Already Missing 2013: Susan's Top 10

At Alyssa’s urging, I am spending some time today to order my list of favorite books from the reading I did last year. Back at the beginning of December, Alyssa and I were both playing around with our favorite books lists, and I had a slight advantage going in because I had been assiduously keeping track of my least favorite books of the year (and out of a sense of guilt for the immeasurable fun of rating my ARGH reads, I had started a list of favorite books as well). But it turned out that my guilt was disproportionate! I had 11 books on my Worst-Reads list (and one of them was a little exaggerated to make it there), and a full 18 on my Best-Reads list. Eighteen!! To choose only ten seemed unfair to the other eight that had been scrawled on my scrap of paper. As I looked at the paper, I realized I hadn’t even remembered to put some other well-enjoyed books I’d read this year on it. It really was a better year for my reading than the existence of a “Worst Books of 2013 Reading” list suggests.

Yet, Alyssa and a seeming majority of the book blogosphere seem to have been able to accomplish this feat of winnowing books down to a top-ten list, so it is obviously not impossible. And with that spirit, I shall set about making my list. Because I am having particular trouble deciding on the top-top spots, I am going to deviate from Alyssa’s formatting and do my list count-down style.

S’s Best Books of 2013

10. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Kicking it off at #10 is Alyssa’s recommended Ready Player One. I, having some distrust of fiction audiobooks, picked up a paperback in February after hearing something that sounded like The Westing Game. So, recommended by Alyssa and bearing at least casual similarity to a beloved work of children’s literature? It was an easy choice to read, but had a lot to live up to based on that. AND IT DID!! I loved it! I like only a handful of things about 80s pop culture, and because I truly despise 80s fashion, I don’t even bother to watch classic Brat Pack movies. Yet the book completely worked for me, and based on the number of times it stops to explain every 80s reference it makes, it should work for anyone.

This is one of those books that is so secure in what it’s doing that it takes a little time afterwards to figure out why it worked so well. The narrative voice of Wade, a teen competing in a virtual reality scavenger hunt of 80s pop culture, is completely compelling, combining authority about his videogame skills and insecurity about his personal relationships. To an extent the book is dystopian, but in a much more realistic way than the popular depictions of overreaching government programs. Here, poverty in the United States has caused an increase in crime, spurring many to retreat to a cyber-reality so they don’t need to go outside, and discouraging them from believing that political elections provide any means of breaking the cycle of poverty and crime. So solid main character, solid setting . . . AND the scavenger hunt, mental puzzle cleverness promised by Westing Game comparison.

And this is only the beginning of my year’s top-ten.

9. Paper Towns, by John Green

Paper Towns is similar to Ready Player One in that it is also narrated by a smart teenage boy. But while Wade was focused on solving the steps of a game (albeit a game with immense monetary value), Paper Towns’ Quentin is navigating the much more complicated world of teenage identity, and trying to solve the mystery of his dream girl neighbor, who has taken him on a crazy night’s adventure before running away from home in the last weeks before high school graduation.

The book is a suspenseful page-turner, but John Green does a clever job layering the book by interpreting Whitman poetry and having characters respond to key symbols differently. What makes it truly deserving of a spot here is that our book club conversation had a LOT to talk about after finishing the book.

8. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Simon Armitage

I read “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in my Survey of Early English Literature, and I liked it well enough at the time. But after reading Alyssa’s review of the audiobook of Simon Armitage’s translation, I decided to visit it again. I am so glad I did!

If you missed it last spring, now is actually the BEST time to pick up a copy because the small epic poem takes place in winter. The cold landscape evoked in Gawain’s travels, contrasted with the warmth of sitting in a castle resting during the holidays, feels particularly close to me after a day spent shoveling and then nestled with a book. Thematically the poem is also close to us right now because it is about realizing your shortcomings and strengths, and resolving to be a better person as the new year begins.

And, as Alyssa has said, the language (particularly when listened to on the audiobook) is beautiful.

7. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Another wonderful read that our book club had this year. Code Name Verity does so many things exceptionally well that I could spend a lot of space repeating what Alyssa and I already said about it in October. I think what I love the most about it in retrospect is how much Elizabeth Wein successfully manipulates my sense of hope throughout the story. There are some stories that you assume will not end happily: Shakespeare warns us right away that Romeo and Juliet are going to kill themselves, Jodi Piccoult and Nicholas Sparks have built publishing empires on tissue boxes emptied on their books. There are some stories that you know will end happily: genre romances, anything by P.G. Wodehouse. And then there is Code Name Verity, which opens in medias res with the announcement that one main character is dead and the other is being held prisoner. But did you SEE THE DEATH HAPPEN? it tempts you to ask. Where is the rescue mission? It’s very disorienting not to know whether the plotline is heading towards a happy or tragic resolution, and it takes a ton of skill for Wein to make parts of the book very funny even while the tension is high.

6. The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

I read The Summer Prince back in April, and my first impression was that the concept was brilliant and the writing artful. In the months since then, my admiration for this book has not waned, and instead has become stronger. I think it’s so well done that it vied for my top spots on this list. The only thing holding me back is that when I went to write just why it was so worthy of the second place spot, most of what I was saying wasn’t about my emotional response. Nevertheless this is my pick for the 2014 Printz Award.

5. The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt

Ecce! Coming in at #5 is my only nonfiction work on the final list. It’s the fascinating story of the transmission of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura from ancient days to the early modern age. I listened to this one in March while snowshoeing behind my old university buildings, so part of my reaction could be nostalgia for college learning and friends, but just thinking about the story of the book is enough to make me quiver a little now.

Lucretius is arguably the only genius of Latin literature, and his lengthy poem about the nature of things is one of the only remaining texts we have of Epicurean philosophy, which (among other things) proposes that living wisely for the absence of pain is the greatest end. Even though I know I should have read this poem (nay, translated it) by now, I never have because philosophy tends to confuse or bore me. Or when I wake up after a quick nap from being bored, I am confused about where I am in the text.

But Greenblatt’s premise is spine-tingling: he claims that the rediscovery of Lucretius’s writing is what sparked the humanism of the Renaissance, and that the event of the rediscovery was far from assured. Unlike the works of Homer, which existed in many Medieval libraries across Europe, De Rerum Natura was found in only one manuscript. Greenblatt tells the story of its Renaissance discoverer, as well as the story of the disappearance of Epicurean philosophy in the late Roman Empire, in such a way that I caught my breath a few times, and felt tears at others.

Read it. Listen to it. Tromp through some snowy woods on a sunny day, taste something delicious, and brush your finger along some dusty old books on your bookshelf as you contemplate what life means, and how your idea of that is related to the survival of one manuscript copied and recopied by monks for a thousand years.

4. Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

The way that Alyssa cried over Code Name Verity, I blubbered over Fangirl. It seems a little weird to write them both in the same sentence (and to compare the tears that flowed over each) because they are very different books. But I LOVE Cath as a character, and I adore Rainbow Rowell for validating the world of fanfiction even as Cath’s struggles are mostly to find that the world outside of her fandom is a good place to live. Whereas Eleanor & Park focuses on a romance in the 80s terminally complicated by Eleanor’s danger in her home, Fangirl is about the very modern world of Internet fandoms, and its romance is endangered by Cath’s anxieties. I think that Cath’s story may have the broader appeal, and that Rowell’s writing style fits Cath better, so I am hoping that everyone tries this one in the coming year. Particularly if you have trouble with transitions in life.

3. The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

Three entries on my general loved-it list this year are Maggie Stiefvater books. After not particularly loving the Shiver trilogy (maybe because I’m not a big fan of wolves in snow?), I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the new Raven Cycle. Then I read a few pages, which turned into the whole book, which then turned into quick consumption of The Scorpio Races, and a hunt for The Dream Thieves at the BEA. Suffice to say, I loved EACH of these Stiefvater books, but out of a sense of diversity I am only picking one of them for this list. The Scorpio Races takes far less plot explanation than the Raven Cycle, so it is my choice. Also, it is tightly written as a stand-alone novel. Puck and Sean are sensitive and brave. The Stiefvateran conflict between rich and poor is handled well. And the idea of racing by the sea on carnivorous giant horses is breathtaking.

2. A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

If you follow us on Twitter you may remember my angst in reading this in bed back at the October/November cusp, summed up by a quote from the book: “their monstrous barbarity shines a new light on my own small suffering.” Based on my horrified tweeting you’d think that this Booker finalist was a book to be avoided, but I think my immeasurable pain for Nao, a young Japanese teenager, and her long-dead young uncle is an indication that Ruth Ozeki crafted a very strong book. My stomach turned, my palms got sweaty, and I read pages of philosophy with total interest. The ending surprised me and provoked more caps-lock on Twitter. Do yourself and me a favor by reading this and letting yourself get carried away by Nao’s confident and intimate diary of coming to peace with being uprooted to lower-middle class life in Japan from upper-middle class life in California. And then thank Ozeki for breaking up Nao’s story with the rest of the book’s focus on adults who give you some space to calm down before entering the sadistic world of secondary school, office culture, or barracks again.

1. The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

As everyone is probably sick of hearing by now, I loved this book. It’s already appeared as my favorite book of the summer, and its depiction of the gods is still in my head. Unlike Homer's Thetis, whom I picture shrouded and hunched with grief, Miller's Thetis is a frightening force of nature and destruction. "Her mouth was a gash of red, like the torn-open stomach of a sacrifice, bloody and oracular. Behind it her teeth shone sharp and white as bone." "[Her] voice hissed like water poured coals." And then I keep thinking about the book, and I remember that a message of the book is that the force of the gods is not as terrifying as the emptiness of death and being forgotten. Ahhhhhh I love this book!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Announcing: The 2014 Bingo Challenge!!!

Ah, January, the time of year when people make optimistic resolutions and sets goals for the days to come. But resolutions are not confined only to the domains of exercise, organization, and de-stressing! Indeed it’s possible we’ve made some resolutions of this more usual variety, but we thought it’d be extra fun to create some resolutions pertaining to that most wonderful of our hobbies, reading. We’ve seen lots of other bloggers do the same, whether by vowing to increase the diversity of their reading lists, setting a goal for the number of books to read in 2014 (in fact, we’ve taken on Girls in Capes’ challenge to read 100 books this year), or any number of other things. But we, being us, felt compelled to take it a jump to the left and a step to the right and make it into a game. We are challenging ourselves, and you, dear readers, to a game of…

2014 Reading Bingo!!!

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Fun, eh? Although there is no free space as in a standard 5 by 5 bingo card (we just kept coming up with more ideas of things to read and couldn’t limit ourselves to a measly 24!), we challenge you to complete a bingo horizontally, vertically, or diagonally in your reading this year. Or, if you’re feeling especially confident and responsive to dares, we challenge you to complete a BLACKOUT. That’s right, full bingo card annihilation!!!

As for us, we will be playing a Connect Four/tic-tac-toe version of the game, working off of the same bingo card and trying to get a bingo while simultaneously blocking the other party from getting one. (Alyssa will be green and Susan red, as per usual.) Once one of us achieves bingo status or we come to a stalemate, we will move on to our separate games of bingo and each strive for a blackout by the time 2015 rolls around.

We entreat you to join us in printing out a card and getting to work in choosing some likely candidates for filling the plethora of happy squares smiling up at you from the page! If you find this sort of thing to be fun, we then encourage you to check out our original inspiration from Pinterest, and this one and this one, too. You could conceivably have your whole year’s reading list governed by bingo if you so chose! We will be providing updates throughout the year as to our progress and what books we’ve found to fit each category. If you decide to play along at home (and why wouldn’t you?), keep us updated on your bingo status and what books you’ve fit into which squares! The more the merrier, yes? Happy reading in 2014, and remember—fortune favors the bingo-winner.*

* Or something.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Literary Presents I Wish I Could Give Alyssa

Well, the Twelve Days of Christmas, Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Week of Kwanzaa, and Anniversary of Alyssa's Birth have passed, and the gift-giving season is over. For some of us that meant that we exchanged the perfect presents already, but I suffer from some perfectionism tendencies and know I came up short this season. Not that my gift-giving failure was entirely my fault. . . (hint hint MWT and GRRM) In celebration of the end of the winter holidays, I have made a list of all the fantastic literary gifts I wish I could have given Alyssa this year. It's pretty obvious that none of these are waiting at her house for her return, but we can dream or plan for next year (Happy belated everything, anyway, Better Half of our blog!).
  1. Attolia #5 by Megan Whalen Turner

  2. So this is a somewhat sad start to this list because there is no publication date in sight for this book, which will follow four previous BRILLIANT books about conscientious, clever, and cool thieves/rulers/advisors of a Byzantine-like world. But I wish wish wish I could have told Alyssa that this one was coming out soon.

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    I only wish I could take credit for this illustration

  3. The Winds of Winter by George R.R. Martin

  4. Is it more realistic that we could hear news of this book (compared to Attolia) because it already has a planned name? And millions more dollars riding on its publication?

    Not the right one...

  5. Armada by Ernest Cline, audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton

  6. I’m making progress towards realizable wishes! I have no idea if Wil Wheaton is going to narrate the audiobook of Ernest Cline’s 2014 novel, but he did such a great job on READY PLAYER ONE that I can only wish it for Alyssa.

  7. Code Name Verity dolls

  8. Author Elizabeth Wein has a much more talented friend than Alyssa has in me, because for a birthday gift, Wein’s friend found dolls to be Maddie and Verity and sewed an entire wardrobe for them. Any fan of the book would agree that these dolls could outfly and outshoot Barbie any day.

  9. The One by Kiera Cass
  10. This one is scheduled for next May, but having a copy now would be ever so lovely.

  11. SteamDrunks: 101 Steampunk Cocktails and Mixed Drinks

  12. I cannot think of anyone more suited to appreciating this book simply based on the title than Alyssa, who already has cooked her way through A Feast of Ice and Fire, but a book of cocktail recipes is fun for anyone.

  13. Griffin and Sabine notecards

  14. If you have not read or seen the Griffin and Sabine books by Nick Bantock, find a copy somewhere and check them out. The first trilogy weaves an eerie mystery through postcards and letters addressed to the characters, and each bit of stationery is beautifully illustrated by Bantock. Chronicle isn’t selling these anymore, likely because the Griffin and Sabine cult following has mellowed out, but the art is timeless.

  15. Abhorsen Bells

  16. The only thing that could ameliorate our not having bells with powers to keep the dead from the world of the living would be having tiny versions of the bells on a charm bracelet. Also out of stock.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Kabocha Chocolate Chip Cookies

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For our first recipe of 2014, I thought it would be appropriate to showcase a specimen of my very favoritest favorite dessert, cookies! My original plan had been to get this posted before Thanksgiving since they’re kinda autumn-y, but then time slid away from me. So then I thought I’d post it in December since a lot of people make cookies for Christmas (ask Susan about her Christmas cookie sweatshop some time), but that darn time slid away again and next thing I knew, it was January! So here we are at last with my recipe for kabocha chocolate chip cookies. Better late than never?

I came up with the idea for this recipe while I was living in Japan as an English teacher. For a taste of home one November, some other English teachers in the area and I decided to have a Thanksgiving potluck. However, some traditional Thanksgiving treats are challenging to make in Japan due to ingredients that aren’t available, available ones that are a little unfamiliar, and the fact that most people don’t have ovens of the kind that Westerners are used to in their homes. One of my favorite things about Thanksgiving is anything involving pumpkin, and I became acquainted with its cousin the kabocha squash during my tenure in Japan. Similar in taste and texture, I thought it would be tasty to incorporate it into a chocolate chip cookie and that it would be a nice Japanese-inspired riff on pumpkin pie to take to our little Thanksgiving dinner. Looking back now, I can’t remember how I baked them—I know for sure I didn’t have an oven in my apartment. I think maybe I discovered that my microwave had a function that made it double as an oven? Or I borrowed my neighbor’s? However I ended up cooking them, I started in the morning and made them in small batches until I had enough to take over to the festivities that evening.

I used this recipe from as the base from which I worked to create my own interpretation, subbing in kabocha for the usual canned pumpkin and adding my favorite autumnal spices, along with some other adjustments. The use of a lot of vegetable oil instead of butter results in a dense, cake-like cookie with a nice hint of the kabocha flavor. I used walnuts because that’s what I had in my house when I decided this would be a good blog post candidate (same for why I used the hacked up baking chocolate that you’ll see in the pictures—I thought it’d be better to use up what I had on hand rather than buy chocolate chips), but I think using pecans instead could add to the decadence. Alter the spices to your tastes, and you can always use normal canned pumpkin if you can’t track down a kabocha!

Kabocha Chocolate Chip Cookies

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1 kabocha squash
3/4 C. white sugar
1/4 C. brown sugar
1/2 C. vegetable oil
1 egg
1 Tbsp. vanilla
2 C. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. milk
2 C. semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 C. chopped walnuts

  1. See that photo up there? That’s a kabocha, a kind of Asian winter squash that is sweet and reminiscent of the pumpkin that we enjoy in pie and for jack o’ lanterns in North America. Since I hain’t never seen no such thing as canned kabocha, we’re going to have to make our own kabocha mush the hard way. Don’t worry, it’s easier than it sounds!
  2. First things first—you need a kabocha. I got mine at the local Asian market, but Whole Foods seems like another likely purveyor of this veggie. The kabocha’s skin is edible (and full of nutrients), but I didn’t really want that texture in my cookies, so we will be peeling it off eventually. Even so, give it a good scrubbing before you cut it in half, like so:
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  3. Cut each half in half again. Now, we want to get all the seeds and goop out of the middle. Take a spoon, scrape it along the inside of the kabocha, and scoop out the gunk until all the stringy stuff and seeds are gone. You can save the seeds to bake as a snack if you want!
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    Your hollowed out kabocha quarters should now look something like this:

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  4. We are going to steam the kabocha, so cut it into smaller chunks to help it soften up faster.
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  5. On to the steaming! Add about an inch of water to a saucepan, and then place the steaming thingy on top. Add the kabocha pieces until the basket is full, leaving enough space for the lid to fit on. Heat on the stove on medium high and steam the kabocha for about 15 minutes, or until it’s soft when you stick a fork in the orange part.
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  6. After it has cooled enough for you to be able to handle it, use a spoon to burrow under the edge of the green skin and remove it. Toss the orange part into a bowl and mash it up with a fork until a soft, smooth consistency is achieved. You’ll want about 1 cup of this.
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  7. Next, add the sugars, vegetable oil, vanilla, and egg to the bowl with the mashed up kabocha.
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  8. Stir to combine.
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  9. Put the flour, baking powder, spices, and salt into another bowl and stir together.
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  10. In a small bowl, dissolve the baking soda with the milk. (This is something retained from the recipe—not sure of the purpose of this step. If you have any ideas, please enlighten me!) Once it’s dissolved, stir the solution in with the dry ingredients.
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  11. Add the flour mixture to the bowl with the pumpkin mixture and mix until combined.
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  12. Stir in the chocolate chips and walnuts until they are evenly distributed in the dough.
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  13. Drop by teaspoonful on a greased or cooking sprayed cookie sheet, then bake at 350° F for about 10 minutes, or until firm and lightly brown around the edges.
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  14. Immediately transfer the cookies to a cooling rack. When they are no longer finger-scaldingly hot, enjoy them with a tall glass of milk. Yum!
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I do indeed love me some cookies! What are your favorite varieties? Anything you’d like to see us try our hand at on the blog? Hit up the comments and let us know, and happy eating in the new year!

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