Desert Island Reads

You’re visiting this website because you love books, and you’re probably hoping to come across some interesting books to add to your “to read” list (as if it isn’t long enough already).  But consider the many books you’ve already read or really want to read.  If you were to be placed on a desert island with ten or so books, what would they be?

I recently ran across a website that features desert island reading lists by a vast range of people.  It’s called One Grand and it also happens to be the name of the upstate New York book store owned by Aaron Hicklin, the man who started the website.  The New York Times even featured an article on Hicklin and his book shop back in 2015.

Another good source for books you might want to have on your island is Five Books.  Each entry at this website is associated with a particular subject rather than a particular person’s interests.  You name the subject and there’s probably an article on it authored by an expert.  One of the nice things is that there is a general description of the subject followed by fairly in-depth descriptions of the recommended books and why they are recommended.  And you’ll often find ideas in the articles that make you think.  For instance, in author Philip Davis’ recommendation of books by and about novelist George Eliot he states that, “We write biographies as if they could take the place of novels, yet they can’t: novels offer more truths than biographies ever can.”  I never thought about that, but I think he’s right.

Just for the fun of it, I want to list some of the books I would like to have with me on a desert island.  I would want many of them to be long and dense with ideas because I might be on that island for a long time, and I don’t want to become board with any book after only one or two readings.  With that in mind I would want the following books as companions:


The Complete Essays of Montaigne (translated by Donald M. Frame) – Montaigne is often called the father of the essay form and I have thoroughly enjoyed the essays (on a wide range of subject) that I have read.  When you read his essays you really have to pay attention.  And at least in my case, I can read them two or three times before I feel that I have a clear understanding of what he wrote.  He was a very deep thinker who revised his essays over a period of many years as his ideas and understanding changed.

The Histories

 History of the Persian Wars (aka The Histories) by Herodotus (translated by Aubrey De Selincourt) – Cicero called Herodotus the father of history.  I’ve read The Histories once, but there’s too much to absorb in a single reading.  His primary purpose is to tell us about the wars between Greece and Persia, but he also delves into the customs of other countries and much, much more.  Some of his “facts” aren’t very factual, but others are absolutely correct.  For instance he talks about ants that can run down and kill a camel.  Not so.  He also talks about how, contrary to many rivers, the Nile has its peak flow during the summer months.  That’s true due to the fact that the water comes from the rain forests of Central Africa – with most of the rain falling during the summer monsoon season.  As Arthur A. Rupprecht put it in Invitation to the Classics: A Guide to Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read, “Herodotus includes speeches that cannot have been made and encounters that cannot have taken place.  But what he provides, in the end, is a history true to the spirit of the events if not always to factual details.  He writes a good story.”  In fact, he writes a great story.

Caesar and Christ

Caesar and Christ by Will Durant – I’d love to have the complete set of The Story of Civilization, but I’m limiting myself to a single volume from any set.  Will Durant wrote some of the most interesting books on history that you’ll ever find.  He has been trashed by historians in part because of the sources he used (or didn’t use), but his books are a great introduction to history for those who want interesting anecdotes and background information rather than just dates and dry facts.  This particular book discusses many of the Roman rulers such as Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero in a way that will hold you spellbound.  The book also discusses Christ and is an excellent account of His life and of the period in which He lived.  With Will Durant history is never boring.

The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare – I love the story, and the dialogue between Petruchio and Katharina is truly a work of genius.  And much of the action between the lovers is very physical.  This is one of the greatest comedies ever written.  My only problem with the play is the idea that a man could turn a shrew like Katharina into a docile woman.  Personally, I don’t think there is such a thing as a docile woman.

Bleak House

Bleak House by Charles Dickens – This is not Dickens’ best known novel, but I love it.  It’s long and contains numerous plots and subplots.  You have Inspector Bucket, an early example of a detective in fiction; Nemo (“nobody” in Latin), a mysterious character who plays a small but important part in the story; Lady Dedlock, a beautiful, wealthy woman who has a mysterious secret that could destroy her life of privilege; members of the Jarndice family who are fighting a protracted court battle over an inheritance; and even a man who dies when he spontaneously combusts.


The libretto of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto – I had to sneak something musical in somehow.  The music is spectacular as is the story of a hunchbacked court jester whose daughter is seduced by his boss, the Duke of Mantua.  I assume that I wouldn’t have access to music, so this libretto would be my guide to the music and action of the opera that I would hear in my head.  To me Verdi is the greatest of all opera composers, and Rigoletto is my favorite among his many great works.

I would also want to have some books with stories that are simply entertaining for those times when I got tired of Montaigne’s brilliance and the antics of the Caesars.  So what follows might be called my “guilty pleasures.”

The Godfather

The Godfather by Mario Puzo – I’ve read the novel and seen the movie, but I never get tired of the story.  I think I could read this novel over and over and still enjoy it.  Of course, the characters in the book would look like the characters in the movie, but that’s  fine with me.  And the movie music, composed by Nino Rota, would play in my head as I read the book.

Flashman 3

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser – Harry Flashman first appeared in Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days. Flashman is a cowardly bully who antagonizes Tom.  According to Fraser, when he becomes an adult Flashman leads a hedonistic, lecherous life then writes his memoirs: memoirs (referred to collectively as the Flashman Papers)  in which he candidly describes, without shame or remorse, all of the despicable things he has done.  His memoirs turn into a series of books with each having a story embedded in actual historical events.  Flashman, the first in the series, takes place, in part, during the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1841, which was a total disaster for the British.

I would like to take at least ten books with me to my desert island, but I see that I’m a few books short.  I’ll keep reading and hoping that I’ll find more books to add to my list.

Do you have any suggestions?

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Surely You're Joking

Richard Feynman was a brilliant theoretical physicist, bongo player, and safecracker.  He was also an excellent writer – especially about his personal life.  I recommend his books “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.  I was not surprised that this deep thinker came up with a great technique for learning new thingsOpen Culture has an article and a video that describe his system.  You might also find the “Related Content” links at the end of the article interesting.

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Darius Foroux writes about productivity, habits, decision making, and personal finance.  After running across a question that asked what books expand our minds, he thought for a while and finally came up with a list of 22 books that have expanded his.  You can find his list here.

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Are you over 35 and losing hope that you’ll be the one to write the great American novel?  Don’t despair.  All of the authors in an article from The American Scholar got their starts “late in life.”

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Curioous George

I believe that everyone has an interesting life story to tell, but that of Margret and Hans Rey is a bit more interesting than most.  They, in case you don’t know, are the authors and illustrators of the Curious George books.  As France was being overrun by the Germans in World War II, Margret and Hans – both Jews –  escaped on bicycles that Hans built from spare parts the night before they fled Paris.  That and more is detailed in a New Yorker article.

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Garrison Keillor, of A Prairie Home Companion fame, is once again publishing his daily feature The Writer’s Almanac, and it’s worth reading.  You can subscribe to it at his website, and you can click on any entry there to either read it or listen to it as narrated by Keillor himself.  Be sure to explore the website while you’re there.

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Libraries are offering numerous digital services these days, but they don’t come free.  In fact the New York City Library system has recently cancelled its subscription to the video streaming service Kanopy due to its high cost and low usage among the millions who use the libraries.  A Forbes article details the problems.

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Out of Africa

My Reading the Classics Book Club will meet at the Bluebonnet Regional Library on Tuesday, August 6th at 1:30 p.m. to discuss Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen).  You’re invited to attend if you live in the Baton Rouge area.  You could even fly in if you like.

The readings for the rest of 2019 are:

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis – September 3, 2019

The Great Big Doorstep by E. P. O’Donnell – November 12, 2019

Goodbye to All That – Robert Graves – December 3, 2019

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I’ll be the host of Music on the Sunny Side on WBRH radio (90.3 FM and on the worldwide web) on Sunday, August 4th.  The three hour show begins at 8:00 a.m. Central Time.  Highlights will include three duets featuring Tony Bennett and some of his friends (Diana Krall, Sting, and Judy Garland); and a set entitled “Tallulah!” that features a Tommy Dorsey number called “I’ll Take Tallulah,” and Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich singing “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” from Annie Get Your Gun.  Bankhead was a free spirit who once described herself as being “as pure as the driven slush.”  I’ll also feature memorable music from six forgotten musicals, and I’ll spotlight some of the beautiful music that Charlie Chaplin wrote for his movies.  I hope you have time to join us.

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The next edition of the live author interview program In-Depth on Book TV (C-SPAN2) will air Sunday, August 4, 2019 from noon to 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time.  The featured guest will be author Lee Edwards.  His books include The Conservative Revolution and Just Right: A Life in Pursuit of Liberty.  Book TV airs each weekend from 8:00 a.m. Eastern Time on Saturday morning until 8:00 a.m. Eastern Time on Monday morning.  You can find the entire schedule here. Over 18,000 past presentations can be accessed at the Book TV Archive website.

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Talking About Books . . .

National Review magazine has a series of podcasts called The Great Books which is hosted by John J. Miller who is a professor at Hillsdale College in Michigan.  In each of the half-hour podcasts Miller interviews someone who is an expert on the subject of that podcast.  Books discussed include Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, All three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, and  A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  There are over 80 episodes so far with another being added each week.  You can access the podcasts here or through your favorite podcast app, or through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, or Tune-In.  And a big “thank you” to my friend Jim George for bringing these podcasts to my attention.

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Here are 21 clever things that have been done at various libraries.  You might want to recommend some of them to your local library.

Number 20 is a library book vending machine at a commuter’s train station.  How about a book vending machine in a school that dispenses free books to “selected” students?

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It’s been nice to see the change in Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, from a hard-nosed businessman to a world-class philanthropist – along with his wife Melinda.  Gates is also an avid reader.  In his newsletter, he recently recommended five books for your summer reading.

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Mystery novels are not the only places you can find mysteries.  There are countless real-life mysteries that you can practice your sleuthing skills on if you so choose.  Atlas Obscura has collected 10 that you can work on at your convenience.  Click on the bold-face title of each to see an in-depth article that describes what investigators know and don’t know.

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Repurposing a 1979 Ford Falcon sounds like a good idea to me since it wasn’t much of a car even when it was new.  In one case an Argentinean artist converted it into a tank that houses 900 books that are given free to people around Argentina who promise to read them.  Be sure to watch the video of how the artist, Raul Lemesoff, converts the Falcon into a “weapon of mass instruction.”  Note: I don’t think he’s normal.

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Literary Hub has a listing of the writers who have won the most major literary prizes.  Who do you think tops the list.  Find the answer here.

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It’s rare when movie adaptations of popular books are faithful to the source material.  Of course, you have to leave something out or the movie would go on foreverMental Floss lists ten characters who were left out of movie adaptations of popular books.

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Quotes of Note

“He was always so plausible.  Many People have believed that his version of events was the true one, give or take a few murders, a few beautiful seductresses, a few one-eyed monsters.  Even I believed him, from time to time.  I knew he was tricky and a liar, I just didn’t think he would play his tricks and try out his lies on me.  Hadn’t I been faithful?  Hadn’t I waited, and waited, and waited, despite the temptation—almost the compulsion—to do otherwise?  And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground?  An edifying legend.  A stick used to beat other women with.  Why couldn’t they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been?  That was the line they took, the singers, the yarn-spinners.  Don’t follow my example, I want to scream in your ears—yes, yours!  But when I try to scream, I sound like an owl.” – Penelope speaking of her husband, Odysseus, in Margaret Atwoods novella The Penelopiad (2005)

“Or go to a tiny graveyard on the Nebraska prairie north of the little town of Red Cloud and look about until you find a small headstone.  It reads ‘Anna Pavelka, 1869 – 1955.’

“By every fashionable index used to measure success and importance, Anna Pavelka was nobody.  Three weeks ago my wife Rosalee and I were among several hundred visitors who arrived in a caravan of Red Cloud school buses to pay her homage.  Who was she and why did we bother?

“She was born Anna Sadilek in Mizzovic, Bohemia, present-day Czechoslovakia, in 1869.  In 1883, at age fourteen, she sailed with her family to America to settle on the treeless Nebraska prairie in a sod hut. Some time later, in despair over the struggle and isolation of his alien new life, her father killed himself.  As a suicide he was denied burial in the Catholic cemetery.  They buried him instead beside the road and the road makes a little jog at the spot there still.

“Annie afterward worked as a ‘hired girl’ in Red Cloud.  She fell in love. She left town with a railroad man she hoped to marry, but was deserted by him and forced to return.  She bore an illegitimate child.  Later, she married John Pavelka, also of Bohemia, who had been a tailor’s apprentice in New York, a city man, and who knew little of farming.  She ran the farm and she bore him, I believe, eleven more children. She spent her life on the farm there on the prairie.

“And that’s about all there is to the story—except that she adored her children and her farm and she was also known to a younger woman from Red Cloud named Willa Cather who transformed her life into a very great and enduring American novel called My Antonia.  The Antonia of the story—the Anna Sadilek Pavelka of real life—was a figure of heroic staying power. But it is her faith and joy in life, her warmth that matter most.  ‘At first I near go crazy with lonesomeness,’ says her city-man husband at the close of the novel, remembering his first years in Nebraska, ‘but my woman is got such a warm heart.’

“Anna Pavelka reaches out to us because of what Oliver Wendell Holmes called ‘the transfiguring touch’ of Willa Cather’s art, because of what she, through Willa Cather, says about the human spirit.” – David McCullough, Brave Companions: Portraits in History

“Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountains which sustain life, not the top.” – Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

“Proust doesn’t write day hikes. He doesn’t write those four-day hikes you can take in New Zealand where a boat takes your bags for you from hotel to hotel so you don’t have to weigh yourself down as you get your 10–12 miles in. Proust is more like the Appalachian Trail.” – Kati Stevens, “Reading Proust Is Like Climbing a Mountain – Prepare Accordingly”

Vanity Fair: “How would you like to die?”

Herman Wouk: “Not much.” – Author Herman Wouk in a Vanity Fair magazine Proust Questionnaire interview when he was 97.

“Life is a lot like jazz . . . it’s best when you improvise.” – George Gershwin

“The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” – Mark Twain

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

“Ideas are like rabbits.  You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” – John Steinbeck

“Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone.  It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone.  And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone” – Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now

“Confronted by an absolutely infuriating review it is sometimes helpful for the victim to do a little personal research on the critic.  Is there any truth to the rumor that he had no formal education beyond the age of eleven?  In any event, is he able to construct a simple English sentence?  Do his participles dangle?  When moved by lyricism does he write ‘I had a fun time’?  Was he ever arrested for burglary?  I don’t know that you will prove anything this way, but it is perfectly harmless and quite soothing.” – Jeanne Kerr

“I haven’t had a fight since I was eleven. I only won that because she had an asthma attack.” – John Wayne


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Did You Know . . . ?

Psycho, probably Alfred Hitchcock’s best known film, was adapted from the book of the same name by Robert Bloch.  For years Bloch wrote stories of the supernatural for pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, but at a point he says he “realized as a result of what went on during World War II and of reading the more widely disseminated work in psychology, that the real horror is not in the shadows, but in that twisted little world inside our own skulls.”  That’s when he started writing about psychopaths.

In 1957 police in Plainsfield, Wisconsin found the nude, headless body of a woman hanging by its heels in a shed owned by Ed Gain.  Her heart was found in a coffee can on the stove.  Knowing only the facts that were in the media, Bloch imagined a character who, he thought, might have been like Gain.  In 1959 the resulting book,  Psycho, was published.

Bloch wrote many books after Psycho including American Gothic (1974), the story of a serial killer named G. Gordon Gregg.  It was based on a real-life serial killer named H. H. Holmes.

He wrote the scripts for various programs during the heyday of radio, and later wrote scripts for movies, and  television programs (including three episodes of Star Trek).

“Despite my ghoulish reputation,” he once wrote, “I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”

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Nahum Tate (1652 – 1715) was an Irish poet, hymnist, and lyricist who became England’s poet laureate in 1692.  In 1681 Tate rewrote William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, and gave it a very different ending.  In Tate’s reworking Lear doesn’t walk onto the stage at the end of the play carrying the corpse of his daughter Cordelia because in his version Cordelia marries Edgar and lives happily ever after as does King Lear who regains his throne.  Some criticized Tate’s version, but many, including Samuel Johnson, approved of it.  In fact, Tate’s version was more popular on stage than Shakespeare’s version until 1838.

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Daniel Defoe (1660 – 1731) is best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe which was published in 1719.  It is the story of a man marooned on an island for many years.  Crusoe is ingenious, so he turns the island into a paradise of sorts.

Moll Flanders, the other Defoe novel you may be familiar with, was published in 1722 and has been criticized and banned many times in many places because of its racy heroine.  To understand why it has been attacked you only have to read its full title: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.

Speaking of often banned books, Fanny Hill (or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure), published by John Cleland in London in 1748 while he was in debtor’s prison, is considered to be the very first pornographic novel.  Having read it recently I call tell you that the sexual encounters are quite explicit.  It’s almost inconceivable that it was published at that time.

In the U.S. the word “fanny” means “buttocks.”  In Great Britain it refers to a woman’s vagina.  One source for the etymology of the British meaning of the word states that it may come from the name of the heroine in Cleland’s book, Fanny Hill.

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Arthur Conan Doyle grew tired of thinking up plots for his creation, Sherlock Holmes, to solve.  He was also troubled by the relative lack of interest in his more serious writings such as his historical novels.  But Doyle wasn’t the only one frustrated by being involved with the great detective.  Basil Rathbone, who was perhaps the most memorable Sherlock Holmes in the movies, felt that a dozen Holmes movies left him type-casted as Holmes and overshadowed his  other film work.  And Jeremy Brett, who portrayed Holmes in the British TV series, became so obsessed with his character that he seemed to believe that he and Sherlock Holmes were the same person.  That obsession, along with other mental problems, lead to his institutionalization a number of times during the final years of his life, and at one point during a hospitalization he is said to have cried out, “Damn you, Holmes!”

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Ray Bradbury said at one time that he wanted his ashes to be put in a Campbell’s Tomato Soup can and sent to Mars.  However, when he died on June 15, 2012 at the age of 91 he was buried in the Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles with a simple headstone bearing his name and “Author of Fahrenheit 451.”  A few months after his death the rover Curiosity landed on Mars and NASA named the landing site “Bradbury Landing.”

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The song “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” with music by Sammy Fain and lyrics by Bob Hilliard was published in 1949.  They were inspired to write the song after learning that a scrap of paper containing the words “Dear friends and gentle hearts” was found in the pocket of songwriter Stephen Foster when he was discovered dying in a New York hotel room in January 1864.

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Hacking Darwin

“For billions of years, life on Earth evolved through the process of Darwinian evolution via natural selection: Small errors during reproduction propagate from parents to offspring, occasionally offering some a survival advantage to find food or fight enemies. Had reproduction been perfect, the only living creatures on Earth would be single-celled organisms, our 3.5 billion-year-old ancestors.”

The above quote by Marcelo Gleiser, professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth, is stunning, but it’s only a small part of Professor Gleiser’s review of Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity by Jamie Metzel.  What Gleiser, in this article, and Metzel, in his book, are talking about is not science fiction.  They’re writing about what’s happening in genetics today or about things that will be possible in the next 10 years or so.  Will we use genetic advances solely to cure diseases or will we use them to change the very nature of what we humans are?  Nobody knows, but both are real possibilities.

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You probably started reading Shakespeare’s plays in high school, but do you know where he got the marvelous ideas for them?  Five Books, a wonderful resource for information on authors and their works offers us some background on where the most influential writer in the English language got the ideas for his 38 plays.  Prepare to be surprised.

In “Shakespeare’s Sources” Robert S. Miola, professor of English and classics at Loyola University Maryland is interviewed by Charles J. Styles.  The conversation begins like this:

Styles: How many of Shakespeare’s plays can we say are wholly original to him and not based on a pre-existing work?

Miola: Two, I think.

Stunning, isn’t it?  Only two . . . perhaps.

Actually, Professor Miola offers six sources for Shakespeare’s plays.  So, the follow up questions to the six sources presented are how in the world did William Shakespeare have access to them, and how did he find time to glean the information – and occasional quotes or near-quotes – he used from them?  Unfortunately, that’s something we’ll never know.

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Suzy Taylor

The Living Garden by Suzy Taylor

Suzy Taylor is a “book sculptor” who lives and works in the U.K.  She takes old, discarded books and turns them into works of art.  Colossal offers us a peek at some of her creations.  Keep in mind that all of them are made solely from paper, and glue – with an assist from her impressive imagination.

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Of course you know who Bill Gates is, but you probably don’t know much about his wife, Melinda.  She recently published a book, The Moment of Life: How Empowering Women Changes the World, despite the fact that she highly prizes her privacy.  She was recently interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, and if you listen to the interview, you’ll quickly learn that she is a very dynamic, intelligent and forceful woman – forceful enough to convince Bill to drive the kids to school in the morning.  The result of seeing Bill Gates drive his children to school had quite an impact on the other parents.  And that example is central to the main point of Melinda Gates’ book: empowering women, who too often do all of the driving, washing, house cleaning, etc., lifts the entire society.  You can read or listen to the interview, but you should listen to get a full sense of Melinda’s passion.

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Sunday morning from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. CT I’ll once again be the host of Music on the Sunny Side on WBRH public radio (90.3 FM in the Baton Rouge, LA area and at on the internet).  Highlights will include a set titled “Sue and Johnny Cash: A Love Story;” Ted Weems and his band with a young vocalist named Perry Como, and an “instrumentalist” named Elmo Tanner; and a musical quiz called “What Is That From?”

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In Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey women play marginal roles.  The same can be said of Mr. Rochester’s mad wife in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  However, women authors have written novels and novellas that tell the stories of the marginalized women in the works mentioned above from their points of view.  Chelsea Leu discusses the subject and some of the books in a very interesting Electric Lit article.

In an article on the Oxford University Press blog, Lilah Grace Canevaro writes about recent translations of Homer’s works by women and more.

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Ever heard of the wise-cracking Dorothy Parker?  Regardless of whether you answered “yes” or “no,” you should read a delightful Literary Hub article about this “political activist, melancholic, bootleg Scotch-drinking” woman.  It includes some of her wittiest quotes.

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The next edition of the live author interview program In-Depth on Book TV (C-SPAN2) will air Sunday, May 5, 2019 from noon to 3:00 p.m. ET.  The featured guest will be professor and author Kathleen Hall Jamieson.  Her books include Packaging the Presidency and Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President.  Book TV airs each weekend from 8:00 a.m. ET Saturday morning until 8:00 a.m. ET Monday morning.  You can find the entire schedule here.  Over 18,000 past presentations can be accessed at the Book TV Archive website.

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Telephone Exchanges and Pop Culture

BUtterfield 8

In the early days of the telephone age few people had service, so telephone numbers were short.  As the use of this marvelous invention increased, especially in large cities, longer and longer telephone numbers were required – up to seven digits finally.  Of course a long string of numbers is harder to remember than a short one so the folks at Bell Telephone came up with the bright idea of telephone exchanges in which the first two digits would be the first two letters of words.  For instance here in Baton Rouge we had three telephone exchanges: ELgin, DIckens, and WAlnut.  So instead of having to remember seven digits, we only had to remember the name of one of the three exchanges and the remaining five digits.  Thus 351-2345 became ELgin 1-2345.  Much easier to remember, right?

Of course the use of telephone numbers that included the names of exchanges seeped into popular culture.  For instance, a well-known 1935 novel by John O’Hara about a promiscuous woman named Gloria Wandrous was titled BUtterfieeld 8 after part of Gloria’s home phone number on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  Notice that both the B and U in BUtterfield are capitalized in the title of the book.

The novel, by the way, contained lost of sex, drugs, and violence for its time.  When my Reading the Classics Book Club read and discussed it a few years ago, many of us were surprised that the book was even published back then.  The novel was made into a movie in 1960 starring Elizabeth Taylor and she won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Gloria Wandrous.

A few songs have also had telephone exchanges in their titles.  The most famous was undoubtedly Glenn Miller’s 1940 hit “Pennsylvania 6-5000” (“PENNSYLVANIA SIX-FIVE THOUSAND” on the Bluebird record label).  The telephone number was – and still is – that of the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan.

Another song with a telephone exchange title is country music singer Hawkshaw Hawkins’ 1963 hit “Lonesome 7-7203.”  Hawkins, Cowboy Copas, and Patsy Cline were killed when the Piper Comanche they were flying in crashed on March 5, 1963.  “Lonesome 7-7203” was released three days before Hawkins’ death,  and his wife, country music singer Jean Shepard, gave birth to their third child, a son, a month after Hawkins’ death.

Artie Shaw didn’t record a song with a telephone exchange in its title, but he recorded records for a short time with what was called Artie Shaw and His Gramercy 5.  GRamercy was the exchange where Shaw’s home was located in Greenwich Village.  Their biggest hit was probably “Summit Ridge Drive.”

The history of telephone exchanges in the United States and in other countries is quite interesting, and I highly recommend the Wikipedia article about them to you.  The article also includes numerous references to telephone exchanges in pop culture including a Bugs Bunny cartoon entitled Transylvania 6-5000.  You might also enjoy a Smithsonian article about the first telephone directory and some other information about the early days of the telephone era.

Remind me to tell you about telephone “party lines” sometime.  Hint: being on a party line was anything but a party.

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