Category Archives: History

Book Review: Fire From Heaven

I’ve previously raved about Mary Renault in my review for The Persian Boy. I went back to the first book of her three novels on Alexander The Great – Fire From Heaven.

First of all, I’ve been growing increasingly more interested in Alexander the Great since reading The Persian Boy. I had started reading this book late last year, and then got distracted by eBooks since I had those with me on holiday. But then once I was back into this book, I just couldn’t stop.

Mary Renault goes into a lot of detail in this book. So if you love getting tons of descriptions within your story, then you will love her writing. There were times when it felt like it was a lot of information to take in, but it’s all part of her story building. She writes great fight scenes, and great emotional moments.

Fire From Heaven is a historical novel that covers the time from when Alexander was a child until the death of his father [shouldn’t be spoiler, that’s history yo]. It makes sure to highlight some of the major moments of his childhood from the perspective of Alexander, but also those around him. Unlike The Persian Boy, this isn’t from a first person POV – sometimes the inner monologue jumps around. Actually, more than sometimes. But it gives an interesting view of how people could have seen the events around them unfold, including his mother, father, and Aristotle.

The way Mary Renault has written her characters, in particular Alexander, is entrancing. I believed all of them – disliked the right ones, loved the right ones, I was played like a harp by her writing, falling into each character’s story. Does that make sense? Make it so. I watched on as Alexander grew up before me while reading, and his development was believable.

The most interesting part [okay, fine, for me, what, don’t judge me, I don’t have a problem] is how she writes the friendship of Alexander and Hephaiston. When I finished this book, all I wanted was for them to be together forever. She had obviously done her research, and used what information she could find to build upon the way these two historical people could have interacted with each other – and it’s believable. It still makes my heart break thinking about it. BREAK.

/wipes tears

If you are looking for an iteration on the life of Alexander the Great that has emotional depth and really brings this historical legend to life, then please read this book. I really loved it.


Book Review: Anno Dracula

Guys, I just got done reading a pretty awesome book.

At first I wasn’t sure about it, since the cover wasn’t immediately telling what the story was about, and I really didn’t look into it too much. But my best friend recommended it to me because Neil Gaiman said everyone should read it. Also, sometimes it’s fun to just jump into a book without reading the back, because it’s more surprising that way.

From the cover and title I understood that vampires were involved, and well, I do like vampires [that don’t sparkle]. And most pointedly, it starred “Prince” Dracula as “His Majesty.”

Okay, I’ll bite.

Haha, get it?

So I dropped the other books I was currently reading at the time and focused in on this one.

Needless to say, I soon wasn’t disappointed. This is, it turns out, an alternate history of the time of Jack the Ripper. I’m a bit of a sucker for historical fiction, and also have always had a weird thing about Jack the Ripper [I blame all the years I watched Unsolved Mysteries]. This was in fact a perfect combination of things relevant to my interests.

It doesn’t all happen right away, either. Things start slow, though the story certainly doesn’t feel that way. There are different points of view throughout the novel, but it never gets confusing – everyone has a very unique voice. Along with this involving vampires, there are also a lot of other fictional places that Kim Newman takes his inspiration from, and that also made reading this book really fun and exciting. If you love  Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and other cult favorites when it comes to vampire novels, yes. Check this book out.

So, without spoilers, here are some fun facts about this book:

  • Van Helsing is dead, killed by Dracula
  • Dracula has married Queen Victoria and turned her into a vampire, becoming King of England
  • Vampires are rampant and accepted in Britain
  • Someone starts killing vampire prostitutes in Whitechapel
  • The Diogenes Club gets involved in the investigation

Even days after reading this book, I’m still going through the pages at the back [of my nook] to read all the notes that Newman has made, and reading up on all the connections further pointed out on the wiki page. A ton of research went into this story, and it’s really refreshing to see so much work put into a book, especially a vampire-focused one.

But more exciting was when I saw that this is actually the first book in a series of novels and short stories. The titles have me just laughing hysterically [such as Dracula Cha Cha Cha] and wanting to read them all at once. Apparently at one point these novels were all out of print though, so right now only the first two are available, and more still to come. Huzzah!

So to recap, I highly recommend this novel if you love:

  • Vampires of the non-sparkly, bad-ass variety
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • Jack the Ripper [though maybe don’t admit that too loudly…]
  • Cult vampire stories
  • Victorian history
  • And more!

Okay, on to the next book! And anime! And video game! Man do I need more than 24 hours in a day.


Guest Post: Anything to Make a Buck – The Hydra Problem

Today’s guest geek poster is, once again, M. Ravenwood. She is an actual, real-life archaeologist. Also awesome. 

Image (c) Marvel & Paramount Pictures

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in movie memorabilia lately.  With The Avengers juggernaut which dropped this week, the amount of Marvel movie-verse stuff has skyrocketed, including items related to previous films.  Merchandise ranges from pretty damn cool to utterly ridiculous to things that make me question my faith in humanity.  The feeling of despair is usually related to accessories featuring the villainous HYDRA organization from Captain America.

In the 2011 film version of Captain America, HYDRA is a Nazi subgroup spearheaded by occult enthusiast Johann Schmidt, also known as the Red Skull.  Their symbol is a skull with six tentacles, and it has been appearing on patches, wallets, t-shirts, hats, keychains, iPhone cases, belt buckles, baby onesies, and even tattoos.  I first discovered this trend when browsing Etsy about a month ago for crafty Avengers stuff and came across the patch.  Appalled, I decided to have some conversations about it and received varying responses.  I concluded that the Nazi factor sometimes does not even cross people’s minds.

I find it hard to believe that anyone could identify with the Red Skull.  Schmidt is never portrayed in the film as a sympathetic villain.  He is not a victim of circumstance, he knows exactly what he is doing and enjoys it.  Schmidt is also written as a close confidant of Adolf Hitler, and the parallels between the two are undeniable.  The audience is supposed to hate him and cheer when he is brutally killed because there is no question that the Red Skull is racist mass murderer.  Identifying with the villain is not a reasonable explanation for the unsettling amount of HYDRA accessories.

The question I ask is this: Have we become so removed from our past that we are desensitized to such things?  World War II falls within the realm of living memory.  I believe such films as Captain America and Inglourious Basterds are gratifying as our society continually tries to make sense of such a horrific point in our recent past.

While I do not believe that the majority of the people interested in wearing HYDRA accessories are thinking about their choices beyond nerd fashion, they are sending a subversive message to the world that identifying with a fictional Nazi group even on a superficial level is acceptable.  Fashion is about identity whether we are conscious of it or not.  The living memory of WWII is partly negotiated across generations through pop culture, especially film, but in manifestations such as HYDRA fashion accessories, the connection is lost by a lack of ethical discourse.

These Points of Data Make a Beautiful Line: Data as Art

A drawing by Santiago Ramon y Cajal depicting the cells of the retina.

Despite my better judgement I made the decision to move across town in the middle of the academic quarter. While this was not the best decision I could have made with respect to the health of my GPA, it has led to the collision of my scientific life and my desire to decorate my new apartment. The place I have moved into is a beautiful Art Deco building built in 1926 and I have been determined to stay reasonably within the aesthetic of the period. This has created quite the conundrum for me, however, as most science done is, well, modern and most of the science-themed decorations are of a high tech geek-chic variety–not exactly what I’m going for.

Another of Cajal's drawings. This one shows pyramidal cells.

Enter Santiago Ramon y Cajal: an absolutely brilliant old-time scientist who is considered to be the father of modern neuroscience. He was the type that made extremely important contributions early on in the history of several scientific fields and, in the words of my neuroscience professor Michael Dickinson, ” He hardly got anything wrong, the damn bastard!” Cajal was not only a brilliant scientist but a brilliant artist as well–the anecdote relayed to us in class was that he used to look at silver chromate stained neurons under the microscope before wandering across the street to the café where he would drink wine and draw what he had seen entirely from memory.

Regardless of whether or not the drawn-from-memory bit of the story is true, it is hard to argue that the results are anything short of stunning. Having looked at numerous textbook figures and 3-D renderings of various brain parts it is my opinion that Cajal’s drawings are the easiest on the eyes. I realize that these drawings might not be Art Deco in the slightest, but they are old and reasonably within the time period. That’s acceptable to hang on my walls, right?

An image of the Brainbow technique developed at Harvard Medical School.

Cajal’s drawings had been shown to me in previous neuroscience classes, but what I hadn’t seen prior to this quarter is the technique referred to as Brainbow.  I would be hard pressed to claim these images as an acceptable aesthetic for a vintage building, but those grey walls in the hallway could really use some color, don’t you think?

While they may look akin to an abstract painting or a more colorful rendition of van Gogh’s Starry Night, you’re seeing fluorescent staining of individual neurons within a brain. This technique has been useful in studying the way in which neurons connect to each other–a field practically named “connectomics.”

Another example of the Brainbow technique.

Using fluorescence to visualize cellular stuff is nothing new (I’ve done it myself in e. coli), but the sheer number of distinctive colors produced using this technique makes it unique. You can generate over 100 different colors–therefore, 100 differently colored neurons–as opposed to the usually one to three color options offered by most other similar techniques. Brainbow is used predominantly in mice and Drosophila (fruit flies) and it is highly unlikely that we will ever see this being used in humans in its current state.

Regardless of not being used in humans, it is important to point out that research using model organisms such as Drosophila is key to any advancements we wish to make regarding human health. So next time you hear a presidential candidate mocking “fruit fly research in Paris, France” please don’t laugh along with them–laugh at them. And, more importantly, please don’t vote for them.

10 Potentially Amusing Presidential Ancedotes

One day, about 6 years ago, I was listening to Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me when the panelists started joking about the Vice President shooting someone. “That’s weird,” I thought, “Why are they talking about Aaron Burr?” It took me a minute to realize they meant Dick Cheney, who was the current VP. And it’s not like I hadn’t heard about the hunting accident, because I had. That was the moment when I realized I was doomed.

As an atheist and American history nerd, President’s Day is as close to a religious holiday as I get. So as is tradition, here is my list of ten fun and interesting Presidential History Facts.

Practically a superhero and he KNEW it.

1. Bulletproof. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was campaigning for a third go as President under his newly-formed Bull Moose Party. Before a speaking engagement in Wisconsin, a man shot Roosevelt in the chest. The bullet was slowed by the copy of the speech in his breast pocket. Upon checking that he was not bleeding from the mouth, he insisted on speaking. With a pierced lung, he got up to the podium and, waving his blood-soaked pages in the air, shouted that it would take more than a bullet to stop a Bull Moose. Roosevelt spoke for 90 minutes before agreeing to go to the hospital. (This is merely the coolest of all of the TR is a Bad Ass anecdotes.)

2. Pus Reports. After James A. Garfield was shot in 1881, he was taken to a coastal town to get well. The nation was so captivated by the ailing President that his doctors issued daily reports to the press on Garfield’s condition. The reports were short and often focused on how much pus was oozing from his wounds. Garfield finally succumbed to death on September 19th, 1881.

3. Presidential Pets. Many Presidents have had dogs but Calvin Coolidge practically had a zoo. His pets included two kittens, several dogs, an antelope, a wallaby and a pygmy hippo. Coolidge also had two raccoons, Rebecca and Reuben, which he let roam around the White House, much to annoyance of the staff.

4. Pajamas. Thomas Jefferson believed in a casual, approachable government. When British Diplomat Andrew Merry arrived at the White House in full military uniform, Jefferson received him in his slippers and dressing gown. Merry was offended, thinking it was a jab at the British government. For the duration of his Presidency, Jefferson often greeted guests in his pajamas. (That is my kind of President.)

5. Every 80s Child Probably Remembers When Bush Senior Went to Japan. While on a state visit to Japan in 1992, President George H.W. Bush complained he felt ill before going to dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Miyazawa. On live TV broadcast, Bush vomited in Miyazawa’s lap and then fainted. The faux-pas caused the Japanese media to coin the term *“bushu-suru”* or “to do a bush,” meaning to embarrass oneself by vomiting in public.

6. Bathtub Maintenance. William H. Taft was elected in 1908. At six foot two and over three hundred pounds, he was too big for the White House bathtub and had a larger one installed. The new tub measured seven feet long and three feet five inches wide and was said to be large enough for four normal-sized men.

7. The Whiskey Rebellion. Soon after Washington took office, the new US government enacted a Whiskey Tax to help pay for the Revolution. Furious about being taxed—taxation was used as propaganda to incite the war—people began forming small militias and threatening rebellion. Washington decided forcibly taking down these militias would tear the new nation apart before it began. Instead, he mounted his white horse and marched an army of 1200 men down through Pennsylvania. The show of force quelled the uprisings and America accepted that taxes are an inevitable part of life. You’re welcome.

8. Jackets Are For Sissies. William Henry Harrison’s inauguration day, March 4, 1841, was freezing and wet. Since no President before had given their Inauguration Address in a coat and hat, Harrison refused to wear them. He spoke for two hours in the cold and caught pneumonia. He died thirty days later, on April 4, making it the shortest Presidential term in history.

9. Peanut Farmer Becomes President. Jimmy Carter worked as a peanut farmer before becoming the Governor of Georgia and eventually President. Floating along in his Inauguration Parade in 1977 was a giant peanut-shaped balloon.

10. Poker. Warren G. Harding decided to host a gambling night in the White House for a few of his friends. During one hand the betting got high and Harding ran out of money. Instead of folding, Harding bet the White House’s china. He lost and so did the nation.

Originally printed in the City Collegian, a newspaper that was systematically killed by school politics.

Intersexuality: Colonial Virginia

We live in a world where sex is bifurcated into male and female. Anyone who deviates from that dichotomy either through surgery (FTMs, MTFs, transsexuals) or by birth (intersexed individuals) can face bigotry and marginalization. The latter group, intersexuals, are by and large invisible and often misunderstood. One of the clearest examples of this is an early label given to intersexed people that was used to describe people who were born with genitalia that have both male and female components: hermaphrodite. Hermaphrodite means that an organism has fully functioning male and female genitalia and can reproduce without a partner – this does not exist in humans, but the term was commonly used to describe people who had variations of male and female genitalia and, in turn, was used as a way to dehumanize and ridicule.

Intersexuality was viewed as something to be “fixed” by most of the medical establishment in the 20th century. If a baby was born with a “micropenis,” it was determined that the penis (and testes, if present) should be removed and a “functional” vagina was constructed. If the penis was determined “normal” enough (in other words, if it could potentially develop to be large enough to penetrate a vagina – we’re talking some seriously heteronormative, patriarchal rhetoric here), then the vaginal opening would be sewn shut. From there, the individual could face more surgeries throughout their lifetime as well as hormone treatments. There’s a movement to end these surgeries, but this continues to be a common practice.

There is a long history of intersexuality that we get an occasional glimpse of via historical documents. In Colonial Massachusetts we know of one such individual based on court records involving a trial that attempted to ascertain if the person in question was a man or a woman. Thomas/Thomasine Hall endured poking, prodding, interrogations, humiliation, and ostracization from the community ze was a part of. (Side note: gender and sex-neutral terms like ze and hir were 20th century constructions, but I’m going to use them for Hall since he/she and his/her is not accurate.)

In Colonial America, attitudes about (perceived) deformities were adopted from Judeo-Christian dogma that asserted that any baby that was “malformed” was a monster sent by God as a warning. It was often the parents who were seen as the ones to blame for the child’s physicality, a sign that at least one of the parents was a sinner. In addition, women were encouraged to abstain from sex while menstruating as this was thought to increase the likelihood of giving birth to a “monstrosity.”

In 1629, Hall settled in the small Virginia colony of Warrosquyoake, working as a male indentured servant. Shortly after hir arrival, Hall was accused of sleeping with a maid that set of a chain of events that included prying from the entire community. Before coming to North America, Hall had lived in Europe as a woman, wearing women’s clothes and performing women’s tasks, a fact that set the town into frenzy and led to townspeople physically examining Hall, including once while ze slept. The sex of Hall was indeterminate and the community argued over whether or not Hall should be referred to as Thomas or Thomasine.

Early American colonists were guided by European legal rubrics, which included that the punishment for cross-dressing was punishable by execution. But what to do with a person who was not male or female? The protocol (demonstrating that Hall was not the first intersex person to undergo such a trial) was for the court to determine the gender (feminine or masculine) that the person was to perform.

In Hall’s case, when asked whether he was a man or a woman, he replied that he was both saying that he had a small penis, “a peece of flesh growing at the …belly as big as the top of his little finger [an] inch long” and that “hee had not the use of the man’s p[ar]te.” The ruling based on this evidence was that Hall was to wear women’s clothes and perform as a woman, but this was not satisfactory to the elder women, so they snuck into Hall’s room while she slept. They “confirmed” that Hall was a man. It is at this point that Hall’s master checked and was unimpressed by the “flesh” that the women had classified as a penis and demanded to see if there was any evidence of a vagina. Hall was made to lie on a table and underwent a thorough examination, which determined that there was little more than a small hole, but not fully functioning female anatomy.

This physical examination led to a reverse decision and proclamation that Hall was a man and was to dress as one, but once Hall started to perform as a man, the other men in the town accused him of having sexual encounters with a neighbor’s maid. Hall’s case was eventually brought to the Virginia Court where they ruled that Hall was to dress as a man, but wear the accessories of women. This permanent hybrid gender was meant to emasculate and shame Hall and make it known to all that ze was a “monstrosity.” This is the last we have of Hall in the historical record; the remainder of hir life is a mystery.

For more about Thomas/Thomasine Hall, including excerpts from the court transcripts, see Kathleen Brown’s essay in Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality: Documents and Essays.

Cross Dressing: Jeanne D’Arc

Note the curves in her armor to emphasize her femininity...

Thinking about the name Chicks With Crossbows, the first image that came to mind was a heroine that was some sort of a hybrid between stock characters in video games, fantasy novels, and action movies. I also thought of my mom who would occasionally do target practice in our backyard with her crossbow. Yes, you read that correctly. My mom would go into our backyard and shoot arrows at a target using her crossbow. It was pretty bad ass.

But when I tried to think of historical records of women using crossbows, I couldn’t think of one. Historically crossbows were used in war and wars were fought by men. Women did not typically go into battle because that was considered men’s domain. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any women who fought alongside men.

During the Siege of Orleans in 1428 Jeanne d’Arc – also known as Joan of Arc – was hit by an arrow fired by a crossbow. Crossbows are a fascinating weapon and, if Hollywood has it right, it looks like a horrible way to die if you’re hit in a vulnerable spot. Jeanne d’Arc was hit in the leg and that’s not so bad, I suppose, but it probably doesn’t make for a very successful day on the battlefield. Well, to be forthright, it’s not known beyond the shadow of a doubt that the arrow was shot by a crossbow, but that was the weapon of choice for many warriors on both the British and French sides, so we can surmise it was a crossbow that did the damage.

But it’s not the crossbow that I want to focus on, but Joan of Arc and her crime of cross-dressing. It’s probably no surprise that she wasn’t wearing a dress while in battle. It would have made her more physically vulnerable to weaponry and she would have been a much easier target for the English. But the fact that she wore men’s clothing became a central aspect of her trial because there were laws against that sort of deviant behavior. And those laws were supported by Biblical scripture.

Relying on Deuteronomy 22:5 – “A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God” – those overseeing her trial built a case against the 19-year old that was grounded in Christian dogma. Of course, the clothing that men and women wore had changed dramatically since the book of Deuteronomy was written, but such trifles were not to be bothered with.

Jeanne also wore men’s clothing while imprisoned by the English, an act that was viewed as not only sinful, but arrogant as well. The Chief prosecutor of her case, Pierre Cauchon, built much of his case around her violation of gender roles that had established women as modest and passive.

But Jeanne was not foolish; she utilized Christian dogma to support her donning of male garments. In the court record she stated that, “I believe this seems strange to you, and not without cause; but since I must arm myself and serve the gentle Dauphin in war, it is necessary for me to wear these clothes, and also when I am among men in the habit of men, they have no carnal desire for me; and it seems to me that thus I can better preserve my purity in thought and deed.” It has been speculated that Jeanne d’Arc was sexually assaulted while a prisoner of the British and that her clothing defiance was an attempt to protect herself. Regardless of her motivation, it was this perceived act of defiance that her enemies used as one of the reasons to sentence her to death when she was only 19 years old.

For more information on Jeanne d’Arc, including the transcript of her trial, please visit