Book List: Conquerors!

With the Genghis Khan exhibition now on display, the book list for March will feature the theme Conquerors: Their Lives and Times. Scholastic Books publishes a series of books, over 50 in all, whose titles all begin with You Wouldn’t Want to Be…  The books, illustrated with colorful cartoons, bring history to life in an engaging, entertaining way.
For example…You Wouldn’t Want to Be in Alexander the Great’s Army! by Jacqueline Marley begins with an introduction and a map of Alexander’s route.  You learn that Alexander’s father, Phillip II, united Macedonia and made it strong.  Phillip’s army controlled most of Greece when he died, and his 20-year old son Alexander III decided to embark on the trip that his father had planned.

Alexander The Great
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dime01

As you read you learn interesting tidbits:  At the Siege of Tyre (332 BCE) Alexander had to defeat the Persians; when Alexander’s men tried to scale tall walls, the Persian soldiers poured red-hot sand down on them. Alexander founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt. Soldiers were not paid but were allowed to steal from their victims – and so looters learned to take only light things because they had to carry everything they took; soldiers were also allowed to pick up wives along the way. Alexander’s trip lasted 8 years; and soon after the trip ended, Alexander died at age 32.

This book contains a glossary and an index.  The books in this series are useful introductions to many topics.

The story A Medieval Feastby Aliki is 25 years old, and could have taken place during the time of William the Conqueror.  The pictures are timeless.  The King, Queen, knights, squires and other members of the court – maybe 100 in all – are coming to visit Camdenton Manor, and the lord and lady must prepare for the visit.

The serfs who lived on the lord’s estate helped with the preparations that involved everything from redecorating the Royal Suite to building fences for the horses—in addition to preparing for the feast. 

Sir Aiden and his charming squire
Creative Commons License photo credit: badlogik

The lord went hunting and hawking for meat, and they trapped and fished.  Fruits and vegetables were gathered; bread was made; butter was churned and wine and ale were brewed.  A rare “beast” called a Cockentrice was created by cutting a caponand pig in half and attaching one’s back to the other’s front and vice versa.  A peacock was cooked and then all the feathers were reassembled.  The upcoming feast, fit for a king, would begin at 10:30 a.m. and end at dark.  The next day it would be repeated.

Take time to look carefully at the illustrations!  Aliki’s detailed pictures enable the reader to learn even more about this time period.  The reader sees the serfs at work and play, the kitchen alive with food preparation, people trapping birds and so much more.  (For another look at life in a medieval castle, read You Wouldn’t Want to Live in a Medieval Castle! by Jacqueline Morley.)

medieval women
Creative Commons License photo credit: hans s

Crabtree Publishers publishes an incredible number of nonfiction books which are illustrated, easily read and contain facts about a particular subject.  One of the books in the Medieval World series is Women and Girls in the Middle Ages. This book is divided into topics such as Having Fun, Housekeeping, Educating Girls and Beauty, and you learn interesting facts on each page. 

Did you know:
• That during this time all you had to do to get married was say “I Do”?
• That you needed bread, glue, turpentine and a candle to get rid of fleas?
• That employment opportunities for women improved after the Plague killed one third of Europe’s population?
• That women were told to comb their hair and “make sure that it is not full of feathers or other garbage”?
• That you can make a beauty lotion by mixing asparagus roots, anise, bulbs of white lilies, milk from donkeys and red goats and horse dung?

Books from the Conquerors: Their Lives and Times list will transport you to another time—and, as a bonus, probably make you very glad you are living NOW.

Plants: are we using them – or are they using us?

Apple a day...........
How has our love of the apple’s
sweetness affected the plant itself?
Creative Commons License photo credit: suchitraprints

Did you know that the HMNS has a book club? Every month we discuss a different book – something that relates, in some way or another – to an exhibit or permanent hall at the museum.  This last month’s selection, Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, was linked to the Butterfly Center by virtue of its subject matter.  As the museum’s token botanist, I was asked to attend to help guide the discussion.

Having heard good reports on the book, and having greatly enjoyed Pollan’s more recent work, Omnivore’s Dilemma (an excellent and entertaining book that will change the way you think about food and where it comes from), I looked forward to reading Botany of Desire.  I found it fascinating, and learned a lot.  Pollan showcases four plants that are, or have been, of major importance in human history.  His premise is that such plants are not passive artifacts of artificial selection, but instead have capitalized on human “desires” to promote their own success. 

Yes, humans have selected certain traits in the plants we grow, but the plants’ ability to respond to our desire for those traits have made some species supremely successful, both in population size and in geographical distribution.  The plants that Pollan highlights are the apple (representing our desire for sweetness), the tulip (our desire for beauty), marijuana (our desire for intoxication), and the potato (our desire for control).  

Pollan provides fascinating stories about the roles these four plants have played in human history.  We learn that the Johnny Appleseed story most of us heard as kids is a highly sanitized and Disneyfied caricature.  The real man, an eccentric mystic named John Chapman, grew apples and dispersed their seeds and saplings throughout the American frontier – not to bring healthy and delicious fruits to everyone, but to provide the makings for an alcoholic beverage – hard apple cider.  We also learned that apples do not grow true from seed – so the different cultivars must all be propagated by grafting – and that today only a very few of hundreds of cultivars are grown commercially.  

Tulips Up Close
Creative Commons License photo credit: inkswamp

Tulips have captivated Ottoman sultans and Dutch businessmen, driving them to near insane lengths in their passion to possess the latest color or petal shape.  Tulips also had somewhat more tempered heydays in England and France, and are still a very popular seasonal flower around the world.  Did you know that the name “tulip” comes from the Turkish word for turban (describing the shape of the flower)?  One of the most coveted tulip cultivars in the 17th century, the “broken tulip” with swirls of color reaching through the petals, whose bulbs sold for unheard of sums amongst highly competitive buyers, owed its dramatic color pattern to a virus that infected the petals, and eventually killed the stock.   

Pollan also discusses “plants in the garden that manufacture molecules with the power to change the subjective experience of reality we call consciousness.” The ability of cannabis – commonly called marijuana – to do so has changed this plant from a weed native to the Americas into something grown exclusively indoors, and in some places, illegally. It can be used as an intoxicant, a medicine or as a fiber – hemp.

Why, Pollan asks, does the United States outlaw it as a dangerous drug, while condoning alcohol – a far more addictive substance?  He points out that every culture throughout human history has had its “accepted” and “taboo” mind-altering potions – and discusses how the illegality of marijuana has affected the development of the plant itself, suggesting that it has “thrived on its taboo” status. 

Potato Salad
Creative Commons License photo credit: psd

Finally we learn the amazing historical journey of the potato.  Originally from South America, it was a staple in the Incan diet but was not well received in Europe until it became of supreme importance as a major food source in Ireland.  Then, in 1845 the potato famine hit (a fungus killed the entire crop over the next three years) and Ireland felt the devastating result of depending on a monoculture.  Today the potato is one of several food crops that have been genetically modified by biotech companies such as Monsanto, whose “NewLeaf” potato has the DNA of a potato-beetle killing bacterium spliced into the potato’s genome.  Pollan wonders whether these new “improved” (and patented) potatoes are good news or bad. 

Our meeting room was crowded, and our conversation ranged widely, from people’s favorite apples to reactions to genetically modified foods.  We noted that there are many other plants with equally fascinating histories that Pollan could have chosen to discuss:  the rose, the tomato, rice, wheat, corn, rubber, bananas, tobacco, grapes – to mention just a few.  Certainly his book made us think about some of these others, and how they too have impacted humankind and our history.

While reading Botany of Desire I was frequently reminded of the superb David Attenborough series called The Private Life of Plants. The amazing photography and Attenborough’s prose bring to vivid life the fascinating behavior of plants and suggest that we underestimate the power of plants to shape the world around them.  Attenborough asks, “Are we using plants such as wheat, or are they using us?”  At the end of the book I understood why Attenborough’s work came so frequently to mind – Pollan credits The Private Life of Plants as the inspiration for his work. 

I highly recommend both – the Attenborough series and the Pollan book – to anyone interested in plants and our vital relationship with them.

The HMNS book club’s next selection is also a great read – Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin, is an engaging, funny, and informative look at our 3.5 billion years of evolution.  Check it out – and leave a comment to let us know what you think.

Ed. note: The HMNS book club is a project of our volunteer department – yet another great reason to donate your body to science this year!

Interested in plants? Check out:
What plants attract butterflies to your garden? The ones they like to eat.
They’re the Jolly Green Giants of the plant world: Redwoods.
These roses have serious personality.