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The Stunning Evolution of Beauty

 

Three things thrill me when I stumble across them: theories on why the world is so varied and beautiful; how the females of all species exercise more agency than traditional culture understands; and that animals have far more cognition than we realize.

 

It turns out that Charles Dawin championed all three concepts, but his work on these specific topics has been undervalued for 140 years.

 

Yale ornithologist Richard O. Prum's 2018 book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Dawin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World, uses his extensive understanding of birds to set the record straight.

 

"Darwin hypothesized that mate choice had resulted in the evolution of many of those traits in nature that are so pleasingly beautiful… from the songs, colorful plumages, and displays of birds to the brilliant blue face and hind quarters of the mandrel," Plum writes.

 

Darwin understood that mate choice is mostly driven by the females of the species. Read More 

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Convo on Research and the Crazy Writing Life

So thrilled to be part of the podcast series run by Anita Kelly. Here we chat about historical fiction, my own love of research, feminist fiction and the writer's life. 

 

Check it out!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGdJHeHmJt8

 

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A Slender Tether and Ties that Bind

I'm very pleased to say that A Slender Tether, a novel in linked stories, is now available as an audio book in a number of places, including the free library site Hoopla. In celebration, I thought I would outline the ways that the tethers in our lives, ties that bind us or secure us and the threads between us, appear in the book and what they say about the human condition.

 

In "Raptor Among Bluebirds"

A connection about to break: In "Raptor Among Bluebirds" the father of Christine de Pizan is confronted with his own pending death and remarks that "unable to heal her husband on his deathbed, a wife will sew a leather tie, a slender tether, on his doublet" as a futile attempt to reinforce a connection that is about to break.

 

A tether to prosperity or the strings of puppets: Christine's mother her mother sends granddaughter away to a convent with the princess. "I've done us a great service!" Tessa insisted. She strode around the room, gesturing with expansive arms, and Christine heard snatches of logic that it would tie them to the court and position them well, but to Christine her mother was engaged in her profession, bartering with the lives of others." Pg. 63

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Why Violence has Declined

I get raised eyebrows and harumphs of disagreement when I mention this book, but Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and author, makes compelling arguments that violence is declining worldwide, and he backs them up with a trove of statistics and analysis in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.

 

Granted, his timeframe starts in the Paleolithic, and the book was published in 2011 before the hate-filled debacle of the Trump years, but he has a point: "for most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life."

 

Pinker not only proves that these conditions are declining but explains why and when.

 

 

Why: Pinke identifies several historical forces.

1.     The changing role of government: "Instead of thinking of government as the local franchise of God's rule over his kingdom, people began to think of a government as a gadget invented by humans for the purpose of enhancing their collective welfare." This reduced tolerance for governmental violence against its citizens. The state and judiciary having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force" reduces intrastate violence, he says. And finally, he says, "Democracy… would turn out to be one of the greatest violence-reduction technologies since the appearance of government itself."  Read More 

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A Tale of Two Firebrands

The Firebrand and the First Lady highlights a decades-long friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and African American civil rights advocate, lesbian, author and brilliant attorney, Pauli Murray.

 

Pauli Murray was a driving force in the burgeoning civil rights movements, launching National Sharecroppers Week in 1940, organizing boycotts of whites-only restaurants, founding an advocacy campaign for Odell Waller's fight on death row and orchestrating protests over discrimination in the military, all the while writing newspaper and magazine articles as well as personal notes and missives to Eleanor Roosevelt (ER).

 

While the book is an engrossing (and enraging) tale of personal hardship in the midst of Jim Crow America, it is also a description of a tender intellectual, political and personal friendship between Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt, who answered her letters and celebrated her achievements. One reads of Murray's excitement  Read More 

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The Woman who Smashed Codes, Rumrunners and Hitler

 To do battle against rumrunners and then ferret out Nazis, Elizebeth Friedman and her husband William invented the modern science of cryptology, described in a lively and highly readable saga, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone.

 

It Started with Rum

 

Elizebeth Friedman started using her talents to catch gangsters and smugglers during Prohibition by solving 12,000 rum messages "which covered activities up the Pacific coast …along the Gulf Coast to Tampa; from Key West to Savannah, including Havana, and the Bahamas; and from New Jersey to Maine. Until 1930, she did almost all code breaking for the US government's planetary war against smuggling."[i]

 

Extracting Intelligence From the New Technology: Radio

 

"As good as she was at solving the individual messages, Elizebeth's ambition didn't stop there.  Read More 

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Startling Lives of First Women in History

Land pegs inserted into a building to denote ownership. These of the first woman mentioned in history, GAR-GIR-gal.

Two books on women's lives in the distant past reveal fascinating differences and similarities to our own time. Here are highlights from She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia and Women at the Dawn of History.

 

  • The first woman in history known by name was KA-GIR-gal. They discovered her name on a land sale peg, which would have been inserted into the wall of a building to denote ownership, ca 3000-2750 BCE.[i]
  • Prosperous and autonomous: "During the old Babylonian period there existed a class of so-called cloistered women (Naditus/Naditum)  Read More 
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Daughters of Genghis Saved Empire

In one of those "blow your mind" discoveries of unsung women in history comes the story of the daughters of Genghis Khan. I've never heard that he had daughters, let alone daughters who "ruled the largest empire the world has ever known."

 

Jack Weatherford, the former DeWitt Wallace Professor of anthropology at Macalester College in Minnesota, is best known for his 2004 book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. After its publication, he researched and wrote The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire.

 

He says "Genghis Khan sired four self-indulgent sons who proved good at drinking, mediocre at fighting, and poor at everything else; yet their names live on despite the damage they did to their father's empire. Although Genghis Khan recognized the superior leadership abilities of his daughters and left them strategically important parts of his empire, today we cannot even be certain how many daughters he had…[but] without Genghis Khan's daughters, there would have been no Mongol empire."

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Tharp Profoundly Changes World View

To understand the achievements of this pioneer, it's necessary to go back and describe the world as it was, and it was pretty surprising.

As late as the early 1960s, it was believed that the ocean floor was a flat, unchanging surface, as smooth as a sandy beach; that the edge of the continent sloped down to an abyssal plane, until the sea floor gradually sloped up at another continent. Scientists called the sea floor a "place of perfect repose." Belief in continental drift would cast you as a nut-job, though it had been suggested in 1922. There was very little understanding of earthquakes, no discovery of the Ring of Fire; no respect given to ideas of tectonic plates. The idea of a supercontinent of Pangaea (and the others that proceeded it) was scientific heresy. "There was still no definitive theory that explained how the earth's crust formed. Mountains, oceans, continents, islands, valleys -- even the earth's simplest features were still a source of contention."[i] Read More 

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Frances Perkins: The Woman Behind the New Deal

There are a few things more core to the American way of life than the safety net instituted by The New Deal, and it turns out that a woman who is hardly known today was "the moving force" behind it all.

 

In a lively, engaging, and detailed book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Kirstin Downey, it was Frances Perkins who laid out the reforms that President Roosevelt would have to back before she would accept the post as America's first female Secretary of Labor.

 

"She ticked off the items: a 40-hour workweek, a minimum wage, workers compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service, and health insurance.... The scope of her list was breathtaking. She was proposing a fundamental and radical restructuring of American Society, with enactment of historic social welfare and labor laws."

 

Robert B. Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, says that "Francis Perkins was the moving force behind much of [The New Deal]. Her legacy included … initiatives that have improved the lives of generations of Americans."

 

And her daughter nagged her into championing the WPA's inclusion of artists, which is responsible for some of the excellent murals in public buildings by Diego Rivera and others.

 

According to influential authors studying the period, "Francis Perkins (was) a fierce advocate who put people first, a public servant who was actually worthy of the name, and a bracing reminder of what inspired government can do."

 

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