Show Notes – Episode 1.13

BBE Gets Spooky with The Ghosts of Williamsburg

Quick Links from the Episode:

  • The Bruton Parish Church story was perhaps the most compelling mystery in Ghosts. Today, the Church website reveals nothing about the cemetery incident, only mentioning that you must be a member of the church to be buried there. This only increases BBE’s interest and suspicions. Articles contemporary to the 1992 dig (here and here) explain that Church officials were hoping to lay to rest any conspiracy theories over the vault existing in their cemetery. Archaeologists dug down twenty feet and a geologist from William and Mary took soil samples to come up with…nada. However, the belief still persists, probably much to the dismay of the Church.
  • Colonial or Georgian architectural styles dominated early America, and thus are mentioned numerous times in Ghosts due to hauntings that occur in older or restored homes of these styles. These two names are roughly interchangeable, as colonial architecture was known as Georgian in America, referring of course to the King of England. The Historic New England organization and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission have excellent summaries and descriptions of these styles along with photographs of historic houses that embody them. You can also scroll down to see photos of the houses Jennifer was making fun of in the episode.
  • Paige and Jennifer both mentioned possible scientific explanations for supernatural phenomena, but here are some articles that drain all the spooky right out of it from the Smithsonian and How Stuff Works.
  • If you are interested in learning more about the colonial period, Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years are a great place to start. Don’t let the size fool you, Bailyn prized readability and it shows. Or reads? Either way, it is a great book.

The Ghosts of Williamsburg, Vol. II, by L.B. Taylor Jr. ( )

Finally, at last, one of Jennifer’s favorite subjects has become the topic of our podcast. Another Thrift Store Find is The Ghosts of Williamsburg Vol. II by L.B. Taylor Jr., a historical romp through various supernatural phenomena in the Williamsburg, VA area. Jennifer is actually quite horror-averse in general. She can count on one hand the number of times she has seen a scary movie, and she has certainly never picked up a Stephen King novel. However, when it comes to reading about true accounts of the supernatural, she has always been fascinated. More recently that has translated into a love for supernatural podcasts, such as And That’s Why We Drink. It also explains why this was a no-brainer buy at Goodwill.

L.B. Taylor Jr. appears to have been an old school dude. Ghosts was published in 1999, but it some ways it still harks back to an older age of dime novels. For example, at the back of the book, readers are encouraged to write the author at his home address for autographed copies, only fulfilled if you included $3 for postage. If you’d wanted to schedule Taylor for a speaking engagement, you’d also have to write or call. Given statements in the introduction about the corrupting influence of technology, we highly doubt that he ever had a website.

Unfortunately, Mr. Taylor passed away in 2014, but not before he had two very different and successful writing careers. Taylor graduated with a degree in journalism from Florida State University and launched into covering America’s space programs. For sixteen years, Taylor wrote about rockets, ingenuity, and the imagination of man. It wasn’t until after he retired from a career in public affairs that he indulged in another passion: ghosts and local history. You’ll notice the full title of Ghosts includes “Vol. 2.” There are, in fact, twenty-five books in Taylor’s ghosts of Virginia series. Let this kind of dedication be an inspiration to us all!

Main Topics from this Week’s Episode:

  • Jennifer found that, perhaps unexpectedly, she really enjoyed the historical content behind each story, building, or area mentioned. Taylor was clearly very passionate about local history and for someone not usually interested in early American history, Ghosts was a nice change.
  • On the flip side, belying the name of the book, the ghost content was less compelling. While there were a couple stories here and there that raised some goosebumps, but Jennifer is a total horror noob and most of the ghost stories were run-of-the-mill at best. If you were looking for some serious spooks, this book will not satisfy.
  • Jennifer also takes some time to recount her one and only supernatural experience which took place in a restaurant she used to work at in Alabama.
  • Does BBE believe in ghosts? In the episode we come up with a nice, lukewarm maybe. Both Jennifer and Paige, to their equal surprise are open to the possibility of the supernatural. Neither would invalidate the experiences of so many people across the globe who are convinced they have gone through something otherworldly. After all, Jennifer has her own experience she cannot explain, but she does believe that these could someday be understood through scientific means. Throughout history various phenomena once thought to be mysterious have been revealed, who knows if ghosts will be the same one day? Paige and Jennifer talk a few other explanations for supernatural events such as alternate dimensions, and rifts in the time-space continuum.
  • What was distasteful in Taylor’s otherwise charming little book on Williamsburg was the casual racism and glorious South narrative that are sprinkled throughout. Given that Taylor was of a different generation, he could perhaps be forgiven for using politically incorrect terms for Native Americans, though his editor should have lent a helping hand there. However, most disturbing are his characterizations of Southern ‘heroes’ of the Civil War and their ‘murderous’ Union counterparts. Jennifer didn’t appreciate this South-will-rise-again fervor in her ghost stories.

This photo of the Raleigh Tavern is an example of that colonial style that is as dry as burnt toast. The tavern at least has the advantage of gables, a common feature in these homes.

Photo by Maggie McCain from Williamsburg, Virginia, USA.

Another example of the colonial or Georgian style: a brick box. A box shape is a dominant and super interesting feature of this style.

Photo by Rob Shenk from Great Falls, VA, USA

Jennifer vacillated back and forth on rating this book. Two stars? Four? On the one hand, stories from the Revolutionary War and humorous anecdotes were charming. On the other, the ghost stories were sparser than she expected from a book about ghosts and were tame for the most part. However, more sinister than she first realized, The Ghosts of Williamsburg was in fact haunted by something more insidious than any one supernatural story Taylor mentioned: the ghost of narratives past.

Typical of a different era, Taylor’s prose was filled with old assumptions and black-and-white portrayals. In his account Native Americans were savages that brutalized colonists and Confederate generals were dashing and honorable men who contended with simultaneously villainous and incompetent Union soldiers. Never mind that Europeans were invaders into Native American lands that they intended from the beginning to conquer, and that Lee and Stuart at their core stood for oppression. The reality of these stories is that they are far more complex than American exceptionalism will ever allow. This view of the past, truly, is the spirit that needs to be laid to rest.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.14 on Nicholas Spark’s Dear John. If you are enjoying the podcast so far please consider leaving us a review and following us on social media. You can also support the podcast on Patreon and get access to our bonus episodes (all links below). Until next time!

April Sneak Peek

As we enter another month of craziness and uncertainty, take solace in the fact that Big Book Energy will still be serving up episodes every Monday and sporadic blog posts because Jennifer has a hard time staying on her sh*t. Keep scrolling for a preview of what we are chatting about this month:

First up this month is James Barclay’s Dawnthief. Following the adventures of the Raven, an elite band of mercenaries. Will Jennifer hate this book as much as Paige?

Our first Thrift Store Finds pick of April will be taking us on a supernatural tour of Williamsburg, VA. Be prepared for some *spooky* photos in this week’s Show Notes!

Up next is Nicholas Sparks’ Dear John. Once upon a time, Jennifer decided to give this bestseller a try. She was…unimpressed. Tune in to see if Paige thinks the same, although if you know anything about Paige, the answer is probably obvious.

Many moons ago, we promised you another ancient astronaut book, and the moment has finally come. A favorite source for Ancient Aliens, Erich von Danken’s Chariots of the Gods promises to be just as fascinating as our Lost Realms episode.

For our bonus episode this month, we will be finishing up Tolkien’s trilogy with The Return of the King. A teaser of this episode will be available everywhere podcasts live, but full episodes are available for our Patreon supporters.

And that is a wrap for our April Sneak Peek! Follow the links below to find us on social media or to support the podcast on Patreon. Stay nerdy, bookish peeps!

Show Notes – Episode 1.10

Paige is a Ray of Sunshine: Talking Murder and Massacre in In the Lake of the Woods

Quick Links from the Episode:

  • Here’s the Britannica page on Tim O’Brien. You really know you’ve made it as an author when you get your own encyclopedia page!
  • Amazing NPR interview with O’Brien on the twentieth anniversary of the release of The Things They Carried, this really gives insight into O’Brien’s goals for his work and his motivations.
  • Another interview with O’Brien, reveals the deep emotional trauma that is still with him today.
  • Here’s a link to Confederates in the Attic on Amazon. Jennifer would recommend this one again and again.
  • For more info on the massacre at My Lai, see the following: Britannica entry, a retrospective piece from NPR, a 50th anniversary article from Smithsonian magazine. Obviously, this is just scratching the surface, entire books have been written about this massacre. If you want more extensive sources, we recommend searching in Google scholar, or on the Library of Congress website – an excellent place to find primary source material on the massacre and subsequent investigation.
  • Click here for a satellite view of Lake of the Woods, bridging Minnesota and Canada. As you can tell, it is extremely large, filled with islands and small waterways, and would undoubtedly be treacherous for someone who did not know where they were going.
  • The BBC has a fascinating article on the ouroboros, a common symbol found in the ancient world, most notably ancient Egypt and Greece. The ouroboros was also an important symbol in the Renaissance study of alchemy.
In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O’Brien (1994)

One look at the cover of Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods and you know this is not going to be a fun ride. Could anything be more menacing than black waters lit only by the red light of a dying moon? It is as sinister and enigmatic as the work itself. This was a choice for our Books We Hate theme, but what exactly did Jennifer hate so much? Well, as assigned reading in a high school English class, the book didn’t exactly get off on the right foot. The constant bouncing between different times and places didn’t endear it to her, either. But what really caused Jennifer’s distaste was the ending: ambiguous and unresolved. You can’t be sure what really happened, and the lack of any concrete answers caused a teenage Jennifer to toss the book aside with frustration.

Tim O’Brien is a widely-celebrated, award-winning author, perhaps most known for his collection of short stories about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried and another Vietnam tale, Going After Cacciato. O’Brien is writing from experience, having served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. His wartime experience manifests in In the Lake of the Woods as well: the main character, John Wade, suffers a crippling political defeat after his participation in the massacre of My Lai is surfaced by his opponent. O’Brien has been roundly praised for his ability to convey the emotional journey of the soldier as they navigate the horror that is war – from joy and camaraderie, to rage and terror. His abilities in this regard are undoubtedly why he was awarded the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing in 2013 and has served as an endowed chair in creative writing at Texas State University.

I carry the memories of the ghosts of a place called Vietnam — the people of Vietnam, my fellow soldiers…More importantly, I carry the weight of responsibility, and a sense of abiding guilt.

Tim O’Brien, from an interview with NPR (linked above).

Once you actually dive in, this is essentially a murder mystery/thriller – Jennifer is actually convinced it would make a great movie. Not one she would go to, though, too much suspense. What makes this book distinct from a Sue Grafton, for example, is that the reader is placed inside the head of the potential killer, watching as his sanity crumbles in around him.

The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien (1990)

In this episode, Paige breaks down the three parts of In the Lake of the Woods. There is the main narrative, driven by John Wade as he struggles to piece together what happened to his missing wife, Kathy. The next two parts are interspersed throughout John’s narrative and provide interesting counterpoints to his perspective. The first are hypothetical situations that could have happened to explain Kathy’s disappearance. Spoiler, none of them are particularly uplifting. The last part is comprised of the notes an unknown figure has been making about the case. BBE hypothesized that this was perhaps the work of an investigative journalist following the John Wade story. The interviews with relatives, law enforcement officials, facts about the area, and research into John Wade’s past would certainly suggest this. O’Brien expertly weaves these pieces together, crafting the perfect unreliable narrator in John Wade, and forcing the reader to constantly reconsider what they believe the truth to be. This style may not have suited high school Jennifer, but O’Brien is certainly effective at blurring the lines of reality, encouraging us to question the existence of abstract, objective “truth”.

It turns out that Paige didn’t hate this book. Honestly, after talking about it again, Jennifer isn’t so sure that she hates this book, as much as she found the experience of reading it to be distasteful. This is not a book for the faint of heart. It is uncomfortable, as any deep dive into the uglier sides of human nature should be. Paige didn’t enjoy it, but she gave it a BBE signature three stars out of five – meaning we probably won’t read it again, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.11. If you are enjoying the podcast to far, please consider giving us a review and following us on social media. Be sure to check out our Patreon for extra BBE content, including bonus episode (All links below). Until next time!

Show Notes – Episode 1.9

The World is Ending and Everything is a Cult – BBE Does Chicken Soup for the Soul

Quick Links from the Episode:

  • Here is the article written by Harvard University’s Asaf Bitton on social distancing.
  • Turns out Paige should not drink that rum she’s had for ten years. While liquor doesn’t grow bacteria because ethanol is poisonous to everybody, it does change flavor and could make you sick in other ways. This Bustle article is not only informative and breaks down how long each kind of alcohol can last once opened, it has endeared itself to Jennifer forever for referring to whiskey as “smokey regret juice.” Enjoy.
  • The Christian kids series about the family that does archaeology together is called The Cooper Kids Adventure Series, and was written by Frank E. Peretti. The Goodreads link for the series is here.
  • If you want to learn all things Chicken Soup, visit their website here. They have pretty extensive About pages.
  • It turns out that the Goodwill where we bought these did NOT have the full run of Chicken Soup books. Not even close. For the horrifyingly long list, check out this Wikipedia page.
  • As far as we can tell, The Esteem Group – co-founded by Jennifer Read Hawthorne and Marci Shimoff – no longer exists.
  • OWN posted a video of Maya Angelou herself reading “Phenomenal Woman.”
  • The sage of our times, Will Smith, has some great things to say about love and happiness.
  • Visit the official site for Women’s History Month.

Notes from the Episode:

Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul (1996)

This week BBE takes on the classic Chicken Soup series. This is just one of two Chicken Soup episodes we are serving up this month in the hopes of staving off quarantine-induced boredom. When BBE visited the thrift store what seems like years ago now, they were delighted to find that Goodwill appeared to have the entire run of Chicken Soup books. If you grew up in the nineties, chances are you had a copy or two floating around your house. As one BBE friend mentioned, his mother was fond of putting one in the bathroom for guests to peruse. Perhaps better reading material than the shampoo bottles. Maybe. If you are not a sentimental person, these books can be a tough sell. Originally put together by a pair of motivational speakers, the whole point of every Chicken Soup book seemed to be to pull as many unwilling (or willing, I don’t know what your emotional state is) tears from your eyes as possible as you blubber into some tissues in the best way. This is why people watch videos of people overcoming cancer or dogs being reunited with their military owners after months away: the emotional tidal wave is cathartic and reminds us cynical emotional Scrooges that good things exist in the world.

Chicken Soup for the Soul was first published in 1993 by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. Over the course of their speaking careers, they came across numerous inspiring stories that they used in their talks. Eventually they decided to compile the best of these stories to share them with those who may never see them speak. Chicken Soup for the Soul became incredibly popular, sold millions of copies, and a new hit series was born. The company has now astonishingly published more than 250 books. Somehow. There’s options for NASCAR fans and golfers, entrepreneurs and “golden” souls. Whatever that means. Today, the company has been sold to Bill Rouhana, Amy Newmark, and Robert Jacobs. It has, shall we say, expanded extensively beyond the original book. Chicken Soup trades on the stock market, sells pet food, and has started a YouTube TV show. That’s getting a little ahead of ourselves, though. It did not take very long after the original 1993 release, for Chicken Soup to move on to women’s souls.

It’s the click of my heels

The bend of my hair

The palm of my hand

The need of my care

Cause I’m a woman

Phenomenally

Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman”

In the episode, Jennifer and Paige focused on just a handful of stories from Chicken Soup, because to do otherwise would have taken many more hours than it already did. Overall, though, here are some of BBE’s thoughts:

  • This book is interesting because it presents a very distinct and very traditional interpretation of womanhood: woman as mother, as wife, as caregiver. The overwhelming majority of stories revolved around women volunteering in hospitals, taking care of their kids as a single mom after escaping an abusive relationship, or finding love.
  • Very rarely, some stories included women that overcame discrimination through sheer determination or force of will, such as Jean Harper, who became United’s first female airline pilot in the 1970s.
  • It is really annoying that the fictional and non-fiction stories are mixed in together. It makes you, as a reader, doubt every word you are reading as no narrator is deemed to be trustworthy.
  • This book was very clearly written in a different time and for a different generation. Not only were many of the stories started with the phrase, “Back in [insert year between 1920 and 1950 here]”, they dealt with issues and views that seem…unfamiliar to us today.
  • Fun things like sexism and toxic masculinity in the stories are as unsurprising as they are disappointing. What is perhaps most disappointing is when these are not pointed out, but are instead wrapped up as a baggage-free sentimental story.
  • For the most part BBE had a hard time finding things to relate to in these stories. Jennifer in particular, after reading the entirety of the book could not identify with hardly any of them. Which poses an interesting question of what does womanhood or femininity mean to you? Does it fit these traditional female roles? Is it something else entirely?

At the end of the episode, Jennifer challenged herself to come up with her own story to add to the book, but struggled to think of anything meaningful. What would chicken soup for women look like today? Post third wave or even fourth wave feminism? Post #MeToo movement? In retrospect, Jennifer hopes that the stories contained in an updated version would offer a great deal more variety than what she found in Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul. Certainly stories that involved those “traditional” roles still have a place, because those roles of motherhood or wife or caregiver are still important to us and offer incredible value to ourselves and others. But hopefully, those stories would also contain more overcoming of social obstacles, of trailblazing, of being extraordinarily brilliant, of turning the torch previous generations of women have handed us into a blazing star so bright no problem can withstand it. The stories of inspiring women who did just that are a joy to uncover, now, during Women’s History Month, and every other day of the year.

This is not to say that all of us living ordinary lives, not being female astronauts or Olympians, etc., are somehow failing at being awesome. That isn’t true at all. You don’t need to be actual Superwoman to represent that blazing star. We can all embody that power in our everyday lives, through every step we take to support those around us.

Go on, have the audacity.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.10. If you are enjoying the podcast so far, please consider giving us a review and following us on social media. Be sure to check out our Patreon for bonus BBE content, including bonus episodes (All links below). Until next time!

Show Notes – Episode 1.7

Long Live the King of Vodka: The Life of Pyotr Smirnov

The King of Vodka, Linda Himelstein

We are in high spirits this week for our next Thrift Store Find: The King of Vodka, by Linda Himelstein. Everyone knows the brand Smirnoff vodka, and if you haven’t found yourself waking up the next morning regretting your choice of flavored vodka the night before have you even been to college? But did you happen to know the wild ride that is the life story of the brand’s original founder, Pyotr Smirnov? Our guess is you haven’t, and boy are you missing out.

Paige took a shot on this book when we visited Goodwill many months ago, I mean, hey, alcohol = interesting. How Linda Himelstein, a respected investigative journalist, author, and producer, came upon this story in the first place is interesting. After graduating with a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University, Himelstein went on to write for The Wall Street Times, Business Week, Legal Time, The New York Times, and more. Originally she began writing on legal matters, but would expand her repertoire to include business and tech stories. Beyond writing, Himelstein has also produced two documentaries, The Hunting Ground and The Great American Lie. The Hunting Ground, covering the prevalence of and response to sexual assault on college campuses in the United States, is currently available for viewing on Netflix. The legal background perhaps explains her original interest in the Smirnov story. After moving to the Bay Area, Himelstein learned of the recently resolved court case that involved members of the Smirnov family who were trying to sue the brand for using their family name and recipes. The extended Smirnov family members lost their case in court, but the story sparked Himelstein’s interest, leading to a discovery of the life and times of Pyotr Smirnov.

Once again the topic of popular vs. academic history came up in this week’s episode. For those of you wondering what that means, labeling a book as “popular” history is not necessarily a slur against it’s quality (though some do tend to use it that way, which is ridiculous). Usually the determining factors for a popular history are that is has not been published by an academic press – think Oxford University Press, for example – and that it generally has a more engaging style, free from jargon and theory, that appeals to a broader base of readers outside the historical field.

The iconic St. Basil’s cathedral in Moscow, the city where Smirnov first began to build his empire. The cathedral received it’s distinctive modern day colors during Smirnov’s lifetime. Photo by Nikolay Vorobyev on Unsplash

While Paige was at first thrown off by this style, her discomfort vanished after the prologue. The story of Pyotr Smirnov is an amazing one indeed. Paige suggested The King of Vodka be made into a TV series, and she’s right, the drama of this family’s history seem tailor-made for a creative interpretation. Pyotr Smirnov was not born into wealth or privilege, he was born a serf. We have included a few resources about serfdom down below, but as a quick recap: serfdom was a form of slavery that had its roots in the Roman Empire, and at one time was widespread across Europe. However, by the time of Pyotr’s birth in 1831, Russia remained the last stronghold of serfdom. Being born a serf usually consigned you to a life of hard labor, as you worked the land you were tied to for a master, almost exclusively a member of the Russian aristocracy. What set the Smirnovs apart was their admittedly limited education, and their incredible business acumen. Through the efforts of Pyotr’s uncles, and eventually his own, they were able to make enough money from selling vodka to buy the entire family’s freedom.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Pyotr experienced several personal tragedies, and the company he created weathered several storms: the conservative regime of Czar Alexander III that tied vodka to immorality, and the Bolshevik Revolution that targeted capitalist ventures, to name a few. By the time of his death, Pyotr had indeed become the King of Vodka, but this title was hard won. After his death in 1898, it would be a title his heirs were hard-pressed to keep. The story of the Smirnovs is intimately connected to the story of modern Russia itself. The events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that swept across the entirety of the country also played out in the internal family dramas of the Smirnovs. If you want to understand modern Russia, this is as good a place to start as any. Plus there’s booze.

Overall, this was the first book Paige read for the podcast that she truly enjoyed and would heartily recommend. Ignoring the hilarity that it took us seven weeks to reach a book that Paige liked, The King of Vodka has her endorsement and earned 4.5 out of 5 stars. If you are at all interested in Russian history, perhaps already having binged your way through Empire of the Tsars or The Last Czars on Netflix, then this is a book for you.

*PSA*: If you noticed some background noise – like scratching or bells or meowing – in this week’s episode, be advised you are hearing Paige’s gang of cats doing their best to break the door down and succeeding.

We are just buzzing about these links:

  • For more complete information about Linda Himelstein and her work, visit her website.
  • For a list of all flavored Smirnoff vodkas currently sold in the US, look here.
  • What is serfdom? We didn’t really talk about it in the episode but check out the Britannica article on the origins of serfdom to learn more about this specialized form of slavery entrenched in Eastern Europe as late as the 19th century. Britannica also has another short article on Alexander II and the emancipation of Russia’s serfs. If you are so inclined to learn a great deal more about this topic, Jennifer can recommend Orlando Figes’ outstanding work, The People’s Tragedy. Assigned as a book for Jennifer’s legendary class on modern Russia, this book is hefty, but engagingly written and incredibly comprehensive (5/5 stars).
  • For more on Czar Alexander II, his Wikipedia page is extensive, and includes sources for further reading – some of which are even kind of recent!
  • According to Himelstein in The King of Vodka, the annual per capita alcohol consumption in Russia at the time of Smirnov was 2.7 liters, while in France it was nearly six times higher at 15.7 liters.
  • Unfortunately Jennifer wasn’t able to find much on the Pavlov vodka brand (in English) and whether or not it is the same as from the time of Smirnov. Possibly the brand we can find in stores was named after a Russian psychologist, but Jennifer isn’t sure about the accuracy of this fact.
  • The toxic ingredients found in Smirnov vodka were fusel oil, ethane diacid, sulfuric acid, and aniline dye, all of which are known to cause stomach, mouth, and kidney problems.
  • The most recent data Jennifer could find on the top grossing liquors was from a Forbes article from 2018. According to this article, while Smirnoff only ranks #6 in terms of all liquor sales, including local and international brands, they do still rank as #1 in international brands.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.8. If you’re enjoying the podcast so far, please leave us a review and follow us on social media (links above). Be sure to check out our Patreon for bonus BBE content as well, including bonus episodes. Until next time!

Show Notes – Episode 1.6

Another Trip Down Enlightenment Lane: BBE on Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist

The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

We are back to Books We Hate this week, the subject? Paulo Coelho’s classic hit, The Alchemist. What soulless ghoul hates this book that has inspired so many people, sold millions of copies, and been translated into dozens of languages?? Well, if you’ve been keeping track of our episodes, you know that Jennifer is that ghoul. Yes, it was Jennifer’s turn to pick a book she hated for Paige to read, and it is Jennifer that hated The Alchemist so much that she put it down after getting through maybe forty pages. Keep in mind, this was back when it was a point of pride for Jennifer to struggle through to the bitter end no matter how terrible she thought the book was. Jennifer hated it so much that apparently her brain tried to wipe out the traumatic experience entirely because she can’t even remember when it was that she attempted this read. Something about the dreamy, symbol-laden parable really irritated a very pragmatic past Jennifer, but it remains to be seen if Paige will agree.

Coelho is best known for The Alchemist, first published in Portuguese in 1988. According to his Wikipedia page (which he potentially contributes to himself?), Coelho had a rather checkered past before he began his writing career. Though his parents were dead set on him entering the priesthood – possibly an inspiration for his character, Santiago – Coelho dreamed from an early age of being a writer. This eventually would happen, but not until after a nomadic and apparently drug-fueled lifestyle through South American, North Africa, Europe, and beyond. Undoubtedly his experiences traveling provided some inspiration for the journey parable found in The Alchemist. Though he had enjoyed a successful career as a songwriter after returning to Brazil in the 1970s, he did not feel fulfilled because he had never abandoned his dream of writing – his Personal Legend, if you will. So he began to write books, the first being Hell Archives. He would not find success with his first, second, or even third book, but in 1988 he felt inspired to write his classic in only two weeks, quite a feat for any author. Since then, he has been prolific, though none of his other works have been received with the same critical acclaim.

In this episode, Paige takes the reader through the adventures of the shepherd, Santiago, a boy once destined for the priesthood, and now set on finding fantastical wealth. After first being inspired by the wise man, Melchizedek, to begin this journey to find the fulfillment sadly lacking in the ushering of sheep from one place to another, Santiago journeys through north Africa on his way to the pyramids. Along the way he is helped or hindered by various characters, but ultimately learns more about himself, and how he relates to the larger world. As most journeys away from home, this is an eye-opener for Santiago. What was particularly irritating for Paige, other than the basics of the message, was that much of the terminology found in The Alchemist was an echo of what she already slogged through reading The Celestine Prophecy. Really, the similarities are eerie, as we discuss in the episode. Like most parables, The Alchemist is also…basic. The story is not complicated, in fact, it is so simple that Paige and Jennifer were looking for symbols that are not actually there other than the simple archetypes that the characters represent.

Photo by Federico Gutierrez on Unsplash

Coelho was surprised by the success of his book, and honestly so are we. Kind of. While this new age-y, woo-woo, follow-your-dreams message has become worn out and tired, it still sells. The thriving MLM market is enough evidence of that. Our social media feeds are often drowning in individual appeals to join the family, be part of an amazing community, find fulfillment and financial freedom. Of course this is all achieved through purchasing mostly non-FDA approved products that promise to revolutionize X, Y, and Z – but never mind that. The message is the same as so many others we have heard before: be true to yourself, listen to your intuition, get back to Nature, pursue your Personal Legend. See, it fits right in.

Looking at reviews of The Alchemist, it appears to be a polarizing read. You either really loved it and it changed your life, or you found its message to be simplistic, cheesy, superficial, or sometimes even offensive on a personal level. Does this speak to each individual’s own level of cynicism that we often reject positive messages like those listed above? Or is it because we recognize that sometimes intuition fails, sometimes dreams die, sometimes the wind fails to speak, and the universe fails to provide? Paige gave this book a solid three stars. Much as we have rolled our eyes at Coelho’s work, it is hard to completely trash a book that pushes such a positive message, naive or no. It’s popularity, similar to that of The Celestine Prophecy, speaks to its efficacy. Who knows, maybe you should give it a try?

To pursue your Personal Legend, listen to the links below:

  • If you want more info on Melchizedek the Biblical character, check this page out.
  • If you want, you can check out Coelho’s personal website, but…there have been many things that were less of a mess, tbh.
  • Course Hero has a wonderful YouTube series on The Alchemist that includes, summary and analysis of themes.
  • Coelho himself published a short article on his website about ten life lessons that can be drawn from his work. Definitely give this a read to learn about messages included in the text beyond just ‘pursuing your dreams’, which is what they have been boiled down to in this post. Truly, they are great mantras to incorporate into your life when possible.
  • As discussed on this week’s episode, Coelho also possibly edits his own Wikipedia page, which makes it both more and less accurate?

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.7. If you’re enjoying the podcast so far, please consider leaving us a review and follow us on social media if that is your thing (links above). Be sure to check out our Patreon for extra BBE content as well, including bonus episodes. Until next time!

Show Notes – Episode 1.5

A Hypochondriac’s Nightmare: Discussing John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza

The Great Influenza (2004)

Another Thrift Store Find pick for this season is John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza. A hefty doorstop of a nonfiction book, Jennifer was originally intrigued because she’s always been interested in epidemiology, and with the chosen topic of the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic, this combined with her love of history as well. Turns out Paige and Jennifer are basically the same person because Paige is also interested in diseases, so this was a fortuitous pick. The 1918 pandemic, more commonly known – and mislabeled – as the Spanish flu, was the kind of disease that nightmares are made of. Modern medical science had just come into its own in the early twentieth century, with amazing discoveries being made at an incredible pace after the general acceptance of germ theory among the most educated medical professionals and researchers. However, despite this enormous step forward in medicine, the 1918 flu could not have hit at a worse time. A small conflict called World War I happened to be in full swing and in a time before commercial flying was available to the general population, the war necessitated an unprecedented amount of travel and contact between people from across the globe. The flu, possibly originating in America, would follow troop movements across the Atlantic, cross enemy lines, and eventually spread over the entire globe to disastrous consequences that modern medical science could only attempt to contain at the time. The sheer scale of this crisis was overwhelming. With the current threat of coronavirus constantly in the news, who knew months ago when BBE visited a Goodwill bookstore that this pick would become so relevant!

John M. Barry is a highly decorated author of nonfiction, but has worn many hats over the years: football coach, journalist, activist. Barry began studying for a PhD in history at the University of Rochester, but would drop out of the program after receiving his MA. This background in historical research and theory is clearly evident in the complexity, depth, and overall scholarly rigor of his work. Though the PhD route may not have been for him, Barry had a successful career coaching football, even rising to the position of assistant coach at Tulane University. Later Barry would move to Washington D.C. and write for publications such as The Washington Post before turning to nonfiction books. The Great Influenza is not the only book Barry has written on a scientific topic, and his efforts have been recognized by those in the scientific and policy-making communities.

A military hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas. Soldiers were often housed in makeshift buildings because camps were unable to keep up with the number of sick. c/o National Museum of Health and Medicine

Wow was there a lot to fit into a single episode this week. Jennifer did her best to cram in as much information from the book as possible, but despite an extra long recording session so much remained to be discussed! If you are expecting a book solely about the events of the pandemic of 1918 to 1920, forget about it. Jennifer was surprised to find that Barry takes the reader wayyyyy back. Back to Hippocrates and Galen, in fact, to discuss the foundation of Western medicine. While this may seem like quite a jump, and Jennifer was frustrated at times by the meandering path Barry took to 1918, providing the wealth of contextual material for the pandemic is A+ historical work. In case you were lacking a scientific background, never fear because Barry provides that as well. Jennifer learned how the flu virus acts differently from other viruses, what causes pneumonia, what makes pneumonia a deadly secondary infection, and what the H’s and N’s stand for in H1N1. The real heart of the story, though, are the individuals involved in fighting the disease. Barry is clearly invested in the stories of the scientists and researchers drawn into the flu pandemic, and by the end, chances are you will be invested in their stories, too. While some of the more speculative prose on the emotions or thoughts these individuals may have been experiencing at the time is a little outside the realm of academic history, Jennifer overall believes this technique really brings the story to life, inviting the reader into the lives of William Henry Welch, or Oswald Avery. You may not recognize either of these names in the slightest, but reading The Great Influenza, you’ll walk away seeing them as heroes.

Once Barry does finish setting up the political, social, and scientific background for the 1918 pandemic, the book starts to get rough. We don’t mean that Barry’s writing starts to flounder or the story loses coherence, we mean it is tough to read about the path of destruction that the 1918 virus (H1N1, coincidentally) wrought across the globe. The story of this pandemic is not for the faint of heart, the squeamish, or hypochondriacs (Jennifer is one, unfortunately). The descriptions of the horrific conditions that people faced in cities such as Philadelphia, New York, or Boston are better suited to a sci-fi horror movie than to real life. At least that is how it appears to us today in our mostly sterile and disease-free existence, where imagining bodies piling up in houses because the sick are too weak to remove them is so far outside our experience. Reading about the suffering and fear people across the world faced, and the heroism that emerged despite dire circumstances, brings home how privileged most of us in industrialized countries are today. But it also reveals how fragile and tenuous that privilege truly is. While the virus itself was lethal above and beyond normal limits, the scale and the speed of the 1918 pandemic were what broke societies down completely. Faced with the new threat of coronavirus today, how will we respond if it escapes containment? Just some big questions that neither Paige nor Jennifer have answers for.

Despite the many advances medical science had made around the turn of the century, it could not come up with a solution for the flu pandemic. This left the way open for more traditional remedies to advertise their miracle cures. Shockingly, Pluto Water did not prove effective against influenza. c/o Wikipedia.

In conclusion, The Great Influenza is a hypochondriac’s nightmare. Barry’s afterword is particularly sobering as he assesses our preparedness for the next pandemic. Unfortunately, we are woefully ill-equipped to deal with anything like the magnitude of the 1918 flu. In 1918, the federal government was very nearly criminally negligent in its apathetic response to the flu. The incompetence of government officials was compounded with their reluctance to listen to medical professionals and a president focused only on the war effort. The lack of centralized support as well as scarce resources were critical factors contributing to overall death toll. We will not have the luxury of this response again. Barry is emphatic in his assertion that government needs to seriously reconsider how much money is currently being spent on medical research, particularly the flu. It is also hard to comprehend the harshness of measures that might need to be taken to prevent a pathogen’s spread. The communities that fared best in 1918 were those who instituted strict quarantines, because in reality it is highly unlikely that during an epidemic help will come from a newly created vaccine. The best way to prevent deaths is to prevent infection. So while China’s steps taken to prevent movement in and out of the Wuhan epicenter may seem extreme, in reality this will save many lives as long as we continue to keep the coronavirus contained.

Despite the doom and gloom, what Barry has been able to accomplish through the weaving together of individual storylines with larger political and social developments is masterful. Even though The Great Influenza did not quite follow the path Jennifer had at first anticipated, it was a pleasant surprise. Despite some disagreements over stylistic choices Barry made with his writing, Jennifer gives this read 4.5 out of 5 stars and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of disease, epidemiology, or the American medical profession.

Don’t miss out on the links mentioned in this week’s episode:

  • The CDC has a small online exhibit about the 1918 pandemic, complete with links out to more resources.
  • To learn more about the four humors theory of medicine, but also about other systems of medicine in the ancient and medieval period, check out this Crash Course History video. Also, you should just check out Crash Course in general, they make awesome content.
  • Heinrich Hermann Robert Koch was the German scientist who was a founder of modern bacteriology and who’s name Jennifer couldn’t remember in the episode. And I mean with three first names, who is going to keep that straight?
  • To learn more about viruses in a digestible format, Jennifer has rounded up some relevant YouTube vids: general virus info, the flu specifically, and where viruses came from. The last video is produced by PBS Eons, an awesome channel if you are interested in paleontology, geology, or other early earth science stuff. Basically, it’s nerd heaven!
  • To keep up with the latest coronavirus news, check out CNN’s live updates.
  • Don’t miss out on the drama over Barry’s science in The Great Influenza. It is fascinating to see others in the scientific community weighing in on whether or not this book is accurate, whether or not it needs to be entirely accurate when portraying scientific ideas to the public, and more.
  • Visit John M. Barry’s personal website to see more of his works and read this excellent NYT article on Barry’s work as an activist suing Exxon over destruction of Louisiana coastline.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.6. If you’re enjoying the podcast so far, please consider giving us a review. Follow us on social medial if that is your thing (links above), and be sure to check out our Patreon for extra BBE content, including bonus episodes!

February Sneak Peek

Coming up on BBE in February:

First, a huge shout out to everyone that tuned in during Big Book Energy’s inaugural month! We hope this coming month is just as entertaining. We’ve lined up some uplifting picks filled with booze, SFF genocide, pandemics, and more muddling in philosophy because apparently past Jennifer really hated all things abstract and ambiguous. Scroll down to see the February Sneak Peek:

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley is Paige’s pick for Books We Hate this month. A contribution to the grimdark subgenre of fantasy, Hurley’s ambitious work incorporates several relevant trends such as exploring gender. Despite these positive strides, The Mirror Empire left Paige a little wanting. Will Jennifer hate this book as much as Paige did?

Continuing our lighthearted line up for February, John M. Barry’s nonfiction work, The Great Influenza covers the 1918 flu pandemic that killed more that WWI and WWII combined. This outbreak occurred at a critical moment in modern medicine, and this Thrift Store Finds pick comes at a highly relevant time!

Our second Books We Hate pick of the month, Jennifer hated this Paulo Coelho classic when she first read it. In fact…she has admitted that it was so distasteful to her, she didn’t even finish it. Will Paige feel the same? Or will she agree with the countless fans of The Alchemist?

Another nonfiction offering, Linda Himelstein’s The King of Vodka follows the life and times of Pyotr Smirnov, creator of Smirnoff vodka. Sit back, have an adult beverage or two, and follow along for a stranger than fiction tale.

Our Deep Dive pick for February is a continuation of our Tolkien theme. We will be discussing part one of Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring. Our theme this week will be exploring how Tolkien’s personal history helped him to create the vibrant world of Middle Earth and devise the story of the Lord of the Rings. Keep in mind Deep Dive picks are bonus episodes only available in full to Patreon subscribers, though a short teaser will be available for everyone. If you would like to unlock this episode and support BBE in the process, check out the link to our Patreon page above.

And that is a wrap for February 2020! Follow up on social media (links above) if you want to keep connected with all the latest BBE news.

Show Notes – Episode 1.2

Getting to Know The Stranger

This week on Big Book Energy, we are diving into Albert Camus’ absurdist classic, The Stranger. This was our first official Book We Hate, chosen by Jennifer for Paige. Jennifer’s first, and only, read of The Stranger was her senior year of high school. It was advertised as an example of existentialist literature, and Jennifer thoroughly hated it, though whether or not she really understood it is up for debate. After going through two rounds of graduate school and numerous existential crises, she has a feeling The Stranger may have a different appeal to her now.

Image of Albert Camus
Albert Camus. Image courtesy of Library of Congress, negative no. LC-USZ62-108028.

But boy oh boy was this a philosophical can of worms to explore in only our second episode. And we are not philosophers so….input and commentary are appreciated! The following are some things we learned over the course of this chat. First, Albert Camus was an all around bada**. Born in Algeria in 1913 when it was still under French control, Camus grew up in less than ideal circumstances. His mother struggled to provide for him and his brother, and Camus was afflicted with tuberculosis at a young age which shattered dreams of an athletic career. After receiving the best education possible in these circumstances, Camus tried to forge a better life in France where he was an editor, and later participated in the French Resistance against the Nazis in WWII. Finally, he was presented with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. So, really like #goals, minus the tuberculosis. Camus published The Stranger in 1942, though this had been preceded by plays, collections of essays, and Camus would go on to write more novels. Unfortunately, Camus’ life was cut tragically short by a car accident at the age of forty-six.

While The Stranger may have been marketed to Jennifer as an existentialist work in high school, Camus actually fought this association, classifying his work as absurdist. What is absurdism, you ask? Great question! That we are not really qualified to answer! But we tried. In short, absurdism is recognition of the conflict between our tendency towards seeking meaning in life and the fact that life is random, irrational, and completely out of our control. This is something that we can see in Camus’ own experience in life, and definitely also appears in his literary work. The Stranger, following a short period in the life of Meursault, is split into two parts: before The Murder and after The Murder. Meursault – who we refer to as M ever after because…we don’t know French – deals first with the death of his mother. Although, does he really deal with her death? No one can tell as he has literally no emotional response at her funeral. Then, after spending some time with his buddy Raymond, a local pimp, M gets into trouble. After a brief loss of control and sanity, M kills a man in cold blood.

The awesome cover of The Stranger, from the Vintage International 2012 edition

Perhaps the most fascinating portion of this book is M’s trial. What condemns him is not the brutal murder, but his emotionless and remorseless response, both to killing a man, but also to his own mother’s death. In fact, his response to his mother’s death is by far the most important piece of evidence used to justify the death penalty for M. Though technically he had done nothing wrong at the funeral, the lack of what society considers an appropriate response is the true nail in the coffin – both figuratively and literally. Encyclopedia Britannica characterizes Meursault as kind of like a rebellious figure who, “refuses to conform to society’s demands.” We find M to be a character so devoid of human emotion as to be suspect for some kind of psychological disorder. However, is it possible that his complete apathy to the world and events around him is a sign that he is still struggling to find purpose after accepting the world is irrational? Let us know what you think in the comments!

While we muddled our way through absurdism this week with an admittedly high brow pick, below are a collection of links that hopefully will give you more information on Camus, absurdism, and also random topics from this week’s episode:

A list of The Stranger Things:

  • Albert Camus’ Britannica entry gives a good breakdown of his life.
  • He also has an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • For those more academically inclined, there is an Albert Camus Society that publishes a Journal of Camus Studies, though you may need to be connected to a scholarly institution to access the journal for free.
  • Absurdism…is absurd, but if you’d like to explore it further, we cannot recommend enough this page from Philosophy Terms.
  • Here’s the AR thing Jennifer was talking about. Accelerated Reader is a software published by Renaissance that encourages students to read while also working on their reading comprehension and critical thinking.
  • Finally, here’s a quick look at how guillotining works on the human brain, and some fast facts about the guillotine. Looks like humans lose consciousness only a few seconds – think three or four seconds – after decapitation, so the facial expressions, etc. observed in the French Revolution were most likely involuntary.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.3. Follow us on social media if that is your thing, and be sure to check out our Patreon for extra BBE content!