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!

Show Notes – Episode 1.12

Where All My Girls At?: BBE Chats James Barclay’s Dawnthief

Quick Links from this Episode:

  • Not a ton of things to follow up on for this episode, but one of them is James Barclay’s page on Fantastic Fiction. Fantastic Fiction is a family run database of fiction and fantasy book. They rather dubiously claim Barclay is the “most successful UK fantasy writer of his generation.”
  • If you’d like to learn more about Barclay or his books, be sure to check out his personal website.
Dawnthief, by James Barclay (2009 ed, first published 1999)

James Barclay’s fantasy adventure, Dawnthief, is the first pick for Books We Hate in April. Paige first encountered Dawnthief at Barnes & Noble her freshman year of college. Though the cover was less than inspiring, the summary convinced Paige to take the plunge…into hatred. Or at the very least, indifference. For some inexplicable reason, Paige kept this volume despite her dislike for more than ten years and, here we are.

James Barclay is a British fantasy (some would say high fantasy) author born in 1965. Like so many other authors, his desire to write books came at an early age, and took a while to come to fruition. While Barclay did some dabbling in engineering when he first entered university, it wasn’t long before he transitioned to the arts. Barclay has been in several different productions as an actor. However, Barclay is now also a successful author with twelve novels to his name. Dawnthief was his first, published in 1999, and centered around a mercenary group called the Raven. Barclay would go on to write two trilogies about the Raven, along with several others based in the same world.

Themes Discussed in the Episode

Dawnthief follows the exploits of the Raven, a group of elite mercenaries bound together by an unbreakable and rigid brotherly code. When a job starts going sideways the Raven is pulled inexorably into a titanic struggle to save the entire world of Balaia, complete with vengeful Wytch Lords and a spell of nuclear proportions.

  • First point of note that sets Dawnthief somewhat apart from other fantasy books is that Barclay is not afraid to kill off ‘main’ characters. Many stories don’t hold any true suspense because no matter the odds you are certain that the protagonist and company will survive even the darkest times or tightest spots. A caution to any would-be readers, don’t get too close to any characters in Dawnthief. As one reviewer put it, the book resembled a fantastical Magnificent Seven.
  • Barclay has created a weird blend of fantasy with sci-fi elements that doesn’t always seem to work. Similar to what we saw in The Green Empire, there is inter-dimensional travel and dying worlds, however, the magic practiced in Dawnthief is much more science-minded in nature.
  • There are definitely some balancing issues: the pacing is uneven, switching from interminably slow at times, to nonstop action at others. The big baddies of the book, the Wytch Lords, seem unconvincing as well. Supposedly the most powerful beings of ever, the actual process of destroying them seems anticlimactic
  • The main point of contention that comes up in our discussion is the conspicuous lack of female characters in this story. Despite a wide cast, there are only *two* female characters and they were either superfluous or unlikable. Selyn’s asides literally contribute nothing to the story, her only contribution is indirectly, through her death. Erienne, on the other hand, is simply not a convincing female character.
  • A note of praise: Jennifer thought Dawnthief had some great action scenes that did not lead her to automatically tune them out.

Our Final Thoughts

Once again, BBE’s co-hosts had slightly different opinions of a Book We Hate. After reading, Jennifer gave Dawnthief a solid 3.5 stars out of 5. She probably won’t go hunt down the next book in the series, and it is true Dawnthief has some problems, but overall she enjoyed the read.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.13 on The Ghosts of Williamsburg. If you are enjoying the podcast, please consider leaving a review and following BBE on social media. You can also support the podcast on Patreon and get access to our bonus Deep Dive episodes! (All links below). Until next time!

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 1.8

Basically, Things Fall Apart: Critiquing Jay Lake’s Green

Quick Links from the Episode:

  • Here are links to Lake’s entry on Wikipedia, as well as the Tor memorial Jennifer mentioned in this week’s episode.
  • Here’s an article from The Oregonian that details Lake’s struggles with cancer and his uniquely positive response. This is also where we learn that Green was inspired by his daughter, though the ebook version also includes a dedication to his daughter (see below).
  • Lake’s blog about his cancer experience seems to have since been archived, but his author blog is still up here.
Green, Jay Lake (2007)

Our first Book We Hate pick of March, the premise of author Jay Lake’s book, Green, seemed promising when Paige picked it up years ago. The cover was intriguing as well, liberally painted with the titular color. The basic plot is interesting enough: a girl is sold into slavery and transported far from her homeland to train and serve as a courtesan of sorts in the Pomegranate Court. Despite being taken from a young age, the girl does not lose her rebellious spirit, and eventually makes her own path, bringing down those are responsible for her suffering. Unfortunately for Paige, the last two-thirds of the book did not live up to the hype.

Jay Lake was an acclaimed author before passing away from cancer in 2014. Lake’s father was a U.S. foreign service officer, so he grew up in a variety of exotic locales, including Taiwan and Nigeria, before finishing high school and attending college in the United States. Lake is only the second science fiction and fantasy author that BBE has reviewed and had a promising start to his writing career, winning the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in Science Fiction in 2004. Ultimately Lake published more than 300 stories and nine novels. Unfortunately, he was first diagnosed with cancer in 2008, and after a protracted battle with the disease passed away only a year after publishing the final book in the trilogy that Green began.

As Paige points out at the beginning of the episode, Green gets off to a decent start, but rapidly deteriorates after the first third or so of the book. The early writing style is intriguing with image-driven, almost lyrical prose that can be difficult to keep straight, but is pleasing to read nonetheless. The story is told supposedly from the perspective of the character, Green, as a child, but with intercessions into the childhood memories by a much older Green. This odd mix of part-present, part-past makes for an extremely unbelievable child narrator, with an awareness unlikely to be found in a three year old.

Lake credits his daughter as the inspiration for the story in this dedication.

The plot quickly loses its way as Green loses hers. Following her revenge upon the Duke of Copper Downs who was ultimately responsible for the child trafficking Green had been sucked into, she finds that her home is no longer open to her. While taken in by an order of assassin-priestesses of the Lily Goddess, Green remains directionless and the plot itself seems to be random events strung together. More disturbing, however, are the numerous questionable sex scenes that adolescent Green is involved in, including with older authority figures – what we would recognize today as pedophilia and statutory rape.

Green could have been the start to an empowering female saga. The characters in the story are mostly women. In fact, they are predominantly strong women who stand up for their beliefs or for others. However, because of Lake’s dubious choice of age for his protagonist, Green’s exploration of her sexuality into more mature areas such as BDSM and inter-species sex seems inappropriate and is uncomfortable to read. Any arguments about a different age/time/world crumble in the face of Green’s willing participation in her own exploitation by those with power over her.

As if these more challenging themes were not enough, the story really falls apart towards the end of the book. Points that are evidently critical to the story are explained poorly or not at all, the prime example being religion suddenly becoming the center of the plot though it was barely touched on in the majority of the novel. All this to say, Jennifer gave Green two stars out of five – for the merit of the first part of the story – and would not recommend it to any bookish peeps.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.9. If you’re enjoying the podcast so far, please leave us a review and follow us on social media. Be sure to check out our Patreon for bonus BBE content as well, including bonus episodes (all links below). Until next time!

March Sneak Peek

We are into month three of Big Book Energy! Many thanks to our listeners for supporting us so generously so far. Scroll below to see our March Sneak Peek and preview what books we will be covering this month:

Green, by Jay Lake is our first Book We Hate pick of the month. Green is the story of how one girl, sold into slavery, overcomes her circumstances to overthrow the government responsible for her exploitation and serve the new goddess she has found. Sounds uplifting, but Lake’s work leaves much to be desired.

Out Thrift Store Finds have a theme of their own this month: Chicken Soup for the Soul. Jennifer’s pick is for the Woman’s Soul, whatever that may mean to the editor’s of this compilation.

Forced to read In the Lake of the Woods in high school, Jennifer has hated it ever since. Tim O’Brien won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for his work, a nightmarish journey into the mind of Vietnam War veteran John Wade as he struggles to piece together what has happened to his wife, Kathy.

Though the Goodwill offered perhaps the entire range of Chicken Soup books, Paige chose for the Soul at Work for this month. Perhaps the uplifting stories of “Courage, Compassion & Creativity” will inspire us at our workplace. Or perhaps we’ll get some good laughs out of it, idk you’ll have to tune in to find out.

Our bonus episode for the month of March is the next in the LOTR series, The Two Towers. For this episode we will be incorporating more of Tolkien’s life and how it may have impacted his work. A teaser of this episode will be available to everyone on all our platforms, but to listen in full, head on over to Patreon and become a supporter of the podcast!

And that’s a wrap for our March Sneak Peek. Follow the links below to find us on social media or to support the podcast on Patreon. Keep being awesome, bookish peeps!

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 1.3

Visions of Enlightenment: Mysterious Manuscripts, Macchu Picchu, and Machine Guns

For our second Thrift Store Find, Paige chose James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy. Served up in our local Goodwill’s New Age section, and with a name like The Celestine Prophecy, you can guess that this pick is going in a similar direction to our first Thrift Store Find. However, contrary to what Jennifer had originally thought, this is, in fact, a work of fiction. Perhaps this is better than a mystical self-help book? Perhaps not? We’ll get to that at the end of the post. Either way, Redfield is simply using a fictional story as a vehicle for plugging his nine step program to achieving enlightenment, although what kind of enlightenment he means is not necessarily the woo-woo mumbo jumbo you may be expecting.

James Redfield, c/o goodreads

Redfield grew up in the Birmingham, Alabama area, and attended school at Auburn University. While in school he studied several eastern schools of thought, such as Taoism, while earning a degree in sociology. He later got a Master’s degree in counseling, which kick-started a fifteen-year long career in counseling. Though working with abused adolescents was undoubtedly a fulfilling career for Redfield, he explains in his personal bio on his website (link below) that he felt increasingly drawn to write about, “interactive psychology, Eastern and Western philosophies, science, futurism, ecology, and history.” He actually published The Celestine Prophecy himself, through Satori Publishing in 1992. By 2005, the book had over twenty million copies sold and was available in thirty-four different languages, a kind of success that most self-publishers can only dream of. This was only the first of many subsequent successful books, wherein Redfield reveals further ‘steps’ in his program. The Celestine Prophecy is described by Redfield as being a parable,

Paige walks listeners through the nine steps as presented within the story about a man (who is never named, although they call him John in the movie adaptation – let’s call him ‘John’ from now on), who embarks on a wild Peruvian adventure after becoming dissatisfied with his life and learning of a mysterious manuscript discovered in Peru, one that points to a path to achieve enlightenment. While the Catholic Church is trying to suppress knowledge of this manuscript emerging, as it rather understandably represents a threat to their own spiritual teachings, some brave souls that ‘John’ meets serendipitously along the way are not going to let an ancient institution or a few gun fights stand in their way. Yes, I said gun fights, as there are a disproportionate number of gun fights in this story, likening it to a Jason Bourne or a James Bond movie. Did anyone else notice that those two have the same initials? Anyway, “John” is helped by various people who reveal subsequent insights necessary for spiritual awakening to him.

This beautiful photo of Macchu Picchu, where ‘John’ has a spiritual experience, is by rhett sorensen on Unsplash

Redfield fluctuates between preaching an ascension gospel and providing advice that you would expect to find in a therapy session, undoubtedly stemming from his background in counseling. Things like releasing emotional or spiritual burdens, marketed in the story as forgetting your past, are common fare in the therapist’s office. Further, Redfield discusses how to recognize toxic people and behaviors at length, though not in so many words. Instead, this is billed as ‘transference,’ and ‘John’ learns there are four different types of behaviors that are designed to gain energy (or attention) from other people: the interrogator, the intimidator, aloof, and the ‘poor me’. This section was perhaps the most practically applicable portion of Redfield’s work as we all know people who match these behaviors, or perhaps even recognize these behaviors in ourselves from time to time. It is part of being an emotionally well-adjusted being to learn how to avoid these detrimental habits, and if necessary, cut out people in our life who embody them.

It seems that while the story itself, and definitely the movie by all accounts, comes across as kooky, some of the basic ideas within it are much more relevant to your daily life than you might expect. We are almost 100% certain that Redfield does not actually believe that we are going to turn into beams of light like some sort of apocalyptic Rapture – he says as much in his bio. Rather, The Celestine Prophecy can be taken as an exaggerated how-to guide to achieving greater mental clarity and peace. Perhaps Redfield felt that a fictional tale would be more palatable to the average reader than an esoteric nonfiction text. However, for us, placing his ideas in this context makes them more difficult to take seriously. Clearly though, his books’ incredible popularity indicates that they speak to a lot of people, including the former owner of Paige’s copy, who wrote extensively in the margins of certain chapters. While Paige is definitely not recommending The Celestine Prophecy to anyone any time soon, this doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t add value to your life.

We foresee these links being useful:

  • Here’s the IMDB page on the movie adaptation of The Celestine Prophecy. Apparently it is available to watch if you have Amazon Prime! But with a rating of 23 from Metacritic, be warned…
  • Stargate SG-1, Atlantis, and Universe (the whole current Stargate saga) is now available on Hulu and through Amazon Prime. If you have either of these subscription services and you haven’t checked out Stargate yet, what is your excuse really?
  • There are literal tons of fun links to learn more about Stargate, but here are a few: Gate World is a complete guide to the Stargate universe and also has a page for the upcoming and mysterious Stargate Origins spin-off, the Stargate Wiki is – as you can imagine – the place to be for any scrap of Stargate info you might have a question about, and finally don’t miss the new Stargate Command YouTube channel where you can catch cast interviews, classic clips, original YouTube shows, and much more! Really, Jennifer could talk about Stargate all day, so if you want, you can hit us up on social media or comment below.
  • Check out Celestine Vision to see other books Redfield has published, of which there are many, and upcoming Redfield events.
  • Redfield also provides an in-depth bio on the above website, which is pretty revealing.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.4. Follow us on social media if that is your thing, and be sure to check out our Patreon for extra BBE content!