BBE Jumps Into Their First Fall of Bookish Podcasting

September 2020 Sneak Peek

It is that time again somehow, bookish peeps. August has absolutely flown by and we are staring down September. With that in mind, it is time to reveal our lineup for the coming month. Click through the gallery to preview our book pics! Let us know what you think and if you are also excited for some serious fall vibes.

Jennifer is bringing you BBE’s first academic history with Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast. How much does Jennifer love this book? Well she *willingly* wrote three papers on it in grad school…so you could say a lot. CW: we will be talking about restricted eating behaviors.

Paige’s Books We Love pick for the month is Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Bloodprint. An epic fantasy set in a Middle-Eastern inspired world, Paige loved this book for its world building and powerful female characters. Defeating a slave trade with the power of books? Sounds like an archivist’s dream.

BBE is SO excited to present this month’s Movie Magic episode: Hidden Figures. Margot Lee Shetterly’s book turned into a major motion picture. This could be our toughest call in Movie Magic yet.

And that is a wrap for our September Sneak Peek. To keep up with BBE this season, be sure to follow us on social media. If you are enjoying the podcast so far, we would dearly appreciate a review or you can send us an email. And finally, if you’d like to support the podcast, you can check out our Bookshop store, or head on over to our Patreon to get access to our full bonus episodes (link below). Stay nerdy, bookish peeps!

Stolen Cells: Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Show Notes for Bonus Episode 2.1

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2009)

Our very first Movie Magic pick for Season 2 is Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. When Paige first recommended this book for Movie Magic, Jennifer immediately agreed. Jennifer had actually read this book for the first time earlier in 2019, which is perhaps embarrassing since the book was published in 2009 and was on the New York Times Bestseller list for six years. So we were a little behind. Regardless, Skloot’s work is an excellent piece of science writing and the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family is frankly incredible.

Taken far too soon from her children by a horrifically aggressive cancer, Henrietta’s cancerous cells turned out to be one of the greatest boons ever given to modern science. Her cells are immortal, reproducing endlessly as long as they are fed, and allowed for generations of scientists to make breakthroughs and discoveries that have saved millions of lives. However, these cells were taken without proper consent or knowledge, and this fact has since prompted heated debates on the ethics of modern genetic research – something in which everyone living today has a stake.

Quick Links from the Episode

  • To learn more about our author for this month, you can visit Rebecca Skloot’s website.
  • Skloot also started the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which provides scholarship to descendants of Henrietta, or descendants of others subjected to historical research without consent.
  • Paige Downey Presents Fun with Comics is our new segment that appears monthly during our Movie Magic episodes. This month, Paige presents Saga, by Fiona Staples.
  • You can find Fiona on Instagram and Tumblr. Also, Marvel and DC aren’t the only sheriffs in town – don’t sleep on Image comics!
  • A relatively recent Wired article breaks down where we are currently at with laws governing genetics in the United States.
  • The LawSeq project is dedicated to compiling all laws related to genetics and genetic research in the United States (state and federal) and their site is a fantastic resource for learning more about this topic.
  • The Washington Post published an excellent article on the experiments done on Puerto Rican women for the pill. Jennifer was incorrect in the episode in remembering this occurred in the 1970s, it was actually in the 1950’s!
  • To purchase any of the books mentioned in this month’s bonus episode, head on over to our Bookshop store!

Main Points from the Episode

  • When did you first learn about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells? Jennifer only learned about this amazing story when she first read the book last year. Paige actually found a short description of HeLa’s story in her college biology textbook, but has no memory of learning about it then. However, a few years ago, she did run across a few articles that mentioned immortal cells.
  • Is it ethical to take someone’s cells for research without their knowledge or consent? You think this is a trick question? The obvious answer seems to be a resounding no. However, the reality is that for decades this was a common practice in the medical field. Paige and Jennifer rant about this quite a bit – the first of several rants about ethics in this book. See the quick links above for more information about what is actually in the [law]books about this currently.
  • Was taking the HeLa cells without proper consent justified? You can thank Paige for this really difficult question, and BBE was torn over the answer to this one. Research on HeLa cells has literally saved millions of lives – we can thank them for polio vaccines, HPV vaccines, AIDS research, cancer research, etc. etc. etc. until the end of time. This certainly tips the scales in favor of this action being justified (though not really ethical). However, the researcher who originally took these cells was not aware of what a contribution they would make. Jennifer waffles back and forth on this one, but Paige comes down on the side of not being justified as the ends never justify the means for her. Both rant about the importance and meaning of informed consent, a critical issue in this arena.
  • What does this book teach us about the power dynamic between the medical field in the United States and minorities or people of color? If you didn’t already know, historically communities of color have been disproportionately treated poorly by the medical profession in the United States. Skloot’s book does a great job illustrating how individual instances of mistreatment can promote mistrust in entire families or communities, as well as providing many other examples of larger experiments on people of color that have contributed to suspicion of the medical profession.

We know why you really tuned in though, it was to see which one we liked better: book or movie! Not surprisingly, Jennifer and Paige preferred the book. We both went into the movie with extremely low expectations. It wasn’t a big budget production released in theaters or anything of the sort. While we love Oprah, seeing her listed in the cast also seemed cause for concern. However, we needn’t have worried at all. The movie adaptation heads in a different direction than the book, focusing almost purely on the human element: the story of Henrietta, and her daughter Deborah’s search for answers. The cast was truly excellent, and the movie did a wonderful job of portraying the relationship between Deborah Lacks and Skloot.

That being said, the book provided so much more information that explained the science behind why Henrietta’s story was important. This is perhaps unfair to a movie, which only has a couple hours or so to convey several hundred pages of written content. But what can we say, we’re book people! Movies better really blow us away to win out. Either way, we would recommend reading the book AND watching the movie.

This image shows HeLa cells in different stages of cell division.
This beautiful photograph of HeLa cells in metaphase and telophase is courtesy of the archive of Josef Reischig.

Coming up next is Paige’s all time favorite book ever: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. If you are enjoying the podcast, please consider leaving us a review, and to keep up with all the BBE news, follow us on social media. If you are interested in supporting the podcast, head on over to our Bookshop store, or visit our Patreon (linked below). Until next time!

July Sneak Peek

Welcome back book nerds and book ninjas! We are so excited to be entering Season 2 of Big Book Energy. Thanks to our listeners, we have two new themes for this season. Regular episodes will be Books We Love picks, a chance for us to rave about some of our all time favorite books. The theme for our bonus episodes this season is Movie Magic, where we read a book and then watch the movie to compare the two, probably trashing the movie to bits – but you never know! Season 2 is also bringing some other significant changes. We are changing our schedule, dialing back to posting an episode every other Monday, with one bonus episode per month. We are also introducing three new segments for our episodes: BBE Bookstore, Folio Facts, and Creatives’ Corner. Thanks for joining us for another awesome season.

Keep scrolling to see our July lineup:

Paige’s first Book We Love pick is none other than the Hugo award-winning first novel of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series: The Fifth Season. A gritty fantasy set in a truly imaginative world, this one is sure to rock your socks off. (Bad pun only applicable if you’ve read the books!)

While Paige went contemporary, Jennifer took a turn for the classics this month with one of her oldest all time favorites: Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Perhaps one of the greatest revenge stories of all time, the 1,000 pages are 1,000% worth the read.

Our July Movie Magic pick is Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. We didn’t know that this book was even made into a movie? But the story is incredibly compelling, and come to find out Oprah stars as Deborah Lacks?! We are excited to say the least.

And that is a wrap for our July Sneak Peek. To keep up with BBE this season, be sure to follow us on social media. If you are enjoying the podcast so far, we would dearly appreciate a review. And finally, if you’d like to support the podcast, you can check out our Bookshop store, or head on over to our Patreon to get access to our full bonus episodes (link below). Stay nerdy, bookish peeps!

Show Notes – Episode 1.15

We Draw the Line at Laser Beams: Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods

Quick Links from the Episode:

  • Erich von Daniken has his own YouTube channel, which could be great fun if you are able to read/speak German.
  • The Nazca Lines are enormous geoglyphs that have been carved into the Peruvian desert. Designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994, archaeologists go back and forth on why the figures were made, but the sheer size and precision of these artifacts has led many to theorize an alien influence. As late as last year, 143 new glyphs were discovered, some even by using AI. The Wikipedia article has beautiful photos of the most famous geoglyphs, some of which are featured below.
  • Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco in Spanish) is a rich archaeological site on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. The Tiwanaku empire was a highly sophisticated civilization, as evidence by the monumental architecture of undeniably good craftsmanship. The Ancient History Encyclopedia article on this site includes photographs of the infamous Gate of the Sun which makes an appearance in Chariots of the Gods.
  • Unsurprisingly there is a rational wiki on Daniken. It is scathing and delightful.
  • Some notes on metalworking: Yes, we can heat up stone to a crazy high temperature, and we have been able to do so for quite some time. Alien assistance not required. This process is well documented by archaeologists (and blacksmiths) and there is no evidence that any special knowledge was imparted to our ancestors from an otherworldly source. Here is the YouTube video Paige referenced in the episode.
Chariots of the Gods, Erich Von Danicken (1968)

Weeks and weeks ago, in our very first episode on Zecharia Stichin’s The Lost Realms, we promised our listeners another book about aliens. Well, that moment has finally arrived. Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods may be familiar if you’ve spent any time watching Ancient Aliens; the book is probably cited at least once an episode. In fact, that is how Jennifer recognized the title when Paige picked up this little number in the thrift store. A foundational work of the ancient astronaut field, Daniken takes the reader on a wild ride through an alternate human history, complete with alien overlords, little supporting evidence, and hot takes on the field of archaeology and beyond.

Erich Von Daniken’s story is nearly as sensational as those he tells in his books. As a child, Daniken began to question his heavily Catholic upbringing, already fascinated with the possibility of alien encounters in the past. His rebellious spirit did not go over well in his Catholic boarding school and after he was suspended for theft, Daniken left school for a fresh start. Daniken began working in the hotel business, which we are surprised to learn is apparently a crime-riddled, dangerous endeavor. Daniken would rack up three convictions and serve several stints in prison for fraud, embezzlement, and theft while working for various hotels.

This checkered past is in stark contrast to his dazzling success as an author and speaker. His first book, Chariots of the Gods, was published in 1968, and has sold millions of copies and been translated into dozens of languages since. However, Chariots of the Gods was so close to never even existing. After being picked up by a small company now part of the massive German publisher, Ullstein Verlag, Chariots had to be rewritten in order to be palatable. Rewritten by whom, you might ask? None other than Utz Utermann, who had been a bestselling author of Nazi literature leading up to and during WWII. This adds a sinister layer to what would otherwise be an entertaining read. Today, Daniken is featured on a variety of TV shows, has his own YouTube channel, and largely seems to have transcended his previous transgressions.

Main Points from the Episode:

  • Racism has once again reared its ugly head in an ancient astronaut book. At first, Paige and Jennifer were willing to give Daniken the benefit of the doubt when using words like “savages” to describe ancient cultures before the alien overlords arrived. Perhaps this was a translation error? But given what BBE uncovered above about the providence of Chariots of the Gods, this word choice definitely takes a turn towards the sinister. Similar to Stichin, Daniken also uses almost exclusively examples from non-white civilizations. Chariots is replete with references to ancient Sumer, the Maya and Inca, ancient India, and even the Chinese. The few throwaway examples that are included from white civilizations (Stonehenge – a quite common one) do little to take away from the overall impression, especially when Daniken compares Sumer to ancient Greece and argues that since the Greeks did not have certain mathematical skills, ancient Sumer must have had extraterrestrial help. Could our eyes roll back further into our heads? Probably not.
  • Daniken is also plagued by a lack of definitive proof to support his theories. Daniken derides archaeological standards and practices, but provides nothing concrete in return other than his strident assertions. All of it sounds like it could be true, and there is, in fact, no way to prove that history did not happen like this. This is a variation of the appeal to ignorance fallacy. What is key, is that Daniken is not replacing current scientific consensus with anything concrete, just his own interpretations of the archaeological evidence. Reminiscent of what we encountered in The Lost Realms, Daniken also speaks confidently, even condescendingly, to his reader. When a lay reader is faced with such confidence and an occasional equation thrown into the mix, it could be hard to not take Daniken at his word.
  • Chariots is also rife with hypocrisy, which is one of Jennifer’s chief complaints with ancient astronaut theories. Daniken spends a great deal of time acknowledging the technological advances we have made in recent history – without alien help – but seems incapable of allowing that past cultures could also have had such a revolution outside the known realms of written history and without the help of aliens. Once again, this inspired Jennifer to talk about the false narrative of progress in history that dates back to the Enlightenment era.
  • The most positive point in Chariots is undoubtedly Daniken’s call to action, which actually comes across more clearly in this book than on his website. Daniken, at least at the time that Chariots was published, is a proponent of increased space exploration, as he argues we will likely need to expand from Earth due to overpopulation.

Extra Stuffins for the Episode

The below photos are examples from the Nazca Lines in Peru. All photos courtesy of Diego Delso, you can view more of his work here.

The Monkey

The Condor

The Spider

This is an awesome clip from Ancient Aliens that features two ancient astronaut heavy hitters that we have discussed this season: Erick Von Daniken and Zecharia Stichin!

Paige gave Chariots of the Gods two stars, but would recommend it, in the same way that you’d recommend a cheesy B-movie. Honestly, while ancient astronaut theories and books can be fun, when we review them as a whole, they come across as willfully ignorant at best and predatory at worst. They prey on people’s lack of knowledge, expounding with a forceful tone ridiculous notions as if they are facts, relying on the reader’s trust to pass off their theory as truth. It doesn’t take much digging further to realize many of these claims are unsubstantiated, but more worrisome is the impact they have on the unsuspecting reader. As we live in a world that is increasingly filled with an overabundance of false information, being able to analyze or critically assess what you read is more important than ever. Entertaining as they may be, ancient astronaut books are no exception.

Coming up next in Episode 1.16: Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades. 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 all our 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 byΒ Nikolay VorobyevΒ onΒ 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!