Autodidact: self-taught


The Match Girl and the Heiress

by V. L. Craven

Match Girl and the Heiress

The premise of Seth Koven’s The Match Girl and the Heiress sounds like the worst sort of contrived Victorian social commentary. Well-to-do young woman (soft white hands and all) gives it all up to venture into the slums of London and befriends a factory working match girl who, in her turn, idolizes her. Together, they try to change the world.

It’s non-fiction, however, so I was very excited. It sounded like romantic friendship , which is one of my favourite topics. As is the Victorian era. So I thought, ‘real life romantic friendship in my favourite time period?’ Result!

Alas, it was not to be. While the book was very well researched. It was, at times, dry even for an academic work. I learned a great deal about the way World War I shaped Britain’s view of pacifism and other social causes. And the rise and clash of different sorts of feminism was quite interesting. But other parts were something of a slog.

The best sections (though few and far between) were analyzing the unequal relationship of the women–Muriel Lester (the heiress) and Nellie Dowell (the match girl), which were nearly perfect mirrors of the way well-meaning middle class whites in the U.S. try to help poor people, especially blacks in the present day. There’s a genuine desire to provide assistance but due to a lifetime of wearing the blinders of privilege they make mistake after mistake.

Unfortunately, I can only recommend this for those specifically interested in class and social issues of the time. 3/5

[I received a free copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]


Sailing the Wine Dark Sea

by V. L. Craven

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea

The ancient Greeks looked at the world as it was and thought, ‘We can improve upon all of this. Just…all of it.’

Well, not really. But that’s what they ended up doing. Whether it was in ways of warfare, poetry, politics or philosophy–even how we thought about being alive and our place in the world–they had their hands in it and minds on it. They wound up creating Western civilization.

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea follows the Greeks from the time when they were separate, warring tribes with very different personalities to the era of Greece’s unlimited power, to its fall to Rome. It tracks the various movers and shakers of each movement through those times and makes them as real as if they were standing before you. (Pythagoras was a cult-having hippie and the politicians of the first democracy are as unscrupulous as the ones we know today. The more things change…)

Cahill provides translations of poetry and plays and speeches (some from Robert Fagles and some of his own) to illustrate the changing Greek mind over time. There are also images of sculpture, pottery and other types of artwork and architecture, showing the evolution of each of these throughout the golden age of Greece.

Entertaining and informative, Sailing the Wine Dark Sea is an excellent introduction to the history of ancient Greece and its contributions to Western civilization. At 352 pages it’s not for the established Greek scholar, but it is a good overview and gives some idea of the scope of their influence. For those reasons I give it 5/5

[This is the fourth book of Thomas Cahill’s Hinges of History series, which aim to bring to life the people and events of the turning points of civilization.]


The Empire of Death

by V. L. Craven

Empire of Death

Humans haven’t always tried to hide death away–it’s only relatively recently (and in Western culture)–that we’ve decided death has nothing to do with life and we want nothing to do with it. As though not thinking about something will keep it from happening. (This is something Caitlin Doughty addresses wonderfully in her book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes , which I reviewed last week.)

by Paul Koudounaris. Loggia of the Oratory of Sant'Anna. Poshiavo, Switzerland

by Paul Koudounaris. Loggia of the Oratory of Sant’Anna. Poshiavo, Switzerland

The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses by Paul Koudounaris is what it says on the tin, but it’s so much more, as well. It has 290 photographs, 260 of them are in colour. The average person wouldn’t be able to visit all of the sites he did, so perhaps the tag should have been: The Empire of Death: Koudounaris Confronts Mortality in Seventy Places Since You Couldn’t Afford to.

by Paul Koudounaris. Church of San Bernadino Alle Ossa. Milan, Italy.

by Paul Koudounaris. Church of San Bernadino Alle Ossa. Milan, Italy.

Because that’s essentially what happens when looking at the photographs. If you really take the time to look at them it has a similar humbling effect of contemplating the size of the universe. Every skull was once a person with hopes and dreams and families who fought and laughed and loved. It’s an exercise in existentialism.

by Paul Koudounaris. Ossuary Chapel of San Marino Della Battaglia. San Martino. San Martino, Italy.

by Paul Koudounaris. Ossuary Chapel of San Marino Della Battaglia. San Martino. San Martino, Italy.

Which was the intent of the original designers. They were created for people to sit in and contemplate their own mortality–to be aware that they weren’t going to live forever and so they’d better act properly because eternity was a very long time to spend in hell and/or separated from their loved ones who would no doubt be in heaven. Often there would be quotes on the walls, one of my favourites was from the Chapel of Bones of Valleta, Malta:

The world is a theater and human life is the boundary of all worldly things. Life is the personification of vanity. Death breaks and dissolves the illusion and is the boundary of all mortal things. Let those who visit this place ponder well these maxims and carry with them a lively remembrance of death. Peace be with you.

Chapel of Skulls. Valletta, Malta

Chapel of Skulls. Valletta, Malta

I’ve long been a fan of charnels–since I visited the Capuchin crypt by the Santa Maria della Concezione del Cappuccini in Rome and was rushed out before I could properly appreciate the chandeliers made of human bones. And all of the well-known sites are included including that one. Sedlec , the Paris Catacombs , etc, but many that I hadn’t heard of and quite a few that had been destroyed, either by nature or humans, were covered, as well.

Capuchin crypt. Santa Maria d Concezione. Rome.

Capuchin crypt. Santa Maria d Concezione. Rome.

People weren’t all bad, there was a resurgence in charnels in the 19th century where several were restored and some are being restored now. The Eggenberg charnel in Austria has something of a Hannibal touch, where they created an eye shape, as it was meant to be viewed from the top of a well with skulls as the pupil, looking back at the viewer.

by Paul Koudounaris. Eggenberg, Austria Charnel (Beinhaus).

by Paul Koudounaris. Eggenberg, Austria Charnel (Beinhaus).

It’s well-researched and well-written and with maps and notes galore it’s sure to please those interested in unusual facts about history or interesting sites to visit. Or people comfortable with their impending doom (or who want to become so). So if you’re looking for something for that person on your shopping list this holiday season, here’s something to consider.

by Paul Koudounaris. Chapel of Bones. Faro, Portugal.

by Paul Koudounaris. Chapel of Bones. Faro, Portugal.

Koudounaris has a website empiredelamort  that has loads more photos.
He’s also on Instagram under hexenkult.
And on Facebook .

Dahlia Jane also wrote a lovely review, with more photos, on her blog Upon a Midnight Dreary .


The Internet Wants to Make You Smarter

by V. L. Craven

You know you can fill your brain with interesting information you’ll never need by following one Wikipedia link to the next (there’s even a game based around that very thing ), but the Internet can make you smarter in other, more permanent ways. Using the magic of video.

[Warning: you can lose hours of your life on the following pages because there’s always ‘one…more…video…’]

YouTube has the educational and entertaining SciShow , which is done by Hank Green (one of the vlog brothers ).

They do regular shows on experiments, science news, pioneers in scientific fields and loads of other geeky things. One of their newest features is the SciShow Talk Show. The initial episode:

Which leads directly to The Brain Scoop , a channel by Emily Graslie that focuses on the ‘interesting’ things behind the scenes at a Zoological museum. They have a shirt that says ‘ Everything is Dead ‘. That should tell you a lot.

Here’s a video for you to watch. Then watch more of hers.

I mentioned the vlogbrothers above, and they have a channel, Crash Course , which is what it sounds like. Quick courses on History (US & World) & English Literature, as well as Ecology, Chemistry and Biology.

This is the intro to English Literature.

Then there’s Vsauce , which has science, as well, but is also heavy on general trivia. Vsauce like to explain/answer interesting questions. Like the science of the friend-zone:

If you like your trivia heavier on the funny and delivered with an English accent, head over to the Quite Interesting channel , with all of the QI episodes. You’ll laugh your arse off and learn a few things, as well.

Back in the States, Ze Frank is always funny, but his True Facts about animals are hilarious.

If you’re more into techy-geeky than science-geeky, there’s Code Academy , a free, online coding tutor that allows you to go at your own pace. My husband is using it to learn Python, but they have tracks to learn HTML, Javascript, CSS, Ruby, APIs, and jQuery.

Speaking of learning to code, K has also done a Coursera course on Python; one of the assignments of which was making a rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock game and the final was to build your own asteroid-shooter game so he enjoyed himself immensely. He’s also taken a course through Udacity and recommends that, as well. There are loads of free courses online, but I’m only including those I’ve personally heard good things about. If you’ve tried a site you liked, hit up the comments and let me know.

There’s a Coursera course coming up in March on Self Knowledge I’m considering doing, though my life is going to be in some turmoil due to employment fun, so we’ll see how that goes. If you’re taking it, please let me know. Perhaps we can be study-buddies.

If you need an information-fix and don’t have time to watch videos for some reason, there’s the Twitter.

I’ve recently got onto the Twitter and one of my favourite accounts is Curiosity , the most recent inhabitant of Mars. It posts in the first person, which is bloody fantastic.

Lookie what I did! It’s a hole in 1 rock on Mars. This “mini drill” was a test, more to come!

How do I take selfies on Mars? By taking multiple pics w/ a camera at the end of my arm. Here’s how it’s done:


Another interesting feed is Tyler Simko ( @thequantumaniac ), which is the Twitter feed of Quantumaniac , a blog full of physics and science goodness.

The fabulous Professor Brian Cox ( @ProfBrianCox ) has a twitter feed that’s just as enjoyable as you’d think.

For the funny trivia-lovers, there’s @mental_floss  and @qikipedia , which is run by The QI Elves and makes me snort with laughter at least once a day.

There are a bajillionty [totally scientific number] of other educational twitter feeds, please let me know which ones you like. Before I end this post, I have to mention @BBCNews , because just today it brought this to my iPod:

Thanks to their feed, I got to watch that before I was even out of bed this morning. Learning things rocks


Meta Post

by V. L. Craven

Nostalgia about nostalgia about nostalgia.

I was fiddling around on my computer and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” comes on my mp3 player and I’m instantly thirteen. Smell is supposed to be most closely linked to memory but when I hear certain songs I may as well jump in a time machine, so much do some songs put me right back in the frame of mind I was in when said song was ubiquitous.

It’s fitting that the song that set me off this time was Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, a list song he wrote about the key world events occurring in his lifetime. I was born nearly thirty years after Mr Joel (him = May 09, 1949 me = June 09 1978) but his song about his childhood defines my childhood. I ‘came of age’ when his song of coming of age was popular. I know every word of the song even though the vast majority of the events happened before I was born.

I’ve always prided myself on differing from my peers by not caring about age difference but recently it has occurred to me just how important certain events can be to people. One day I will meet a person who wasn’t born when 9/11 happened and I will be baffled; just as people who were alive when JFK was assassinated feel when they talk to people my age. When that happens I’ll feel as I do now about JFK people: that it’s such a defining moment I can’t believe I don’t have a memory of it. It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t a sentient being then–I should remember something like that. I’ll feel that way about future pro-9/11 kids. Nostalgia is like a supremely bizarre LSD trip.

This whole thing has been exacerbated by a project I was working on for one of my bosses where I needed to find sites with lists of things people in their sixties had seen invented as well as things people in their 20s had never lived without. I discovered The People History which lists useful info for each year in U.S. history, as well as Wikipedia’s Years in Literature which has lists of popular books for any given year. They also have music. It’s fascinating, addictive stuff. And normally I believe in connection across generational differences. but after poking around on some of these sites I can see how some people would only want to be with those they could identify with chronologically. In twenty years I don’t know if I could be interested (emotionally/intimately) in a person who had no concept of 9/11, even though I’m no patriot. The whole project has made me think, which I appreciate.

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