Category Archives: History

Corn, Cotton and Chocolate: How the Maya Changed the World by James O’Kon PE

Reviewed by Ray Palen

Corn, Cotton and ChocolateNo civilization in the history of our planet existed longer than the ancient Mayans. The historic period that they were at the forefront of lasted for 3500 years. This is an unheard of figure and, arguably, one which will never be beat. This civilization reigned from roughly 2500 B.C. to 900 A.D. However, most of what they achieved went all but unnoticed. There was no written or oral news to traverse the globe to describe their exploits and the impact they had on the planet and the rest of mankind. In essence, they were the ‘phantoms of history’.

CORN, COTTON AND CHOCOLATE: HOW THE MAYA CHANGED THE WORLD looks like a textbook, something you might have to purchase for your Social Studies class. It could also be a highly quoted text to aid in your term paper or thesis research. Sounds like some pretty dry stuff, huh? I am happy to say that in the hands of author James O’Kon, this eye-opening work was never short on surprises and could gladly hold the interest of any intelligent person seeking to learn more about perhaps the most influential civilization of all-time.

Rather than a straight chapter by chapter review I thought I would make things more interesting.

10 Things The World Can Thank The Mayans For

1. The Mayans were Cosmic Philosophers. They always considered themselves sky watchers and this need to understand the universe above and around us made them the earliest known astronomers. They were able to gain an uncanny knowledge of the harmonious composition of the cosmos. Yes, well before Carl Sagan!

2. They were the greatest agronomists in word history. They made famous the term cultivar. Not just an assemblage of plants or flowers but a natural process honed through careful cultivation. They can thank Columbus for spreading the word around his global journeys about the original ‘flower power’ people.

3. The invention of the number zero. This is nothing to laugh at (no pun intended). Mathematicians have proclaimed that one of the singular accomplishments of the human era, and the greatest intellectual feat of the Maya, was the number zero. This was a culture that was so introspective and intelligent that they were actually able to grasp the concept of something having no value — but still making it the starting point for numerical sequences!

4. Maize. Long thought to be a Native American find, Maize or as we more commonly refer to it — corn — was brought about due to sophisticated cultivation of high yielding grain. Some have called it the Maya’s greatest invention. They were eons ahead of the trend of genetic manipulation in creating food products — particularly, one in which people today cannot go to the movies without enjoying the ‘hot air-popped’ version of Maize.

5. The avocado. The fruit botanically known as Persea americana has grown in popularity in recent years due to its’ health benefits. This tropical delight is the central ingredient in the beloved Guacamole Dip. The Mayans cultivated Avocado trees whose origins may stretch back to the Cenozoic Era.

6. The Cassava and how it changed the way the world is fed. Cassava root was also mass cultivated by the Mayans and the ‘bread of the tropics’ took off in many different cultures throughout the world. This great source of carbohydrates stands behind only sugarcane and sugar beets in that category.

7. Bubble Gum. O’Kon talks about the mass-produced sticks of hard gum that used to accompany every package of baseball cards (long before collectors scoffed at the practice as lowering their value). We can thank the Mayans who took Chicle or the sap of the sapodilla tree and turned it into a substance to be chewed and enjoyed. Not sure if they actually blew bubbles with it or not…

8. Chocolate/Cocoa. Many of us, particularly the ladies, have a very personal relationship with chocolate. Can you imagine Valentine’s Day or Easter without it? It was the Mayans love affair with chocolate and cocoa in general, four millennia ago, that made this the treat of choice. Yes, they even made a warm, frothy beverage from it!

9. Cotton. This has long been attributed to the great cotton plantations of the southern United States. However, it was once again the expert cultivation of the wild cotton plant that turned this into the world’s most valuable and productive vegetable fiber. It also makes for some really smooth and breathable fabric for clothing.

10. Tobacco. Cigarette and cigar smoking, along with the second-hand smoke they produce, may be taboo in recent years due to the adverse health conditions they can cause. That being said, it is impossible to not recognize how every civilization has been touched by tobacco — from Native American peace pipes to the Marlboro Man. Again, the Mayans cultivation of Nicotiana paved the way for a vice that has been enjoyed by every civilization that followed them.

This just scratches the surface on all the terrific research James O’Kon applied to this text. A fun and interesting read. More importantly, you can feel O’Kon’s enthusiasm for the subject in every paragraph and that also elevates it far above your average textbook.

Pride of the Valley: Sifting through the History of the Mount Healthy Mill by Tracy Lawson and Steve Hagaman

Reviewed by Allen Hott

Pride of the ValleyA slightly different book for most readers but a very good read and especially if you have any interest in southern Ohio history. Pride of the Valley was actually the name of a brand of flour that was milled at the Mt Healthy mill. That mill was a historic fixture for many years.

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The Mt Healthy mill was built by Jediah Hill in the early 1800’s. Hill had moved to southern Ohio from New York and settled in the Mill Creek valley in what was to become Hamilton County. Hill’s mill was built for “harvesting” lumber originally and due to the tremendous growth in the area lumber was at the time a valued commodity.

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961 by Nicholas Reynolds

Reviewed by Caryn St. Clair

Writer, Sailor, Soldier,SpyAuthor Reynolds holds a PhD from Oxford, is a former Marine who also worked as a CIA officer eventually settled into the role of military historian. It was while he was helping gather information for a new exhibit at the CIA Museum on the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), that Reynolds ran across several documents referencing Ernest Hemingway. That in itself was not so surprising as anyone who has read any of Hemingway’s work is aware the author worked as a war corespondent and also lived in Cuba as Castro came to power. However, his findings went far beyond that. He was surprised to find hints that Hemingway had once been associated with the NKVD which was the forerunner of the KGB, served as a spy for the US but also later a supporter of Castro. Make no mistake, this not some drily written tome of historical facts and documents. Reynolds seriously researched Hemingway’s life during each of these times and wrote a book filled with the author’s fascinating adventures. An author who already had a reputation of living life mostly out of bounds. How much research did the author do? There is roughly 80 pages of notes at the end of the book before the index.

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Much has been written about Ernest Hemingway already. Most people with any interest at all in the author knows of his 4 wives, his penchant for adventure regardless of the danger, his reputation as a hard drinker and his periods of deep depressions. This book gives readers a ring side seat into the larger than life figure explaining why all of those things happened to him. One of my favorite tales was of Hemingway actually patrolling the US coast line looking for German subs, a job he was sanctioned by the military to do. He was not just looking for them, his desire was to find and sink one. It isn’t just that he did this that makes this so interesting. It is the enthusiasm he put into the project that is. In many ways, he seems like a man who has never outgrown the little boy playing at war. One of my biggest surprises was how easily Hemingway was able to work his way into situations. He started as a writer covering WWII but slowly wormed his way into working for the OSS under the code name ARGO as a spy. He managed to get himself very close to the front lines, and even managed to fly for the RAF.

War, Spies & Bobby Sox (Stories About World War II at Home) by Libby Fischer Hellmann

Reviewed by Teri Davis

War, Spies and Bobby Sox“The volume of literature about World War Two has both fascinated and intimidated me. I suspect its popularity comes from the fact that it was the last time there was clarity between good and evil.”

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The Incidental Spy” is the story of Lena, a German Jewish refugee as she begins her new life in Chicago during 1935. Lena is fortunate to be sponsored by her aunt whose husband is a mathematics professor the University of Chicago. Immediately, she is enrolled in English and typing classes and quickly becomes a secretary in the physics department at the University. Naturally, it is hard knowing what is happening to the rest of her family a continent away. With erratic communication, the constant strain of her parents’ hardships, as well as her first love, are trying. Do you move on or wait?

Reclaim American Democracy: Economic Solutions to Dysfunctional Politics by Werner Neff

Reviewed by Veronica Alvarado

Reclaim American DemocracyThe year 2016 was inarguably one of the most tumultuous in American society in recent memory. A bitterly contested election between two unfavorable candidates, and the surprise dark horse win of populist Republican nominee Donald Trump, has prompted a desire amongst American readers to actively understand both the inner workings of their political society and how they reached the current political moment. To help fill this need comes Swiss economist Werner Neff’s Reclaim American Democracy: Economic Solution to Dysfunctional Politics. With deft insights and easy-to-comprehend prose, Neff presents his readers with a working hypothesis of the evolution of current American politics and admirable solutions towards countering growing social and economic injustice.

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Taking an undoubtedly liberal point-of-view, Neff essentially begins his argument with the somewhat controversial stance that “Today, it seems that America has lost its glory,” and follows that with the all-important question, “Why?” (Neff, 9) The rest of the work attempts to answer this brief, but all-encompassing query. Neff begins by discussing the nature of division in America, the weightiest among those being political and economic divisions. He gives much explication to the three interrelated topics of poverty, deficit, and employment. These three problems within American society all are instrumental towards maintaining the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the impoverished. With the aid of informative charts and precise language, Neff is able to explicate his thesis that many of the socio-economic problems that stand in the way of the progress of American democracy. Some, but by no means all, of the sources of these issues that Neff touches upon or explains thoroughly include a Republican corruption of the core values of conservatism, polarized political parties, gerrymandering, massive corporate tax breaks, excessively large political campaign contributions, and a belief in the effectiveness of supply-side economics.

To remedy these aforementioned issues, Neff offers variety of liberal solutions. He calls for, among other solutions, a mandatory pension plan, an immediate end to polarizing political practices, and an increase in social contributions and taxes for wage earners. He underlines the importance of achieving these goals within American society, as their implementation will no doubt greatly ease some of the economic burden and mitigate much of the social unrest that currently resides within the United States today. Neff’s concluding chapter forms a helpful summary of his insights and again highlights the need for change. An extensive works cited section at the end of the book bolsters the validity and scholarly insight that Neff provides. All of the works cited are readily accessible to the curious reader.

Werner Neff’s Reclaim American Democracy: Economic Solution to Dysfunctional Politics is undoubtedly a work for the current age. While it may alienate some more conservative readers, Neff’s book ultimately will serve as a useful aid and an insightful read for any who are looking to understand the existing state of American society and who hopes to work towards democratic progress.

Carter Lake: A Slice of Iowa in Nebraska (Brief History) by John Schreier

Reviewed by Teri Davis

Carter LakeWhy is a small section of Iowa surrounded by Omaha, Nebraska? Imagine a person arrives at Eppley Airfield in Omaha, Nebraska, and as they drive into the city, they see a sign stating, “Welcome to Iowa.” As they continue down the road, they quickly see another sign, welcoming them to the city of Omaha, Nebraska. Confused? For many travelers, this is a problem many encounter. Carter Lake, Iowa is in this situation.

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With the Missouri River being the dividing line between Iowa and Nebraska, the land east of the river belongs to Iowa, west to Nebraska. What happens when the river changes its path moving east a mile? Years ago, Dr. Thomas Jefferis purchased thirty acres of swampy land near the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa along with other land parcels throughout the area.

However, in 1877, the Missouri River flooded. When the waters finally receded the pathway of the river had changed. Dr. Jefferis’ land was now west of the river with deposits of new land.

Who owns the land now? Who is the owner of the additional new land forced into place by the river? With a new crescent-shaped lake surrounding much of this land, this Cut-Off Island quickly became in dispute between the previous owner and the two neighboring states.

Carter Lake, formerly known as Cut-Off Island has a unique history while trying to alternately be independent while maintaining its relationship with its birth-state, Iowa. Being separated from Council Bluffs has caused a multitude of problems for this community. From schools for their children, police and fire protection, to taxation, and being a refuge for criminals, Carter Lake maintains its individuality while sometimes being assisted by its mother city, an eight-mile drive, Council Bluffs.

John Schreier, the author, bases his interest in Carter Lake from growing up in Omaha, Nebraska and graduating from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln with a double major in history and journalism. While managing editor of the Daily Nonpareil, he still finds time to contribute articles to Sports Illustrated, the Denver Post, and the Omaha World-Herald.

Carter Lake is a short book for anyone who enjoys history. What is unique about this book is that Carter Lake, while a small city, becomes a character fighting to maintain its individuality. Between bullied by Omaha at times and not being protected by either its big brother, Council Bluffs or its parent, Iowa, Schreier successfully demonstrates the success of this community in achieving their dreams.

Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah

Reviewed by Teri Davis

Pandemic“Cholera kills people fast. There’s no drawn-out sequence of progressive debility. The newly infected person feels fine at first. Then half a day passes, and cholera has drained his or her body of its fluids, leaving a withered blue corpse.”

Pandemic sounds like a science fiction thriller. Unfortunately, it can be all too realistic and could happen.


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How do we prevent it? One way would be to read Pandemic.

Most of us do not plan to be exposed or infected with cholera. What would you do if you were on an airplane from Haiti to Florida in 2013?

Bill O’Reilly’s Legends and Lies: The Patriots by David Fisher

Reviewed by Allen Hott

legendsandliesThis is really a great rendering of the story of our country’s battle to be a free nation and not part of England. The book tells about many of the people who participated in this great episode. Although it attributes some of the quotes that have become synonymous with these Patriots, it does point out that many of them may not necessarily be completely true and accurate.

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It seems somewhat hard to envision today how this country was divided at the time of the Revolution. Many Loyalists were very definitely in favor of staying under the wing of England but a major turning point for many happened when the British passed the Stamp Act. The Sons of Liberty were formed to fight against this act with all of their might.

Trauma, Shame, and the Power of Love: The Fall and Rise of a Physician Who Heals Himself
by Christopher E. Pelloski, MD

Reviewed by Lisa Brown-Gilbert

Trauma, Shame and the Power of LoveAlthough sexual abuse and pornography of children is nothing new within this society, each time it is discovered and reported there is an accompanying knee jerk reaction of anger, disgust and distrust that follows so much so that it becomes hard to see the many facets of the whole truth about the situation such was the case with Christopher E. Pelloski M.D. In his book, Trauma, Shame and the Power of Love, which is a biographical work, he bares his soul and shares his experiences from arrest to trial as a non-productive participant of child pornography.

Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles by Bernard Cornwell

Waterloo

Reviewed by Teri Davis

Two-hundred years ago in the year 1815, Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo.

With history usually being written by the victors, this famous battle of the French against the combined forces of Prussia and Great Britain has been told from various perspectives throughout the years. Three armies with three battles over four days ended Napoleon’s rule over much of Europe. So why write another book about Waterloo?

Historical fiction writer Bernard Cornwell decided that none of these accounts truly reflected the actual battle. In his first non-fiction book, Cornwell breaks this battle down into chapters with accompanying maps detailing the placement and actions of the troops as well as artistic paintings of the events, explaining both in a readable version for the non-historians and military strategists demonstrating that sometimes the portraits painted years after the events were flawed.