Book Review: The Mental Floss History of the United States by Erik Sass

Hi there,

Do you ever think back on your history classes in high school and college and wonder what exactly it was they were teaching? Or do you ever wonder if some of those dry, boring facts we learned have changed over the years as more information is uncovered? I for one was bored stiff in most of my US history classes in junior high and high school. I would have much preferred to have learned more about European history or the ancient world than more about the effect of cotton on the US economy in the 1800s.

Well, if you were as bored as I was,  there may be a way to refresh your memory on US history and learn a few new things at the same time. Erik Sass from Mental Floss (along with Will Pearson and Mangesth Hattikudur) has created a history book that not only lays out all of those names, dates, and places we probably should remember, but offers some fascinating details about the things our teachers probably didn’t know.

This book starts a long time ago and works its way up to the present – some 23,000+ years of history from “Chapter 1: Prehistory, Puritans, Plantations, and Pirates” starting at roughly 23,000 BCE (Before Current Era) to “Chapter 10: America, the Decider” ending in 2010. And they do it all in a little more than 400 pages.

You may be thinking to yourself “History is boring, why would I want to read this book?” It’s a fair enough question, and if the book covered every single year in that 23,000 year span I would probably still be reading when the apocalypse hits and need the paper for toiletries, kindling, or dinner. Somehow I think the problems we currently have with our shrinking forests and jungles would probably be exacerbated by the thousands of pages worth of useless information the book would cover.

Thankfully, the bright folks from Mental Floss don’t do that.

Each chapter works about the same way. It starts with an introduction, moves to a “What Happened When” list of important dates and events, and then hits the high points of each era covered. They cover a lot of ground in a fairly short amount of pages. My favorite sections are the “Lies Your Teacher Told You” that goes over what you probably learned and then why some of that was untrue. Also included along the way are fascinating little tidbits of facts or figures.

I have to admit that for not being a fan of US history, I learned and relearned quite a bit. For example, though Benedict Arnold is labeled as one of the biggest traitors in American history, I never knew more than the fact that he switched sides from the American side to the British during the Revolutionary War. Turns out there were reasons for why he flipped. Though he fought well in several key battles and was wounded in the line of duty, he didn’t actually win the battles he led and never really got credit for his accomplishments. While he recovered, he grew more and more bitter and eventually wanted what was coming to him. Though he is still a traitor, at least now I understand more about what his motivations were behind his acts.

All the major highlights are covered, albeit in a more lively way than all the history books I ever read in school. If I’d had sections like “Quick’n’easy World War II” in my AP American History class, I might remember a bit more. In less than three pages, including a map and a chart, it sums up the high points from the American reluctance to join in the war up to Pearl Harbor, trade policies with the U.K. and the Soviets that caused many merchant ships to be sunk by German U-boats in the Atlantic, along with many of the big battles and dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tight, factual, and informative.

As the book works its way forward in time, I had to wonder about the misinformation I learned in school. Was it deliberate? I don’t think so. Most teachers are given a curriculum and don’t have much leeway to add much to the schedule. The end result can amount to a lot of bored students. Perhaps if they used more entertaining textbooks like The Mental Floss History of the United States or America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction by Jon Stewart, classrooms would encourage free thought and inspire [gasp] a love of learning?

If you’ve been considering some non-fiction to supplement your fiction habit (or maybe that’s just me), I highly recommend The Mental Floss History of the United States from Erik Sass and the folks at Mental Floss. The quotes, dates, interesting facts, and straightforward writing coupled with a sense of humor makes this a history resource I will keep and refer back to for years to come. It manages to educate and entertain simultaneously, which is a win-win for everybody!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here (in its earlier form – this version has a few edits).

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great books below!

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DVD Review: Life

Hi all…

What is life? At its most basic level, it is a state of being alive at a cellular level or greater. And yet, we live on a world teeming with life in such abundance and diversity of form that it is so much more than that. Ultimately, I think that is what the most recent production from the BBC’s Natural History Unit is about.

Life was four years in the making from the producers of Planet Earth and The Blue Planet and takes us on another amazing journey around the world capturing on film the dazzling diversity of life we are blessed with on Earth. As with their previous productions, these filmmakers have provided us with the shock and awe of the natural world and shown us things we may never see otherwise.

Characterized by shots in real time and slow motion, we get to see creatures, alone and in groups, doing what they do best – surviving and perpetuating their species. From the tale of the gobie fish in Hawaii climbing waterfalls to spawn in perfect pools at the top of rocky cliffs and flying fish to the cycle of hunter and hunted played out in countless environments each day we are presented with crystal clear imagery that mesmerizes with almost every frame.

Originally broadcast at the end of 2009, the ten episodes of Life each focus on a unique aspect of living organisms on Earth.

The series starts with the “Challenges of Life” where the filmmakers present examples of how plants, animals, and insects manage to find enough food to eat and find ways to reproduce to ensure the continuation of their kind. Amazing footage of what a small mother strawberry poison dart frog does to keep her tadpoles safe in the rainforest canopy and the Pacific giant octopus sacrificing herself so that her children may survive show the lengths to which some creatures will go to protect and care for their young.

Life then walks through an episode for each major group of creatures on the planet – “Reptiles and Amphibians,” “Mammals,” “Fish,” “Birds,” and “Insects.” Each episode shows the cycles inherent in all living things – from the groupers spreading fertilized eggs in clouds beneath the waves that get eaten by predators to the damselfly’s chance to lay eggs interrupted by a leaping frog. Opportunities abound for all creatures in the food chain to do their part to survive.

The series then shifts to “Creatures of the Deep,” where photographers managed to show a seal carcass beneath the Antarctic ice provides food for urchins, sea stars, and nemertean worms proving that creatures big and small will find ways to eat and reproduce even in the harshest conditions. The amazing footage of hundreds of thousands of spider crabs moulting in the shallows off South Australia was amazingly bizarre, yet memorable.

In “Plants” we see the other side of the equation, from the forest floor to the canopy, the ocean floor to the desert – flora has also found ways to adapt and thrive in inhospitable places. The exposed roots of the Epiphytes in the rain forest canopy trapping water and leaves for nutrients provide a stark contrast to the Bristlecone pine trees that can live up to 5,000 years with a six-week growing season above 9800 feet.

And lastly, the series focuses on the “Primates” – our distant cousins on the evolutionary chart. These intelligent, social creatures – from baboons and macaques using troop dynamics and bloodlines to determine the outcome of disputes to the White-faced capuchins using rocks to break open clams for dinner. It’s impossible not to see similarities to the human condition that we experience every day.

Though we weren’t able to catch each episode as it aired in the Discovery Channel, we were excited to see the series become available on DVD recently. It’s another amazing achievement for the BBC Natural History Unit and their dedicated, amazing photography teams scattered around the globe.

Each episode on the DVD was accompanied by a “Life on Location” special feature, which documented some of the challenges the film crews faced while trying to get footage for the production. Though short, each provided a glimpse into the commitment necessary to become a world-class nature photographer.

My one complaint with the series is that they chose Oprah Winfrey to do the narration this time. Though Oprah is a force to be reckoned with in her own right and the scripts were well written, her voice has an interesting tendency to put me to sleep. The visuals were stunning and I wanted to hear the stories, but found her narration monotone enough to make it difficult to watch.

And as if they wanted to rub in how boring Oprah’s narration was, they had David Attenborough narrate the extras for each episode that describe the challenges faced by the crews sent out to get the footage. Though nearing retirement, Attenborough’s voice seemed infused with energy and life compared to listening to Oprah.

Though tempted to use the “Music Only” viewing option, we managed to get through Oprah’s droning and enjoy the entire series at my house. Hopefully they will find better narrators in the future. Jim Carrey would be a good choice (he recently narrated Under the Sea for IMAX) and James Earl Jones would also be great.

Don’t let Oprah stop you from enjoying Life on DVD. It’s another amazing documentary series from the BBC that you won’t want to miss. Hopefully they’ll have a better narrator for the upcoming Frozen Planet series to air in 2012 on the Discovery Channel!

Article first published as DVD Review: Life (2010) on Blogcritics.

–Fitz

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DVD Review: Jim Henson’s Animal Show with Stinky and Jake: Lions, Tigers, and Bears

Hey all…

Evidently I was too focused on being an adult in the mid-1990s because I missed a number of fun kid’s shows. I’d never heard of Jim Henson’s Animal Show before, but evidently it aired Seasons 1 and 2 on Fox Kids from 1994-1996 and had a third season on Animal Planet in 1997. I suppose I shouldn’t be too shocked, considering that my eldest daughter wasn’t born until 2001, so I really didn’t have a reason to watch fuzzy Muppets talk about animals!

The Animal Show, hosted by Stinky the skunk and Jake the polar bear, focused on one or two animals per episode in a talk-show format. Stinky and Jake would interview their Muppet-ized guests and then show video clips of the actual animals in the wild. The hosts were assisted by co-hosts Armstrong the chicken hawk and Ollie the tapir (later replaced by Bunnie Bear, a distant cousin to Jake), who had their own segments of the show – “That’s Amazing,” “Animal Awards,” and “Habitat Time.” And then Tizzy the bee for the episode’s quiz and Yves St. La Roache the cockroach who hosted a cooking-show segment.

Lions, Tigers, and Bears includes five different episodes of the series – “Zebra & Lion,” “Tiger & Tiger Beetle,” “Raccoon & Polar Bear,” “Grizzly Bear & Hedgehog,” and “Chimpanzee & Hyena.” All but “Chimpanzee & Hyena” were from the first season of the show.

Watching with my family, we were entertained by every episode. Each episode was structured in roughly the same way, providing a consistent pattern for learning by the kids watching. And sometimes we even learned something! The silly songs, fun characters, and important lessons about animals, their habitats, and the environment is timeless.

As parents, my wife and I were most entertained by Armstrong and Yves St. La Roache. Armstrong’s dry wit and reluctance to try new things really resonated with me, as I tend to be the same way. And La Roache reminded us fondly of the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show. It seems it’s tough to be a cockroach and get taken seriously as a chef. But somehow La Roache manages to pull it off with humor. We were both wondering if they ran out of budget for cute and cuddly animals for the “Chimpanzee & Hyena” episode because both Muppets were so ugly. But overall each episode achieved a good balance between humor and education without going overboard on either.

When it was airing, the TV series received two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Children’s Series/Children’s Programming and received a “Parent’s Choice National Television Award,” as well as receiving an endorsement from the National Education Association (NEA). Though the video clips are a bit outdated as far as quality goes, the show footage with the Muppets is crisp and clear. And the content is just as relevant now for kids as it was 15 years ago.

If you’re looking for a fun and educational way to spend a couple of hours with your kids, look for Jim Henson’s Animal Show with Stinky and Jake: Lions, Tigers, and Bears on DVD at your favorite retailer online or off. Hopefully they will be releasing all three seasons of Jim Henson’s Animal Show with Stinky and Jake on DVD soon!

For more information about this and other Jim Henson productions, check out their website at Henson.com.

This article originally appeared here at BlogCritics.org.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great DVDs from Barnes & Noble below!

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