Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Happy Birthday Grandpa!

Today, 26 March 2014, my grandfather, William Keir Hood, would have been 100 years old. According to his elder sister, my Aunt Annie, his birth occurred on a was a dark and stormy Thursday night. His family left Cowie and came to America nine years later, under the regulations set by the 1921 Emergency Quota Act.

This picture was taken in 1939. Being a piper and being a Scot were important parts of his identity. And he was finally able to return to the land of his birth in 1969. Happy Birthday Grandpa!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Cultural Education before Birth?

Annie Murphy Paul - What We Learn Before We Are Born - TedGlobal 2011

When people are asked about why they "do genealogy" a frequent response is to get a sense of who they are and where they came from. They are seeking an identity. Identity comes from many places and aspects of our lives, one of which is culture. Here in the United States I would say I am "Californian" which has cultural similarities with the rest of the country (despite what you might think). However, when in Europe, I always said I was an "American." I often thought that these identities came from living in these places and experiencing, more or less, the same things as my friends and family.

This TedTalk by Annie Murphy Paul suggests we learn much about the world before we are even born. If you've read The Handmaid's Tale, the concept of learning in the womb, and how it could impact the lives of women, is kind of scary. On the other hand, it's fascinating in the context of cultural transmission because Paul argues that while in the womb we learn our mother's accent, her favorite foods, and her favorite music. In essence, we start learning our culture before we are even born.  

Perhaps, I didn't learn all about being an American by living here. Maybe being a cultural American started before I was born because of they way my parents spoke and because my mom ate basic American foods, like meat and potatoes. 

If you want to learn more read Annie Paul's book Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. I've not read it, but it is on my wish list.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Thoughts on Nicholas Kristof and Professors


On my long list of life goals is to "bridge the gap between the armchair and academic historians." I haven't pursued this goal as ardently as perhaps I might, but I hope that my two blogs and public speaking engagements go a small way across the bridge. So, it was with great interest that I read Nicholas Kristof's recent op-ed "Professors, We Need You!" published in the New York Times on 15 February 2014.

In this piece, Kristof calls for greater public engagement on the part of academics, particularly those in political science. He decries the lack of activity of academics in social media and laments the "turgid prose" of their journal articles. The reason for this inactivity, he argues, is the publish or perish system. Being popular and understandable is death to promotion.

One of the fields which is an exception, according to Kristof, is history. Since this is my field, I agree. There are excellent writers among the followers of Clio (of course, there are others that just aren't). In my experience, however, those that are most successful address issues that the public is already interested in, namely topics like Civil Rights, Presidents, the American Revolution and World War II. Additionally, their research topics have or lend themselves to a strong narrative say a famous individual or significant battle. Historians that write elegant and engaging accounts of lesser known topics, Tang Dynasty China for example, may find that their books languish on the shelves unread.

Visit Nick Kristoff's Twitter and Facebook pages to find rejoinders, ripostes, and replies to his column. To find historians on Twitter search for #twitterstorians or visit Historians Who Tweet from History News Network or Historians on Twitter from Active History. Also visit the National History Center whose aim is to make history an essential component of public discussions of current events.

In the meantime, remember that "historians are great." Nick Kristof said so and he's a smart man.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Family History and Murder, A Match Made In Heaven: The Jefferson Tayte Mysteries

Jefferson Tayte, the creation of author Steve Robinson, is a mild-mannered professional genealogist. As his clients can afford to to pay him to fly to the United Kingdom to conduct research in person, he must be very good and his clients must be very rich. Unfortunately, Jefferson Tayte also has bad luck. Every time he travels to England for a client, people end up dead. Lots of people. Jefferson's life is threatened and in order to solve the murders he must also solve a genealogical puzzle.

Genealogists always warned about skeleton's in thee closets and unhappy family secrets. But apparently the skeletons in the closets of Jefferson Tayte's clients comes with unhappy descendants who hire assassins. It makes for a gripping yarn, but luckily real-world genealogy usually comes without assassins. Personally, I think the plots in all the books a little "gothic" and far-fetched in their conception and way too many people die. But they are imaginative and it's fun to see genealogists save the day.

In the Blood was the first book in the series (first edition, new edition). Jefferson Tayte "competes" against a younger genealogist to find information required by a client. For those of you familiar with movers in shakers in the American genealogical world, I couldn't help but picture Jefferson Tayte as J. Mark Lowe and the younger genealogist as Josh Taylor. The family skeleton in question in this book springs from an early 19th century murder.

The second book, To The Grave, (first edition, new edition) features a skeleton which has it's origins in the Second World War. I thought the ending of this one particularly sad.

The skeleton in The Last Queen of England (first edition, new edition) has it's roots in the Jacobite movement during the reign of Queen Anne. A group of history doctoral students tell Jefferson that they prefer to investigate the past on their own and form their own opinions, as if that's not what historians actually do in the first place. One of them even says "history books can't be challenged." Well, of course they can. Needless to say, I found this entire exchange irritating, but since the students help solve the mystery, I tried not to fret too much.

The books, first issued in the UK several years ago, have been quite successful and will be reissued on 18 March 2014 in new Kindle Editions, in addition to paperback and audio versions. The first editions are still available for purchase and are currently available to borrow in the Kindle Owner's Library. I do not know what will happen to them after 18 March.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Monuments Men: Opening Day Roundup

Two years ago I learned about the Monuments Men when it was announced that George Clooney had optioned Robert Edsel's book. In the ensuing months, I read all I could about the Monuments Men and art looting by the Nazis and blogged about it here, here, here, here, here, and here

In November of last year, I heard Robert Edsel speak about the Monuments Men at the Cleveland Museum of Art where I purchased an autographed copy of his newest book, Saving Italy. Edsel will be speaking at the National Archives on 19 February, details here.  If you can't make it to DC, you can watch him discuss his book on BookTV. He will appear live on BookTV on 22 February at 11 am ET. There is a profile of him in the Washington Post here and an interview with the Holocaust Memorial Museum here.

With the opening of the movie today, there is news about the Monuments Men (and women) everywhere. 

Reviews: Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Los Angeles Times, Forbes, and Variety. The general consensus of the reviews is probably not what Mr. Clooney hoped for. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Getty, and the Huntington Library have posted articles about their connections to the Monuments Men.

There have been countless articles related to the history and mission of the Monuments Men: NBC Nightly News, the National Archives Prologue, the BBC, the Smithsonian, National Archives The Text Message, New York Times, the Huffington Post, the U.S. Army, Artlog, the Des Moines Register, and the National WWII Museum

Behind-the-Scenes/Making of articles are here, here, and here.

Read about the larger message of the film, the problem of looted art and heritage, in the Jewish Daily Forward

Robert Edsel and George Clooney were both scheduled to appear on the Charles Rose show this week.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for a genealogy blog, reports that Clooney is distantly related to George Stout, the leader of the Monuments Men.

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