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“…a quiet, inoffensive, persistent obstinacy.”

Fear to Tread by Michael Gilbert

If ever there was an author whose works cried out to be instantly uploaded to Kindle, Michael Gilbert is him. Fear to Tread is one of four or five (or six, or seven) of my favorites of his novels.

Wilfred Wetherall, headmaster of the South Borough Secondary School for boys in post-World War II London, is beset by small problems both professional and personal. His favorite restaurant is going out of business. The father of a promising student appears determined to avert every effort of Mr. Wetherall’s to find his son a job that will further his artistic ability. A former student is now a member of the Metropolitan Police Force, lost his wife to thugs he was investigating undercover, and seems on an irreversible downhill slide.

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Wanna make your kids wash their hands?

The Ghost Map in question is the one made by Dr. John Snow to plot the deaths caused by the 1854 cholera epidemic in London, which proved for the first time that cholera was a water-borne disease and not, as was generally acknowledged at that time, air borne. There is a ton of riveting (and sometimes really disgusting) historical detail, as in

…in 1326, an ill-fated laborer by the name of Richard the Raker fell into a cesspool and literally drowned in human shit.”

The night-soil collectors, the men who emptied the cesspools at night and then took the waste out to the fields around London to be used as fertilizer, were generally tipped with a bottle of gin. This is perfectly understandable when you learn that the very streets of London smelled badly enough to convince generations of intelligent, educated people who Johnson indignantly declares should have known better that the smell was the problem, not the water. The smell of the bottom of a cesspool was probably a lot easier to take with a skinful of gin.

People emptied their chamber pots out the window, into their cellars and into cesspools, and then the cesspools cracked and leaked into wells not a yard away and then into River Thames, which was where London’s drinking water came from. There is a horrifying account from a newspaper in 1849 that describes a back yard full of human waste floating in water, with small boys bathing in it and a little girl carefully dodging the solid waste to dip out a tin cup of water. They let it stand, of course, before they used it, to let the solid particles settle down to the bottom.

I was washing a load of clothes when I read that part, and I stopped reading to listen to the sweet sound of that washing machine for a minute. We take so much for granted.

Johnson describes the cholera bacteria in terms that will give you a healthy respect for its reproductive abilities, as well as have you washing your hands every five minutes for the rest of your life, and he draws a straight narrative line between Dr. Snow’s map and the fact that sometime soon after the book was written fifty percent of the people on earth will be living in urban communities. He makes a good case for urban living being green (better health and social services for more people) but he also points out that urbanization also provides bigger targets for superbugs and terrorists (9/11).

Dr. Snow’s map eventually causes the construction of the first major sewage system, that is then used as a model for other cities around the world. It will no doubt enrage you as much as it did me to learn that it took years for the establishment to come around (helped along by an event delightfully named The Great Stink), and Snow did not survive to see it.

When Dr. Snow presented his case to Board of Guardians of St. James parish and asked that the handle of the Broad Street pump be removed, he wrote in his journal, “In consequence of what I said, the handle of the pump was removed on the following day.” Johnson continues

This last sentence is now memorialized on a pin worn by members of the John Snow Society.

(Which of course I immediately had to google and here‘s their website.)

The removal of that pump handle, writes Johnson, “marks…the first time a public institution had made an informed intervention into a cholera outbreak based on a scientifically sound theory of the disease.

This is a really interesting read. I’d recommend it to any book club as a great discussion book, to any parent trying to get their kids to wash their hands, and any teacher who wanted to wake up their classroom.

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“They were a very nasty couple.”

“…They were a very nasty couple. Bad type. Superstitious, like most crooks. She was the worst of the two, in my opinion. Tried to fix the job so’s it’d look as if the servants had done it. Do you recollect that, sir?”
“Yes,” said Alleyn slowly, “yes.”
“Mind,” said the constable warming a little, “I reckon if he hadn’t lost his nerve they’d have got away with it. No finger-printing in those days, you see. And you know how it’d be, sir. You don’t expect people of their class to commit murder.”
“No.”
“No, you don’t. And with the weapons lying there beside these grooms or whatever they were, and so on, well the first thing anybody would have said was: ‘Here’s our birds.’ Not that there seemed to be anything like what you’d call an inquiry.’
“Not precisely,” said Alleyn.
“No, sir. No,” continued the constable, turning his back to the wind, “if Macbeth hadn’t got jumpy and mucked things up I reckon they’d have got away with it. They seemed to be well-liked people in the district. Some kind of royalty. Aristocratic like. Well, nobody suspects people of that class. That’s my point.”

My favorite take on Macbeth from Ngaio Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys.

Although there is much to be said for the Reduced Shakespeare version, too.

Not to mention the Sassy Gay Friend. “A hobby or an orgasm, stat.”

“Did you read ‘Macbeth’?”
“I had to read it,” she said, “There wasn’t a scrap of anything else to read in the whole room.”
“Did you like it?” I asked.
“No, I did not,” she said, decisively. “In the first place, I don’t think for a moment that Macbeth did it.”
–The Macbeth Murder Mystery, James Thurber

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“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

My friend Kerri forced me to get Stephen King’s On Writing. I almost never read books about writing any more because it’s just too much like work, and besides, after Strunk and White, what more needs to be said?. I was in no hurry to read it, but after a year and a half guilt finally moved it off the to-read pile.

Started it. Enjoyed his life story. Liked Bill Bryson‘s better.

He reveres The Elements of Style, okay, he’s showing me something.

He thinks adverbs are the mark of a lazy writer, me, too.

His life story went fast, and now I’m bogged down in the how to write part. Too much like work. I’m going to stick to it at least until the scene where he’s laying on the side of the road thinking, “OMG, I’ve been run over by one of my characters,” which of course I’ve heard about, as who hasn’t.

Two days later:

Okay, time to stop whining. This is a good book. It is in fact (oh, he’d smack my hand for that phrase) three good books, or novellas, if such a term may be used to describe non-fiction. The first is his life story, the second is a primer on the craft of writing, and the third is the account of his close encounter of the van-crazy-guy-and-Rottweiler kind. The first is entertaining as hell, the third is entertaining and scary as hell, and the middle section, the section on craft is honest, practical and hard-nosed as hell. And also entertaining.

I like everything he said about craft because I agree with all of it. “The best form of dialogue attribution is said.” “You should avoid the passive tense.” “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Simple, direct, absolute, I’d go farther than King and say that these are rules that should be tattooed backwards on the foreheads of all beginning authors so they see them every time they look in the mirror.

What I really like here is that he takes craft so seriously, because he loves it. He is in love with writing, with storytelling, with the written word, in love even with the way it looks on the page. He cares that we do the best job we can. “I don’t believe a story or a novel should be allowed outside the door of your study or writing room unless you feel confident that it’s reasonably reader-friendly.

What he said. Thanks, Kerri.

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“I confess I am enjoying the sight of you within my walls without bandages.”

The Sleeping Partner (Sarah Tolerance, #3)The Sleeping Partner by Madeleine E. Robins

Of the first two Sarah Tolerance novels I wrote on this site

Miss Sarah Tolerance elopes with her brother’s fencing instructor from Regency England to the continent, and when he dies returns home. Cast off by her family, she determines to make her way in the world without falling into prostitution, the usual fallback of the Fallen Woman, and instead sets herself up as an Agent of Inquiry. Setting, plot and especially character are all excellent in Point of Honor and Petty Treason by Madeleine E. Robins. Trust me, you will believe a woman can be a PI in England in 1810.

The Sleeping Partner, the third in the series, may be the best yet. Take the first paragraph.

No one who had seen Miss Sarah Brereton as a child would have taken her for a heroine. She was a well-behaved girl, affectionate and active, given to rolling hoops and running races with the gardener’s children. Her upbringing was neither intellectual or revolutionary, being designed to make her what she was destined to be: the well-bred wife of a gentleman of means. That she had failed to achieve this goal was not the fault of her family but derived from some flaw in her character: at sixteen, Miss Brereton had fallen in love with her brother’s fencing master and eloped, ruining forever her chances at respectability and marriage. Seeking to contain the damage, Sir William Brereton disowned his daughter and forbade to have her name mentioned. With the girl as good as dead, the honor of the Breretons was restored to a near-unsullied state. The family went on much as before.

No wonder Sarah changed her name, and no wonder what she changed it to. Editors give authors hell over backstory in series novels, and they’re right to do so because first timers to the series need to know what’s going on. That first paragraph is an exemplar of craft, placing the main character precisely in her place and time, and fun to read besides. Impossible not to turn the page, where not very much farther on in the narrative Sarah uses her sword to spank a bully with a club. Heroine, it turns out, was exactly the right word.

By now Sarah is well-established as an Agent of Inquiry, and is approached at her club, Tarsio’s, by a potential client.

…Corton appeared beside her and murmured that a lady was inquiring for her.

“What sort of lady?” She would see her visitor regardless, but often found the porter’s impressions useful.

“A real lady, miss. A bit anxious about the eyes.”

A real lady in a state of anxiety bode well for business and thus for Miss Tolerance’s pocket-book. She directed Corton to bring the visitor up.

The anxious lady’s sister is missing and she hires Sarah to find her, and Sarah is plunged in to a maelstrom of betrayal, theft, treason and murder that threatens her physically and emotionally, and which drags her willy-nilly back into her family, that same family which booted her out so unceremoniously so many years before. In the course of events we meet old friends

Joshua Glebb’s head, bald, with a long fringe of yellowed hair circling the back, shone in the dusty light from the far window. His entire being appeared to be in the process of succumbing slowly to gravity; his mouth turned down, and his chin, shoulders and gut all looked to be making a slow progress downward until they would puddle around his boot-sole. Until that should happen, Mr. Glebb resembled a fussy and dyspeptic head clerk, respectably dressed and sour of expression. His mouth attained–not a smile, but an absence of frown–when he looked up at Miss Tolerance, and his shrewd eyes lit.

and make new ones, like the missing girl’s governess, Miss Nottingale.

“…That morning, in fact, she was reading a political essay Mr. John Thorpe had given her.” She paused. “Lord Lyne did not like it.”

“What was the essay?”

“A Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mrs. Godwin.”

“And she was reading this at breakfast?” That seemed to Miss Tolerance enough to put anyone off their meal.

Oh yes, we’ll meet Mrs. Godwin, aka Mary Wollstonecraft, later. Sir Walter Mandif, magistrate, returns, too

“I confess I am enjoying the sight of you within my walls without bandages.”

Highly recommended, all three of them, and my fingers are crossed for more.

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Cooking, writes Barnes, is the transformation of uncertainty (the recipe) into certainty (the dish) via fuss.

The Pedant in the KitchenThe Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes

A collection of essays on the art and obsession of cooking well for one’s friends. On his kitchen beginnings:

…as with sex, politics, and religion, so with cooking; by the time I began finding out about it for myself, it was too late to ask my parents. They had failed to instruct me, and I would punish them by not asking now. I was in my mid-twenties and reading for the bar; some of the food I concocted at that time was criminal. Top of my range was bacon chop, peas and potatoes…The key factors governing my ‘cooking’ at this time were poverty, lack of skill, and gastronomic conservatism.

On discovering cookery books:

…I was drawn to Tomates a la Creme, which Pomiane learned from his Polish mother, and which, according. E.D., ‘taste[s] so startlingly unline any other dish of cooked tomatoes that any restaurateur who put it on his menu would, in all probability, soon find it listed in the guide books as a regional specialy.’ You take six tomatoes, halve them, melt a lump of butter, put the tomatoes in a frying pan cut side down, prick their rounded sides, turn again (to let the juices run out), turn back up at once, add 3 fl oz double cream, mix, let it all bubble, serve.

I didn’t much trust this: the quantity of butter was imprecise, the strength of the gas unspecified. Further, it was mid-February, so the best tomatoes I could find were pale orange, frost-hard, and pretty juice-free inside. I fanatically observed the approximations of Pomiane’s recipe, while chucking in a little salt, pepper, and sugar in the tiny hope of not disgracing the kitchen…and the result was unbelievably good — the method had somehow extracted richness from half a dozen fruits which looked as if they had long ago mislaid their essence.

So then it was off to www.abebooks.com for a copy of Cooking with Pomiane…

On the use of cookery books:

Let me ask you this: would you use a lawyer who said ‘Oh, I glance at a few statutes, but only to get ideas’?

Speaking for myself, no, I would not. I feel better now about having to look at the recipe for my rustic loaf every time I make it.

The Pedant in the Kitchen is not concerned with whether cooking is a science or an art; he will settle for it being a craft, like woodwork or home welding.

Okay. On lessons learned:

…that the relationship between professional and domestic cook has similarities to a sexual encounter. One party is normally more experienced that the other; and either party should have the right at any moment, to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’

I ain’t never deboning no chickens neither. On the inconstant nature of recipes:

You never step into the same stream twice, and a cook never steps into the same recipe twice. The cook, the ingredients, the recipe, and the resulting dish are never exactly the same. It’s not exactly post-modernism, and it might be heavy-handed to invoke Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, but you know what I mean.

I do.

There is something equally enjoyable on every page. Cooking, writes Barnes, is the transformation of uncertainty (the recipe) into certainty (the dish) via fuss. The aforesaid fuss leading to the assigning of one to five hangman’s nooses to a meal going south in the kitchen while his hungry guests are whooping it up in the living room. Highly recommended.

All my Goodreads reviews here.

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The cowboying way of life

Monte WalshMonte Walsh by Jack Schaefer

I simply disappeared between the covers of this book. Hilarious, heart-breaking and oh so real, this isn’t just a story about a cowboy and the cowboying way of life, it’s about a strict code and living up to it especially when it ain’t easy, it’s about the settling of the American West, and it’s about the progress of civilization and what gets left behind.

People like Monte exist anywhere there is a frontier, they are the loners who go out ahead of the rest of us, and when they’re done, there is no place left for them. If you don’t cry at the end of this book, you aren’t human.

There is also a pretty good film adaptation starring Tom Selleck.

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