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The Ultimate Pagan Festival

The whole experience was so famously uncomfortable that a master once threatened his disobedient slave with a visit to the Olympic Games.

Unless you’re Mitt Romney, I’m not sure that threat would work today. Let the Games begin!

And begin them here, with Tony Perrottet’s hilarious history, which will among other things make you wonder what all the fuss is about women Olympians’ uniforms. The heck with skirts on female boxers, let them just wale away at each other in the nude.

The original Games, writes Perrottet, were held under the terms of the sacred Olympic Truce:

This Olympic Truce was one of the ancient world’s most extraordinary traditions. It imposed an armistice across the land–an almost enchanted ban on the Greeks’ incessant feuding–whose terms were enforced by Zeus himself. During this sacred peace, no military attacks could be made, no judicial cases conducted, nor death penalties carried out…Its terms had originally been defined in 776 B.C. for the first Games and inscribed in concentric circles onto a hefty golden discus, which still hung in pride of place in the Temple of Hera at Olympia. And despite some notorious exceptions, the truce was honored.

In the “Countdown” chapter Perrottet goes into fascinating detail about the labor and expense of hosting a Games 2700 years ago. One example, translated into 2004 USD: Digging and rolling the practice running track in the Gymnasium: $814 (Paid to Agazalos). I think Agazalos stuck it to the organizers, a practice that continues to this day.

Then there was the Olympic boot camp, which trained such luminaries as

Theagenes of Thasos was revealed as Olympic material at age nine, when he heaved a giant bronze statue in the village market onto his shoulder and carried it off. Instead of having the boy executed for impiety, the village elders sent their superboy off to wrestling school.

Those little girl gymnasts don’t look so young now, do they?

The association of spectator sport with heavy drinking has a long pedigree, writes Perrottet. Greek wine aficionados could be encouraged by the teachings of a doctor named Mnesitheus, who argued that binge drinking had positive, purgative effects on health. He helpfully suggested how to avoid vicious hangovers: Don’t drink bad wine, don’t eat dried fruit or nuts, and don’t go to sleep until you have vomited.

London Olympics fans, take note.

There is a whole chapter on the chariot races, which allowed women to circumvent the ban on their participation in the Olympics. This feminist breakthrough was made by a Spartan princess named Cynisca, who won with her chariots twice, in 396 and 392 B.C. She erected a lavish memorial thanking Zeus for her triumphs; in the centuries that followed, other brash noblewomen followed her example. I think we ought to bring back the chariot races, myself.

There is something delightful and informative on every page of this wonderful little history. And it’s available on Kindle.

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Eighty-three rules for eating well? Eighty-THREE?

I remember when I got to the end of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma thinking, “Well, what the hell CAN I eat, then?” Although the mental image of that potato farmer covered in fertilizer did stick, to the point that I started growing my own potatoes, I was pretty much done with Pollan lecturing me on how everything I buy in a supermarket contributes to the destruction of Planet Earth, and will probably give me cancer besides. I can handle bad news, but not with every mouthful.

illustration by Maira Kalman

So I skipped Food Rules when it first came out in 2009. Then came this edition two years later, which is illustrated by Maira Kalman, whose work I know from her marvelous illustrated blogs in the New York Times. I, too, am in love with A. Lincoln. How could I not at least look at a book she illustrated?

illustration by Maira Kalman

I didn’t just look, I bought, and I’m glad I did, although, I must say, Pollan almost lost me on page 20:

Food Rules distills this body of wisdom into eighty-three simple rules for eating healthily and happily.

Eighty-three rules? Eighty-THREE? Are you KIDDING me? I have to memorize eighty-three rules to eat well? What, I’m supposed to take an 83-item checklist with me every time I go to the store? I don’t care how simple the rules are, there is no way I’m going to be able to remember, let alone follow eighty-three of them.

Maira’s illustration of mom-and-daughter cooks standing on a porch kept the book in my hand instead of flying across the room. I turned the page. Pollan writes

I’ve collected these adages about eating from a wide variety of sources.

which is a vast understatement. Evidently many people took the first edition of Food Rules seriously to heart. The adages contained therein had propagated themselves spontaneously into the wild. Nutritionists, dieticians, mothers, grandmothers wrote in with more sayings. The result is an updated version with the aforesaid, and brilliant, illustrations of Maira Kalman, which make the whole endeavor much more, uh, palatable, at least to me.

Still. Eighty-three rules. Come on. Although he does redeem himself a little by saying

There is no need to learn or memorize them all…Adopt whichever ones stick and work best for you.

Okay.

The book is divided into three chapters, with subheadings from his now-famous saying. I extract the ones that mean most to me below.

I. Eat Food

2. Don’t Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize as Food
I think it was my great-great-great grandmother who traveled the Oregon Trail. Pretty sure she wouldn’t know a bag of Cheetos if she saw one.
7. Avoid Food Products Containing Ingredients That a Third-Grader Cannot Pronounce
I went immediately to the cupboard and pulled out the Triscuits, my favorite cracker. “WHOLE GRAIN SOFT WHITE WINTER WHEAT, SOYBEAN OIL, SALT.” No more than two syllables per word. Whew.
11. Eat Only Foods That Will Eventually Rot
The vegetable drawer in my refrigerator is filled with plants that can rot. Too many do. Not only should you buy foods that will eventually rot, you should also eat them. Preferably before that happens.
22. It’s Not Food if It Arrived Through the Window of Your Car
I haven’t been to a McDonald’s since my niece Esther graduated from high school. I’m covered here.

illustration by Maira Kalman

II. Mostly Plants

30. Eat Animals That Have Themselves Eaten Well
My freezer is filled with moose and deer meat, salmon, halibut, scallops and shrimp, all of it hunted or fished in Alaska. Covered.
37. Sweeten and Salt Your Food Yourself
Have you ever eaten a Hot Pocket? I tried one once and it was so salty I literally couldn’t swallow it. Sweetened yogurt makes me gag, you might as well be eating cotton candy. Processed foods are so heavily saturated with salt and sugar that I find them inedible. If you don’t notice this, it’s because you’ve dulled your taste buds eating too much of them. I’m a hundred percent with Pollan on this.
40. Make Water Your Beverage of Choice
Always has been. Seldovia had the coldest, clearest, best-tasting water in the world.

illustration by Maira Kalman

III. Not Too Much

53. Pay More, Eat Less
Support your local farmer’s market. My only problem here is, well, winter.
54. …Eat Less
Sigh.
57. If You’re Not Hungry Enough to Eat an Apple, Then You’re Probably Not Hungry
One of the seminal memories from my childhood is of my mother eating an apple a day. She had dentures, so she’d quarter and core it, but not peel it, and eat it before she went to work in the morning. Mind you, these were horrible apples, one of only two or three fruits that made it all the way to the grocery store in Seldovia, arriving mealy and dry and tasteless. But she ate one every day. I try to.

illustration by Maira Kalman

82. Cook
I didn’t start cooking until I was in my thirties. It’s not only good for your body and for the environment, it’s good for your soul, a creative endeavor that pays off the very same day. Or not. I regard anything that comes out well from my oven as a minor miracle. I do better on top of the stove.
83. Break the Rules Once in a While
Salvation. My life wouldn’t be worth living if I couldn’t have a Dare Maple Leaf cookie now and then.

Dare Maple Leaf Creme Cookie

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Backing into Book Collecting

Used and Rare: Travels in the Book WorldUsed and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence Goldstone

Larry and Nancy Goldstone sort of back into collecting modern first editions, by way of a hilariously extended effort for Nancy to find Larry a birthday gift for $20 or below. They have a bet on; he is to do the same for her. In the end, Larry gives Nancy a bath brush. She gives him a copy of War and Peace. It’s a Heritage edition, the Maude translation, has maps of battles, fold-out illustrations and its own slipcase. Nancy found it for $10, and they spend three weeks talking about it. (She totally wins the bet, in case you were in any doubt.)

From that $10 copy of War and Peace Nancy and Larry embark on a grand tour of used and rare book stores, first in their west Massachusetts county and then expanding their territory to include neighboring states, New York City and Chicago, and then step up into book auctions. Along the way they meet a lot of characters, both in and out of books.

A bookseller tells them

Today, the autographs that are collected, the books that are collected…these are the authors that the collectors read in high school. They’ve always remembered them, they have a fondness for them*…of course, the people who were read in, say the forties and fifties are different than those who are read in high school today. Then we read Steinbeck and Hemingway and Faulkner. I don’t know what they read today.”

We did. It comes from having a succession of high school babysitters dragging their bookbags into your living room.

“They read Margaret Atwood,” we said.

George stared at us. “That’s appalling,” he said.

Which gives you a pretty good idea what century most of the booksellers Nancy and Larry meet are inhabiting.

There are extended riffs on Anthony Trollope and Booth Tarkington and Sinclair Lewis and Charles Dickens and John Dos Passos, and for a book published in 1997 some jaw-dropping prices. Their education and expenditures proceed apace, until eventually they buy a copy of Bleak House for $700, with no second thoughts or buyer’s remorse.

Reads almost like a novel. Thoroughly enjoyable and very informative, and I might actually get all the way through War and Peace if I owned an edition like theirs. I don’t think I’d get through it on a Kindle.

*True. The only firsts I would even consider buying would be Shute, Heinlein and Heyer. I just checked Alibris, where I found a first edition of The Rolling Stones in a “fine” dust jacket for the bargain basement price of $2000. On the other hand, I found a first with dust jacket of The Unknown Ajax for twenty bucks. Couldn’t find a first of Trustee from the Toolroom. I didn’t have as much fun as Larry and Nancy did, though.
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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.