Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past
Simon & Schuster (April 19, 2022), 770 pages
Kindle edition $19.99, Amazon hardcover $34.13
Richard Cohen’s new book on historians is rather long and somewhat uneven. But he certainly covers the breadth of history, ancient to modern.
Cohen begins by discussing the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides. He goes on to cover the Roman historians, “from Polybius to Suetonius,” as his chapter subtitle states. He devotes a single chapter to all of the Bible, as he does to the entirety of Islam. I’m not sure that he has selected the best sources on the authorship and historicity of the Bible. Some of his interpretations are consistent with my understanding of those topics, while others are not. Since my knowledge of Islam is superficial at best, given my knowledge of the Bible, which is not superficial, I am reluctant to accept at face value much of what he says about Islam.
The author devotes a single chapter to medieval historians, before moving on to the Renaissance and Machiavelli. From there he moves across the channel to England, where he offers a chapter on Shakespeare, perhaps the most interesting in the book. Although Shakespeare wrote fictional drama, Cohen states, “no other writer, of any time or place, gives us a more lasting impression of what most of the fourteen Plantagenet kings were like.” He then provides some fascinating material about Shakespeare as a historian.
Cohen then discusses Voltaire (not generally known as a historian) and Gibbon, delving into their idiosyncrasies. He writes about the nineteenth-century historians and the history presented in novels, such as those of Jane Austen.
The author devotes a full chapter to the American Civil War. This is one place where Cohen’s overall credibility comes into question. He references a 2020 CNN poll that said only 16 percent of high school students knew that the civil war was about slavery. In fact, for Abraham Lincoln the war was far more about preserving the Union than about slavery. Nonetheless, Cohen provides some interesting perspectives. He writes about the famed photographer Matthew Brady. Cohen tells us that Brady took few photos himself, but rather had a staff of field photographers. And he was not above staging shots on the battlefield. The author discusses Ken Burns and his renown PBS special on the civil war, perhaps putting Burns on more of a pedestal than he deserves.
Cohen writes about World War II history and history as the Soviet regime presented it. He discusses history as the participants wrote it, including Julius Caesar and Ulysses S. Grant. He writes about Churchill and his vast output, focusing as much on what Churchill excluded as what he included. The author reflects on British academics and the associated politics in the mid-twentieth century.
It is only in Chapter 18 that Cohen gets around to writing about woman historians. (Though he does mention Jane Austen in an earlier chapter.) Once he gets here, however, he offers quite a range of women. He discusses Bān Zhāo, a member of the Chinese royal family in the first century. He writes about Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of the author of Frankenstein, and the contemporary classicist, Mary Beard.
Cohen follows that chapter by a discussion of African American historians, which is perhaps a bit too compressed to properly cover the subject. Cohen begins with George Washington Williams, who wrote in the nineteenth century and discusses W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin, and others. The work is current enough to include a discussion of the writing about the murder of George Floyd. Cohen explores how governments present their own version of history and then discusses journalism as history, including some mention of George Orwell and his work in World War II.
The final chapter is about history on television. Cohen is British and the bulk of the chapter is about historians on British television. He leaves a short section at the end for American television, the bulk of which is a hagiographical treatment of Ken Burns and his brother Ric.
The book is, as I stated, uneven, and I am not sure than I am much the better for having invested my time in its 770 pages.
This month, May 2022, marks seven years since Terry and I arrived here in Hemet. It is hard to believe.
A year after being laid off from my job we realized that we needed to do something different. We knew that if we moved south we could sell our house in Gilroy, a Silicon Valley bedroom community, and buy a house outright, without mortgage, here in Hemet. Since my dad was here, along with my brother and sister-in-law, our nephew Eric, and his daughter Teaghan, the move made sense. Thanks to my sister-in-law Bobbie we found a house here in Four Seasons, a gated 55+ community which has worked out marvelously for us.
The moving van showed up in Gilroy on Cinco de Mayo 2015, a Tuesday. Terry and I spent the night at the Best Western in Gilroy, and Tasha enjoyed one last visit to the canine resort she loved, Dog House Inn. We headed south on Wednesday the sixth and arrived at our new home late in the afternoon. We had an air mattress that Tasha thought was really neat, but she was even happier when our furniture and her familiar smells showed up on Saturday, May 9.
During the first few years we had some good times, having Saturday breakfast with my dad and the rest of the family. Then COVID hit in March of 2020 and restaurant dining was off-limits. We lost my dad at age 91 in August of that year, his internal organs basically saying, “We’ve done all we can do.”
Pre-pandemic, Terry had knee replacement surgery in 2018, and I had surgery for an intestinal matter in March 2019.
Before her knee replacement Terry found work as a permit runner for a solar company and I developed web sites for local nonprofits and small businesses. I also wrote for various high-tech companies here and there. When the communications director at my church left for her new life in Tennessee, I took on the church’s web site and getting out its weekly e-news. I also manage the web site for the local Student of the Month program, which honors high school seniors who have overcome personal obstacles.
All that time our loyal four-footed beagle-border terrier mix, Tasha, was there for us. She watched after Terry when she had her surgery and looked after me when I had mine. We spent a lot of money on medications to address her thyroid problems, her digestive issues, and her arthritis. But she was well worth it. In February 2021, however, our elderly puppy dog had done all she could do. Her body told us that it had reached its expiration date, and we had to say goodbye to her.
Terry had her second knee replacement surgery on Tuesday of this week and is recovering well with the help of the good folks at Kaiser Home Health. The recovery and physical therapy process takes time, but coming out on the other side I will be delighted to see her no longer cringing in pain when she takes a step that her knee doesn’t like.
So we keep on keeping on.
Those of you who know me know that I have long been a Star Trek fan. You may even know that Terry and I had a Star Trek-themed wedding in 1994. Obviously, then, we were interested in the Star Trek successors arriving on streaming video.
We subscribed to the old CBS All Access to watch Star Trek: Discovery. We watched part of season one and did not like it much. (In fact, I wrote about that.) Season two promised to be more about exploration and less about war, but we never really got engaged. I was recovering from my surgery and setback, so we were behind schedule, but the whole “red angel” arc didn’t motivate us to keep watching. (Season four apparently goes 900 year into the future. Say what?)
Then there was the series Picard, starring Patrick Stewart, which we thought looked promising. We watched the first episode, which seemed terribly dark, as did the preview of episode two. We gave up and canceled our CBS All Access subscription (again).
CBS All Access rebranded as Paramount+ and the new service promised us an original series prequel, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Ten episodes were shot and produced, but Paramount+ kept us waiting. Finally the release date was scheduled for May 5. I re-upped with Paramount+ on May 3.
We watched the first two episodes and were delighted. Captain Pike commands the starship Enterprise, Pike in Star Trek lore being Captain Kirk’s predecessor on the ship. We have a credible Spock, and some capably strong women on the bridge: second-in-command (“Number One”), the head of security, the helmswoman, and the communications expert, Uhura. In this series Uhura is a cadet, not a lieutenant, but her character has lots of room to grow.
In the first episode there were many references to the original series (TOS) that any fan would get, and the shuttlecraft that the admiral flew to visit Pike in Montana (in order to insist that be get back onto the Enterprise) was straight out of TOS. The episode included a classic Kirkian speech from Captain Pike to an alien civilization where he (of course) had violated the Prime Directive.
The second episode included tributes to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters, and (thanks, Terry) to Alien. The episode had a plot about protecting other worlds from disaster, while (this time) adhering to the Prime Directive. Number One had a heart-to-hear with Pike as Dr. McCoy might have had with Kirk.
There are only ten episodes in season one, but Paramount+ has renewed the show for a second season. If social posts from Jonathan Frakes (Riker from Next Generation) are to be believed, he’s in Toronto directing at least one episode of season two.
Make it so!
Chemistry was not my favorite subject in high school; I was much more focused on English and social studies. I didn’t like science subjects all that much. Then there was the fact that my chemsitry teacher was late in his career and seemed to be dealing with a case of burnout. I think he took his full complement of sick days, so we often had a substitute. He was also in charge of A/V at the school, which he seemed to be more enthusiastic about than teaching chemistry. That meant that when he was out we often watched films (of the old 16 mm type), whether or not they were related to chemistry, or even to science.
I managed to complete four years at Pitzer College without taking a single science course. (This was back in the olden days when Pitzer did not have any general education requirements.) Still, as an adult I was interested in science topics, and certainly watched plenty of science programs on the local PBS station wherever I lived. Similarly, I have watched or listened to plenty of science courses from The Great Courses. After finishing twenty-four lectures on Norse Mythology I was looking for something completely different (right Monty Python?) so I selected Understanding the Periodic Table, which The Great Courses and Wondrium were touting as one of their new releases.
I can’t say that this was the most captivating course I have watched, but I did learn a few things. I finally got it down that an isotope is an atom with a different number of neutrons than the most common form, and an ion is an atom with a different number of electrons than the most common form. I learned that there are many elements that don’t exist in their pure state but have to be extracted from the compounds in which they exist by using heat or a chemical means. I learned that allotropes are different configurations of the same element. For example, there are different allotropes of tin, some of which are stable and others of which disintegrate quickly. Graphite (pencil lead) and diamonds are different allotropes of carbon. And I came across elements I hadn’t heard of before, for example hafnium and osmium.
Professor Davis has a tendency to anthropomorphize the elements. He says that hydrogen wants to bond with other elements. Or that elements want to form octets, that is a molecule with eight electrons in the outer shell. It’s an interesting perspective.
The periodic table is larger today than it was during my junior year of high school. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) finalized today’s table in 2016, taking us up to element 118, oganesson. The PDF version of the course guidebook sacrifices a lecture-by-lecture outline of the course, as is found in most Great Courses lecture series, but instead provides us with an interactive periodic table. When you click on an element the guidebook takes you to a description of that element. Pretty cool.
If such things interest you, this is a course well worth watching.
Wild Woman: A Footnote, the Desert, and My Quest for an Elusive Saint
Broadleaf Books (August 3, 2021), 217 pages
Kindle edition $13.74, Amazon hardcover $14.10
The Wild Woman of the title is Mary of Egypt, a little-known saint in the Christian church. Amy Frykholm first discovered Mary in a book she stumbled across while verifying the footnotes in a book she was completing. It was only several years later when she heard the name mentioned at a writing conference that she felt drawn to pursue Mary.
Our primary source for Mary of Egypt is a life written in Greek by St. Sophronius, whose life straddled the fourth and fifth centuries AD. He tells the story through the eyes of Zosimas, a monk who encountered her in the Judean desert. As the story goes, Mary left her family in Nubia, in the north of Egypt and traveled to Alexandria, where she lived a life of offering sexual favors. In Alexandria she saw people boarding a ship headed to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Holy Cross. Without money she again offered her favors to gain passage, an offer the ship’s crew accepted. Once in Jerusalem she attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but an invisible force held her back. She encountered the presence of the Virgin Mary, repented of her lifestyle, and was allowed inside the church. From there she crossed the river Jordan where she lived the rest of her life as an ascetic.
Frykholm was so drawn to the life of Mary that she set out on her own journey to visit the places where Mary would have walked. Her mother and her husband sharing different segments of the journey, she visited Nubia, the Monastery of St. Anthony in Egypt, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and the Judean wilderness.
The author describes her visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where she learned that there was supposedly a chapel dedicated to Mary. She was frustrated in her attempts to find the chapel. She was told that it was closed, or that it was only open one day a year. The Copts told her that the Orthodox were responsible for it, and the Orthodox told her that the Copts were responsible. Finally, with the help of a local who had connections with the community around the church, the Orthodox archbishop found the key and let her in. She was disappointed that there was little associated with Mary there.
Frykholm then crossed the Jordan and visited an archaeological site that had an association with Mary, a place that was once a hostel for pilgrims. From there she made a trek into the Judean wilderness to understand the terrain in which Mary supposedly lived. She saw a dragonfly chrysalis in which she felt the essence of Mary.
Interweaved with her own story, Frykholm writes about her best friend Ali, an Episcopal priest, and Ali’s struggle with cancer. Ali parallels her quest with Frykholm’s.
The author was so engaged with the story of Mary that she asked her father, a scholar of the Greek language, to help her learn Greek, which he did via Skype. The two of them then created an English translation of Sophronius’s work, which appears as an appendix to Wild Woman.
Frykholm’s own journey is every bit as engaging as the life of Mary. She continues the sojourn in an eight-episode podcast for The Christian Century called In Search Of. She interviews some of the people she mentions in the book, and others who have helped her with her mission to understand Mary of Egypt.
I had never heard of Mary of Egypt until I learned of Frykholm’s book, but as it happens Mary appears in the 2018 edition of the Episcopal volume Lesser Feasts and Fasts. You’ll find her on April 3, with her name in brackets, meaning that she’s there for trial use.
I am grateful to Frykholm and to Mary of Egypt for enriching my own spiritual journey.
Terry and I decided it would be a good idea to have a housecleaning service once again in advance of her upcoming knee replacement surgery. The company she selected has done a good job and we have been happy with their work.
One a recent cleaning day one of the team members went to Terry somewhat upset, holding the disintegrated remains of the lampshade from the floor lamp next to my computer desk. She was doing exactly what she was supposed to be doing: dusting it off. That it fell apart in her hands was no surprise. I have had that lamp for a long time, more than ten years as best as I can estimate. The plastic shade was old and brittle.
The lamp had a long history. It originally used incandescent bulbs, which I replaced with CFLs, and finally with LED bulbs. In that lamp and throughout the house I have been quite happy with the light our LED bulbs have produced. In the bedroom I had to replace a floor lamp a while back, and I did so with a built-in LED floor lamp. It has worked out very well.
Knowing that there would be no way to find a replacement lamp shade, I went to Amazon looking for a new floor lamp. I focused on floor lamps with built-in LED lights, given our satisfaction with the bedroom lamp. I found one that I thought would be ideal, which you see pictured here. Assembly was simple and I plugged it in.
I have both floor lamps in my office connected to the plug operated by a wall switch. Since my new LED floor lamp uses a remote control, I wondered whether I would have to turn it on separately. I plugged it in and flipped on the wall switch. It came on with a delay of about four seconds, but without my having to touch the remote.
The new lamp brings another improvement. Despite the pandemic winding down I’m still on Zoom regularly. My face is now no longer in shadow when I am on Zoom. With the old lamp I had to scoot way over to the left of my computer table to get out of the shadow. Now I can sit comfortably in my normal position and my image appears clearly.
One of the nice things about these new LED floor lamps is that you can adjust both the brightness and the color of the light to suit your preference. And the remote? It has a magnet, so I have it on the side of my file cabinet, completely out of the way.
That’s a really nice outcome resulting from a disintegrated lamp shade.
The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts
translated by Todd Portnowitz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (March 1, 2022), 280 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $23.78
The author is an expert in the world of writing and scripts. In The Greatest Invention she talks about the history of writing. And “talk” is an appropriate word here, as her style is conversational.
She begins writing about Crete and tells us that ancient Crete produced four scripts: Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A, the Phaistos Disk, and Linear B. Scholars have deciphered only one of those: Linear B. On the island of Cyprus there are four tablets written in what scholars call Crypto-Minoan. That is also undeciphered. From here Ferrara goes to Easter Island, where she discusses the Mamari tablet, written in the undeciphered Rongorongo script. Ferrara received a grant to lead a research group focused on the invention of writing and to decipher these so-far undeciphered scripts.
Ferrara then goes on to discuss when and how writing arises. She writes that when a civilization reaches a population of ten thousand you will find writing. However, she emphasizes that civilizations have existed without writing systems, and that “writing systems have formed like pearls in oysters, with no warning, no territorial expansion, no clear purpose.” Many people believe that writing arises out of the needs of bureaucracy, as we see in the Linear B scripts of Mycenae and the cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia. That idea, she says “is just reckless drivel.” Ferrara dispels the notion that writing was invented only once. She cites multiple examples that show writing must have arisen entirely independently in different places.
Ferrara delves into means of communication that did not involve writing, for example, the Incan quipu, which she describes as “rows and rows of cords, all strung together like charms on a necklace, all covered in knots.” She says that these were used for record keeping, but perhaps also to tell stories.
The author spends a lot of space discussing the rebus: a combination of letters and images. It seems a lot of ancient scripts used them. No doubt you played with rebuses in elementary school. For example:
She also writes about emojis. She tells us they are here to stay. Heaven help us. (One of the disadvantages of reading this book in the Kindle edition on my iPad is that the rebus and emoji images were very hard to see.)
In the final quarter of the book the author ends her conversational tone and takes on a drier, more academic approach as she discusses how scholars study language. She admits that computers have been of great help in attempts to decipher those still undeciphered scripts. But she emphasizes that it is the human effort that is the best tool for studying language and she insists it is a multidisciplinary undertaking. She enumerates: “epigraphists, archaeologists, anthropologists, geomatics engineers, historians, cognitivists, semiologists, and computer scientists. And linguists.”
Ferrara originally wrote the book in Italian. Todd Portnowitz translated it into English. This is interesting because there is a lot of casual language, idiom, and word play throughout the book. I have to wonder whether the Italian version differed somewhat from this English edition and if this is a revised version specifically intended for an English-speaking audience. I suspect Ferrara must have been involved in the translation. Her English is no doubt good enough. Her biography at the end of the book states that she studied at University College London and at the University of Oxford. It says she researched archaeology and linguistics at Oxford, and that she has taught at University College London, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge. That makes me wonder why she didn’t simply write the English version herself.
No matter. If you are interested in the history and science of script and writing, take a look at The Greatest Invention.
Lost & Found: A Memoir
by Kathryn Schulz
Random House (January 11, 2022), 241 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $19.08
Kathryn Schulz’s memoir Lost & Found came out to favorable notices. Justifiably so.
Schulz opens the book describing her reaction to learning of the death of her father and her own experience of being lost. She writes about her father who came to the United States as a youngster, fleeing the war in Europe. She recalls her father as she was growing up, and how he was a skilled storyteller. Schulz then describes how her father was constantly losing things: keys, wallet, whatever. That didn’t bother him much, but it kept his wife and his two daughters busy following up. Schulz tells us how literate her father was and how capable he was as a lawyer.
The author then circles back and writes about her father’s decline and how hard it was on the family, as he did not have the clarity he once did. Staying on the theme of loss, she writes about how the family finally had to decide to let him go.
Schulz then moves to the theme of “found.” She writes about meeting a sister writer with whom she quickly fell in love. She describes how their relationship developed and how C. (as Schulz refers to her) helped her move her parents out of their house and into a condo (loss again).
She tells us that her parents loved C. and she describes meeting C.’s family who were completely accepting of her. The author provides a detailed account of their wedding and how well the two families got along. This was remarkable in that Schulz’s family was midwestern and nonobservant Jewish while C.’s family was Southern and devoutly Christian.
Near the end of the book Schulz tells us that she and C. were expecting a child. She did not say which one of them was pregnant nor how the pregnancy came about, but I suppose those things (especially the latter) are none of our business.
Lost and Found describes a lot of pain and a lot of joy. Rather like life.
Dessert Can Save the World: Stories, Secrets, and Recipes for a Stubbornly Joyful Existence
read by the author
Random House Audio, March 08, 2022
$21.44 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with a Audible credit
I found this book when the “Newly Published” column on page 4 of the New York Times Book Review mentioned it as a noteworthy new audiobook. The reviewer was spot on in saying that this book deserved attention.
Christina Tosi writes about her obsession with dessert. When she was a child she would eat her grandmother’s raw cookie dough, ignoring warnings about salmonella. Her grandmother stored baked cookies in the freezer in the basement until it was time to serve them, but Christina would sneak down there and steal the wrapped cookies. When she was in high school she delighted in developing her own creations. She was always a rebel. She writes, “I knew from a relatively young age that I was going to be uncool, which I was totally cool with.”
After high school when she realized it was time to leave home, she went to New York City where she attended culinary school by day and worked in a restaurant at night. She describes in detail the grueling work and the long hours in the restaurant business. But her rebel nature showed itself in these jobs. Head coverings were of course required in the kitchen, and there was a standard white cap the chefs expected staff to wear. Tosi one day, however, donned a colored scarf. She got away with it.
Tosi writes about how she worked in all aspects of the culinary world: on the line in the kitchen, the front of the house, and the dessert corner of the kitchen. This confirmed for her, she says, that it was the dessert part of that world she loved the most.
Tosi was working at a high-end New York restaurant as the head pastry chef when the landlord evicted the tenant next door. She took that as the opportunity to open her own bakery, Milk Bar. What she was not prepared for was the immediate success of her venture. She writes about the ridiculously long hours and the challenges she faced. She describes her stubbornness while finally realizing that: 1) she could automate the baking processes, and 2) she could rely on others and not carry the whole burden herself.
The author includes an interlude on what she calls dirty dessert secrets. These are taking snack and cookie items from the grocery store (or the gas station minimart, or even, she says, from the dollar store) and mashing them up with other items found in the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry. Most of those sounded unappetizing to me. She insists that everyone has a dirty dessert secret and says she wouldn’t believe you if you told her that you didn’t have one. I have to say, though, that I don’t. I’m quite happy with the chocolate chip cookies I bake from the tub of cookie dough I buy at my Winco supermarket. (For a while it was Snickers fun size, but for now I’m stuck on the cookies.) Really, I don’t need a mashup.
Fortunately, however, there are a lot of more conventional dessert recipes in the book, many of which are very appealing. If you listen to the audiobook you can also download a PDF file containing the recipes.
Tosi writes a lot about making others happy, whether it be her own customers or people in need. At the end of the book, she discusses the work that her company has done to support charities and social justice. She says:
Invite in the joy whenever, however, wherever, it comes along, be it dessert or anything else. And go all out to spread that joy to as many people in as many ways as you can. Because one act, by one person, sparks the change that, when shared, generates a revolution.
I love that Tosi narrated the book herself. Her joy in creating desserts and her enthusiasm are apparent. After listening to Dessert Can Save the World I would buy her desserts.
The magazine business is not what it once was. There has been a lot of consolidation in the industry and magazines have ceased publication of their print editions.
Our favorite cooking magazine for many years was Cooking Light. It was one of many magazines that Time Inc. published. Time Inc., however, wanted it to close out its business and sold all of its magazines to Meredith Corporation, known for magazines like Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies’ Home Journal. Meredith sold off magazines like Time and Sports Illustrated that didn’t fit its lifestyle niche. Other magazines it shut down, including Cooking Light. For some reason I didn’t receive notice of the shutdown, and it was only several months later that I said to myself, “Hey, we haven’t gotten a Cooking Light for a while!” I did an online search and quickly found out why. (Meredith has since revived Cooking Light in a sort of overpriced quarterly zombie form without the extensive test kitchen and writing staff that caused them to shut it down in the first place.)
One of the Time Inc. publications that Meredith kept was Entertainment Weekly, a magazine that Terry and I have subscribed to for many years. However, last October Dotdash, a company controlled by media maven Barry Diller, bought Meredith and all of its magazines, creating Dotdash Meredith. In February the new company announced that Entertainment Weekly, along with Eating Well, Health, and Parents would cease print publication and exist only online. Dotdash Meredith CEO Neil Vogel said in a memo to employees, “We have said from the beginning, buying Meredith was about buying brands, not magazines or websites.”
The final issue of EW was the April edition. (Oddly, Entertainment Weekly kept that name even after it went monthly.) Production was nearly complete on that issue when Vogel made the announcement, so the end of the road merited only a single obtuse mention on the back page compilation of trending topics.
Since we had a year left on our subscription, Terry and I were wondering how the fine folks at Dotdash Meredith would handle that. They kept us wondering until here in mid-April when we finally received a postcard (printed about as cheaply as it could possibly be) telling us that the balance of our subscription would arrive in the form of People magazine. People. Gee, thanks, guys. The card did say that we could request a refund instead, but as I had renewed a couple of times at a highly discounted rate, it hardly seems worth the trouble.
It’s a digital world, but then I am as guilty as anyone of going digital.