Eloquence of the Sardine

Eloquence of the Sardine coverEloquence of the Sardine: Extraordinary Encounters Beneath the Sea
Bill François, translated by Antony Shugaar
St. Martin’s Press (August 17, 2021), 186 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $18.49

In this short but thoroughly enjoyable book Bill François shares his love of the sea and the creatures that live in it. He writes about the science, legend, and mythology of sea life.

The author opens the book by describing an encounter at the seashore as a child. He discovers a sardine in a tidepool, far away from where it should be. The sardine somehow communicates to him that it wants to be back in the ocean, and François obliges. This transforms him from a youngster with a fear of the ocean to an avid snorkeler. He describes doing line drawings of sea life in school when he should have been paying attention to a boring lecture on geometry, and how his teacher doled out detention for such subversive behavior. François has no love for the French school system.

Each chapter takes on a different aspect of ocean life and he prefaces every chapter with a series of “in which…” statements, just as you might find in a nineteenth-century British novel. (“In which distant galaxies glitter in the black eyes of prawns.”)

François describes how fish communicate with each other and work together. He discusses how they protect themselves from predators and how they find their food. He delves into how sea creatures perhaps communicate with humans.

The author devotes some space to the sexuality of fish. Several species of fish can change gender as appropriate. Others are truly hermaphrodite. He tells us the rockfish carries its young for more than two years, the longest gestation of any animal on the planet. (And he mentions that a rockfish can live more than a hundred years.)

One enjoyable section discusses how there are legends and accounts from around the world regarding how remora (that parasitical fish that attaches itself to larger sea life) communicate with humans and help them catch the sea life they were hunting. These stories seem to be similar while coming from disparate cultures. A modern researcher was not able to replicate this behavior, however.

François tells us that the sea serpent is more than a legend. It’s a fish called the giant oarfish, and he notes that it is shaped like a serpent and can grow up to thirty-five feet. The giant oarfish seems to be sensitive to earthquakes. Humans rarely see them, but they show up on occasion.

Eloquence of the Sardine is a translation of the French, so I have no way of telling how much of François’s voice is preserved, but translator Antony Shugaar’s light, conversational English is delightful to read.

If you enjoy reading about sea life and the oceans you won’t be disappointed with this title.

On Browsing

On Browsing coverOn Browsing (Field Notes Book 5)
Jason Guriel
Biblioasis (October 4, 2022), 106 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $12.99

I enjoyed the previous book I read from the small Canadian publisher Biblioasis, A Factotum of the Book Trade, so I was looking forward to reading On Browsing. I was disappointed.

I’m very much a high-tech guy. I read all my books on my Kindle app (iPhone and iPad) these days. I listen to audiobooks using the Audible app on my iPhone. But I remember an earlier era, and I remember it fondly.

I spent seven years of my life in the book business. Physical books. Hardcover and paperback. I worked for B. Dalton Bookseller, opening one new store and managing two others. I even returned for a penitential stint a few years later. I was a regular customer at various used bookstores in the different places I lived. I even learned the routine of the mail order used book business: you gave them the title of the book you wanted and if they were able to find it for you, you sent them a check.

So I expected On Browsing to be a pleasant return to that world. And indeed author Jason Guriel writes about browsing now defunct bookstores in his native Canada. He describes wandering the aisles at Blockbuster Video (yes, Canada had the chain too), first for VHS and then DVD. He writes about stores that sold and bought music CDs. All of that was marvelous.

But there is a big chunk in the middle of the book in which the author digresses into a science fiction view of cyberspace, decades before the advent of the internet. That segued into a discussion of the internet as we know it.

Guriel ends the book with a reflection of browsing Netflix. Not the same as browsing your local Blockbuster, or better, your neighborhood independently owned video store.

I was looking for a throwback, for some memories. I got some of that, but I got too much of today’s technology. That’s not what I came to this book for.

North Country

North Country coverNorth Country: A Personal Journey Through the Borderland
Howard Frank Mosher
Mariner Books (July 29, 2014), 243 pages
originally published in 1997
purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $4.99

I am always happy to turn to a travelogue for a pleasant diversion, and North Country was no exception. Author Howard Mosher felt the need to make a sojourn westward along the US-Canada border from his home in Vermont. This book documents his trip.

Although he describes the geography he encounters, what is central to North Country is the conversations he has. Mosher talks with hunting guides, merchants, customs agents, truckers, and others on both sides of the border. He spoke with a young woman about to enter college who was an amateur stock car racer and the best in her part of Canada. Some locals are more and some less reluctant to speak with Mosher, but they all have something interesting to say about life along the rural border. He is not afraid to ask questions or to get referrals. If the waitress says, “You should go talk to Joe up the road. He knows all about our local history,” Mosher does so. And Joe will usually talk to him.

Mosher is also happy to relate stories about incidents along the way. He describes coming back into the United States from Canada and checking in at the first motel he encounters. He was in room five. In room six was a newlywed couple, based on the signs on their car. They had a boom box blasting, and it was hard to tell from all the shouting whether they were fighting celebrating. In room four was a trucker who was trying to sleep because he needed to get an early start in the morning. Our author was not happy about being caught in the middle.

Throughout the book Mosher interweaves stories from his past. He describes working summers for a door-to-door brush salesman. (He doesn’t name the company, but it must have been Fuller Brush. I did that one summer in college.) He talks about his time as a teacher and social worker, and he describes trying to work with one unruly epileptic young man whose life came to a tragic end. He describes working for a local logger when he had no other prospects. He was doing fine in the job until he was summarily fired one day when the logger told him that if he wanted to write he should go write.

The author is not one to hesitate or mull over decisions. He had enrolled in the MFA program at the University of California, Irvine. He had just arrived in town and met his classmates when a phone company employee saw the Vermont plates on his car, pulled up beside him, and shouted, “I saw your green license plate. I’m from Vermont, too. Go back home where you belong while you still can.” Mosher did just that.

Mosher begins each chapter with an epigraph, and it turns out that he read some of the same authors who have been favorites of mine in the past: William Least Heat-Moon and Kathleen Norris, for example. He is also a big Hemingway fan, and loves the Nick Adams story, “Big Two-Hearted River,” something he references multiple times in the early part of the book. I hate Hemingway and I hated having to read that story in high school. But I’ll forgive him for that.

The bottom line: If you like a good travelogue you’ll find one here.

Growing Up Underground

Growing Up Underground coverGrowing Up Underground: A Memoir of Counterculture New York
Steven Heller
Princeton Architectural Press (October 4, 2022), 220 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $27.50

This is not the book I was expecting. Nevertheless, I found it entertaining and it provided some insight into a slice of life with which I was not familiar.

The book’s subtitle is misleading. Growing Up Underground focuses strictly on author Steven Heller’s childhood and his early career with underground newspapers in New York City. He is refreshingly honest with his approach, however. Heller writes, “My manuscript is as redacted as an FBI file.” Coming from a perspective unlike the unreliable narrator in Still No Word from You, he goes on to say:

quoteI promise everything that follows is like Ivory soap, at least 97 percent pure, 2 percent minor embellishment, and 1 percent memory lapse.

Heller writes about his childhood and the fact that his mother (apparently) had labor induced so his birth would fit into her schedule. His parents would go off on long vacations, leaving him with relatives in Sweden, something that strongly influenced his view of the world. Based on a psychologist’s interpretation of a battery of tests his parents paid for, they put him in a military-like all-boys high school. That was something of a disaster, and his father ended up pulling strings to get him into a more liberal private school.

Always something of a rebel, Heller began drawing and got some of his work published in New York underground publications. That evolved into the role of art director, and he took on that position during two separate stints at Screw, the underground sex publication. He also held similar positions at the East Village Other and at the New York Review of Sex & Politics, which he co-founded. He even did some design work for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, work of which he was not proud. Heller was arrested twice on pornography charges, once before he was eighteen, but in neither case did the charges stick.

Heller is just three years older than me, and given that I worked for one suburban weekly newspaper and two alternative news weeklies during the eighties when I was in my thirties, his descriptions of layout and paste-up were familiar to me, even though the world of underground New York City newspapers was not. Newspaper layout and production has obviously changed significantly in recent years.

Heller left behind his somewhat tawdry early years for a far more respectable career at the New York Times, where he spent many years as art director at the Book Review. But he only touches on those days in passing, as he keeps the focus of the present volume quite narrow.

Growing Up Underground is not for everyone, but the book is a valuable contribution in its documentation of one aspect of the New York underground newspaper business of the sixties.

our home improvements continue

As part of our home improvement process we decided we wanted to replace our unwieldy sliding glass door (pictured here) with a French door. We did that in Gilroy and we really loved it. What we thought would be a straightforward process, however, turned out to be more complicated than we expected.

patio doorWe started with our go-to general contractor, who took care of the artificial turf in the front yard, our kitchen and bathroom counters, and, most recently, our kitchen track lighting. It turned out that it was not a straightforward task for him, and that he would be using an off-the-shelf unit from Home Depot. That wouldn’t work.

Renewal by Andersen does some heavy advertising in the area, so we called them and made an appointment. We spent two hours getting details we didn’t need to have and watching videos we didn’t want to see. The meeting ended with sticker shock.

We called a (more-or-less) local company which places ads in an advertising magazine that arrives in the mail. The guy came out, took some measurements, and promised to get back to us with a quote. We didn’t hear from him.

We then called a company that advertises in the Four Seasons monthly magazine. Again, we got far more detail than we needed and a somewhat high-pressure sales approach. The price was better than Andersen, but we thought it best to do some checking. We looked at their reviews on Yelp and the Better Business Bureau web site. Yikes! Deal breaker.

So I called the previous company and asked about the status of the quote. They were back to me in twenty-four hours with a price that was entirely reasonable. The Yelp and BBB reviews were excellent. The rep was here the next day, took final measurements, had us sign the paperwork, and he was on his way.

The lead time is perhaps six weeks, so it will be after the holidays and into the new year before we see our new French door, but the process has begun. We’re pleased and looking forward to seeing it installed.

Still No Word from You

Still No Word from You coverStill No Word from You: Notes in the Margin
Peter Orner
Catapult (October 11, 2022), 320 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $22.53

I’m always delighted to come across a book in which the writing shines. Peter Orner offers that in Still No Word from You. The title is taken from a letter of his grandfather’s written to his wife while he was overseas in World War II. She was apparently not very good at responding to his correspondence.

There are two kinds of essays in this book. In one Orner reflects on the writing of others and calls out passages he admires. The remaining essays, the majority of the book, are autobiographical.

There is no chronology here, but we learn Orner lived a complicated and multifaceted life in the period these essays cover. He had one brother. His mother left his father when he and his brother were still youngsters and she eventually remarried. Orner seems to have not gotten on well with his birth father, but his wife’s second husband welcomed him. He was married at least once in what seemed like a rocky relationship. (At one point he appears to be in the process of moving out of their home when his partner (wife?) announces, “Well, here’s something. I’m pregnant. What? Let me put it another way. Pregnant I’m. Something here’s— You don’t look— It takes a while. It’s not like making a sandwich.”) And his wife’s family did not like their future son-in-law much, or so Orner felt. He’s Jewish, which is central to many of the essays. We learn the author has lived in Illinois, Vermont, and Bolinas, and we know he taught college.

We get all of this in no particular order, even though the book is divided into six sections: Morning, Mid-morning, Noon, 3 P.M., Dusk, and Night. There is no forward momentum or flow in the book. What Orner offers is a series of vignettes. The essays are short, the longest being five or six pages.

One needs to appreciate Orner’s writing without assuming every word he writes is literally true. After all, he reports a conversation that happened when he was not in the room. And he recounts a person’s thoughts when he had no way of knowing those thoughts. But it is the writing for which we came. For example, of the author Gina Berriault he writes, “There’s a patience in Berriault’s sentences that could only be the result of a refusal to rush any one of them into existence.” So it is with Orner’s writing. He tells us, “The monkey would watch us, too, like a hawk.”

Orner’s skill with words is apparent when he writes about his future wife’s family:

quoteNaomi and I would eat tomatoes like apples, juice sweating down our faces. The fact that we still weren’t married wasn’t merely an offense against the honor of the family, it mocked God’s infinite mercy in broad daylight.

Naomi slept in her mother’s old room. I slept on a bunk in the storage closet. It wasn’t a storage closet, it was a fairly large room just off the kitchen that they used for storage, but everybody called it the storage closet. Put the fiancé in the storage closet.

Reading Still No Word from You delivers a delightful immersion in the craft of writing.

Weavers, Scribes, and Kings

Weavers, Scribes, and Kings coverWeavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East
Amanda H. Podany
Oxford University Press (August 19, 2022), 672 pages
Kindle edition $17.99, Amazon hardcover $33.38

I was having some difficulty finding my next book to read. I went through multiple Kindle samples on my iPad and nothing caught my interest. Books that I thought I would enjoy turned out to be unappealing. Then I was going through one of the daily emails from the Literary Hub and clicked on a link for Oxford University Press. There I found a listing for this book. I almost always download a sample of a book before buying it, but in this case a sample was not available. A couple of considerations prompted me to buy the book anyway. First, the subject interested me. Second, the author is professor emeritus at Cal Poly Pomona, just a short drive west on Interstate 10 from where I attended college, Pitzer College in Claremont.

When I was at Pitzer in the 1970s studying classics (the Latin and Greek languages along with Greek and Roman history, literature, and culture), the study of the ancient Near East came into play because of the proximity in geography and chronology. At the time ancient Near Eastern studies seemed complete and circumscribed. Forty-plus years later we know that assumption was incorrect, as Amanda Podany proves in Weavers, Scribes, and Kings. She writes about documents that have been discovered in the intervening years, including the first two decades of the twenty-first century.

Podany takes a very specific approach. She focuses strictly on documents written on cuneiform clay tablets found in the Near East and on related archaeological discoveries. The only exception is that at the outset of her investigation she discusses some pre-cuneiform documents that predated actual written language. Although her focus is narrow, the time span she covers is immense. Her discussion begins in 3500 BCE and takes us all the way through to 323 BCE. Her story ends when writing in cuneiform on clay tablets gave way to other scripts written on other materials. Podany covers the era thoroughly. Although Amazon lists the print length of the book as 672 pages, my Kindle edition took me well past page 700 before the back matter began.

One of Podany’s goals is to go beyond just the kings. She does a good job of this. Obviously there is a lot about kings because a lot of the material we have is by kings or about kings. But Podany also writes about merchants, mid-level government functionaries, and brewers. Beer was the beverage of choice in the ancient Near East and keeping track of the inventories of the ingredients that went into beer was important.

The author gives plenty of attention to women, righting an old wrong. She writes about queens, princesses, mothers of kings, and priestesses. Sometimes it was the princess who became the priestess. Given the culture we have few records of common women, but Podany is diligent in writing about the women for whom we do have records.

The publisher is not wrong in using the words “new history” in the subtitle. There is a lot of new material here. It is interesting stuff, and it is all very readable. Despite the book’s length I never felt bogged down; I was always ready to continue on to the next chapter.

If you enjoy ancient history you will find Weavers, Scribes, and Kings well worth your time.

All Saints’ Day

candles for All Saints' DayFor many years on All Saints’ Day I wrote about our beloved beagle-border terrier mix, Tasha. That’s because we brought her home from the shelter on All Saints’ Day in 2005. We lost her in February of last year. She was a big part of our lives and we still miss her.

So today I thought I would write about the music of All Saints’ Day. There are two songs that Episcopalians tend to sing on All Saints’ Day. The first is hymn # 293 in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal: “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” One of my former rectors when I lived in Gilroy really loved the song, and my current rector is quite fond of it as well. It speaks of one’s aspiration to live a life like the saints. The three verses end as follows:

they were all of them saints of God—and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

and there’s not any reason, no, not the least,
why I shouldn’t be one too.

for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.

I can’t relate. The song does not resonate with me. While I strive, as we say in the confession in the Book of Common Prayer, to: “delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name,” I don’t think sainthood is something I am capable of.

I much more closely relate to hymn # 287: “For All the Saints, Who from Their Labors Rest.” I like to give credit to Ralph Vaughan Williams, who composed the music, but it was William Walsham How who wrote the words. Verse four begins:

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine

That’s much more my speed. And yes, I do know that the next line reads:

yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.

If you observe All Saints’ Day, may it be to you whatever brings you the most meaning.