Sunday, June 16, 2024

A Visit to Hell (Michigan)


Yes, it’s a real place, less than an hour’s drive from our home in Ann Arbor.
As you might suspect, it’s mainly a tourist destination with bars, mini-golf, and souvenir shops.
According to the website, there’s also a place to sprinkle your deceased relatives ashes. That costs $60.

Note: Livingston County, where Hell is located, voted 61% Republican in 2020.

Photos © 2024 mae sander
Shared with Sami’s Monday Murals.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Books and Things


The Venetian Candidate

The Venetian books by Philip Gwynne Jones are entirely new to me, and I arbitrarily chose one of the last ones from the series to read first, as recommended by my friend Sheila. The Venetian Candidate (published 2023) seemed to me to be well-plotted, with interestingly developed characters and plenty of local color in Venice in January, 2020 — you can figure out the date because of several news items the characters see about a new strange virus threatening to break out. 

The principal character is Nathan Sutherland, who is the British Honorary Counsel in Venice. As such, travelers in trouble come to him for help and advice, which in this book involves a missing man who was searching for information about his great-grandfather who died near Venice during World War I. Not surprisingly, this bit of history turns out to have a lot of ramifications on the present day, particularly on the candidates who are running in an election for Mayor. It gets very involved, including some violence from a hired thug, but of course it all works out well in the end.

Any self-respecting mystery author today is aware that readers want to know what the protagonists are eating and drinking. Obviously, what they eat in this book is fabulous Venetian food — and frequent quick and easy meals of pizza, which takes on quite a lot of significance:

“Gianluca didn’t even look at the menu, but smiled up at the waitress. 
 “‘Pizza Margherita, as always.’ 
“He looked over at me. ‘Now, Marco and Alessandra here are just about to tell me how boring this is.’ The two professors nodded as one. ‘But,’ Gianluca continued, ‘they’d be wrong. Because the Pizza Margherita is like Hemingway’s prose. Simple, clear, direct – no messing about. Perfect as it is.’” (p. 142)

They also drink lots of mixed drinks like Negronis, but also wine when they mean to stay sober! For example, this interchange:

“‘Okay. And to drink?’ 
“He shook his head. ‘I’m on duty. Just a red wine, please. And a couple of tuna and egg tramezzini.’ 
“I made my way over to the bar and looked at the range of food in the cabinet. Meatballs, of course. Small octopuses. Fried crab claws. Sliced meats and cheeses. All of those would be good. But what would be best on a freezing cold day? I smiled, as I saw the rows of crispy orange arancini, fried risotto balls. Perfect for getting some heat back into me.” (p. 24)

I’m glad Sheila suggested this series, and I expect to eventually read some of the other books by this author.

The Mistress of Bhatia House

“Soon, the potato and fenugreek curry was steaming in front of them, along with a thick yellow dal, stewed green beans, puris, tomato chutney, pickled turmeric, yogurt, and carrot halwa.” p. 90

“The baked cake, wheat studded with dal, nuts, and raisins, sat resting on the kitchen table. John cut two pieces for her and she put them on a metal plate.” (p. 125)

The flavors of Indian Parsi cuisine are invoked in many of the chapters of the most recent Perveen Mistry novel by Sujata Massey: The Mistress of Bhatia House (published July, 2023). I enjoyed it very much, though the central subject is depressing. Perveen, the only woman lawyer in Bombay in the early 1920s, is faced with exonerating a young servant woman who has been accused of the crime of abortion. As she unearths many unfortunate truths about the plight of women of all classes in her society, Perveen struggles against the abuse of this one woman and against the total lack of reproductive freedom for all women in her society. She must deal with the anti-woman resistance she experiences in her own efforts to achieve professional success. She realizes how the British rule of India negatively affects the interests and opportunities of Indian women and men of all classes. 

Although life in modern America is nothing like this, the book does bring to mind a variety of ongoing efforts right now to deprive women of their reproductive rights! Perveen, influenced by a woman doctor who faces many of the same prejudices she is facing, is reading a revolutionary book by Margaret Sanger, the American who promoted birth control beginning in 1914. As Sujata Massey presents them, the social problems of India a century ago can really resonate with readers today.

Graphic Novels

I reviewed this earlier in the week.

One more graphic novel, Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald,”
in which Sherlock Holmes meets classic monsters.

Shared with me

Beautiful lunch in Washington, DC, sent by my family. I wish I had been there!
The cheesecake is especially enticing.

Finding Mona Lisa

Remembering Faith Ringgold (1930-2024). Her quilt:  “Dancing at the Louvre” (source)

This image of Mona Lisa as Medusa turned up in a review of the book My Favorite Thing is Monsters (Book 2) by Emil Ferris. I’m not really that fond of graphic novels so I didn’t read the book, though I looked through a short (free) sequel to the book with the same title. As it happens, I tried a few other graphic novels too.

First promised for this month, Lego has postponed the release of the huge lego Mona Lisa until October.

Blog post © 2024 mae sander
Shared with Sunday Salon at Readerbuzz

Friday, June 14, 2024

Murakami Manga

Haruki Murakami is definitely one of my favorite authors, and I’ve read most of his novels, which tend to be quite long. I’ve read quite a few of his short stories also — so I decided to read this graphic version of some of them.

“Super Frog Saves Tokyo” is a Kafkaesque story of an ordinary office worker named Katagiri, who is enlisted by a tormented giant frog. His mission: to save Tokyo from a disastrous earthquake that is about to be caused by a hideous worm that lives underground beneath the office building where he works. 

Like most of Murakami’s magical realism, you can’t be sure what’s happening in some literal sense, and what’s only in the imagination or hallucinations of a character. And of course it doesn’t matter. The poor office worker has to save Tokyo.

Here are a couple of panels where the frog introduces himself to Katagiri:

I looked up the text version of the story (here). The description given has different details from what you see in the art wor:

“Katagiri still had his briefcase jammed under his arm. Somebody's playing a joke on me, he thought. Somebody's rigged himself up in this huge frog costume just to have fun with me. But he knew, as he watched Frog pour boiling water into the teapot, humming all the while, that these had to be the limbs and movements of a real frog. Frog set a cup of green tea in front of Katagiri and poured another one for himself.”

I always find it hard to read graphic novels, because I rely so heavily on reading, and I forget to look carefully at the images. In reading this version of stories which I also have read as text, I made an effort to find the details of the narrative in the pictures, not in words. I tried to see the ordinary house, the teapot and cups, the flat pillow that the man kneels on, the steam from the teacup, the posture of the frog, and many other details. Afterwards, when I reread the story as originally published, I was struck by the very different way that details were presented. Very interesting.

Review ©  2024 mae sander


Monday, June 10, 2024

The Civil War Isn’t Over

The Demon of Unrest by Erik Larson (published April, 2024) is a very detailed study of the events that began with the secession of South Carolina from the United States in December, 1860, and culminating in the outbreak of the Civil War with the firing on Fort Sumter in April, 1861. Larson includes a fair amount of background material, but the vast majority of chapters detail what was happening at the fort itself during this time, as well as the communication with the government in Washington and all the surrounding politics during the months before Lincoln became President.

Reading this book to me was like reading current newspaper accounts about one of the depressing wars in our world today. When I read the daily newspaper, though, I’m trying to understand both the present and the future — I don’t know what the ultimate results of significance of each day’s events will be. Today’s wars, as it sadly happens, are hideously violent affairs, and there are many casualties almost every day. In contrast, the small garrison that staffed Fort Sumter was mainly troubled by their lack of supplies and by the tedium of waiting for orders from Washington. While the Civil War is known as a brutal and ugly experience of horror, and death, this lead-up was virtually non-violent. There was too much detail for my taste, and I found quite a lot of the book tedious and not very readable. (I did persist, and only skipped a little, really!)

Occasional Social History

My preference generally is to read social history, including the lives of women and insights about food and personal relationships. Larson’s book has an almost unvaried focus on war and politics, so it’s less my kind of reading. He did include a few observations that were more to my taste, especially quotes from the diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut, who lived in Charleston which is on the bay where Fort Sumter is located.  

One passage from another source described how Christmas was celebrated that year — emphasizing the point that the southerners really did not expect their withdrawal from the United States to result in a disastrous war, but that they expected the rest of the country to just accept them as a newly formed nation. The following meal also contrasts drastically to the near-starvation rations of the US troops loyally holding Fort Sumter. A Christmas dinner in Charleston:

“A visiting child, Esther Davis, recalled later how enslaved Black waiters in dark-blue broadcloth brought calf’s-head soup, partridge, wild duck, ham, corned beef, and two kinds of turkey—roast and boiled—and deftly positioned it all on a damask tablecloth. ‘The crowning point of the dinner to us children was when, the table being cleared, simultaneously each person raised a glass and the waiters most dexterously removed the cloth, revealing a second of spotless damask, and dessert was brought in.’ Now came plum pudding, mince pie, cranberry pie, custards, syllabub—whipped cream flavored with wine—and plates piled high with fruit, including bananas, an exotic treat. After dessert the waiters removed this cloth as well, exposing the gleaming mahogany table underneath, and then served a closing course of wine and nuts. Even the children got to drink champagne.” (p. 131)

The Deeply Serious Part

The politics before the Civil War are pretty horrifying. The abolitionists’ views were admirable, though it’s very depressing to hear the horrors of slavery as they portrayed it, and to see how the insistence of Southern states that slaves, as property, had to be enslaved wherever they were. 

The pro-slavery advocates were revolting in their glorification of racial injustice and in dehumanizing the slaves and all Black people. Further, they did this in the name of “Chivalry” — a formal code of conduct and “honor” that was maintained among Southern men, a code that degraded women as well as Black people. Larson traces the evils of this code as a motive for Southern politics throughout the events of the book. I find Larson’s observations about this code very interesting:

“The thing that the South most resented was the inalterable fact that the North, like the rest of the modern world, condemned slavery as a fundamental evil. In so doing, abolitionists and their allies impugned the honor of the entire Southern white race, for if slavery was indeed evil, then the South itself was evil, and its echelons of gentlemen, the chivalry, were nothing more than moral felons. Yet the chivalry … had persuaded themselves of a different reality: Slavery was a positive good; it was endorsed by the Bible and by anthropological observation; even two famed Northern anthropologists, Louis Agassiz and Charles Morton, both of Harvard, no less, had proclaimed on the basis of purportedly scientific research that the Black race was not only inferior, but a different species altogether. If slavery was good, then slaveowners were good, and anyone who said otherwise abraded their honor, something no Southerner could forgive.” (p. 196)

The racism and greed of the pro-slavery arguments are especially revolting. For example:

“On Wednesday, January 9, [1861] Mississippi’s secession convention voted 84 to 15 in favor of immediate exit from the Union and became the second state after South Carolina to do so. The delegates were very clear about their motivation.  

“‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world,’ they wrote in their official declaration. ‘Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.’” (Larson, p. 191)

Why I kept reading

Unfortunately, there are many parallels to our own society — parallels that Larson clearly wants the reader to be aware of. For example, just this week in current politics a prominent Republican claimed that slavery and segregation were (get this) GOOD for the Black family in American life! As I read the racist views of Southerners from the 1850s, I thought about these words of columnist Jamelle Bouie, words that still need to be said after over 160 years:

“American chattel slavery was practically defined by the fundamental instability of Black families. The institution rested on the expropriation of the reproductive capacities of the enslaved. Men and women were forced to have children who were then sold for profit. Families were torn apart as a matter of course. Natal alienation was the rule. …

“Enslaved people worked hard to preserve family ties and maintain kinship networks. They married, even as the law would not recognize their unions, and tried to keep their households intact as best they could. But they lived ultimately at the mercy of the master, who could and would destroy those families for profit and personal gain.” (“No, Byron Donalds, Jim Crow Didn’t Create Stronger Black Families,” June 6, 2024)

Our country’s regression to the vicious ideas of the past during the last decade is really depressing. The forces of racism, bigotry, tyranny, and inequality have come back to haunt us. I’m trying to find any cause for optimism, but the similarities to the views that almost destroyed our country in 1860 are ghastly.

Review © 2024 mae sander


Saturday, June 08, 2024

This Week

At Home

Strawberry season is too short!  Local strawberries DO NOT taste like everyday berries!

What valley does our food come from?
Len has made a number of really good recipes this week!

Books I reviewed this week

Why am I seeing this word everywhere?


Is there a fad for using this word: OUROBOROS? It refers to an image of a snake or a dragon that is swallowing its own tail, and it’s an ancient symbol for an eternal cycle of life and death. It had a role in the mythology of ancient Greece and Egypt, in Norse myths, in Medieval alchemy, in the Marvel Universe, as a trendy name for fictional characters and for products and apps; and has been a popular image for tattoo artists. Though I have been coming across this word a lot recently, it’s not really new: searches also find older articles that also use it. In fact, it’s so frequently used that Wikipedia has a “disambiguation page.

Anyway, the more I search, the more I think there’s nothing new except my noticing this word in use, mostly just meaning something that repeats itself. Consider this description of an AI text generator:  “a machine-powered ouroboros that could squeeze out sustainable, trustworthy journalism.” (NYT, June, 2024) Or the use of the word in a movie review: “The latest ouroboros of intellectual property juicing to get under my skin is the new Mean Girls film.” (The Atlantic, January, 2024) Or in a story about tradwives: “She didn’t like how her lifestyle, which she’d pursued out of genuine interest, had slowly become symbolic and politicized. She noted how her content had become an ouroboros…” (Washington Post, April, 2024)

For those who love this kind of thing, there are many options for creating
an ouroboros wall mural in your home. (Etsy)

Remembering the past this week

This week saw commemorations of D-Day 80 years ago this Thursday. Many of the veterans who participated in these celebrations are 100 years old, and it’s feared that at the next major anniversary of this very important historic event, there will be almost no veterans left.

From the D-Day Celebrations in Normandy. (New York Times)

“We will not walk away,” says Biden, drawing parallel between D-Day and Ukraine

“Biden says the dark forces the Allies fought 80 years ago have not faded. He says the struggle between dictatorships and freedom is unending. He says Ukraine remains as a stark example and says it has been invaded by a tyrant but the Ukrainians are not backing down. ‘We will not walk away,’ says Biden.” — From the Guardian

President Biden emphasized the importance of global alliances at the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of D-Day on June 6 in Normandy, France” (Washington Post)

Concern for the Future

From the Washington Post.

Blog post by mae sander, 2024
Shared with Deb at the Sunday Salon

Friday, June 07, 2024

“The Bangalore Detectives Club”


The Bangalore Detectives Club by Harini Nagendra (published 2022) is an amusing historic fiction. Set in the spring of 1921, during British rule of India, it features a group of doctors and their wives. The doctors work in a hospital in Bangalore, with both English and Indian men and women playing a role in a murder investigation. The central character is Kaveri Murthy, a nineteen-year-old woman who was just settling in as the wife of Dr. Rama Murthy. Kaveri has recently finished at a secondary school, and wishes for further education, especially in mathematics. She’s secretly studying for exams to be admitted to a further course of study, but she’s distracted by wanting to investigate a brutal murder that takes place in the garden of an exclusive club during a formal dinner for the medical staff of the hospital. 

Two themes predominate the course of the novel: one is the murder investigation, which involves policemen; underworld characters; several of the doctors, medical professionals, and their wives; various servants; and also cow herders — who live in the city with their cows so that they can go to wealthy homes each day and provide fresh milk direct from the cow herself. The second theme is the developing relationship between the two Murthys. Not only do they become engrossed in trying to find the dangerous murderer, they also develop their relationshipto each other, deeply trying to have a more egalitarian marriage than their parents and friends experienced. 

I enjoyed reading this novel, which includes several classic tropes of the mystery genre. First is the classic use of a closed group — the doctors and staff in the hospital plus their wives — who are all in some way involved with the fatal events. A number of other characters from different social classes, including a police detective and a woman who is being trafficked by a criminal organizer, provide interesting contrast to the lives of the doctors.

The second classic feature is the character of an amateur detective whose knowledge and interest are based on detectives in fiction — in this case, her favorites are Sherlock Holmes, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard created by Baroness Orczy, and supposedly Hercule Poirot, (I wondered about him since Agatha Christie’s first detective story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in October, 1920, in the US and in January, 1921 in the UK). 

A third classic feature is the constant description of meals and food preparation, mainly concerning Kaveri, who is a novice in the kitchen. She often combines sleuthing with recipe requests to more experienced women cooks. The food in this novel is especially interesting to me because most of the dishes that are featured are completely unfamiliar. I don’t even recognize their names — though the author has included a few recipes at the back of the book. A few examples:

“A waiter silently glided up to them, a large silver platter in his hand. He held out a selection of vegetarian delicacies – grilled paneer, small cocktail samosas, bite-sized fried vadas, and pieces of chili cheese toast.” (p. 35)

“The dessert course was brought in – carrot halwa, glistening with slivers of almond, and garnished with flourishes of sweetened cream.” (p. 46)

“Indira brought in a plate of steaming fried ambades, which Uma aunty seized upon with delight. … Kaveri forced a smile and said sweetly, ‘These are delicious. I was just thinking that my husband, too, would love these. Are they very difficult to make?’ … ‘Not at all, my dear, they are very easy to make. I’ll write it down for you.’ … Over coffee later that day, Ramu heard of their visit to Indira’s home. He also tasted the fruits of the visit, in the form of ambade: crisp fried ovals of dough, made of kadalabele with curry leaves and green chillies. Indira’s recipe, written down and explained to Kaveri, was a success.” (p. 186-187) 

The most common
woodpecker in India is
the Black-rumped flameback
woodpecker. (Wikipedia)

Food is not the only exotic and fascinating area where the author familiarizes the reader with the atmosphere of India in 1920. I was interested, for example, in the mentions of various species of birds that are seen or heard by the characters in the book: crows, the black kite (a bird of prey), egrets, lapwings, a woodpecker… I wonder if you can still see them in Indian urban areas today. I’m thinking of the blog Cranium Bolts where the birder Shiju Sugunan posts fabulous photos of birds in Bangalore.

In discussion of a murder mystery, the key questions are: Is it well-plotted? Does it create suspense? Is it decently plausible? Does it hold your interest? Are the characters believable? 

My answer to all these questions for this book is YES. There’s a strong plot. Circumstances demand careful thought and courage of the amateur detective Kaveri. The minor characters are interesting and well portrayed as well as the major ones. The atmosphere of 1920 India, including the relationships of British rulers to Indian citizens, and the background of politics throughout the story. 

That said — I have absolutely no idea about historical accuracy!

In sum: I enjoyed reading The Bangalore Detectives Club. If you like mysteries set in far-away times and places, you will probably enjoy it. Quite a few reviews of this book mention the mystery author Sujata Massey and her character Perveen Mistry — the only female lawyer in Bombay in 1921. I definitely see the similarity in the work of the two authors! 

The red-wattled lapwing from India (Wikipedia).

Review © mae sander 2024

Thursday, June 06, 2024

I am not a pilgrim.

My next book: I have just begun reading it.
A Travel Guide to the Middle Ages by Anthony Bale (published April 2024)
It’s full of interesting tales, descriptions of early maps, and many amazing details.

Why go on a pilgrimage? Where to go?

“Reasons and motives for pilgrimage were various – sometimes pilgrimage was voluntary, sometimes it was medical, sometimes it was imposed as a punishment, sometimes one undertook a pilgrimage on behalf of one’s community – but a pilgrimage was always a journey to a special destination. Such destinations included Walsingham, Canterbury, Aachen, Wilsnack, Cologne, Santiago de Compostela, Rome, Bari, Jerusalem. These locations, and many more, were all imbued with a charismatic holiness and were key shrines for Christian pilgrims.” (Bale, p. 11)

Why I want to read about Medieval travel…

While sitting in the airport waiting for our unexpectedly early flight from Paris back home, I overheard an unexpected conversation. A security agent with a clipboard was interviewing the waiting passengers. He asked if they had packed all their own bags, had been approached to carry something by a stranger, and those usual questions — no longer part of the universal security, presumably because it slows things down too much. 

A couple sitting across from us were of course asked the same questions — what is the purpose of your trip? The man answered: “We were on a pilgrimage.” At that point I noticed that he was wearing a clerical collar, though I don’t think his clothes were all black, I think they were brown. The agent seemed disconcerted, and he asked what that meant. 

“We went to all your holy sites,” answered the pilgrim. I think this ended the interview, and the agent ticked them off and headed for us with his list of passengers on the flight. I wonder if they visited any places connected with Joan of Arc, whose statue stood quite near to the hotel where our brief trip took place. I wonder if they saw the holy relics or remains of saints that Medieval pilgrims reverently viewed. 

Our departure was painful, so I didn’t take any photos during our ride to the airport, our transport through the airport, or our time in the boarding area. But I did notice this startling interchange that made me think about past trips and experiences with the once-holy travel sites in France — in a way, modern tourism has some of its roots in this type of tourism from the past. Just thinking about it is interesting.

Visiting Notre Dame de Paris during a service in 2018 (before it burned).
Of course I know it’s a holy site… but it doesn’t occupy that niche in my mind.

I have never thought of France as a country of holy sites, though of course I’m aware that there are many cathedrals and churches, as well as the famous grotto of Lourdes (where I’ve never visited). I know about the pilgrimages of the Middle Ages — for example how Rue Saint Jacques in Paris, leading from Notre Dame Cathedral, was the start of the most famous route, which led to the Santiago de Compostela site in Spain. I know about the major cathedrals of Chartres, Rouen, Rheims, Amiens, and also of Mont Saint Michel — in fact, over the years, I’ve visited them all. I’ve been to V├ęzelay, where there is a basilica and a Benedictine and Cluniac monastery — a key site where pilgrims started for Santiago as well as where Saint Bernard called on French people to join the Second Crusade.

I’m sure these churches all have reliquaries with holy objects — in fact, these boxes are often on display, made of precious metals, stones, and enamel work. Stained glass images of Bible stories, mosaics or paintings of holy scenes, and similar images are often part of the appeal, along with the impressive architecture. So I wonder why the words of the pilgrim about to board our plane were so startling to me. I guess I think of all that as being in the distant past. Because my specific example was a Christian pilgrim in France, my thoughts only turned to Christian sites and motives, though of course people of other religions and in other places have also made pilgrimages to holy sites connected to their own faith.

This devil on the ruins of the church at St. Gilles in Provence is waiting to tempt Adam and Eve.
In the Middle Ages this church was also a starting points for the Santiago pilgrimage.
I wonder if our fellow passengers went there, or if they only went to currently active holy sites. 

Medieval Travel

Reading Anthony Bale’s book about long-ago travelers and pilgrims is an interesting contrast to my own experiences throughout my life. Medieval travelers had to think ahead and purchase supplies of food, wine, and clean water for their voyages. They were sure to be in danger from a variety of criminals — their possessions could be stolen during the night in an inn or hostel if their rooms were not securely locked. (Well, this may not be completely changed). Often, they were robbed by the officials of a country or by gate keepers along the way. Even in the best of situations, they could be required to pay extortionate amounts of money or goods for safe passage.

Accommodations were substandard at best. Hostels were proud of themselves if they made a practice of washing the bedding once a month — and it would be nice if they even offered a bed rather than just a space on the floor. Don’t even ask about privacy or sanitation! Fleas, ticks, maggots, gnats, lice, worms, mice, rats, and other vermin were inevitable in even the best hostels or onboard ships, and bathing to get rid of pests wasn’t always an option. The accommodations on ships were even worse than the travelers’ inns along the routes where pilgrims and tourists walked. Moreover, storms and rough seas could cause terrible seasickness, or extreme calm could prolong voyages to the point where the passengers and crew might starve or die of thirst.

“The Florentine Simone Sigoli, reflecting on his journey to Jerusalem in 1384, seemed to summarize the medieval attitude to sea travel: ‘No one should travel who does not desire hardship, trouble, tribulation and the risk of death.’” (p. 85)

What a luxurious life we live in today’s world! 

Imaginary Places

A particular feature of many Medieval travel accounts, especially those of the Silk Roads into the unknown areas of Asia, were accounts of various mythical lands and peoples, such as The Old Man of the Mountain; the Land of Gog and Magog; or the fountain of youth. I have always enjoyed the stories of the land of plenty called Cocayne, which author Anthony Bale describes in some detail:

“From the thirteenth century, the land of Cockayne (Cockaigne, Cuccagna) was the false paradise most widely represented. Cockayne was on a distant shore, somewhere. Work was forbidden, free sex with willing partners was available to all and sinuous brooks ran with youth-giving liquors. The sun never set and one’s clothes were even free from lice. Pigs voluntarily roasted themselves as tasty pies flew through the air. The shingles on Cockayne’s pretty church were made of wheaten cakes, and one could tug away the sweet masonry and eat and eat and eat. It was a dreamland of plenty.” (p. 212)

Some of the real cities and royal courts in China and India were described just as fancifully as the imaginary places, as the returning adventurers told the remarkable stories of the places they visited. The great wealth of the Indian princes, for example, must have seemed mythical to the Europeans who stayed home and only read the travelers’ tales. Bale summarizes these tales for the modern reader — to me some still seem more imagined than real. 

Tales of Food

Of course the travelers brought back news about exotic and unfamiliar foods — sometimes accurate, sometimes exaggerated. Marco Polo’s supposed introduction of pasta from China is a twentieth century fairy tale — pasta had long been eaten in Italy. I wrote about Marco Polo and food a few years ago (in this post). Here is Bale’s summary of his contribution:

“Marco Polo is often credited with bringing a range of foods from China to Italy, but there is no evidence he brought recipes back with him. He did note many peculiarities of diet and rituals around food: for example, he described excellent spiced date wine in Hormuz, the exclusive diet of meat and rice in Kashmir, the Tatar habit of eating horse, dog and mongoose, the central Asian offerings of fat and broth to the gods, the rice and millet noodles of China and the wonderful pears and peaches at the Hangzhou market.” (p. 266)

I’ve read other books about Medieval travel, such as Gary Paul Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels and Caravans Mary Taylor Simeti’s Travels with a Medieval Queen, and Giles Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg. I’ve also enjoyed the Travels of Benjamin of Tudela, who wrote about his twelfth-century voyages. Travel stories are always an intriguing bit of history! 

Post and photos © 2016, 2018, 2024 mae sander

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

A Lovely Fairy Tale and a Not-Quite Parable

 Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia

Emily Wilde’s Encyclopedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett
(published 2023)

Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries is an absolutely delightful fantasy: or better said, a great fairy tale. It’s set in a mythical Scandinavian country (sort of like Iceland but closer to Europe) in 1909. The two main characters are academics who work at Cambridge University in the Department of Dryadology — that is, they are engaged in the scientific study of fairies and the many types of fairy creatures that abound in the world of the novel. Emily Wilde is doing field work in the strange and forbidding Scandinavian country, hoping to gather data for her comprehensive encyclopedia of every species of fairy. After arriving at her little rustic cabin, Emily quickly meets at least one fairy, a small creature that she calls Poe — and she meets many other fairies in the course of the remarkably suspenseful tale. 

Emily has a very prickly personality, and one of her challenges is adapting to life with the villagers in her research location. They extend friendly and helpful offers of food and assistance with her life in the rustic cabin — but she doesn’t grasp emotionally how to accept their friendship. In her narration of the events of her stay, at first she portrays them as hostile, but eventually we learn, with her, to see them quite differently. The catalyst for grasping their better character is a colleague of Emily’s — a researcher in the same department where she works, who shows up unexpectedly not long after she moves into her cabin.  She also has a hostile and suspicious view of him, and in fact suspects him of having falsified the research in his quite successful publications. Her gradual discovery of his virtues and his honesty — as they face many dangers from the hidden and menacing fairy world — is as interesting as her discovery of the strange nature of the fairies they are studying.

Although there are similarities to what we would call the real world, mostly the world of this novel is fantasy, and also is ahistorical. The reader must suspend disbelief in the existence of fairies as well as in many of the features of Emily’s personal and professional experience. Specifically, academic life at Cambridge University as it exists in the novel isn’t what would have existed in 1909. Conditions there are much more like life in a twenty-first century US or Canadian university than it would have in early-twentieth-century England. There are many hints of technology and style that would be anachronistic if the novel pretended to be historical rather than fantasy. 

Emily, as a researcher with a doctorate in Dryadolgy, had more professional opportunities than a woman who lived in that actual historic period. (Note that historically, the first woman Professor at Cambridge was Dorothy Garrod in 1939). Systems of tenure, academic hierarchy of titles, publication conventions, peer review, formal citations and citation tracking, and the like would have been different than they are portrayed in the novel — but  what difference do those details make? After all, the main plot is about exploring vast and dangerous fairy realms where magical powers, spells, enchantments, magic words, and invisible and malevolent characters are all part of the natural setting. Here’s one of my favorite more-or-less anachronisms in Emily’s narration: “Even the forest is rendered in black-and-white; I feel as if I am in a movie. I must have something to rest my eyes upon.” (p. 225)

The review of this book in the New York Times put it this way: “what seems on its surface to be a twee romp is in fact a stirring exploration of mythography and storytelling, with a dark and twisted heart.” (source

Note: A sequel to this book has been published but I’m not a big fan of sequels to fantasy books. I learned my lesson when I was in third grade and read the sequel to my favorite book, The Princess and the Goblin — I was so disappointed that I cried. So I may not opt to read more about Emily.

Amor Towles’ Dystopia

“You Have Arrived at Your Destination” is a story by Amor Towles. 
Short. Not as enjoyable as his other works.

Blog post © 2024 mae sander

Monday, June 03, 2024

Why are the Beatles, Jane Austen, and Mona Lisa Famous?

Cass Sunstein: How to Become Famous (published May, 24, 2024)

 Why the Beatles?

“Some people are struck by lightning. The Beatles were struck by lightning, and so was Taylor Swift, and so was Bob Dylan. So was Leonardo da Vinci, and so was Jane Austen, and so was William Blake. So was Steve Jobs, and so was Johann Sebastian Bach, and so was Barack Obama. Some people are not struck by lightning, which is why you have not heard of them. As Benjamin Franklin put it, ‘There have been as great souls unknown to fame as any of the most famous.’” (How to Become Famous, p. 7)

Why, Cass Sunstein wonders, do some creators become lastingly famous and iconic, while others are ignored and forgotten. Above all, he concludes, virtually no one of lasting fame and adulation is perfectly deserving of his or her position — circumstances beyond possession of talent and accomplishment always play a role. Did Sunstein convince me of this? Maybe not completely, but I enjoyed reading his explorations of the topic. 

For the Beatles, successful promotion, in Sunstein’s view, was everything, along with a refusal to give up and above all with effective agents and publicists. This is what happened when the as-yet-unknown Beatles were rejected by recording companies:

“There are many paths to success, and in a host of counterfactual worlds, the Beatles might have found one even without Epstein, Bennett, Colman, and Martin. Lennon himself thought so, insisting that the Beatles were the best group in the world (using expletives before best and world). ‘Believing that is what made us what we were,’ he said. ‘It was just a matter of time before everybody caught on.’ ... The best accounts of the crucial period, when the Beatles’ fate seemed highly uncertain, reveal the possibility of radically different counterfactual worlds, suggesting that the group’s success was anything but foreordained. And as we have seen, the word ‘foreordained’ raises many puzzles. It is necessary to know what we are holding constant, and what we are changing, in those counterfactual worlds. …
“The Beatles’ enduring success—their rediscovery by successive generations, their spectacular success in various years long after they broke up—can be taken to support the idea that they were unique, and that their uniqueness made their success essentially inevitable.” (p. 213)

Sunstein never really commits to either the idea that succes was fully earned and the group was truly unique or the opposite idea that some other group could just as well have achieved a similaar result. The facts — in the case of the Beatles and the many other success stories in the book — are never conclusive. 

Why Jane Austen?

Jane Austen's fame is another of the many interesting subjects in this book. The question is always why some creative individuals become lastingly famous while others — who may look just as promising early on — are briefly recognized and forgotten, or simply remain unknowns, not even footnotes to history. Sunstein points out: “William Blake and Jane Austen have enjoyed cultlike success long after their deaths, in part because they spoke to relevant groups at relevant times.” (p. 101) There is a lot of discussion of Austen and her contemporaries, as well as of many other famous people, but finally the concluding explanation:

“Austen’s reputation ‘was created almost entirely posthumously, first by her siblings, familial descendants, and a few reviewers, involving what we’d now call celebrity endorsements, logrolling quotes, trash talk, commercial efforts, and enthusiast activities.’ Is there an Austen cult? Absolutely. In fact, there are plenty of them. A key moment was the publication in 1870 of A Memoir of Jane Austen, by James Austen-Leigh (Austen’s nephew). The book was effectively a production of the Austen family, including cousins. Its first sentence set the tone: ‘More than half a century has passed away since I, the youngest of the mourners, attended the funeral of my dear aunt Jane in Winchester Cathedral; and now, in my old age, I am asked whether my memory will serve to rescue from oblivion any events of her life or any traits of her character to satisfy the enquiries of a generation of readers who have been born since she died.’” (P, 128)

My reaction to Sunstein’s study of Austen’s fame was to want to reread her work. I mean read her original novels, not the copycat works the cult of Austen has also inspired. There are so many dramatizations in film and TV series, and so many knock-offs that repurpose her characters or try to create sequels. So far, I’ve read Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility. I admire them as much now as I ever have throughout many years of reading her novels over and over. In my view, the unique way that Austen portrays the disadvantages of women in her era and shows how they cope with their situation is brilliant beyond any other author I know of. Her use of faintly ironic language and sharply observant detail has no equal. 

So there, Cass Sunstein.

Domestic happiness is always a goal of the characters in
Jane Austen’s novels. A happy table with good food, wine, and company.
Hello, fellow bloggers at Elizabeth’s Tea Party!

Why Mona Lisa?

As readers of my blog know, I’m a collector of Mona Lisa parodies and of silly things that self-appointed scholars say about Mona Lisa, like the endless claims to know her “identity.” I’m afraid Sunstein didn’t say much on this topic that I haven’t read over and over in many books:

“Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. Why is that? You might want to answer that question by thinking long and hard about the painting and the celebrated woman in it. You might consider her enigmatic smile. What secret is she hiding? You might ponder the way her eyes seem to follow you wherever you go. You might wonder about her folded hands. They seem to signal calm; but why, exactly, are they folded? You might emphasize the background, which is at once beautiful, dreamy, and mysterious. The more you think about the Mona Lisa, the more you might admire the painting, and find it entirely unsurprising that it has achieved its iconic status. (p. 28)

He repeats the predictable history: the Mona Lisa was always pretty obscure until the mid-19th century, when it was selected by critics for its newly-noticed excellence, and then how it was stolen from the Louvre and returned with great drama in the early 20th century. Nothing in this narrative is original with Sunstein. And in my view, it’s not an explanation. But I guess that’s his point: you can’t explain this type of mass adulation of a single artist or work of art — you can always find another that has similar good features.

Sunstein doesn’t mention that the Louvre at the moment is experiencing insanely serious problems with crowd control because so many people want to see the Mona Lisa that there are lines just to get into the room with her. Is this a mystery or a truth about human nature? Sunstein doesn’t exactly ask this question. For him, the fame of the Mona Lisa is a kind of touchstone for understanding the fame of others: “Star Wars is a bit like the Mona Lisa—really famous, and much more than good, but the beneficiary of a cultural norm (“this, you have to see”) that was far from inevitable.” (p. 219)

Throwing soup on the most famous painting in the world: January 2024.

Why the Impressionsts?

More icon attacks: a few days ago a famous Monet painting at the Musee d’Orsay was vandalized in the name of some cause.I don’t care what cause — I hate vandals! 

Sunstein never mentioned the Impressionists, but the exhibit I saw last week (blogged here) asks and answers the same questions that motivate his book: Why are they famous? How did they accomplish it? Inquiring minds want to know. The answer, in the case of the Impressionists, was that they banded together, created a dramatic moment with their own expositions, and made themselves into iconic art. As Sunstein says: promotion!

Review © 2024 mae sander

Sunday, June 02, 2024

In which I am not a character from Jane Austen

If you are a Jane Austen reader (as I am) you surely remember this very dramatic scene:

“There was too much wind to make the high part of the new Cobb pleasant for the ladies, and they agreed to get down the steps to the lower, and all were contented to pass quietly and carefully down the steep flight, excepting Louisa; she must be jumped down them by Captain Wentworth. In all their walks, he had had to jump her from the stiles; the sensation was delightful to her. The hardness of the pavement for her feet, made him less willing upon the present occasion; he did it, however. She was safely down, and instantly, to show her enjoyment, ran up the steps to be jumped down again. He advised her against it, thought the jar too great; but no, he reasoned and talked in vain, she smiled and said, ‘I am determined I will:’ he put out his hands; she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb, and was taken up lifeless! There was no wound, no blood, no visible bruise; but her eyes were closed, she breathed not, her face was like death. The horror of the moment to all who stood around!” — Persuasion by Jane Austen, p. 67

Louisa Musgrove, a young woman of twenty, came from a respectable family. While her parents were old-fashioned, she and her sister Henrietta “had more modern minds and manners.”  Louisa’s rather silly game of jumping into the arms of the willing Captain Wentworth was (I suppose) evidence of this modern tendency. As shown in the illustration, the reaction of her companions was one of horror!

Why, of all the scenes in this enormously wonderful novel by Jane Austen, do I bring up this one? Well, I am definitely not young and I don’t think I’m silly, but around a week ago, I was carrying the laundry to the basement and I missed a step. Just like Louisa I was “too precipitate by half a second” and I fell down the stairs. I didn’t land on my head, but on my hip. While Len was horrified, the ensuing scene wasn’t anywhere near as dramatic as the illustrations of the novel!

I rested for a couple of days, and then we flew to Paris for our planned trip. Unfortunately, I became more and more unable to walk, and we had to fly home after a very brief stay. A trip to the ER showed a very bad bruise — but very fortunately, no fracture. And now I’m staying home and trying to heal, though I have little else in common with the heroines of Jane Austen.

I’ve been reading a number of books, particularly Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility — I’ll write more book reviews soon. But first, I had to find a way to explain why we had to interrupt our trip to Paris.

Blog post © 2024 mae sander