Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time

And so I come across The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly. The timing couldn't have been better. Kelly wrote an immediately accessible history of the plague from its Asian origins to appearance in Europe in 1347. For such a science-heavy history, with 37 pages of endnotes, I did not feel overwhelmed by tech talk nor was the writing polluted with sensationalism, for there is nothing like a horror story about millions of people moaning in pain to keep one reading. Thankfully the author did not resort to the ghoulish side of mass death to keep me interested when the science alone motivated me to turn pages. 

The plague, carried by fleas found on rats in ships, got its foothold in Europe via Crimea. It then invaded the continent over the next three years, killing over one third of the population. We travelled with these rats and fleas as the disease made its way across Europe. There is evidence for two kinds of plagues that afflicted the European continent at this time: both a pneumonic and a bubonic variety. The former, with its ceaseless bloody cough, had the power to kill a person within three days while the latter exhibited the grotesque symptom of protruding buboes. People died en masse and villages were wiped out. Theories of contagion were still unknown and transmission was believed to occur via poisoned water, tainted air or by some astrological alignment. Since entire families were known to perish within mere days (only possible with the pneumonic variety) family members were afraid of one another for fear of catching the mysterious disease next:

"Of the plague's divisive effects, Boccaccio writes, 'It was not merely a question of one citizen avoiding another;...this scourge had implanted such a great terror in the hearts of men and women that brothers abandon brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers, and in many cases, wives deserted husbands. But even worse, and almost incredible was the fact that fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children, as though they did not belong to them.'"

One reason which led me to award this book five stars was Kelly's evocative descriptions. Imagine being part of a family and suddenly hearing your brother start coughing:

"Residents were quick to recognize the uncontrollable cough of pneumonic plague, the violent, spasmodic tattoo that threw people against walls or doubled them over in the streets, left chins and shirtfronts stained with bloody mucus, and produced a rattling noise in the lungs that sounded like a heavy iron chain being dragged across cobblestone."

No wonder family members abandoned one another. Once they heard that first cough, they knew it meant immediate death. 

I recalled the news reports about the mass coronavirus graves on New York's Hart Island when I read what Boccaccio wrote next:

"Such was the multitude of corpses [that] huge trenches were excavated in the churchyards, into which new arrivals were placed in their hundreds, stored tier upon tier like ships' cargo, each layer of corpses being covered with a thin layer of soil till the trench was filled to the top."

Kelly quoted other historians who, at the time, described the corpses being laid to rest in orderly rows like a plate of lasagna. The author thus provided some Italian culinary history, dating that specific pasta dish to at least the fourteenth century. 

The Black Death occurred during the brief period of the Avignon papacy and Kelly could not ignore the effect religion had on the interpretation of the plague. The laity was abandoned after so many clergymen died. Prayers went unheeded and thus the church proved to be just as ineffective as doctors and astrologers in trying to stop the carnage. It is no wonder that an increasing disillusionment with the church developed after the plague. The changing nature of the papacy to a "pay"-pacy didn't help, and I couldn't suppress a chuckle when I read this favourite passage from the book, below: 

"The most damaging aspect of the Avignon papacy, however, was its utter lack of moral seriousness. Clement V and his successors transformed the Church into a spiritual Pez dispenser. The fertile minds at the curia had managed to create an indulgence for every imaginable situation and every imaginable sin. For a price, an illegitimate child could be made legitimate, as could the right to trade with the infidel, or marry a first cousin, or buy stolen goods."

The Great Mortality was the term used during the time which we now refer to as the Black Death. It is also the title of a book which was riveting as well as frightening, especially if precautions are not taken to slow the spread of the current disease ravaging the world. Seven hundred years ago no one knew about transmission or quarantine. We have that knowledge now, and must not plunge into blackness forsaking centuries of science. 

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Knifenerd Guide to Japanese Knives : The Insider’s View of the Blacksmiths, Creation, Care, and Artistry of the Best Kitchen Knives in the World

This book came to my attention when it came up as missing during a shelf check for holds. I found the book misshelved but close to where it belonged. What I was first taken with was the very attractive and well made binding of the book. Library staff have to deal with a lot of binding damage so good binding is very appealing. When I was processing the book for a hold I noticed it was about Japanese knife making. I was intrigued and placed a hold on the book for myself for when the book came back. 

I had been in Japan two years earlier and had seen just how amazing Japanese cooking knives are first hand in the Kappabashi neighbourhood while I was in Tokyo. Kappabashi is famous for its dozens of kitchen and restaurant supply stores. Kappabashi’s patron mascot is the kappa, which is an anthropomorphic turtle-like creature from Japanese folklore. I still do not know what the connection is between cooking stores and kappas, but nearly every store and signpost had statues and cute cartoons of the creature. I must forewarn anyone who plans on looking up the Wikipedia article, kappa mythology is grossly bizarre or riotously funny depending on your sense of humour.

Cooking and the history and technology of cooking are subjects of interest and hobby for me so seeing Kappabashi had been on my bucket list for things to see in Tokyo. I was hoping to see beautiful traditional Japanese ceramics and lacquerware in Kappabashi and I was not disappointed. One of my favourite souvenirs from that trip was a bunny shaped stoneware salt cellar that I bought in Kappabashi. 

What I was unprepared for was all the knives! There were so many stores there that sold nothing but kitchen knives, and every single knife I saw a work of art. I had never seen so much variety and quality in finish and grind and there were so many different shapes and sizes of knives that did not exist in Western cooking. When I tried to talk to knife store workers my ignorance of Japanese knife conventions quickly became apparent. What was the functional difference between a knife made from super blue steel versus VG10 stainless steel? Alongside Western style knife types like carving knives and chef knives there were Japanese specific knife forms such as usaba and gyuto knives that I had no idea what they were used for. I noticed that many of the Japanese style knives were asymmetrical and only sharpened on one side or bevel of the blade. When I asked a store worker if the single sided blades could only be used by right handers or if there were left handed knifes that were ground on the reverse side, he looked at me like his head was going to explode. I left the kitchen market very, very curious to learn more about Japanese knives.

When The Knifenerd Guide arrived for me I was expecting a technical reference book with some historical information about Japanese knife making. The book definitely had that information, but it was more of a cross between a photo travelogue and an ethnographic account by a Canadian ex-chef and knife seller on how he first discovered Japanese knives and how he went to Japan to meet the artisans. 

The first half of the book records the stories of the various Japanese blacksmiths, apprentices, machinists, and sharpeners who work at the smithies and factories that still produce hand forged kitchen knives. There are many full page pictures of heavy industrial looking forges strewn with half finished masterpiece knives. Every surface is covered in black carbon dust. Some of the people interviewed were from families that had been smithing for more than ten generations. With the ban on the samurai from carrying swords during the Mejji Restoration and then the demilitarization of Japan after WWII, blacksmiths specializing in sword making lost most of their business. Many of the sword makers switched over to forging kitchen knives and incorporated many of the materials and techniques used to make swords.

There was juxtaposition in the book between the stories of the older generation of traditional blue collar craftsmen and the younger demographic that was more non-conformist. The oldest men interviewed, and they were all men, started apprenticing after WWII. When asked about their choice of career most of the old men said there was no choice, they were born into blacksmith families and expected to take on the family business after their fathers. The younger workers had more diverse reasons for pursuing knife making careers. Some of them were simply keeping on the family tradition, but many of them had grown up expecting to work white-collar jobs in big companies and knife making turned into their second career. Many said how they liked the creative freedom and the opportunities for experimentation in high end metal work compared to normal jobs. I suspect the longtime stagflation of the Japanese economy is a major factor in the flight of workers from “good” jobs to “dirty” jobs. There was only one young female knife worker in the Japanese knife industry that the author knew of but one of the blacksmiths spoke about wanting to apprentice his daughters when they got older.

The second half of the book goes into the technical details of how traditional Japanese knives are made. Forging steps, the chemistry behind the metallurgy, and the different finishes and ways of grinding are explained. For example the stainless steel Damascus steel used on some of the flashier knives does not usually form the cutting edge, but it is useful as a corrosion resistant cladding and for strengthening the more brittle carbon steel that typically form the razor sharp cutting edge and core of Japanese cooking knives. Different Japanese knife types are explained and how they are used and handled compare to standard Western knife types. There is how-to information on knife sharpening and sharpening stones. The second half of the book is geared towards professional food industry workers and collectors but it is useful information for home cooks who want to understand more about how their own knives work. I inherited some carbon steel and molybdenum steel knives and found the care and sharpening information very useful. 


Wednesday, March 11, 2020

This Team is Ruining My Life (But I Love Them): How I Became a Professional Hockey Fan

I picked up This Team is Ruining My Life (But I Love Them): How I Became a Professional Hockey Fan by Steve "Dangle" Glynn because it was a new book and the title as well as the cover photo looked interesting. I could certainly identify with the author, a devoted Toronto Maple Leafs fan whose hope for another Stanley Cup victory remains undying. The lengthy title sums up the contents, which start with Glynn's ventures into making his own YouTube videos following every Leafs game. From an audience of dozens, Glynn used his YouTube credentials and Leaf-loving perseverance to find a variety of jobs at sports networks and websites, He was able to go from nothing to "working at the toy store". 

The book reads like a plumped-up resume, listing every job--no matter how short--in Glynn's professional life. This format may not appeal to some readers, yet I could not put this book down. Glynn told his life story with the candour usually seen in diary entries. Insecurities are revealed and dealt with, and many chapters end with a life lesson learned, such as:

"No matter what your specialty is, it's worthwhile to know the intricacies of the other roles around you. It'll make you better at what you do and a better coworker."

"So when you speak your mind, speak the truth. Think before you speak, have purpose and evidence to support what you say, and be confident in your words, even if somebody gets in your face."

"You're in charge of what you can do. If you have a strength, you need to know how to best use that strength. If you have a weakness, identify it, acknowledge it, and figure out what you can do to make it better."

Glynn is upfront about his battles with anxiety and the value of therapy. This Team is Ruining My Life does serve at times as a personal diary in which he chronicles his bouts with unexpected tears and crying fits. I wondered if he would explain these bouts, as they happened frequently, but he did address them in the second half of the book. 

There were a number of poignant moments that struck me as I read. The most memorable was that I was reading it on the tenth anniversary of Sidney Crosby's gold medal-winning goal at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. Glynn wrote about watching the overtime game between Canada and the US on February 28, 2010 and here I was reading all about that glorious event exactly ten years later. Two other moments were profound. After we just lost Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash, Glynn shared a story about sports personality Cabbie Richards, which began with:

"In 2009, Cabbie famously got to ride around with Kobe Bryant in his helicopter." 

And he had a certain remark about Don Cherry:

"The essay I wrote was called 'Sour Grapes,' and it was about how Don Cherry could get away with saying literally anything on-air."

Up to November 9, 2019 he could. 

As a YouTuber Glynn forged his own personality and style, and Leafs fans could identify with him as he expressed his honest opinions about the state of the team. He let it all hang out in his book, with exasperated rants that read as well as they probably seemed when expressed live. I particularly liked this one defeated sad rant:

"The Leafs crashed back to reality and totally sucked, yet again, missing the 2011 playoffs."  

Some sports broadcasters are known to be opinionated on a wide variety of topics (remember Don Cherry) and Glynn got it right about his interactions with some Americans:

"Americans have a lot of nerve goofing on Canadian accents. Whatever they speak in Pittsburgh, it's not English."

How true. I finished this book while on holiday in Florida and an American resident of the sunshine state, upon hearing me speak, treated me like a freak show. It was insulting and annoying for me to defend my Canadian accent with a smile as I struggled through her own Bronx accent, which I never even referred to in my defensive retaliation. I guess Canadians are too nice.   

Three errors struck my attention. Steve, if you reprint this book, please fix the following gaffes (italics are mine):

"I took that as a queue to sit my ass down..." (p. 181). Should be cue.

"The most encouraging feedback came from Justin Bourne, a former professional and college hockey player, who had wrote about the punk test for" (p. 235). Should be who had written or just who wrote

"Each team got to pick one NHL alumni to play on their team with them." (p. 311). Alumni is plural. Should be one NHL alumnus

I must confess that even though I had never heard of Steve Glynn before I picked up his book, I had no desire while reading it to check out his videos on-line. And now that I have finished reading this book and written its review, I have still not bothered to look for him on YouTube. So I suppose I can call myself a fan of Dangle without ever seeing any of the work he is famous for. I also don't spend my spare time surfing through YouTube so if I'm going to encounter Steve Glynn on camera it will likely be in the context of a hockey broadcast I am already watching. So Dangle--you've got a fan who's never even seen (or heard) you in action. Keep up the good work. 

Friday, February 28, 2020

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro

Fifty-four years old, happily married, a teenage son, a successful career--what might it take to create an existential crisis?

For Dani Shapiro, it was finding out that her beloved but deceased father, the parent to whom she'd felt closest, was not her biological father. She was conceived by artificial insemination in a laboratory in Philadelphia after her parents had struggled for years to have a child. A donor's sperm was mixed with her father's, as was the accepted "treatment" at the time. The result was that the donor was her actual father.

She becomes consumed with trying to find out if her parents knew that the "treatment" had given her a different father. Did they lie to her? By this time, both her parents had died. She could remember fragments of conversations with them about her different physical features, about the circumstances of her birth, but they had never hinted in any way that she was not her father's daughter. She questions her father's relatives and his friends to try to learn the truth but they really cannot help her.

But they do. Her family friends and relatives are supportive and loving, and they reiterate the nobility of her father. They do tell her all she needs to know.

Or do they? What does she really want?

For all her researching tenacity, there are huge questions that she avoids, perhaps because she has no personal interest in the answers. We find out nothing about her mother's lineage or extended family, which is apparently still Shapiro's own. That being said, we never learn if Shapiro even attempted to confirm the DNA findings with her mother's living relatives.

Why did she not try different DNA tests? Why is she only interested in her paternal line?

This is a well-written memoir, honest and revealing, but it leaves the reader with much to consider. Being a memoirist, that can be a good thing for Dani Shapiro.

This book is part of the Mississauga Library System's 2020 Raves and Faves collection.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Mudlark: In Search of London's Past Along the River Thames By Lara Maiklem

Have you ever gone looking for things on a beach? You, like me, probably found shells and sand dollars, smooth pebbles, or perhaps some sea glass. Did you ever find a doubloon, a piece of Roman roofing tile or a human tooth? No? Mudlark: In Search of London's Past Along the River Thames by Lara Maiklem puts us both to shame, then.

A "mudlark", as a derogatory term for a rubbish picker who combs the shores of tidal rivers like the Thames in England, is an old occupation.  Mudlarks these days in London must be registered and are expected to notify authorities if they find objects of historical importance or human remains.  Lara Maiklem tells her tales of mudlarking (now it's a verb) all along the tidal Thames, as far west as Teddington, or the Tidal Head, all the way east to the Estuary near the coast where the river meets the North Sea.

There is always much to discover, since the tides are constantly revealing--and burying--the history in the River. Maiklem is interested mostly in human history, and there are thousands of years of it along this stretch. You never know what will be uncovered at the next low tide. The mud hides World War I medals beside wherry tokens from Shakespeare's time, along with a button from a naval uniform from the Napoleonic Wars.  There's no stratification showing the layers of years; it's all revealed in a jumble as the tides decide, much of it crushed, twisted, rusted.

It's a bumpy ride, following Maiklem. She is very knowledgeable and is a good guide, but only up to a point. She is cagey about the "best spots" while talking about royal residences and bits of Roman evidence, as if she doesn't quite want us in her confidence. She wanders geographically as well as historically, in her own life and in London's timeline, which is a challenge for a Canadian not fully versed in British landscapes as well as a reader trying to find context. Like the objects she finds, it can be hard to comprehend how all this fits together.

Maiklem is a poetic writer and she fills her days with the imagined lives of those who lost this belt buckle, that shawl pin, that leather shoe, but tunes out her workplace, her relationships, and her young family. Her life seems as chaotic as her house filled with river bits and bobs that tell only tiny stories but not her own.

Friday, February 14, 2020

North Korea Journal

I took an exceptional interest in North Korea Journal, Michael Palin's personal travelogue of his thirteen-day trip in April and May 2018. As I have been to the DPRK myself, I am always interested in reading others' travel diaries. I certainly did my research in advance of my nineteen-day trip in 2011, when I read as many travel blogs as I could find. 

I used the same travel company as Palin (Koryo Tours) and recognized the personnel in the photos. North Korea Journal was fortunately packed with bright colour photos on almost every one of its 170 pages. I took three days to savour this book--when it could easily be read in one--because I pored over all the photos, reliving my own time there. When I was in the DPRK, I knew well enough from all that I had read that it was important to obey the rules. Once you established that you could be trusted by the guides who accompany you throughout the entire trip, you may be allowed more freedoms. That certainly happened to me during my trip. I was a model tourist who even impressed some professors with my knowledge of the works of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. However, since Palin travelled with a camera crew, I sense that he was more restricted than me or my own travel group. 

Tourists do not go to the DPRK without knowing what they're getting into. There are metres of red tape to be cut and tunnels of hoops to jump through before you're allowed into the country. That said, I found that Palin broke protocol by asking the Koreans questions that no respectful visitor would have. He broached topics--such as the fallibility of all leaders--which no Korean could ever answer, and put them in awkward positions of needing to save face. I suppose the journalist in him obligated some sort of gentle consciousness raising but not with a camera crew, notepad out and other colleagues and officials milling around. I have the feeling that some of the restrictions imposed on his team, including the trip to Mt. Paektu, may not have been cancelled "because of the weather" but rather for overstepping his limited boundaries. 

Palin had a sense that he was being played. So did I (and often). An educated traveller to the DPRK knows this, or should be prepared for it. I was able to opt out of one specific event when I was over there because I couldn't stomach the phoniness. My approach ensured everyone saved face, and thus I was enabled--having by then earned the privilege of being a trusted traveller--to spend some time on my own among Pyongyang park visitors. Palin wrote at the end of his journal:

"So why should I feel something's missing? I think it's because I sense that, for all the access we've had here, for all the increasingly warm relations between us and our minders, they've been playing a game with us. We have been indulged, but never fully informed. We have been allowed more sustained access to this cagey country than most broadcasters, but I still feel that we have been subtly manipulated for some greater end."  

In spite of Palin's background, this was not a funny book (for which I am thankful, because I can imagine how such an approach could backfire) yet there was one part at the beginning of the book that had me in stitches. He was looking for a place to sit at the Beijing railway station just prior to leaving for the DPRK. With no place to be found, he and his team had to settle for the massage chairs, that you pay to use:

"Cautiously, I pay my twenty minutes' worth and sit back. It's a weird sensation. Everyone tries to look as if they're simply relaxing, whereas in fact they know and I know that it's like being strapped to a sackful of live badgers."

I noticed one error at the very end, not by Palin but by Neil Ferguson, the director of Palin's travel series. Ferguson wrote that KITC stood for the Korea International Tourism Company, when in fact the abbreviation stands for the Korea International Travel Company. 

Palin ended the book with the same wondrous admission that I had--and that I told everyone, to mouths agape--when I came back from my trip:

"As Pyongyang recedes into the distance, we turn and exchange smiles. Of relief, but also of regret. One thing we all agreed on at our farewell meal last night is that none of us would mind coming back."

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Word Nerd: Dispatches from the Games, Grammar, and Geek Underground

Word Nerd: Dispatches from the Games, Grammar, and Geek Underground by John D. Williams, Jr. is a Scrabble book which was published in 2015. My library system has had it in its collection for four years yet I never thought of reading it until now. I have a personal library of Scrabble books yet all of them had been read before I started writing and posting book reviews in early 2010. Thus 2020 marks my tenth anniversary of sharing my reading list with the cyberworld.

Williams was the former executive director of the National Scrabble Association, and I would always see him at the large Scrabble tournaments, such as the Nationals or Worlds. Thus I came to his book already knowing who he is and all about Hasbro's decision to pull out of the National Scrabble Association. I am part of the community he is writing about, and recognize all of the player names in the book. I have even played most of them. So my background as a reader is that of an insider who did not need to read this book to learn anything new. That said, I did nonetheless find that its presentation relied on knowing a considerable degree of backstory. I wonder if Williams wrote this for the audience of hundreds of Scrabble tournament and club players who may have felt abandoned by the corporate pullout. When Hasbro stopped promoting and funding tournaments, Williams lost his contact with us and maybe this book was his effort to have the last word.

It was a short book--about 195 pages when you eliminate the end-of-book word lists and the reproduction of a New York Times article--which read like a long resumé of Williams's career with the NSA. He was instrumental in starting the English-language World Scrabble Championship and in developing the School Scrabble program. I enjoyed reading about the times Scrabble champions appeared on TV, whether on "Martha Stewart Living" or "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" as I saw those episodes (and still have them on VHS). Williams sometimes had hard times wrangling Scrabble champions for morning shows especially if they were appearing the day after a celebratory victory party.

One chapter focussed on men's domination of the uppermost Scrabble ranks, and Williams interviewed three of the leading women players to learn their opinions. I was happy to read that none of these players, all of whom I have played, felt as if their male opponents were holding back or deferring to them in any way. "She's just another expert", according to Williams. We treat our opponents as equals. The late expert player Leah Katz said that Scrabble was the "great unifier", and I have met my closest friends--as well as my life partner--across a Scrabble board.

Those who write Scrabble books have to be particularly careful about their spelling. For the most part, Williams's book was error-free. However, perhaps by the next printing he can correct the player's name to Lynn Cushman (p. 41; not Lynne) and fix qwwali (p. 210) to qawwali. His #1 tip to "instantly get better at Scrabble" erroneously states "Learn the 101 acceptable two- and three-letter words". Umm, there are a lot more than 101 two- and three-letter words. What Williams might have meant is that there were (at the time of publication) 101 two-letter words alone. Regrettably the book ended with a disappointing transposition of words. When Williams found a Z and E tile in a corner of his attic, he wrote:

"I knelt down and switched around them on the floor." (p. 199)

If only he had written (and he likely did) "I knelt down and switched them around on the floor" I would not have had a quizzical look and obligatory reread at the very end of the book.

Perhaps the most enlightening moment occurred while I was reading the chapter entitled "Are Men Really Better than Women?" when the author wrote:

"Men do have an affinity for trivia, collecting, and focusing on one thing to the exclusion of others. In my experience, women, not so much. Scott and I talked about how it's boys and men who early on memorize baseball statistics, car features, and other arguably useless facts. It's an easy transition from that dubious pastime to studying and learning thousands of esoteric words that no one else knows or uses."

I had been keeping a running total of how many times Williams had used esoteric or esoterica so far in the book. The above passage made it four times between the two. I felt that using esoteric/esoterica twice was too many times--once would suffice for such a small book--yet when I realized the surrounding context wherein the word was used I could only roll my eyes and think of myself as a typical male Scrabble expert.