Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Wednesday, December 1, 2004


Rats : Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan

"And the muttering grew to a grumbling;
And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling;
And out of the houses the rats came tumbling."

- Robert Browning

I used to take a short-cut through a back alley near my home, cutting two minutes off of my morning commute to the local subway station. Generally the laneway was empty of foot traffic except for the handful of parked cars and the garbage dumpsters festoned with cryptic graffiti and spray-painted tags. The alley was damp, deserted and the air layered with that dank, moist smell, just short of rotten but still driving in that general direction.

That particular yellow-lit morning, I was startled to see a furtive, pale brown creature about half the size of a housecat saunter out carefully from behind the local pizza parlor, dragging what look like about half of a medium-sized pizza behind it. It looked up, saw me, paused as if to say "What?" incredulously, then resumed its labor, dragging its hard-won prize along the edge of the curb. Obviously take-out. I spotted the long, thin, hairless tail trailing it and realized, with a profound bemusement, that it was a rat.

I don't know why I was so startled. Rats are as much a resident of the urban byways as people, albeit generally just a little more circumspect.

Rats by Robert Sullivan delves into the hidden world of rattus norvegicus, the infamous city-dwelling Norwegian Rat or Brown Rat (although they are often as not grey, off-pink, tan, whitish, or other color variations). Sullivan, whose previous off-the-beaten-path works include The Meadowlands, a study of the fetid swamplands outside of New York, (famous as a garbage dump and the sort of place the Sopranos might plant their former business partners) is really the perfect guide to a study of the urban rat, bringing the right mix of humor, readability and infectious curiosity to the subject.

Rats provides insight not only into the world of the rat, but how rats have grown with humanity, the lives they build in the thin margins of civilization and, how they frankly flourish mightily at times in their relationship with people. Rats offers a penetrating slice through the usual urban byways, weaving history, urban planning, archaeology, and natural history together into a fascinating and highly readable mix.

The book offers a number of eye-opening (i.e. disquieting) facts that lend a certain adventurous and squirmy feel to your next walk downtown. For example, a single pair of rats has the potential for 15,000 descendents in a single year. Think about that, the next time the kids run screaming through the house, knocking over furniture...

Weird as it sounds, one of the best books of the year is all about rats...

Learn more about these pesky rodents here and here. For the Hollywood take on rats, well, the all-time must-see rat movie is the original Willard, it's sequel Ben...or the recent Willard re-make.

Got rats? These guys might be able to help...or if you prefer, you can always call The Pied Piper.

Sunday, October 31, 2004


Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America - Steve Almond

Homer: "Got any of that beer that has candy floating in it? You know, Skittlebrau?"
Apu: "Such a beer does not exist, sir. I think you must have dreamed it."
Homer: "Oh. Well, then just give me a six-pack and a couple of bags of Skittles."

Candy seems like an apt topic around Halloween and Steve Almond's Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America is a saliva-inducing, hedonistic choclate voyage.

The aptly named Almond is, to be blunt, unhealthily obsessed with candy and Candyfreak is his own personal analysis of his bonbon fixation, from early childhood onwards, culminating in his cross-country trip to visit the last of America's independent manufacturers and purveyors of cavity-inducing deliciousness.

Candyfreak is, at best, an uneven journey, albeit a well-written one, that slowly draws you into the author's fascination and passion for candy and choclate. At first, reading Almond's endless descriptions of a particular brand of sweets, you start to wonder what on earth he's carrying on about, but after reading a few, you actually start to slip into the same sugar-rushed fetish frenzy. After reading this book, every chocolate bar you munch on your way to work becomes a pause for thought and a brief attempt to try to capture some of the sheer joy he seems to find in this food.

Alas in the end Candyfreak is a good but fairly thin product, partially due to the relative dearth of independent candy manufacturers today and partially because the book seems to coast along in uneven spurts, without a real direction or culmination of his odyssey. In long run, Candyfreak is, like its subject matter, highly consumable, with some flavorful morsels that roll elegantly off the tongue, but once it is gone...well, the moment ends.

Interested in candy? There is a veritable smorgusboard of candy-related sits ont he Internet, enough to make every dentist able to retire to Key West...

For some of Almond's favorite objects of obsession, check out the Twin Bing, the Goo Goo Clusters, and the Idaho Spud.

Grab more candy here, here and here. Still hungry? Visit the CandyFreak site for a complete list of deliciousness...

My personal favorite candy - boring old chocolate M&M's - refrigerated, so that you can crack off the candy-coating in your teeth....

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

It was a dark and stormy blog...

It was a dark and stormy night....

I couldn't resist blogging this, despite being laid up with two severed tendons in my right hand for the next six weeks...

The results are in for the 2004 Bulwer-Lytton Contest (see the site for details if you don't have a clue what it is....I can't explain right now, typing with just my left is far too much work.)

Grand Prize Winner:

She resolved to end the love affair with Ramon tonight . . . summarily, like Martha Stewart ripping the sand vein out of a shrimp's tail . . . though the term "love affair" now struck her as a ridiculous euphemism . . . not unlike "sand vein," which is after all an intestine, not a vein . . . and that tarry substance inside certainly isn't sand . . . and that brought her back to Ramon.

Dave Zobel, Manhattan Beach, CA


The notion that they would no longer be a couple dashed Helen's hopes and scrambled her thoughts not unlike the time her sleeve caught the edge of the open egg carton and the contents hit the floor like fragile things hitting cold tiles, more pitiable because they were the expensive organic brown eggs from free-range chickens, and one of them clearly had double yolks entwined in one sac just the way Helen and Richard used to be. - Pamela Patchet Hamilton, Beaconsfield, Quebec

And my personal favorites....

The legend about Padre Castillo's gold being buried deep in the Blackwolf Hills had lain untold for centuries and will continue to do so for this story is not about hidden treasure, nor is it set in any mountainous terrain whatsoever. - Siew-Fong YiapKowloon, Hong Kong
It was a dark and stormy night--actually not all that dark, but more dusky or maybe cloudy, and to say "stormy" may be overstating things a bit, although the sidewalks were still wettish and smelled of ozone, and, truth be told, characterizing the time as night is a stretch as it was more in the late, late afternoon because I think Oprah was still on. - Gregory Snider, MDLexington, KY

Check out the site for more...

Now goodbye for six weeks...

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Island of the Blessed

Island of the Blessed: The Secrets of Egypt's Everlasting Oasis - Harry Thurston

"Ex Africa semper aliquid novi - There is always something new out of Africa." - Pliny the Elder

Egypt has ever been about the Nile. It's seasonal floods have carried rich silt along a narrow strip of arable land ribboning 4,000 miles through the desert, it's rhythm sustaining the life, culture and development of one of the world's most monumental civilizations.

But life did not begin with the Nile.

Deep in the Egyptian Sahara, 400 miles from the familiar epic sites of Cairo, Giza and the Pyramids lies the Dakhleh Oasis, a green island in a sea of sand, rock and parched wilderness - a place that has been revealed as an archaeological treasure trove, with an almost complete record of continuous human habitation dating back more than 400,000 years.

Island of the Blessed (entitled Secrets of the Sands in the U.S. - not nearly as evocative a title...) offers an intensely fascinating look at a unique archaeological site. The Dakhleh Oasis is not the proverbial pond with a smattering of palm trees, but rather a region that covers more than 600 square miles, providing life-giving water to a variety of plants, animals and people - stretching back more than 400,000 years in history. It is, quite literally, an island of life in the bleak wasteland of the Sahara.

Thurston draws on more than 30-years of archaeological studies and carefully takes the reader through the slowly uncovering history and significance of Dakhleh. Among the evidence uncovered by the archaeological teams working in Dakhleh is neolitihic stone tools and prehistoric encampments, new evidence of some of mankind's earliest agricultural activities, an exquisitely preserved Old Kingdom town, Roman aqueducts, countless mummies, a vast collection of papyrus records and the world's oldest bound books. One crucial theory now being examined is that Dakhleh was the crucible for Egyptian civilization, predating the Nile River habitations and provided a critical role in the ongoing development of Egyptian civilization and trade.

Thurston has created a solid, highly readable work that captures the unique setting and environment of Dakhleh, and offers up colorful and vivid glimpses of the sometimes obsessive characters of the archaeologists who are slowly bringing the past to light. In addition to the archaeological record, the long sequence of continuous human habitation within the isolated oasis environment permits archaeologists and climatologists to develop a one-of-a kind environment assessment, measuring the environmental impact and growth of human habitation within the isolation of the Dakhleh Oasis over an extended period of time. The research brings to light some of the detrimental impact that unchecked human growth and overly extensive agricultural practices can have on the water supply, a practice that may, in time, bring the Everlasting Oasis to an ignominious end.

For more on Dakhleh, check out The Dakhleh Oasis Project. For information on the world's oldest bound books, visit this site on ancient Kellis.

For more information on the Sahara Desert, visit PBS's Sahara website or read Michael Palin's account of his sojourn in the world's largest desert.

For some fabulous websites on Egyptian archaeology, check out Eternal Egypt , a huge and extensive multimedia site, and the Theban Mapping Project which offers an interactive atlas of the Valley of the Kings.

Want a birds-eye view? Check out this image from NASA's Earth Observatory website. If you look carefully in the western desert, you can spot Dakhleh.

Thanks for reading! Please post a link to the site and tell all your friends to drop by.

Saturday, May 8, 2004

Rain Fall

Rain Fall - Barry Eisler

"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid... He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. " - Raymond Chandler

Set in Tokyo, Barry Eisler's book Rain Fall (and it's sequel Hard Rain) is an excellent, hard-boiled Chandleresque action-thriller about an assassin-for-hire that specializes in "natural deaths". Half-Japanese, half-American, Eisler's John Rain is a character in the classic Chandler mold - a man with his own particular rigorous code of honor. When a client violates that code by lying to Rain, he is forced into investigating the circumstances of the murder he has just committed. Following a labyrinthine trail Rain finds himself caught between the competing interests of both his countries, the Yakuza, and the deeply held corruption of the Japanese political scene.

Eisler's character, setting and circumstances move Rain Fall and its sequal Hard Rain a cut above the common action-thriller. Rain's cultural background and profession make for an interestingly agreeable anti-hero with all the requisite nicities. Eisler's depiction of the neon reef that is modern Tokyo is, however, superlative.

Eisler successfully captures the unique feel and setting of the city of villages, the legions of salari-men packing the trains, the glare and needle-sharp opulence of the Ginza, the noise and bustle of Shinjuku and hectic ambience of Roppongi clubs. Eisler seems to be one of the few fiction writers who capture the essence of how a city feels, not just how it looks and his familiarity and love of Tokyo permeates the book. It brought back to me the feel of walking through Shinjuku in the cold night rain, the sky lit only by the towers, the streets wet and slick with water and light, the scattered groups of drunk salari-men meandering past with the loose rhythm of the elevated train runbling overhead and the blaring, relentless accompaniment of the pachinko parlors and the arcades spilling out of their bright doorways...

Tokyo's one hell of a city, and deserves to be featured in more fiction...

Rain Fall and Hard Rain are both solid thrillers and well worth a read. It's a series I plan to follow in the future.

For more background on Eisler's Japan, check out The Enigma of Japanese Power by Karel Van Wolferen, Ruth Benedict's classic The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, and, for a look at the youth of Japan, read Speed Tribes by Karl T. Greenfield.

For some Tokyo bloggers, check out Tokyo Shoes, and Hunkabutta.

For some background on the Yakuza, check out this site, and Court TV's Library site. Personally I recommend Robert Mitchum in The Yakuza for a more enjoyable learning experience!

For another film that truly captures the essence of Tokyo, watch Lost in Translation...it has that jet-lagged feel.

Comments and links are always welcome!

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - Mary Roach

Deeply unsettling, morbidly funny, weird and disturbingly fascinating, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach is an unvarnished, questions-that-most-dare-not-ask, slightly off the wall examination of ...well, the practice and usage of human remains through history.

If it sounds like a bit of a reach, delving into a subject that most writers (and readers for that matter) would not care to visit, Stiff is a surprisingly good read. Skillfully written, tactful, sympathetic, respectful without being dull and heavy, strange without quite being off-putting, author Mary Roach weaves the ins and outs of such subjects as mortuary science, the history of surgery, autopsies, where plastic surgeons go for practice, medical experimentation, jello and gunshot wounds, crucification, human crash-test dummies, mummification and more into a riveting stew...just don't read it over your lunch hour. Seriously.

Stiff, despite its title, is anything but. Roach has a disconcerting habit of asking the people in charge questions that we all would have liked to ask, but were either too polite, too self-conscious or squeamish to ask. These queries, although they seriously make the reader question whether Roach would be someone to invite to a cocktail party, serve to beatifully illustrate the quandaries that we ourselves face, when confronted by the implacable certainty of The Father of Time.

My particular favorite moment was when the author was observing the "harvesting" of a doner heart from a brain-dead patient. Seeing the slippery, still-beating muscle being extracted, Roach promptly asked the doctor if they had ever dropped one on the floor...

Overall a well-written, excellent (if somewhat nausous) read. Remember to read outside of mealtimes...

For a look at the Internet's resident cadaver, check out The Virtual Man Project at the National Library of Medicine. Researchers froze a cadaver, then sliced it in ultra-thin slices creating an anatomically detailed virtual representation of the human body....For an added bonus, visit The Virtual Autopsy here or HBO's Autopsy website.

Just so you don't think it's just people under the surgeon's knife - someone autopsied a furby...

Here's some real Crash Test Dummies....and some more (especially 50th Percentile Hybrid III).

Lastly, here's the most famous cadaver of them all....It's Alive! ALIVE!

Thanks for dropping by! Please tell all your friends, link to the site, toss off some comments and buy some books!

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs

Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor

Hercules was probably one of the most famous early practioners of biological weapons, and one of its most prominent victims...

Slayer of the Lemean Hydra, Hercule's dipped his deadly arrows in the Hydra's blood, creating a fatal weapon - one that echoed down through Greek history claiming myrid lives. Eventually the Fates drew him full-circle and Hercules is destroyed by the gift of a cloak from his wife. The garment, secretly poisoned with the blood of Nessus, a centaur that Hercules has shot with his envenomed arrows, "burns like fire" until Hercules, in agony, begs his own son to burn him in a bonfire.

The legendary story of the 12 Labors of Hercules serves as both metaphor and warning in Adrienne Mayor's fascinating and highly readable examination of the usage and prevelance of biological and chemical warfare in the Ancient World. Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs is a timely and relevant eye-opener, touching on the practical usages of such tried and true weapons such as poisoned food, tainted water, bug bombs (scorpions and bees were apparently popular tools to loft onto besiging armies), snake bombs, burning oil, pestilence-ridden corpses, maddened cattle, pitch-covered pigs (ignited of course) and, of course, the precusor of modern napalm, greek fire. Of special note is the "mad honey" that Xenophon and the Ten Thousand encounter on their trek to the sea. Mixed from the rhododendron plant, the honey of Pontus is a famous and lethal toxin causing hallucinations and often death.

Mayor carefully outlines the often ambigious nature of chemical and biological weapons, particularly the fact that the ancients recognized the double-edged sword that they wielded had terrifying implications for their own populations if used unchecked. Mixing the mythological roots of bio-war with historical examples, Mayor has written a highly readable, utterly absorbing piece of work that, at the end, leaves you grimly fascinated and nervously appalled.

For some terrific information on the ancient world and such stalwarts as Hercules, check out the Perseus Project from Tufts University.

Worried about that fever? Check out the National Library of Medicine's Biological Warfare page...brrrrr. Hey, where'd that rash come from?

Damn, those guys are busy - here's their page on Chemical Warfare...damn, now there's spots with the rash...

Lastly, here's a copy of Sophocle's "Philoctetes", the tale of the man who inherited the dubious prize of Hercule's poisonous arrows...

Thanks for reading. Please post comments below. Links would be appreciated.

Monday, March 1, 2004

Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker

Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker

- James McManus

"Never play cards with a man called Doc." - Nelson Algren

I've never played a serious game of poker in my life.

The few times I've sat down and played a few hands, it has been in almost total ignorance of the odds, poker strategy and anything but the most basic dos and don'ts...but...the first thing I wanted to do having finished Positively Fifth Street was jet down to Vegas and set myself down at a table.

James McManus's book Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs and Binion's World Series of Poker is, for lack of a better word, infectious.

McManus was assigned by Harper's Magazine to cover the simultaneous twin stories of the Ted Binion murder trial and the annual Binion's World Series of Poker held at the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, the arguably most famous poker tournament in the world. McManus, a journalist, author and poet, also happened to be an itinerate amateur poker player who elected to use his $4,000 advance from Harpers to fund his own entry into the tournament (Read the book to find out how he did. Unlike the NY Times book review (SPOILER WARNING) , I refuse to spoil it for you by divulging the results...What were they thinking?).

The book offers a rather piecemeal look at Ted Binion's murder, using the crime more as an illustrative and cautionary tale of the author's own personality - the risk-taking, obsessive, "cliff-diver" face that McManus tries to generally keep in check ("Bad Jim" as McManus aptly terms himself). If you are looking for the details of a sordid crime drama, Positively Fifth Street covers the basics (Binion's tawdry drug use, the aspiring, leggy stripper girlfriend, the low-life pal who hooks up with her and plots Binion's ultimate demise, the fundamentals of "burking" and so on...), but is far more focused on the legacy of Binion in the poker tournament then on Binion himself. The murder trial does loom ominiously in the background but it seems to serve more as a grim reminder of the dangerous price of an unchecked lifestyle than as a raison-e'etre for the book, akin to the images of Death that can be seen perpetually lurking in the corners in a Renaissance painting. The murder is a reminder of mortality, chance and fate, and the luck of the cards.

Once the pasteboards start to hit the table, the book truly takes off, mixing each stage of the tournament action with a look at the intricacies of poker, the rise of "book-learned" system poker players, the rules of Texas Hold 'Em, the history of playing cards, and vivid portraits of the top professional poker players such as the cantakerous TJ Cloutier, top female player Kathy Liebert and others. McManus has woven a startling page turner that bluntly fascinates from beginning to end.

Interested in learning how to play Texas Hold 'Em? Check out Ultimatebet.com for the rules.

Author, blogger and actor Wil Wheaton drew my attention to Positively Fifth Street a while back through a mention of the book on his site and, as a poker player himself, recently posted a vivid and terrific piece on his own adventures in an illegal poker tournament at the Odessa in Hollywood. It's well worth a read.

Here's where you can find Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, everything you need to know about the World Series of Poker, and Court TV's take on the Ted Binion murder trial.

If you are really, really taken with Positively Fifth Street, then this site might be for you....

Comments are always welcome, book suggestions, feedback and links to the site.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Watership Down

Watership Down - Richard Adams

"El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed." - Lord Frith to El-ahrairah

If you proposed to someone that they read a 478-page book about rabbits, they would probably either look at you sideways like you were utterly insane or shout out in joyous recognition "Watership Down!". Richard Adams first published his utterly compelling tale of adventurous rabbitry in 1972 and the tale remains to this day one of the most creative and enjoyable pieces of children's literature ever set to paper.

Adams tells the story of a small band of rabbits that, aided by a prescient seer named Fiver, sets forth on a harrowing journey across the English countryside, escaping from their doomed warren (destroyed by land developers) to seek a safe home high on the Downs. The rabbits' odyssey take them through numerous fateful encounters, both treacherous and inspiring until, tempered by their adversity, they find themselves forced to face their most difficult challenge of all, using all their guile, skills and bravery against the repressive and dictatorial warren of Efrafa and its leader, the malevolent and powerful General Woundwort.

Adams prose vividly describes and awakens the English countryside in the mind of the reader, from a rabbit's point of view. You can almost feel the grass under your toes. Indeed, one of the few things I readily wished for while reading Watership Down, was a version abridged with sketches or pictures of all the damn plants (fleabane, purple loosestrife, pink butterbur, figwort, yellow mullein...the list goes on. I suspect one needs a certain grounding in botany to truly appreciate Adams understanding of the English countryside.). The other side of the coin is the strength of the various characters - Hazel, the decisive, intelligent leader; Fiver the precognitive runt whose intelligence and visions see the rabbits through diverse sets of danger; Bigwig, the rough-and-tumble fighter who refuses to give in - ever, and Woundwort himself as the battle-scarred and vicious, intelligent and obsessive rabbit that rules Efrafa with an iron paw.

Rich with political allegory and echoing with the touchstones of epic journeys, Watership Down is a book that, if you have not yet read it, will surprise you with its ability to pull you into the Lapin world. It remains a terrific piece of literature.

Of particular note within the book are the various tales of El-ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits, interspersed within the story. El-ahrairah is a trickster, filled with cunning strategems who foils his enemies, infiltrates every lettuce patch and, in general, fulfills a legendary role within rabbit folklore. Of particular note is the recently published Tales from Watership Down, which collects a number of El-ahrairah's adventures (including several new ones) into a single volume. It is well worth a read.

For a look at the real Watership Down, Nuthanger Farm and the Crixa (they are all real places), check out this site.

Interested in a plot review and notes on Watership Down - you can find them here.

Finally, at least one blogger seems to know and appreciate the lore of Watership Down - check out the excellent Silflay Hraka. Read the book to find out what Silflay Hraka means....

If you can't bring yourself to read the book, there is a very good animated feature (done in 1978) which, barring an unfortunately syrupy theme song by Art Garfunkel (Bright Eyes), is true to the book in almost every way. It is now available on DVD and I highly recommend it (although it might be a little bit bloody for the wee tots...).

Comments are always welcome.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Monster of God

Monster of God - David Quammen

Walking downtown one day, a number of years ago, I was startled by a massive tawny head that peered around a concrete pillar and regarded me with a baleful, quizzical yellow glare. You don't generally expect to run into a full-grown African lion in the heart of a teeming metropolis. I stopped dead, an act that attracted its immediate attention, despite the more jaded urbanites that crowded the sidewalk and barely glanced at this apparition of the savannah as they passed. There is something about being the focus of a predator's gaze that puts a particular tingle in your day. Somewhere, buried very deep is that primodial recognition that there, but for the grace of God, go you....

Monster of God is a look at the role of the predator, in nature and in the mind of humanity, and the tenuous borders where the two uneasily mix. Author David Quammen looks at four "alpha" predators, creatures that live at the very apex of the food chain: The Gir lions of India, the crocodiles of Asia, Africa and Australia, the brown bear in Romania, and the Amur Siberian tigers of Asia. Monster of God looks at the relationship that the predator has with man, the social and cultural role of the predator, its key position within the natural world, and the deleterious impact the the burgeoning human population is having on the predator's environment.

Monster of God is a thoughtful, intelligent and highly readable examination of how humanity lives with predators. Quammen looks at what is the acceptable role in today's world for violent, essentially dangerous animals that can and quite readily do, kill people for food, their position as "keystone" species on the food chain, their position as totemic symbols within human history, language and culture (think about it, even today people are "lionized") and how economic realities of hunting and farming may shape their future. He examines the disparities that exist across the world in attitudes towards alpha predators, particularly noting the fact that where predators and people most often, most tellingly meet, is among the poorer marginal fringes of human society, left to deal with the beasts that haunt the dark nights and quiet waterways. It's easy to say "save the tigers" when you don't have to cut wood in the forest to earn a living, or walk a cold trapline to support your family, hoping not to run into something hungry and toothy.

Here's a brief excerpt: "Great and terrible flesh-eating beasts have always shared landscape with humans. They were part of the ecological matrix within which Homo sapiens evolved. They were part of the psychological context in which our sense of identity as a species arose. They were part of the spiritual systems we invented for coping. The teeth of big predators, their claws, their ferocity and their hunger, were grim realities that could be eluded but not forgotten. Every once in a while, a monsterous carnivore emerged like doom from a forest or a river to kill someone and feed on the body. It was a familiar sort of disaster - like auto fatalities today - that must have seemed freshly, shockingly gruesome each time, despite the familiarity. And it conveyed a certain message. Among the earliest forms of human self-awareness was the awareness of being meat."

For more on the Gir lions, check out The Indian Wildlife Portal and the Gujarat Forest site.

For some further background on crocs, check out this site, or just hang out with the Crocodile Hunter.

One of the interesting facts that Quammen touches upon in his book is the hunting excesses of Romanian Communist strongman Ceausescu, who was notorious for, among other things, turning Romania's wildlife managment system into his own personal game shooting park, slaughtering every large beast that came within reach, including 24 brown bears in a single day.

Check out the Chauvet Cave site for a marvelous look at some of the earliest known prehistoric art, featuring, among others, some superlative depictions of lions...

Finally, if you have a literary turn, you can always peruse the quintessential story of man versus monster - the tale of Beowulf, King of the Geats, in his rending, bloody battle with the fearsome Grendal...

My downtown lion? He was being used to advertise some new boutique that was opening. I don't recall the name of the store, but I will long remember the grace, dignity, strength and banked, predatory gaze of that lion...even though he was sprawled across a mailbox of all things...

Comments are always welcome. Bloggers, please drop me a link if you like what you read. Thanks!

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling - Ross King

Surly, often sullen, perpetually brooding, argumentative, distrustful, highly competitive, monstrously creative and ugly to boot, Michelangelo Buonarroti was a sculptor of genius. Ross King's superlative book Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling tells the story of how this tempermental artist created one of histories greatest art treasures, the ceiling frescos of the Sistine Chapel.

King draws a crisply written and fascinating portrait of Michelangelo, including his stormy relationship with his family, patrons and fellow artists, his chaotic life and times, and the myriad background sources of his artistic and creative vision. A contemporary of Leonardo Da Vinci and later Raphael, Michelangelo famously sculpted both the Pieta and David. His skill as a sculptor brought him to the attention and patronage of Pope Julius II, il papa terrible. Known for his fiery temper, a penchant for striking his cardinals and servants liberally with his walking stick and a highly militaristic, almost imperial ambition, Julius commissioned (almost coerced actually) Michelangelo into painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel - all twelve thousand square feet of it.

King's book is filled with insight and detail, outlining the difficulties that Michelangelo faced "painting in the wet" (fresco literally means "fresh" as in wet or fresh plaster, as the colors are applied before the plaster can dry), the engineering of the Sistine Chapel's scaffolding, the usage of fixed perspective, the color scheme and biblical and mythic themes of the various frescos.

The book is, thankfully, well illustrated with details, including excellent color images of the Sistine Chapel, a necessary element that helps unfamiliar readers such as myself enormously in understanding the overwhelming scale of the projects (it took more than four years to complete).

Here's a brief excerpt on the bitter rivalry between Da Vinci and Michelangelo when both were commissioned to fresco opposite walls of the refectory in Santa Maria delle Grazie:

"This artistic duel was made even more compelling by the two artists' well-known dislike of each other. The surly Michelangelo had once taunted Leonardo in public for having failed in his attempt to cast a giant bronze equestrian statue in Milan. Leonardo, meanwhile, had made it clear that he had little regard for sculptors. 'This is a most mechanical exercise,' he once wrote, 'accompanied many times with a great deal of sweat.' He further claimed that sculptors, covered in marble dust, looked like bakers, and that their homes were both noisy and filthy, in contrast to the more elegant abodes of painters. All Florence awaited the outcome."

For a look at the fruits of Michelangelo's labors, check out the Sistine Chapel here, here, and here. And for good measure, here as well.

For a look at the restoration process (and some nice before and after images) check out the Artcyclopedia andthis site.

Among other items, King points out the habit of many artists (Michelangelo among them) of putting sly jokes and hidden messages within the content of their work, much as medieval monks would draw humorous pictures in the margins of their lavishly illustrated books (called "marginalia") or, in a more modern context, the 'easter eggs' found in many software programs. Check out this image (click to enlarge) and zoom in on the cherub in the back's right hand. He's giving her "the fig"...

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - J. K. Rowling

What more can one say about J.K. Rowlings and the most famous boy in wizardom?

Since last summer, I've been working my way steadily through all five of the Harry Potter books (Harry Potter and Philosopher's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), reading them aloud to my five-year old son. Most recently, thanks to the benevolence of Santa Claus, we've been ripping through Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

I say ripping because my enthralled son insisted on reading the 870-page book nightly, often for more than an hour at a time (which, if you have a five-year old and you are reading something that has no pictures, is definitely saying something about the author's ability to capture his interest!).

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling continues to build on both the depth of her imaginary magical world and on the steady growth of the characters. Harry Potter is returning to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for his fifth year, despite the ominous indications that (as seen in Book IV) He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (that's the evil Lord Voldemort, for the three people left in the world who haven't either read the books or seen the movie) has returned.

Harry, and his growing array of friends and allies (the Order of the Phoenix in the title) must face down enemies both within and without as Harry faces the multiple challenges of his cousin Dudley, rogue Dementors, OWL (Official Wizarding Levels) exams, bad press, first romance and a malevolent new "headmistress" at Hogwarts....and the machinations of Voldemort and his DeathEaters.

Despite the length, the book doesn't sag or lack. At times it is pure adventurous exhilaration and fun, and although some sections are somewhat slow, I found that as a reader, I was so invested in the characters, the world and the setting, that the occasional slow section was barely noticable. You should note that if you are reading the book to younger kids, you may wish to self-edit some of the more frightening bits and pieces. This is also a good excuse to read ahead....

All in all, we loved Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and are eagering anticipating the next book in the series. Get to work Ms. Rowling!

I have read in the media that some people have complained at times regarding the content of the Potter books.. Let's face it - these books offer up terrific, imaginative, thoughtful, adventurous reads that successfully pull kids and adults away from the pale everyday gleam of the cathode ray tube and gets them to read! Kids! Reading! Who'd have thunk it?

J.K. Rowling deserves to be congratulated for that fact alone (but I suppose being richer than the Queen is probably enough).

Interested in finding out exactly what are Muggles, Hippogriffs and Bowtruckles? Consult the Harry Potter Lexicon for all your wizarding queries.

Check out the trailer for the upcoming Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Interested in visiting Hogwarts?

Lastly, since it is an election year....

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

1421: The Year China Discovered America

1421: The Year China Discovered America - Gavin Menzies

History is a fuzzy subject.

The one real, inescapable truth that comes out of any serious assessment of history is, realistically, how little you actually know about the in's and outs of events, societies and people.

When you dig through dusty, moldy and sometimes starkly biased historical documentation or try to comprehend the social intricacies of an era by perusing a handful of broken pot shards, post holes and chipped foundation stones, you are, in essence, piecing together a barely legible puzzle, with incomplete pieces and an uncertain understanding of just what the hell a puzzle actually is...

I preface this review with the above remarks because I am very aware of how damnedly difficult history and archaeology can be as a subject and in Gavin Menzies' book 1421, I'm sorry to note the author has overreached his subject. He has shot for the moon, and fallen sadly well-short.

1421 outlines Menzies' theories regarding the exploits of Emperor Zhu Di's famous five Admirals (Zheng He, Yang Qing, Zhou Man, Hong Bao and Zhou Wen) who, under Imperial command, set sail in five massive fleets of sea-going junks in 1421 to "proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas". Menzies attempts to trace the routes of the five fleets, drawing on what little written historical record exists (the fleet records were destroyed by Zhu Di's somewhat xenophobic successor), a number of early maps and charts, and a huge pile of unfortunately highly subjective and circumstantial evidence.

Menzies traces the five fleets literally around the globe, touching on literally every continent and region including North, Central and South America (both east and west coasts), the Caribbean, Africa (which, actually does have evidence of Chinese contact on the east coast at any rate as the region was well-travelled by Arab voyagers who, among other destinations, regularly plied their trade with China), Russia, Greenland, Australia, and Antarctica.

While some of the work that Menzies assembles crys out for a more scholarly and searching examination (namely his persistant claims to have uncovered evidence on a number of charts for Chinese contact with Australia and the U.S.'s west coast, and his evidence that the Chinese had developed significant navigational advances well in advance of Europe) the majority of his assumptions are built on a succession of loose guesses and highly circumstantial and subjective evidence. Indeed, towards the end of the book (when a Chinese fleet has landed almost everywhere it is possible to discover except for Europe), Menzies seems almost frantic to buttress his arguments. In Menzies' hands, the fall of every sparrow is attributable to the five fleets.

Despite the highly questionable conclusions, 1421 does offer several highly commendable points - it brings to light an era of Chinese history and discovery that hitherto has been sadly under-examined by historians and raises a number of questions regarding the reach of the intrepid voyage of the Five Fleets. The author's passion and excitement for his subject is clearly evident in his writing and although it overreaches, it's nice to see someone shooting for the moon once in a while...

Incidentally, the book was titled 1421: The Year China Discovered the World everywhere except in the United States (where, as shown above, it was entitled 1421: The Year China Discovered America). I know that U.S. publishers routinely tweak titles to make them more applicable and appealing to U.S. markets but puh-leeze...Doesn't it seem a trifle ridiculous and condescending to think that we would only care to read it if it was about us? Next thing you know they'll be changing the titles of the Harry Potter books because people don't know what a Philosopher's Stone is....oh...wait a minute....they did change that one too. Oh. Sorry.

For more on 1421, check out the author's website (it includes still more evidence not included in the book).

Find out more about the famous Piri Reis Map (cited in the book several times) here, here and here. You can also find the Kandigo map, and the Pizzigano Chart from the James Ford Bell Library (which has some excellent additional materials well worth a look (such as this)).

Always wanted to learn more about Chinese history? (Try here as well). or you could just watch this....it's not history, but its damn fine cinema.

Comments are always welcome!