‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’

Portrait de Carlo Levi by Carl Van Vechten, ph...

Carlo Levi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a YearChrist Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year by Carlo Levi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three unrelated commentators encountered over the past year in my Web surfing recommended this book, and for different reasons. I recommend it to you.

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Charm abounds. To wit: The following excerpt, an anecdote told to the author, follows his observation that he had the only toilet in town.

“There were eight or ten of us… all of us from the same town and acquainted with each other since we were children. Life is depressing there among the skyscrapers, where there’s every possible convenience, elevators, revolving doors, subways, endless streets and buildings, but never a bit of green earth. Homesickness used to get the better of us. On Sundays, we took a train for miles and miles in search of some open country. When finally we reached a deserted spot, we were all as happy as if a great weight had been lifted from our shoulders. And beneath a tree, all of us together would let down our trousers . . . What joy! We could feel the fresh air and all of nature around us. It wasn’t like those American toilets, shiny and all alike. We felt like boys again, as if we were back in Grassano; we were happy, we laughed and we breathed for a moment the air of home. And when he had finished we shouted together: ‘Viva l’Italia!’ ”


The Sunday Drama


Isabella’s tumultuous life has embodied some of America’s bitterest culture wars — a choice, as Ms. Miller said in a courtroom plea, shortly before their desperate flight, “between two diametrically opposed worldviews on parentage and family.”

via A Civil Union Ends in an Abduction and Questions – NYTimes.com.


Beginning of the End of College Football


Make it stop.


‘Pulling a Shark’s Tail Is Strongly Discouraged’

English: Great white shark at Isla Guadalupe, ...

Great white shark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don’t swim at dawn or dusk, when many sharks feed. Don’t swim in murky water, especially near river mouths. Don’t urinate in the water, or swim if you’re bleeding. Don’t thrash around too much, or swim with a dog, or near schools of fish. Spearfishing, and to a lesser extent surfing, will definitely raise the odds of a bite. Don’t wear shark-attracting contrasting colours, particularly not the safety yellow favoured by coastguards – researchers call it ‘yum-yum yellow’. Pulling a shark’s tail is strongly discouraged.

via Theo Tait reviews ‘Demon Fish’ by Juliet Eilperin · LRB 2 August 2012.

‘The Last of the Mohicans’

The Last of the MohicansThe Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a classic, of course, and it might interest fans of the period. But it says here that Mr. Cooper veers uncomfortably close to the cartoonish when he is not flat-out ridiculous.

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I confess that I was occasionally charmed by the scenery and buckskin-covered whatever. Having read a great deal about the time in which the book is set, I found more than a few things of incidental interest. But I won’t bother to detail my complaints; anyway, Mark Twain has already blazed the trail. He is particularly dead-on with this point: “14. Eschew surplusage.” Even in tense moments, Mr. Cooper’s characters are verbose to the point of preposterousness. If you had a nickel for every time a native character answers a question with another, longer question, you could afford to buy a whole set of books that will go down much easier.

James Fenimore Cooper

James Fenimore Cooper (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mr. Cooper is one of the few authors who provoked me nearly to chuck a book out of a subway car. My near-breaking point came during a conference late in the book between the famous protagonist, Hawkeye, his little British buddy, Duncan Heyward, and the chief Tamenund. The chief asks which one of them is La Longue Carabine, one of Hawkeye’s tediously numerous nicknames. Stubbornly, Hawkeye doesn’t answer right away, eventually explaining that since no one asked him if it was O.K. to give him such a nickname he did not feel obliged to answer. Never mind that it is the whole point of nicknames that they are bestowed by other people. Similar arrogance displayed by a city dweller, during a pause on the always-sun-dappled trail, would not go long without a wordy and snarky comment from Hawkeye himself.

Anyway, the point is that because Hawkeye does not initially answer to a nickname well known to him and his companions (and everyone else, for chrissake), the reader is subjected to a drawn-out tangent: first Hawkeye’s own haughty explanation of why he kept his mouth shut (including, “my gun is not a carbine, it’s a smoothbore”, and then a shooting contest between Heyward and Hawkeye designed to suss out which of them — a pale Englishman entirely new to the country or a well-bronzed woodsman — is the aforementioned Mr. Carabine. It goes without saying the contest is utterly devoid of suspense.

The reader is left to ask, What was all that for? I already knew Hawkeye could shoot, I knew that he had a long history with the indigenous tribes and I knew that he had a surplus of pride and peculiar notions. All I really know now is that I am five pages farther from the end of the book than I should have been.

No wonder Michael Mann rearranged the whole thing before he made his movie.

Global Weirdness


When it comes to things like flood and droughts, most people seem to have accurately registered the recent trends in their area. But when the subject shifts to temperatures, the actual trends become irrelevant, and ideology and political beliefs shape how people perceive things. As the authors put it, “the contentious nature of the climate change debate has influenced the way in which Americans perceive their local weather.”

via Ideology clouds how we perceive the temperatures | Ars Technica.

A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.

via Global Warmings Terrifying New Math | Politics News | Rolling Stone.

The latest outlook released by the National Weather Service on Thursday forecasts increasingly dry conditions over much of the nation’s breadbasket, a development that could lead to higher food prices and shipping costs as well as reduced revenues in areas that count on summer tourism.

via Severe Drought Expected to Worsen Across the Nation – NYTimes.com.

Cold is an attitude, that devil-may-care ease with which you fling a sleeveless cardigan around your neck because sleeves make things hot and it falls off your back and down to the floor because there are no sleeves on that cardigan who makes a cardigan without sleeves?, but you casually strut away without looking back because you are cold.

via How to Be Cold: Weather Is a State of Mind – Entertainment – The Atlantic Wire.


‘A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century’


A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th CenturyA Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

She is always good, but this is not her best.


It is well worth an interested reader’s time, however. Tuchman’s idea is to tell her story through the life of a French nobleman, Enguerrand VII de Coucy. He was lucky enough, or unfortunate enough as the case may be, to have played a key role in nearly all the momentous events of the time, including the Crusades-ish (emphasis on -ish) Battle of Nicopolis.

Battle of Nicopol, 1396, by the Master of the ...

Battle of Nicopol, 1396, by the Master of the Dresden Prayer book from the Gruuthuse Froissart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In which he was captured.

And. After which he died in captivity of the plague.

Nicopolis (1396), of course, is an interesting battle because of the hubris displayed by the French knights. Interesting because the 13th and 14th centuries seem to be time spent waiting for French knights to display (fatally) their hubris.

In this case, though details of the battle are understandably murky, it seems that that the moderate gains won by an initial charge of French knights were foolishly spent by antsy, younger (probably snail-sucking) knights who believed they had already won a great victory. In the end, those in the Western army who were not killed or left to die were captured, a harsh, buzz-kill ending to what turned out to be the last thing anyone could uncontroversially call a crusade.

Forty years earlier, the French nobility basically pulled the same stunt against the English outside Poitiers in the was-longer-than-100-years Hundred Years War with perhaps even more disastrous effects. Apart from the concomitant death and destruction, the French king was captured and the wrangling over his ransom would prolong the war for decades. As a contemporary chronicler put it, “all went wrong with the Kingdom and the state was undone.”

Battle of Crécy between the English and French...

Battle of Crécy, from a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(But, wait. There’s more.) Ten years before that, at Crecy, terrain and English longbows frustrated a similar bold attempt with, if you will allow me, perhaps even more disastrous effects. Crecy transformed what was probably just a desultory English raid for plunder into the already-mentioned, generations-long Hundred Years War.

Never mind that, in 1302, a rash charge by knights against an army of Flemish amateurs outside Kortrijk should have been the only lesson the French needed to learn. So many French nobleman were skewered by angry farmers in this battle that the sanctuary of the local church was festooned with golden spurs. In fact, in perhaps the worst display of sportsmanship in history, the Flemish called it the Battle of the Golden Spurs.

Still, four blundering, bloody defeats in about 100 years time, certainly within living memory, was not enough to shift the medieval mind-set. Nineteen years after Nicopolis, 113 years after the Golden Spurs, the English defeated the French, thanks again to an ill-advised charge of knights, at perhaps the most famous tussle of the Middle Ages: the Battle of Agincourt.

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the Flemish line of battle during the Battle o...

The Flemish line of battle during the Battle of the Golden Spurs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Word of the Week: Concomitant

So, avuncular, saturnine, sybaritic, antediluvian… and now concomitant. This word has cropped up multiple times for me, including several times in the closing pages of Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror.”

It is an adjective.

Webster’s Fourth defines it as “accompanying; attendant.” My father wrote, “accompanying in a subordinate or incidental way.”

As in: