The Land of the Green Man: A Nonfiction “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

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Today’s book is one of those that most people wouldn’t pick up for light reading, but it is a thumping good choice for anyone planning to write a fantasy book set in England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales.  The Land of the Green Man – A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles by Carolyne Larrington does exactly what it says on the metaphorical tin – and it does so in a super-accessible fashion.  I requested, somewhat warily, this book from the publisher via Netgalley and was pleased and surprised to discover a comprehensive yet not overwhelming overview of the context behind the legends that feature in many a modern fantasy novel.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The folklore of Britain abounds with local tales about the activities of one sort of supernatural being or another giants, elves, hobs, boggarts, dragons or shape-changing witches. The stories are vivid, dramatic and often humorous. Carolyne Larrington has made a representative selection, which she re-tells in a simple, direct way which is completely faithful to the style and spirit of her sources.

Most collectors of local legends have been content merely to note how they may serve to explain some feature of the landscape or to warn of some supernatural danger, but Carolyne Larrington probes more deeply. By perceptive and delicate analysis, she explores their inner meanings. She shows how, through lightly coded metaphors, they deal with the relations of man and woman, master and servant, the living and the dead, the outer semblance and the inner self, mankind and the natural environment. Her fascinating book gives us a fuller insight into the value of our traditional tales.

the land of the green man

I could actually feel my neurons connecting and reinforcing pathways as I read, so here are Five Things I’ve Learned From…

The Land of the Green Man – A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles

1. If you are walking along the moors/near a church/down a back alley/across a marsh and you see a black dog, the outlook is not likely to be good. Unless of course, you are in one of the few localities in which black dogs are portents of luck and protection, rather than death.

2. If you are walking along the moors/near a church/down a back alley/across a marsh and you see a PACK of black dogs, I have no advice for you, except to say that I hope your will is in order.

3. While a shady tree may look like a promising place under which to have a noontime nap, under no circumstances should you succumb to this incredibly poor idea. 

4. If you happen to be propositioned by a beautiful suitor who you suspect is out of your league, you should probably decline the offer on the grounds that said suitor could well be a hag in disguise, hoping to ensnare you for nefarious purposes.  If, on the other hand, you are propositioned by  someone who would be lucky to make the cover of “Hag Fancier’s Monthly”, you should probably accept on the grounds that your suitor is likely to be a member of fairy royalty under some kind of curse, waiting to reward you with magical bounty aplenty.

5. Never, under any circumstances, piss off a mythical creature.

As I mentioned earlier, this book should be essential reading for anyone planning to draw on British myth and legend in their writing.  Larrington manages to deeply explore the origins of a whole range of myths and legends within the context of various localities.  She notes how certain landscapes and the people who dwell in these have put different spins on similar myths – black dogs, for instance, could be lucky or dangerous, depending on where you hang out; and the part of the country in which you live could see you with giant neighbours who are violent, or cheerfully disinterested in the lives on puny humans.

The content is divided into categories that link legends of a similar vein.  The author also notes how modern authors such as JK Rowling, Susan Cooper and Tolkien have used certain legends in their works.  Sirius Black (or Padfoot, to his friends) has obvious connections to the Black Dog stories of various regions, while The Dark is Rising sequence (among other works) makes use of a reworking of the Sleepers under the Hill legends.

Even if you’re not planning to write the next fantasy bestseller, this is a very involving read for lovers of fantasy who would like to know more about the popular legends and mythical beings that call the British Isles home.  I’m sure other readers will have a few “A-ha!” moments, as I did, upon discovering some snippet of information that showed aspects of some recent reads in a new light.

Progress toward Nonfiction Reading Challenge Goal: 17/10

Nonfiction 2015Until next time,

Bruce

 

A Non-Fiction Double-Dip Review: Those Cursed and Forgotten…

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Today you’ll have to reach right to the back of the pantry to find the dusty old snacks that have sat unnoticed for months untold, because today’s double-dip review is looking at non-fiction books that deal with the accursed and forgotten. Forgotten Bones: Uncovering a Slave Cemetery by Lois Miner Huey is a beautifully presented children’s non-fiction title, dealing with the accidental unearthing of the remains of slaves in New York in the 19th century, while The Atlas of Cursed Places: A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations by Olivier Le Carrer is the perfect book to place strategically on your coffee table to avoid having to listen to well-travelled friends who insist on sharing their exciting adventures with you.

I received both of these books from their respective publishers via Netgalley. Let’s start with the children’s fare. Here’s the blurb for Forgotten Bones from Goodreads:

Imagine you’re watching a backhoe dig up the ground for a construction project when a round object rolls down a pile of dirt and stops at your feet. You pick it up, brush off some dirt, and realize you’re holding a skull!

This is exactly what happened in Albany, New York, in 2005. Workers were putting in new sewer line when a backhoe driver dug up a skull. After police declared the skull wasn’t connected to any recent crimes, a team of archaeologists took a closer look. They determined the skull was from an African American who had died more than one hundred years earlier. Suddenly the construction site turned into an archaeological dig.

Scientists excavated more bones and realized that they had located a long-lost slave cemetery. Slavery had been legal in the northern United States, including in New York State, in colonial times, but the stories of these slaves are largely unknown. This site became just the third slave cemetery ever to be excavated in the North. See how archaeologists pieced together the truth about these once forgotten bones.

Dip into it for…forgotten bones

…a well-researched and highly engaging exploration of archaeology, anthropology and history all wrapped up in a visually enticing package. The easy-to-read text is accompanied by plenty of photographs and diagrams that bring the information to life (so to speak). The book follows the process of discovery from the initial acknowledgement that human remains have been found during routine maintenance, through to the identification and dating of the bones, to the recreation of the faces of some of the people whose bones had been unearthed. This is the kind of book that will draw young readers in from all over the place, simply for the excitement of the skull on the cover, and will keep them engaged with the accessible and fascinating information on the process and the people involved.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re not a fan of bones?? There’s not much to complain about with this book – it’s a quality production. The only thing that irked me as an adult reader was the slightly clunky writing style that provided a narrative at the beginning of each chapter. While I understand that this was probably intended to liven up the facts and give them a bit of context, it felt a bit contrived to me.

Overall Dip Factor:

If you’ve got upper middle-grade readers in your social circle who love a bit of history and getting their hands dirty (metaphorically), they will eat this book up (also metaphorically). As an adult I found it engaging and fascinating and there was so much visual information in the form of photos and drawings and diagrams that even the most reluctant reader will find something to grab their interest. Even though the book features specifically American history, it still should provide high appeal to readers in other countries, as the process itself and the lives of the people uncovered should promote much discussion and comparison with local contexts. I’d highly recommend this as an addition to classroom libraries – put it out on the shelf and watch the kiddies fight over it for silent reading time!

Now for the grown-ups, here’s the blurb for The Atlas of Cursed Places from Goodreads:

Oliver Le Carrer brings us a fascinating history and armchair journey to the world’s most dangerous and frightful places, complete with vintage maps and period illustrations in a handsome volume. 

This alluring read includes 40 locations that are rife with disaster, chaos, paranormal activity, and death. The locations gathered here include the dangerous Strait of Messina, home of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, where the ground burns constantly with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 8 million migrating bats darken the skies; the Nevada Triangle in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where hundreds of aircraft have disappeared; and Aokigahara Forest near Mount Fuji in Japan, the world’s second most popular suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Dip into it for…atlas of cursed places

…bite-sized chunks of eyebrow-raising information focusing on a collection of locations that are plagued by natural, human-instigated or thoroughly mysterious misfortunes. Each location has one to two pages dedicated to its particular woes, which was too much for the places I wasn’t interested in, and not enough for those that I was. Many of the situations described prove the old adage that fact is stranger than fiction, such as the village in India where the ground could explode at any moment due to fiery mining pits beneath the earth, the mountain village where birds seem to go with the express purpose of dying and the ill-thought-out, surely-this-is-someone-else’s-problem nuclear submarine graveyard in the frozen north. This would be a great starting point for those looking to write a horror or fantasy story and needing an interesting setting. Or indeed, a great conversation starter for someone wishing to look worldly and mysterious at a dinner party.

Don’t dip if…

…you’ve booked a holiday to any of these places. Or perhaps if you are familiar with any of these places. The information given about each place is cursory for the most part and I found myself becoming annoyed with the slightly stereotypical depiction of Far North Queensland , where deadly creatures take shifts throughout the year to strike fear into the hearts of tourists (although this section was particularly amusing). Similarly, I was irritated to note that while the island of Nauru is mentioned, including a passing mention of Australia’s offshore detention facility for the “processing” of asylum seekers, the author neglected to mention the accursed experiences related by asylum seekers while detained there – experiences which include rape, self-harm, suicide and abuse – which surely qualify as the fodder for nightmares noted for other localities in the book.

Overall Dip Factor:

This is one of those books that you keep around for the “Oh, that’s interesting!” moments that you’ll experience while reading it. It would make a great gift for the travel enthusiast in your life, or for those teenaged readers who are looking for more grown-up books that focus on the real world in an accessible way. I quite enjoyed dipping into this one and discovering the mind-boggling situations attached to certain localities.

I am submitting both of these to the Non-fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader. Even though I’ve technically already completed the level that I was aiming for, I’m going to keep pushing and see how many non-fiction books I can get through this year.

Nonfiction 2015

Progress toward Nonfiction Reading Challenge Goal: 16/10

Until next time,

Bruce

Scaling Mount TBR: Working Stiff…

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Well, it’s hard to believe, but I’ve just ticked another book off my teetering TBR pile – hooray!  Today I present to you Working Stiff: Two Years, Nonfiction 2015262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek.  I grabbed this one on Kindle special when it was released and then put it off and put it off until I could put it off no more, and so here we are. As this is a memoir, I’m submitting it for the Non-fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader, hence the comfy armchair.

Let’s jump right on in – here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The fearless memoir of a young forensic pathologist’s rookie season as a NYC medical examiner, and the cases, hair-raising and heartbreaking and impossibly complex, that shaped her as both a physician and a mother.

Just two months before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Dr. Judy Melinek began her training as a New York City forensic pathologist. With her husband T.J. and their toddler Daniel holding down the home front, Judy threw herself into the fascinating world of death investigation, performing autopsies, investigating death scenes, counseling grieving relatives. Working Stiff chronicles Judy’s two years of training, taking readers behind the police tape of some of the most harrowing deaths in the Big Apple, including a firsthand account of the events of September 11, the subsequent anthrax bio-terrorism attack, and the disastrous crash of American Airlines flight 587.

Lively, action-packed, and loaded with mordant wit, Working Stiff offers a firsthand account of daily life in one of America’s most arduous professions, and the unexpected challenges of shuttling between the domains of the living and the dead. The body never lies, and through the murders, accidents, and suicides that land on her table, Dr. Melinek lays bare the truth behind the glamorized depictions of autopsy work on shows like CSI and Law and Order to reveal the secret story of the real morgue.

working stiff

So regular readers of this blog will know that this sort of book is right up my alley, given my intellectual interest in death and its accoutrements. I had heard great things about this book and was raring to get into it, and for the most part, it delivered on fascination and mystery. What I wasn’t quite prepared for (although why I wasn’t is anyone’s guess, given the subject matter) was the graphic detail with which Melinek approaches the oozing, splatting, deflating, bloating, leaking, mouldering and general squishery that goes hand in withered hand with the human body after death. Especially when you start chopping it up.

Be warned then, that there will be no sparing of the details for the sensitive reader. And rightly so, I suppose, although I did find myself doing some involuntary retching at a few points throughout.

The book is divided up into chapters that deal with different manners of death. The difference between the cause of death and manner of death is spelled out a number of times, as Melinek gets to grips with the paperwork side of the job. This is where the fascination factor is upped considerably as the author walks us through the variations of natural, accidental, homicidal and inconclusive causes of death. We are privy to the autopsies of those who have died from disease, through complications from surgery, gunshot wound, stabbing, burning, drowning, asphyxiation and even a few cases in which the deceased exited this world through no particular cause that the examiners could discern…..those that died of death, I suppose.

Along with all the interesting facts relating to how the examiners can determine different causes of death simply by examining the body (and testing various bits and pieces of it), I found it equally fascinating to find out the actual procedure of an autopsy and what the examiner does with all the body bits while the autopsy is going on. It boggles the mind.

Even though it is clearly stated in the blurb, for some reason I was utterly unprepared for the last section of the book, in which Melinek describes the day of the September 11 terrorist attacks and its aftermath for those involved in post-death services. I found this section to be harrowing, confronting, unsettling and generally unfathomable, as the sheer number of corpses to be identified and the unthinkable circumstances in which some of them came to be in their current condition was really driven home. This part of the book gave a whole new insight into the circumstances of those who work with death on a daily basis and how an unexpected mass casualty event can be chaos not only for those involved, but for those who must deal with the deceased under stressful and distressing circumstances. Hats off to anyone who has worked under such conditions, I say.

Overall I found this to be a deeply involving read and well worth the money to purchase. For anyone who is interested in coronial matters, I would certainly recommend giving this one a go, but be aware that no punches are pulled when the going gets gory.

Progress toward Nonfiction Reading Challenge Goal: 11/10

*Challenge completed – Woohoo!*

Until next time,

Bruce

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A Kidlit, Nonfiction “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

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Nonfiction 2015Today’s book is aimed at a young audience but fascinated me all the same, what with me being so young at heart and all that. Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti is a concise history of the events leading up to the imprisonment of Mary Mallon as a “healthy carrier” of typhoid who inadvertently spread the disease to many of the households in which she worked as a cook. Before I picked this one up, I knew absolutely nothing about Typhoid Mary, beyond being familiar with the name. After reading, I feel I have been much enlightened and am slightly chagrined (and mildly disappointed, admittedly) to discover that most of my assumptions were utterly wrong.

I am also submitting this one in the Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader, hence the comfy armchair.

Let’s crack on. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

What happens when a person’s reputation has been forever damaged?

With archival photographs and text among other primary sources, this riveting biography of Mary Mallon by the Sibert medalist and Newbery Honor winner Susan Bartoletti looks beyond the tabloid scandal of Mary’s controversial life. How she was treated by medical and legal officials reveals a lesser-known story of human and constitutional rights, entangled with the science of pathology and enduring questions about who Mary Mallon really was. How did her name become synonymous with deadly disease? And who is really responsible for the lasting legacy of Typhoid Mary?

This thorough exploration includes an author’s note, timeline, annotated source notes, and bibliography.

typhoid mary

Five Things I’ve Learned From…

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America

  1. If a woman walks like a man, it is likely she is hiding a deadly secret, according to the learned opinions of sanitary officials of Mary’s day.
  2. If you find yourself inexplicably transported to the time before electric refrigeration, declining the dessert menu might save your life as well as your waistline.
  3. Much like today, the popular media of the past was a great means for spreading unfounded hysteria, misinformation and fear-mongering yet catchy nicknames.
  4. Mary may not have actually been the deadliest cook in America, but one of a (not very hygienically washed) handful of such cooks
  5. Even if you have been labelled the deadliest cook in America, there will always be some people who are happy to eat your baked goods.

As narrative nonfiction books for youngsters go, this is a surprisingly engaging tale that attempts to look behind the scandalous headlines and get to the crux of Mary Mallon and her role in inadvertently spreading disease through her role as a cook for well-off households. The early chapters read a bit like a detective story as health officials attempt to find the cause of an outbreak of typhoid within a prominent family. I was drawn in from the start and the first half of the book had me guessing and deducing along with George Soper, a sanitation engineer with big dreams of unmasking the first “healthy carrier’ of typhoid in America.

I appreciated the way in which the author looked at the “chase” from Mary’s point of view. It was very easy to sympathise with her when, out of the blue from her perspective, a strange man turns up at her door telling her she is spreading a deadly disease and demanding she provide samples of bodily fluids. It was not hard to picture Mary’s aggressive response to such an approach.

The second half of the book, which concentrates on Mary’s imprisonment on a hospital island for years at a time, moves at a much slower pace than the first half and takes a more in-depth look at the legal rights of Mary and the government orders that kept her from release. The competing forces of individual rights and protection of the public are discussed at length as the author points out other cases (the “Typhoid Tom, Dick and Harries” as I thought of them) of people who were known to be healthy carriers responsible for infecting others, but who weren’t imprisoned.

I will admit to being slightly disappointed that the story behind the headlines was reasonably dry and based in legality. I was hoping (and feel free to think of me as a scurrilous rascal if you like) for a real humdinger of a tale in which a murderous and downtrodden servant deliberately brought low the upper classes before trip-trapping off to do it again in another unsuspecting city.

Instead, the author has created a very readable biography in which the characters spring off the page and the inconsistencies in the treatment of Mary in comparison to others in her situation allow the reader to get an insight into why Mary might have behaved in the way she did. Based on this experience, I would be very interested in reading more nonfiction by Bartoletti in the future, and I would recommend this to scientifically-minded youngsters and as a great conversation starter for classes learning about public health or individual rights.

Progress toward Nonfiction Reading Challenge Goal: 9/10

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Non-fiction Reading Challenge: The Norm Chronicles (Stories and Numbers about Danger)…

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Nonfiction 2015

The comfy couch is at the top of this post, so that means I have another submission for the Non-fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader. I stumbled across today’s book in an online bargain book sale and couldn’t resist adding it to my cart. The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers about Danger by David Spiegelhalter and Michael Blastland is a foray into the myriad of risks and dangers that plague our everyday life. Have you ever wondered just how dangerous car travel is in comparison to air travel? Or whether having that extra sausage at breakfast will really increase your risk of cancer? Well this is the book for you! Rather than just present bland and confusing statistics, The Norm Chronicles delves into the consequences of risky behaviour and tries to balance the numbers against the personal stories.

Here’s the blurb from Profile Books:

Meet Norm. He’s 31, 5’9″, just over 13 stone, and works a 39 hour week. He likes a drink, doesn’t do enough exercise and occasionally treats himself to a bar of chocolate (milk). He’s a pretty average kind of guy. In fact, he is the average guy in this clever and unusual take on statistical risk, chance, and how these two factors affect our everyday choices. Watch as Norm (who, like all average specimens, feels himself to be uniquely special), and his friends careful Prudence and reckless Kelvin, turns to statistics to help him in life’s endless series of choices – should I fly or take the train? Have a baby? Another drink? Or another sausage? Do a charity skydive or get a lift on a motorbike? Because chance and risk aren’t just about numbers – it’s about what we believe, who we trust and how we feel about the world around us. From a world expert in risk and the bestselling author of The Tiger That Isn’t (and creator of BBC Radio 4’s More or Less), this is a commonsense (and wildly entertaining) guide to personal risk and decoding the statistics that represent it.

norm chronicles

If you are a reader of the internet, you will be aware that anything from eating food that you haven’t hunted/grown/cultivated yourself, to letting your child play alone in the backyard to expressing an opinion at a friendly barbeque could all be considered HIGHLY DANGEROUS. It seems that every time one turns around these days there’s another behavior that seemed perfectly commonplace before that now has some kind of risk attached to it. What The Norm Chronicles does brilliantly (and with plenty of humour) is demystify the numbers and rhetoric and cut through to the likelihood of various unpleasant events happening to you, while deconstructing the fear that can run rampant through a populace.

Each chapter deals with a particular event or category of risk using Norm (the average guy), Prudence (the anxious, overprotective mother) and Kelvin (the danger-loving, risk-dismissing, wild man) as examples. The great thing about the format of the book is that while the assertions are based on statistics and measurable data, the authors never discount the potency of our almost unavoidable tendency to imagine worst-case scenarios as they apply to our own lives. The “what-ifs” that cripple our rational minds – “What if I let my child walk alone for 500 metres to school and they’re hit by a car? Kidnapped? Blinded by a swooping magpie? Slip on a discarded cigarette and break both their legs??!” – are neatly placed beside the statistical likelihood of these things actually happening.

Strangely enough, this almost made the “what-ifs” worse for me because, as the authors note in one chapter, it is impossible to “beat the odds” – even if the odds are 1 in 20 million that something tragic could occur to you, there is still a chance that you could be the one!

(But how likely is that? Not very. Miniscule likelihood actually. But still, it has to happen to someone. It could be you. It could be ME!)

On the plus side, it turns out that as long as you are older than one year old, you’ve passed the riskiest time of life. That’s a relief, isn’t it?

Overall, I found this to be a fascinating and funny read and one that would be a great conversation starter for a book club. Not that I’ve ever been part of a book club outside the shelf. Far too much risk involved. This is the kind of book that works just as well for dipping in and out as it does as a read-from-cover-to-cover. If you’ve ever wondered about the actual risks associated with train travel, using drugs or having a baby (or indeed, any combination of those three and more!) then this book is essential reading.

I’d have to say that Norm turned out to be better than average in this instance. As a side note, if you’d like to try before you buy (or borrow from the library), the book also has a connected website that has a few interactive fascinating facts to whet your appetite. You can find it here.

Progress toward Nonfiction Reading Challenge Goal: 8/10

Until next time,

Bruce