Thursday, December 31, 2009

Books Read in 2009

I got 40--who can beat that? Probably a lot of people. That's less than one a week.

Best novel (I'm slow here, playing catchup):

Yup, Kite Runner. I haven't seen the movie either. I don't know how much of this story--the culture and racism that was so well expressed in the novel--could come across in a film. But I'll get around to the movie eventually, I'm sure.

Best nonfiction would be Devil in the White City. But its only real competition was The Soloist. For some reason, other books didn't thrill me--some covered interesting topics, but the writing was pedantic; others were just dated tomes that I read as research.

Biggest disappointment: The General in His Labyrinth, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I have no problem with the author de-heroizing Simon Bolivar, but the story never grabbed me. Garcia Marquez, it seems, uses his prose to make points--like the tedium of a long marriage in Love in the Time of Cholera. I barely made it through that, but I appreciated his courage as a writer. I couldn't stay with The General in His Labyrinth past the middle, though--and it had such a beautiful cover!

Monday, December 28, 2009

One More Book for Moi!

Whoopee! Another tome to add to the pile (figuratively, of course. I can't afford to buy this book, even though I contributed to it.)

Latino History and Culture: An Encyclopedia (Sharpe Reference) contains articles that I wrote about Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (which forced Mexico to cede California and the Southwest to the US, way back in the 1840s), and a charming little piece titled "Conquest of the Americas," in which I accomplish the amazing feat of describing centuries of bloodcurdling cruelty in 1500 words.

Yeah, I don't believe it either. But they rewrote it so many times to make it politically correct that all the really nasty stuff has been toned down. I almost wish they'd taken my name off it!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Coligny Calendar

Just in time for Christmas, here's a neat-o site about the Celtic Coligny Calendar!

That's the calendar at left, or a piece of it, which sits in a museum in Lyons, France. The calendar dates to about the first century, but many experts who've examined it think it reflects computations made a thousand years earlier.

According to this site, last October was the month of Ciallos. I'm just juvenile enough to point out the resemblence of that name to a certain pharmaceutical product, and I should be ashamed.

Ciallos is not a month that occurs every year. The Celtic calendar managed to reflect both the lunar and solar time periods, and it did this by adding extra months every few years to keep us all in sync.

We're in the month of Semiusonna now. According to the Caer Australis site I linked to earlier, this (the 24th) is the last day of the month. Christmas Day marks the beginning of Equos--in 2009, at least. But not all calendrical geeks agree with Caer Australis, I'm sure. In fact, some think the Celts began their months with the dark new moon, while others assume the month began with the full moon...or something in between.

Basically, the Celts divided the year into a dark and light half, the dark half (fall and winter) preceding the light half. The months had dark and light halves as well. All months had either 29 (unlucky) or 30 (lucky) days. It's all very complicated, but what I find interesting is that the big feasts do NOT correspond with the solstices or equinoxes (equinoxi?).

Or am I missing something?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Archaeology of Caesar's Gaul

Just came across this webpage in BurgundyToday, which shows the sites linked to Julius Caesar's Conquest of Gaul--the later years, anyway.  Vercingetorix, Alexia, that sort of stuff.

I learned that three sites vie for the honor of being the site of the siege of Alesia, which surprised me. My old, dog-eared copy of Caesar's writings states unequivocaly that Alise Ste. Reine stands on old Alesai. According to Burgundy Today, two other places make that claim. Chaux-de-Crotenay is one; dunno about the other.
The Battle of Alesia, pitting Caesar (with Roman Legions) against Vercingetorix (with a loose confederation of Gaulish tribes), was the defining fight of Caesar's eight-year conquest. Many huge fights occurred before it, and other rebellions and uprisings followed, but Alesia--because of Caesar's writings--is seen as the key fight, and the one that ultimately decided the fate of Gaul. presents a description of the fight, and I borrowed this picture of the Alise Ste. Reine site from their website.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Hah! I can return to this blog, because my stint as a political canvasser for an environmental group ended! Yup, you can take the writer away from verbose prose, but you can't take verbosity outta the writer!

I tried; I did. And I earned money to pay for Christmas gifts. But honestly, getting fired was a relief. I was so afraid that one of those prim matrons coming out of Trader Joe's was truly going to spit on me. They wanted to, I could tell.

I used to be rude to canvassers. Never again. I will never walk by and lie and say I'll come back when I won't (one lady did, bless her, in a month of canvassing). I will never snarl and give them the evil eye. How could I have been so nasty? Maybe this month of being a (lowly) paid canvasser was karmic payback. It is hard work.

On the plus side, you get to be outside all day. You get to meet nice people often. People tell you "Good luck" and "God bless you for doing this." (usually, they tell you this just after explaining why they can't give you any money.)

One the minus end, there are all those nasty old people who growl and want to spit at you. And there's that troublesome part about talking people out of money when they've just told you they have none, that they've been laid off and are taking care of sick parents or are nearly homeless. That's where the fired part comes in. A good canvasser never gives up--a good canvasser will talk that recently laid-off person out of their last five dollars. I wimped out. I said, "Oh, I'm so sorry. Thanks for stopping to talk to me."

I'm so glad I got fired!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Famous Last Words of Calvino

Just finished The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino, and it ends with the greatest line(s) (it's all one sentence, but a longie):

That mesh of leaves and twigs of fork and froth, minute and endless, with the sky glimpsed only in sudden specks and splinters, perhaps it was only there so that my brother could pass through it with his tomtit's tread, was embroidered on nothing, like this thread of ink which I have let run on for page after page, swarming with cancellations, corrections, doodles, blots and gaps, bursting at times into clear big berries, coagulating at others into piles of tiny starry seeds, then twisting away, forking off, surrounding buds of phrases with frameworks of leaves and clouds, then interweaving again, and so running on and on and on until it splutters and bursts into a last senseless cluster of words, ideas, dreams, and so ends.

Here's to forking off!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ghostwriting Credit?

I love this Craigslist ad for a ghostwriter:

Hello, I have written a * * * * book that needs some polishing. The reviews have been positive so far, but there is still something that is missing. I would be willing to pay something, but ideally I am looking for someone that wants to beef up their resume.

Ideally? Ideal for whom?

As I read it, Bozo wants a ghostwriter to do the work for free and not get credit (because ghostwriters do not get credit by definition), and yet somehow be satisfied that they can use the gig to "beef up a resume."

Bozo finishes by stating "This book WILL BE PUBLISHED." All caps.

I'd love to know if anyone actually applied for this gig.

BTW, I did send out query #150!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Checking In

I have neglected this blog shamefully, so here's a post. I've sent 146 queries to agent for my wonderful historical novel (yes, it really is wonderful. Read the first couple of chapters to find out!) I will try to bump that total to 150 over the weekend.

A dear friend in another state has found an enthusiastic agent for her nonfiction book, after about 150 queries. It happens! She's going full-speed ahead now, so fast it's scary.

Rather than a roller coaster, though, my writing life is a pretty still, sometimes muddy river...much like this, taken near Paimpont Forest in France--one of the sections of old forest still left. Not necessarily where my novel takes place, but close. The kind of site you would have seen 2000 years ago.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

October Afternoon

I'm such a lucky slob. I got to visit with an amazing 93-year-old lady, and this is the view from her living room.

No good reason to be there. I was invited along with friends and served coffee and walnut torte and ice cream. Just because at 93, this lady has learned that she can take all the time she wants to do what she wants, be it have company, cook tortes in spring pans, or sleep.

Here's something from an essay she wrote; I hope she doesn't mind that I quote this tiny bit:

We're each given our life, our own Great Adventure

our chance to learn, to accomplish deeds great and small,

some of which will matter.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mudlarks and History

You might think (I certainly did) that in a huge city like London, any segment of riverbank was long ago picked over for the archaeological detritus that might be hidden there. Well, we're wrong. Maybe you'd like to distance yourself from me.

I'm not sure why--maybe because the Thames has not been concreted over like most well-behaved rivers--but London's river remains rich in ancient deposits, some dating back to Roman times. Treasure hunters rejoice!

If you want to muck about, though, you'll probably only be allowed to do so on the south bank. The north side of the river is the private domain of serious, if amateur, excavators . Britain issues a very limited number of licenses allowing exploration of this artifact-rich area, so the owners of those licenses have formed their own fraternity: The Society of Thames Mudlarks. This picture, from, shows mudlarks working the shore at Southwark.

The name comes from a term that once referred to street urchins in the Victorian Age. At low tide--and tides on the Thames can drop as much as 25 feet--mudlarks go to work, many using metal detectors. They find coins, tools, and toys--like guns that actually carried a charge and may have blown off a few fingers. Most of the objects fell out of ships through the ages, and anything over 300 years old become property of the Museum of London (though the finders are rewarded).

National Geographic did a piece on the mudlarks in 2004. Last week's Time Magazine featured a fascinating "Postcard" segment about them as well (pg. 6 of the October 12, 2009 issue, or here). Go read it for a hint of the finds, all the regulations about what happens to the goodies dug out of the river mud, and for a profile of Steve Brooker, former pro skateboarder and awesome Mud God of the mudlarks. Just this year, Brooker found a ball and chain once worn (unwillingly) by a 17th-century prisoner. Here's a link to that story in the Daily Mail, which is where the picture below came from. Brooker's find is the only complete ball, chain & lock ever found.

The last paragraph of the Time piece intrigued me. Through a series of mini strokes, I read, Brooker lost large portions of his own memories about three years ago. Irretrievably. Does that have anything to do with his need to uncover history?

During the last few years of my parents' lives (they died within a week of each other, after 55 years of marriage), I became obsessed with family history and genealogy. I made connections all over the country with folks who had the same unusual last name, and found that the 200 or so people in the world who shared that name were, indeed, all related and all traced their history to a town in the Rhine Palatinate region of Germany.

Then my parents died, and I lost interest. With all the fickleness of a spoiled prom queen, I packed away the charts and notebooks and have not looked at them since. Doesn't take much analysis to figure out what was going on there, does it?

So I was curious about Brooker's loss, and how it played into his fascination with mudlarking. This entry from Antiquarian's Attic says that Brooker has been a mudlark for 12 years. I guess my attempt to read something Freudian into his passion is misdirected, but the tail of the mudlarks is still a fascinating one.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Musing on Celts and Written History

Most folks think Irish when they think Celts, and that's fine. Ireland, after all, is still the only Celtic country never conquered by Rome. When scholars and others speculate about Celtic society, they use records found in Ireland because those are the oldest available records about Celtic customs.

The earlier Celtic people of Ireland, Britain, the Iberian peninsula, France (Gaul), Switzerland, Eastern Europe, etc., did not write down their history. They considered history far too important to commit to writing. Instead, it was memorized by the educated classes--the druids--who could interpret it properly.

Buggers. Even that previous paragraph contains a ton of untestable assumptions--about the druids' roles, and the reasons that histories and beliefs were not written down, f'r instance.

Since there are some examples of these ancient tribes using Roman or Greek letters to note very mundane things--like accounting records or praises of deities--we know that the Celts used writing. Julius Caesar (not an unbiased source, IMHO) says the druids would not put their beliefs in writing for religious reasons. Unless we unearth a 2200-year-old history etching somewhere, I guess we have to settle for that explanation.

And that leaves the writings of Celtic Ireland, both pre and post Christian, to give us a clue to earlier Celtic beliefs. But the oldest existing records of ancient Irish history are still about seven centuries removed from the days of an independent, non-Romanized Gaul, and seven hundred years is A Long Time. Not to mention the geographic distance...

I'm playing devil's advocate here, but think about it. Seven hundred years ago, chances are the city/town you live in did not exist. Maybe your country did not exist. Seven hundred years ago, Europe was still recovering from the Black Death that wiped out a third to a half of its population. The Inquisition was just ramping up, so free thought was not only outre but downright suicidal. Most people in Europe were illiterate peasants who lived on the verge of starvation. How much have we changed since then? An immeasurable amount.

What's the point? Just that it seems awfully tenuous to me to speculate about the B.C. Celts and their society based on early Irish texts, such as a law code (the Brehon) first codified in 438 A.D. I'm not sure how old the oldest examples of the law code are--certainly more recent than 438--but tradition says that the laws date back to the 8th century B.C.

Tradition is very unreliable. My own family tradition handed down the story for 2 or 3 generations that a great-great-great grandfather of ours was a judge in the old country. Guess what? Someone did some Real Research and found out the tradition was completely bogus. No judges, only farmers and seed merchants. Period. So if tradition can be fictionalized within sixty or seventy years in one family, what can happen over seven centuries?

OTOH...This was a society that trained men and women to memorize long histories, we are told. And if the histories were sacred to them, would anyone dare screw them up? But OTOH...even written histories get warped over time. Every re-writing changes something very subtly, doesn't it? Language changes, and those who study this claim that it changes at a measurable rate.

I got into an argument with an engineering type person a couple of months ago about that. He was irate that language changed. He felt that someone should stop it from changing. He truly believed that was possible, and he felt that due to a lack of conscientious effort on the part of English professors, he had been cheated out of his right to comprehend and enjoy Shakespeare and Chaucer in their original words.

I thought he was crazy, though I didn't say so. Still, he grew quite heated over his points, and I can only assume that most people don't bother arguing with him often.

I digress. But this is a blog; I'm allowed.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Previously Unknown Stone Circle Found...

...only a mile from Stonehenge! Wow. I'm ferklempt.

The archaeologists are calling it Bluestonehenge or just Bluehenge, and are pushing the idea that Stonehenge was a burial site. Perhaps, they say, Bluestonehenge is where bodies were cremated before burial at Stonehenge. I can't point to any flaws in that theory, but it does assume a lot. However...quien sabe?

After thousands of years, we learn that another stone circle was off the River Avon? This is too cool. Here's the CNN story. It seems that only the pits are left--the blue stones, from Wales, were removed about 4500 years ago and may actually be the bluestones of Stonehenge. But originally, they stood in a vast circle a mile distant.

This Chicago Tribune story gives a bit more detail--there were 25 stones in this newly-found circle, and they stood for about 500 years before being moved. After that a round ditch about 74 feet across replaced the stone circle.

It's just amazing to me that new discoveries are made at some of the most famous and studied sites on earth.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Everything You Want to Know About Druids

There are several books with the title "Druids," including a novel by Morgan Llywelyn which I sorta reviewed here. Tons o' fun.

Ancient Druidic Rite

A digression:

You know that when you read a novel, the author is allowed to Make Things Up, right? This picture, for instance, represents a lurid, fictional scene. Not Real.

With non-fiction books, the author is not supposed to Make Things Up. Some of them do, though. How can the reader beware of this practice?

Your best bet is to look at the credentials of the author.

If s/he is a university professor, chances are the information in the book is carefully researched. The author has an academic reputation to uphold, and that probably is more valuable to him or her than the success of the book.

If the author has no real credentials, and especially if the book is self-published or from a publisher you never heard of, be careful of taking the words to heart.

Digression over.

The nonfiction books with "Druid" in the title fall into two categories: those dealing with the historical, Celtic Druids, and those devoted to neo-druidism.

Druids Celebrate Spring Equinox At Stonehenge

The two categories are completely separate. Neo-druidic books that promise to teach druidism are promoting a philosophy, religion, and lifestyle that was invented in modern times, and uses impressions of ancient druids as its inspiration--like the happy couple to the right.

Look, no one knows what ancient druids believed. They left NO written record, and the writings about them are filtered through Romans and Greeks. Those authors may have been lying, or misinformed, or faithful reporters...we don't know.

That leaves a handful of books by scholars and historians about druids. Of these, I recommend Peter Berresford Ellis' book, The Druids -- or, as Amazon bills it, A Brief History of the Druids (The Brief History). Even though it features Stonehenge on the cover (a construction that preceeds Druids and Celts by a coupla millennia), it's the most recent book that gathers together all that we can know about Druids--from archaeology (including Lindow Man), ancient writing, and Irish and Welsh traditions.

Ellis takes the position that Druids were the educated segment of society--the doctors, lawyers, judges, scientists, and yes, priests. He compares them to the Brahmins of India. He makes conjectures, sifts through the evidence. If you read a book by a different expert, s/he might have different opinions.

Druids are mysterious. They were the elite and guarded secret information. That information died with them, though.

I'm reminded of a line from the book Indeh by Eve Ball--a book about the Apache...a line I can't find right now! Dang. I hope I don't butcher the quote, but one of the Apaches who was telling his history turned to Ms. Ball and said, "You white people, you keep everthing up here in your head, and nothing in your heart."

Why didn't they write anything down? I imagine they didn't want their most sacred information being poured over by whatever enemy got their hands on a scroll, but that's my opinion.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Anglo-Saxon Treasure Trove

Sales of metal detectors are bound to go up, at least in the UK. A treasure hunter with such a device (which means an everyday guy, I suspect) stumbled upon the largest cache of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found by an amateur, in a field in England. It was buried there around 1300 years ago--all this according to National Geographic. They've posted pictures too.

The lucky guy is Terry Herbert, and the field belonged to his friend. Here's a picture of Herbert, along with a MSNBC story. Over 1500 gold and silver items were found there, near Burntwood. It's all very manly jewelry, much with inlaid garnets. I copy this one picture here, but you really should see the NG site. The find is amazing.

The fellow cataloguing the find believes it is war loot, partly because so many pommels are included in the stash. The poem Beowolf, which the Anglo-Saxons wrote, refers to collecting pommels from enemies' sword handles as trophies, he said. (The Celts collected heads. Pommels didn't smell nearly as bad, I'm sure.)

The preliminary translation of this runic writing reads: "One bracelet to rule them all, one bracelet to bind them..."

Wouldn't that be fun? Then we could imagine that JRR Tolkien had access to some secret historical documents predating the Masons and Rosicrucians, and that his mythology of Middle Earth actually hints at long-secret truths... Actually, I've met people who do believe that.

In fact, the inscription is Latin (how droll) and reads "Rise up O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee..." Truly.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Magical Thinking

I first came across the term Magical Thinking when I read Joan Didion's book The Year of Magical Thinking. (Wonderful book, made me cry.) Never having studied psychology, I assumed she invented the term to describe her irrational connections and thoughts while she struggled to cope with her husband's death.

Now I learn that Magical Thinking describes a whole host of unscientific reasoning that every culture on earth practices. Magic and shamanism, creative visualization, positive thinking, viewing life as a metaphor, pretend, hero worship--all are examples. In fact, Psychology Today recently published an article on Magical Thinking, which is how I learned about it.

And what I find most interesting in that article is that the ONLY people who don't practice Magical Thinking are the clinically depressed. Who wants to be in that cohort?

Here's the quote, given in a section of the article discussing rituals and how we use them to give ourselves an illusion of control:

In fact, a fully accurate assessment of your powers, a state known as "depressive realism," haunts people with clinical depression, who in general show less magical thinking.

My dog tries to engage me in magical thinking. These last two days she has conducted a blitz campaign to convince me, against all logic, that scratching her back before beginning any activity will enhance my success and enjoyment of the activity. If I stand, sit, type, read, prepare to eat or drink, she's there--hopping onto my lap or the nearest surface, swaying her back down to invite my fingertips to the best spot. "Go ahead," her anxious eyes plead. "Everything will be better if you scratch. I promise!"

Actually, the magical thinking is on my part, imputing all those motives to a dog.

So what does all this have to do with my usual topics? Well, it makes the Celts and other cultures less removed from us in their thinking. So they were superstitious? You want superstitious? Watch Nomar GarciaParra's movements before he curls into his batting stance and waits for the pitch.

And what about those emails we're afraid not to forward to five people in five minutes? How many of us get suckered into arguments on the radio, without having any verified facts at hand to guide our passions? We're magical thinkers to our core, just like the ancient Celts, Romans, Egyptians, Athabaskans, or anybody else.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Original Spinners and Weavers

There are three fat spiders in this picture. The wind was blowing one of them (top leftmost), but you can still see her.

I don't like spiders, but I am grateful to this trio who inspired me to compare weaving with web spinning. If spiders are sloppy with their webs, they don't eat. If they don't repair the web, food gets away.

I compared them to a hardworking woman of the Iron Age in my novel, and the first few chapters are now online. Go, me! The entire novel is complete, so if anyone knows an agent and would like to get me out of a hundred slush piles, please drop me a line!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

NEW Oldest Fabric Ever Found!

We just keep moving the date back a couple of thousand years at a time, right? The previous oldest fabric was 28,000 years old and found in the Czech Republic. (article here)

The new and current title holder goes back 34,000 years. Found in the Republic of Georgia, this material is flax, and it's twisted and dyed. It may be pushing it a bit to call it cloth, but it is a textile. Here's an article in Science Daily, and there are some microscopic photos of the strands attached.

It seems only yesterday that I wrote an article for a still-unpublished Encyclopedia of Invention which claimed that the oldest woven material was found in Turkey, and dated to about 20,000 years ago. The bit of cloth was wrapped around an antler and had fossilized. No one imagined that any fabric older could have survived. (NY Times article)

Sigh. Actually, it was 3 or 4 years ago that I wrote about that--that's how fast discoveries are being made.

The reason I decided to study history was that my previous field--computer networks--changed so fast and I got tired of having to learn a new operating system every other year. I figured what I learned in history would be subject to changing opinions, but that the stark facts and evidence would remain the same.

Silly me.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Is It Journalism Vs. Media Now?

Here's a sad comment about the state of journalism, taken from The Atlantic Online, October 2009:

"With journalists being laid off in droves, savvy political operatives have stepped eagerly into the breach. What’s most troubling is not that TV-news producers mistake their work for journalism, which is bad enough, but that young people drawn to journalism increasingly see no distinction between disinterested reporting and hit-jobbery."

As a writer, I think I know the difference between opinion and news, but I'm constantly amazed by how the line is blurred not just on every station, but in every gathering where a political topic is raised.

The author of the quote is Mark Bowden and the article is titled "The Story Behind the Story." Good read.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A Van with Gall

What remains to be said? For years, this work of art has been parked in the same lot each day. Sometimes I see a man wildly arguing or preaching to people who stop to talk. I've always assumed the topics of conversation would be a bit limited, so I just pass and do my Dilbert imitation ("Don't make eye contact....don't make eye contact")

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Tearin' Up Tara

The Hill of Tara in Ireland is being excavated in parts because of work on the M3 Highway. The good part of this is that exciting finds are being made.

For instance, the remains of a NINE THOUSAND YEAR OLD fishing basket was found in Clowanstown, County Meath, the Irish Times reported last week. They can date the basket because it was made of alder saplings, which are radio-carbon datable. . . possibly to the Mesolithic. I'm getting verklempt. Read more about it at the National Road folks' commissioned report or at TaraWatch while I compose myself.

Nine thousand years old. A small wooden dugout, possibly a toy, was found nearby, along with axes and stakes and cherts and stuff.

This was revealed at an archaeological conference last week. Other finds include:

  • "3,335 lithic finds or stone tools, including 144 polished stone axeheads and fragments"

  • "a portion of an unfinished block wheel which has been dated to the late Bronze Age (2200 BC-600 BC)"--the oldest ever found in Ireland

  • Pottery--some grooved--and beakers, a few pieces dating back to 2900 B.C.

  • Spindle whorls (weights) that may be nearly as old

  • In Tipperary, remnants of a palisade enclose a natural mound, deliberately enlarged with layers of glacial soil. “The first known major Neolithic landscaping project” an archaeologist said

  • Remains of wooden trackways and platforms built over wetlands during the Neolithic, over four thousand years. (This was County Longford, where an N4 bypass was under construction.

So what's the bad part of these wondrous finds?

They're tearing up the richest, most ancient heart of the country to put in a frickin' road!

The EU filed a lawsuit in 2007. The Smithsonian and other organizations have expressed their condemnation over the possible loss of historical site of interest to all. A petition asking the United Nations to declare the Hill of Tara a World Heritage Site is stalled because Ireland must first approve it, and Ireland is playing the bad guy in this skit.

If you'd like to sign a petition asking the UN to take action, go here. The goal is to gather a million signatures by the end of 2009, and present them to the UN in NYC, urging them to take action. The tally is not even close, so far. So go sign, tell your friends.

This area was occupied by people over nine thousand years ago. No one should go tearing it up for a stupid road!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Allee Couverte

Allee Couvertes are Neolithic era gravesites, usually short little tunnels made of stone. This one, the Allee Couverte du Morgau Bihan is in Brittany, France. Kids were climbing all over it. I guess it's pretty hard to hurt stone after the third millennia or so.

That's the top of a home beyond the stones, which stand on private land, I believe. People stop there all the time. Those giant slabs of rock have been resting on the standing stones since around 2,500 B.C.

There are carvings inside the allee couverte too, but my pictures didn't capture them too well. A shepherd's crook, and what looks like spearheads or tools, possibly. A descriptive sign (in French, of course) called them palettes.

These structures predate druids and Celts by two thousand years, and nothing really is known about the people who set them up--except they liked to raise incredible stone monuments. Did they disappear, merge with the Celtic tribes that came later? In the case of the Allee Couverte du Morgau Bihan, I think the Celtic tribe would be Ossismi, since the site is near Quimper.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

New England Writing Sites

OK, this will be the last post on great places to write, promise. At least for awhile.

This Los Angeles Times story lists the vital data of the homes of six late lamented literary giants, all in New England. Address, phone numbers, and admission charges, of the home of:

  • Louisa May Alcott (Orchard House)
  • Emily Dickinson (actually, two houses but the one pictured was her home, the Homestead)
  • Nathaniel Hawthorn (the real House of Seven Gables)
  • Mark Twain (the most expensive to visit, at $14)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Herman Melville (Arrowhead)

Being a Californian who's never ventured to New England (although I did hopscotch over it into Canada), I wonder what role cold weather and lush green springs play in literary creativity. Possibly none; most writers seem to love the landscape they land it, desert or seacoast, cold or hot, rural or urban. The exceptions that come to mind are adventure-seekers like Ernest Hemingway, or the chronically depressed who don't feel at home in any place.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

NOT a nice place to write

At least, I didn't think so at first. Would you like to write at Heathrow Airport for a week (Terminal 5, specifically), blocking out all the questions, the sights, the noise of people and machines, the smells, cries, booms, surprises, fussy parents and screaming children...d'ya think a guy who writes books with titles like The Consolations of Philosophy (shades of Boethius!) could enjoy that?

Alain de Botton is Heathrow's writer in residence for a week, and far from blocking out all the above-named distractions, he will produce a book about them, to be called A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary. Read about him at the New York Times. But it's it all the papers, blogs, Gawker, etc. (this picture is from SkyNews). NYT has the best photo though, showing his desk in the terminal--pretty much cleared, except for an open MacLaptop...and a big ol' jet aeorplane sneakin up behind him.

It's a guaranteed book--de Botton got the advance AND expenses (he sleeps at a nearby Sofitel). Well, for that I'd sit in a nice airport. I'd sit in a dingy bus depot, too. Whatever it takes. BBC quotes de Botton as saying that airports encapsulate the modern world, featuring "interconnection, fast travel, the destruction of nature... dreams of consumerism and travel". Well, heck, I could make up something deep about Greyhound, the great economic equalizer, leveler of patrons, blah, blah. Really, give me an advance: you'll be amazed at what I can do.

Tried to find a free photo of Heathrow--found a surfeit of pictures of celebs arriving at the airport, many of whom I've never heard of.Here's one of the outside.

British Airways Announces Massive Losses

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Writers rooms....115 of them

Oh, ouch! I thought my idea--expressed here a few days ago--of posting pictures and a few paragraphs on nice places to write was a good and original one. I started with Zane Grey's office.

But now I learn--from an $8.95 desktop "website of the day" calendar--that The Guardian has a whole series of writers' rooms online...115 at last count. Another series covers artists' rooms, and musicians' rooms, and so on. Here's Jane Austen's. She died in 1817, but someone's obviously taking care of her things. Yes, Pride and Prejudice was actually written on this teeny table.

Roald Dahl, George Bernard Shaw, Charlotte Bronte--well, those are the oldies. How about Colm Toibin? I like his office; it's lined with books, floor to ceiling. Will Self has the most orderly and obedient post-it notes on the planet (right). Simon Callow is writing another book in dressing room 7 of the Haymarket Theatre, where he performs nightly in Waiting for Godot.

Clive James, Nicholas Mosley, Richard Sennett, Ciaran Carson...lots of writers, many of which I don't know at all. But don't let my ignorance slow you down. Go explore the site. I'm going to pour another glass of two-buck Chuck and visualize my office as the most-visited entry in the Guardian series.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Irish Timber Circle Dates Back 4,000-5,000 Years

The BBC announced that ancient ritual circles were excavated in Ballygawley (in Northern Ireland) over 2006-2007. The circles were not of stone, but of timber--which is great, because timber can be dated. According to venerable radio-carbon techniques, the circles date to the middle of the third millenniums BC, and some parts of the circles may be even older.

A three-year-long project turned up the circle while excavating and clearing ground for improvements to the A4 and A5 roadways. Pottery and charcoal were also found, but we'll have to wait till next year to learn what those artifacts revealed.

The archaeologists say that two concentric rings of wood beams apparently replaced an earlier series of pits. There was a "monumental porch" on one side, presumably the entrance. The outer circle of timbers likely supported wattle or planked walls between them, so the inner circle was hidden from the view of outsiders.

Here's the story in the local paper. But the Best Presentation is here--a PowerPoint slide show of not only the Ballygawley site, but other archaeological sites along the roadway. Pictures, maps, aerial views, and drawings--all courtesy of the Killeeshil & Clonaneese Historical Society!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

New Books with My Articles!

Yay! Two more editions of the F.Y.I series:

First, featuring my astonishing expose of lusty rabbits, presidential turkey pardons, and the history of Gypsies, Roman new years, battle chariots, toothbrushes, getting shanghaied and more:

In the second book, I blow the lid off fruitcake, cognac, Mother Goose, space junk, leprosy, Murphy's law, plank-walking, and a plethora of other topics.

Clicking on the link should take your right to Amazon, so you can buy them right away!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Ancient Music of Greece

Here's a site that lets you listen to Greek music from a couple thousand years ago. Just click on any of the numbered items at the bottom, and listen in Real Player or Windows Media Player.

The music is actually written down--ancient fragments of tunes that survived, like the bit of parchment at right. This was copied from the music site, and apparently was preserved in a Middle Ages manuscript. (Medieval bookmakers often grabbed old parchment to press together into book covers) (my ignorant layman's explanation).

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I'm kinda glad the ancients stuck to philosophy and writing plays. In fact, I suspect some of these ancient music authorities let their preschoolers sneak in a plastic recorder ditty or two.

OTOH, how do we know that these notes aren't intended more as cheat-sheets for professionals (fake books, IOW), who could probably improvise, harmonize, and in general give a much fuller sound than what we hear on these recordings? Just a guess.

You can also click on "Homeric singing" to hear what the Iliad sounded like, way back then. All courtesy of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Zane Grey Wrote Here

I'm cheating just a little, because I wrote about this historic house on my other blog, HistoryLosAngeles. That was more on the history of the home, but this is where the man actually wrote: a second-story office and library that includes this fireplace. (Did you know his real first name was Pearl? Pearl Zane Grey?)

There's a lot more to the space--the picture below (from Unreel Locations) gives a long view of the room. In that one, the fireplace is to the far left, just before the end of the room. The entire area is 3000 feet (the house is 15,000 sq. ft)--two or three times the room most apartments and homes have. The ceiling beams are so massive that they dwarf the space below, and it doesn't look huge--rather, it seems downright cozy. So yeah, I could get some work done here....

Of course, that was back in the days when cutting edge technology was a manual typewriter--and they've got a couple of those in the house, just for show. Actually, I think lined writing pads suit the environs better, don't you?

I'm gonna create a new category for this: Writing sites. Just great places to write. If I get desperate I'll take pictures of Starbucks or Coffee Bean and post them.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Celtic Languages: Cornish

There are 300 fluent speakers of Cornish--the Celtic dialogue of Cornwall--left, and they're working hard to ensure the language doesn't die. So says Henry Chu of the Los Angeles Times on July 25, 2009. He quotes a native speaker relaying a folktale:

"Y'n termyn eus passys, 'th era tregas yn Selevan den ha benyn yn tyller cries Chi an Hordh. . . . "

Which sounds a lot like "In termenus passeus thur trigus 'n sleven..." You can hear it on the
Times site--just go to the insert.

The Cornish language was saved from near-death in the early 20th century, when scholar Henry Jenner gave a speech before the Celtic Congress, which was dedicated to preserving Celtic Culture. They had not accepted Cornish as a Celtic language, but all assembled spoke either Welsh, Irish, or Breton--all indisputably Celtic tongues. Jenner gave the speech in Cornish, and everyone understood. Ta-da!

Since Cornwall is in the utter south of England, and just north of ancient Gaul (France), it makes sense that their language, like Irish and the others, would share common words--enough to be mutually comprehensible.

Scholars like Simon James and Peter Berresford Ellis are in agreement on this much, at least: that Celtic was an Indo-European language (as were Latin and Greek and Sanskrit) that broke into several separate languages. The "Gaulish" tongue is largely lost--we know only a few hundred words. The language of Celtic Iberia is likewise a mystery. But several places managed to hold onto their language, like Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and yes--Cornwall.

Parts of Brittany also hold onto a Celtic language: Breton. The history of that tongue is unique. Although Brittany was considered part of ancient Gaul around 2,000 years ago, the Roman conquest and subsequent Romanization of the area did it damage--how much is up for debate. Many folks fled to southern England when the Romans moved in, and took their language with them.

Five hundred years later, migration moved in the other direction. Invading Anglo Saxons drove a lot of folks from Cornwall back to Brittany, with their version of Celtic-speak. The Breton language to day is derived from that--from Cornish--and not from ancient Gaulish.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Spinning at the Ren Faire

Ha! I knew I had pictures of spinning somewhere! This is from the 2006 Renaissance Faire near Irwindale, CA. The lady--she seems too demure to be called a wench--is holding a spindle in her right hand.

In the first picture, she's wrapping the spun thread around it. The spindle is actually upside down; when she gives it a flick and lets it go (as described in the previous post), the weighted end will be down and the little hook--which appears to be at the bottom now--will be at the top.

In fact, that's exactly how the spindle is positioned in the second picture. The reason that I went with a different picture to begin with is that it just seemed very rude to chop the lady's head off when she really did not do anything deserving of such a fate.

In the second picture, you can also see the distaff tucked in her belt--or maybe pocket. This stick holds the prepared wool. In the 21st century renaissance, the wool is all even, sparkly white, and lovely. In Ye Real Olde Days, the clumps of wool were not so nice looking.

Why am I writing about spinning? Well, this is what women did in Gaul and in almost all European lands. Spindle weights are found all over Europe, as are weaving looms or the remnants of looms. And where there's looms, there's got to be thread, which implies spinning. Some of the looms are over 5,000 years old. The stone weights are a little harder to date, I think, because stones can only be dated in context with other goods found near them--they're not organic, so no radio-carbon dating.

If you're writing about a woman in Gaul, or in any pre-Renaissance setting, she probably spent her day spinning. Even the wealthy.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Spinning Thread

You've heard the Carl Sagan quote: "In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."

Well. In the days before the Renaissance, say, 1400 A.D. and previous, in order to have a dress to wear, you must first domesticate sheep.

Then sheer them, clean and prepare the wool, and spin it into thread. Then gather a lot of thread together, fasten some of it to a loom, and weave the rest crosswise through it, until you had a length of cloth. Then and only then, could you think about fitting that cloth onto your body for warmth and modesty and decoration.

For thousands of years, women spun thread All Day Long. Every day. They spun thread while they watched the babies, talked with their friends, walked around, looked for food. They stopped spinning long enough to stir the stew or skin the rabbit for dinner, and maybe they stopped while they slept (but they still dreamt about spinning, I bet).

It must have been as natural as breathing, for thousands of years. If you didn't spin, you had no clothes. Simple as that.

This picture shows a Greek woman spinning thread, and it sits outside a display showing a dozen weights that fit onto the spindle. Those weights held the spindle down. (The spinning wheel didn't come along until the 14th century or so.) The long wooden stick with fuzzy wool is called a distaff. A woman tucked the distaff into her belt or someplace handy, and plucked clumps of fiber from it, twisting them in her fingers to make thread.

Periodically, she gave the spindle a flick, like you would a toy top. As it spun, the new thread spun. The weight kept the spindle from swinging erratically, and when it touched the ground--when you'd spun out a few feet of thread, iow--you wrapped the new thread around the spindle and flicked it again.

If you ever go to a Renaissance Faire or something similar you'll see it. Fingers get very clever, and the process goes quickly--especially if you have to do it day and night. Just keep grabbing and twisting those fibers together into thread, and the spindle with its weight will keep twirling and stretching the thread out just so.

I wonder if spinning was stress-relieving? and if a woman developed carpel tunnel syndrome or got arthritic...yowch. Let's hope someone else stepped in before she had to run around naked!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gonna be an odd sort of day...

You know it will be good and bad when this is the first thing you see when you get up, and it makes you laugh till you cry.

On the plus side, the first thing waiting in my email box was a request for sample chapters from an agent. Go, me!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Oldest Flute (so far) Found near Ulm

How old? Thirty-five thousand years. And it is unmistakeably a deliberately carved flute. The twelve pieces of it fit together to show a delicate instrument with five holes, carved from the wing bone of a griffon vulture. The finished mouth piece has a V notched into it. (The other end is missing)

Griffon vultures are now gone from Germany, but the species is not extinct. They thrive in Spain and in the Middle East.

The flute was found at Hohle Fels (which means Hollow Rock in German), a cave in the hills west of Ulm. This picture is from the ShowCaves site, and was taken by Jochen Ducheck. The cave entrance is right below the giant rock.

This is the same cave in which an equally ancient, headless, tiny, voluptuous, female-shaped carving made of mammoth ivory was found--here's my post on that. And here's another picture from ShowCaves showing an excavation near the entrance to the cave.

So. Musical instruments, lots of bones indicating successful hunts, and big-boobed statues . . . Obviously, around 35,000 years ago, Hohle Fels was party central. And that's not just mho--most of the articles, including this one from the New York Times, make some joke about Happy Hours. The Los Angeles Times story was headlined, "Germany's 1st nightclub?"

The same archaeologist (Nicholas J. Conard) that made this recent find also discovered the previous claimant to World's Oldest Flute as well--in the same area. I wrote about that on a HubPages entry, and included an interesting link to a sound recording of what that flute would sound like. Just in case you're interested. But those and other possible flutes were apparently not considered conclusive. Were the holes placed there deliberately, some nabobs of negativism queried, or were these very old bits of ivory just thin and deteriorating? Well, the vulture bone has lines--decorative, I'm guessing--as well as aligned holes, so I don't think the artifact could conceivably be anything BUT a flute.

Monday, June 22, 2009

1897 Lourdes Film

The World Digital Library has all sorts of online treasures, graphically searchable by continent or time line. Our own Library of Congress collaborated with UN agencies to compile it, making the world's cultural heritage (well, part of it) available to anyone. What have they got?

Ancient maps. The first printing of a letter from Christopher Columbus dated 1493. Photographs from all over the world. Recordings, including a bagpipe version of Amazing Grace. Manuscripts, including Christine de Pisan's 15th century book on etiquette and practical advice, translated into English in 1489 so that Henry VII's soldiers could benefit from her words.

Here's a film by the Lumiere brothers showing the procession at Lourdes in 1897. Neato!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Update on Looting

Eric Holder Testifies Before Senate Cmte On Justice Dept Oversight

In the previous post I gave the basic story of how looters--who were digging up Native American artifacts in the Four Corners area--were arrested last week.

To be very clear, NO ADULT could possibly be unaware that what they were doing was a crime. While most of the artifacts came from federally-owned land, we now learn that some were dug up on tribal land. These people committed crimes for years and profited from them, making tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Their actions show not only a scorn of law and order, but complete disregard for Native American sensibilities.

One of the accused committed suicide, leaving his wife to face charges. No one's cheering about that, but he committed crimes and so, charges were filed against him. Did that drive him to suicide? Do we not arrest people if they're liable to kill themselves?

Latest development? According to the Los Angeles Times, Senator Orrin Hatch grilled our Attorney General Eric Holder (pictured) over the display of force used in the arrests. Senator Hatch questions the used of 100 armed and body armored agents to arrest two dozen criminals in a remote area.


The government finally enforces long-standing laws, sending four officers per criminal, and that's excessive?

"They came in full combat they were going after, you know, the worst drug dealers in the world," Hatch said.

My, how unreasonable. Dressing for the occasion, not taking chances when arresting those who have broken the law repeatedly. Hatch called it a dog-and-pony show. I think he's running one of his own.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Looters Charged with Looting--what a concept

Indictments have been issued against 24 people accused of looting Native American sites on public land (story in the Los Angeles Times)


The crimes took place in the Four Corners area, and many of the folks indicted live in Blanding, Utah (pictured at right, and the picture is from But looting seems to go on everywhere in America. As the Times story says, "Archaeologists, Native American groups, and preservationists have long argued that the government has not moved aggressively enough to stamp out the plundering of artifacts." Soooo true. Often, the only steps taken (because no money has been allocated to do more) is to keep sites kinda secret, so that looters won't sneak in.

This time, though, investigators put a mic on an antiques dealer and--after two years--were able to catch the brigands who were allegedly fencing goodies, including a rug made with turkey feathers.

The article describes how the University of Utah used to pay people to bring in arrowheads and pots--up to the 1920s. That was 80+ years ago, but the sense I get from this story is that some experts blame the government for not convincing the public in this area that looting damages archaeological sites.

I don't buy that. While greed and stupidity go hand in hand, no one is so ignorant as to think that digging up a grave isn't doing damage. No one supposes that desecrating a grave is a good thing, do they? There's even a Wikipedia entry on Looting!

These jerks sneak around and work at night because they know they're breaking the law. The affidavits show that the thieves knew the authorities were after them.

Archaeologists estimate that 90% of the 20,000 archaeological sites in that area--San Juan County--have been looted. The criminals can get up to ten years in prison.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Thank You, James Poniewozik!


Which is: If the Journalism Business Fails, Who Pays for Journalism? That's also the title of his June 8 editorial in Time Magazine.

Here's a quote: "If journalism is not a revenue producer, much of it could become like freelancing—but freelancing you can't live off of."

Poniewozik (I love that name) brings up some interesting near-future scenarios about who and what system might produce our news. I especially like the ideas about product placement and am rooting for Miles O'Brien (if you don't understand the reference, please go read the column. Really, it's good).

I'm not a journalist; never went to journalism school and have very limited experience writing straight news stories. But journalists are fellow writers, and thus I feel their pain. (I also worry that if the freelance market is flooded with out-of-work journalists, jobs for writers will be even harder to get. Selfish me.)

Monday, June 08, 2009

Recommended Reading for the Summer

The Berrybender Narratives, starting with Sin Killer: A Novel (Berrybender Narratives)

If you slurp up stories like a 10-year-old does an icee, you may finish these four books in a week or two. But take your time, keep them in the car, stretch them out--they're so worth it.

Larry McMurtry tells the story of the Berrybender family, a spoiled, clever, hedonistic pack of British bluebloods who dare the American west in the 1830s. Why? Because Papa wants to shoot exotic game. (Papa is the type who started naming his children Nine and Ten for convenience' sake, when all the good names were used.) The clan and their long-suffering servants meet up with Indians, trappers, and slavers. Some of them die or lose body parts or sneak off for healthy fornication; some Berrybenders you hate but they begin to grow on you. Historical figures like George Catlin, Kit Carson, Pomp Charbonneau, and Jim Bridger are part of the mix, drifting in and out of the Berrybender saga over a couple of years.

McMurtry is brilliant. He's done something I have never, ever seen or heard of before: he changes point of view five or six times in one page, hopping in and out of characters with wild abandon. In his skillful prose, it all makes sense. Reading becomes voyeuristic: the books are a quadrille, with all the dancers switching places, twirling around--yet to the observer, the changes are always graceful and entertaining.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Nick Magazines Closing Down

I'm reading a lot into this, but not doom and gloom. Nickolodeon and Nick Jr magazines are shutting their doors and about 30 staffers will lose their jobs--not to mention the multiple freelancers who lose another market.

Kids are not reading less--in fact, I think they're reading more than ever (thank you, Lemony Snicket and J.K. Rowling and all the rest!) But the idea of children watching the mailbox in anticipation of a glossy new magazine just for them, with their name on the address label, is just so quaint.

Why would a kid in 2009 look forward to getting a magazine when they can hop on the internet for all the stories and pictures they want, picking and choosing among many topics and printing out what appeals most to them? Ligers, shipwrecks, dreamy androgynous dudes--right there at your fingertips. It's all free, as long as there's a spare color print cartridge nearby.

Change is good. That's my mantra, when things-fall-apart-and-the-center-cannot-hold-and-I-need-to-get-to-my-happy-place-fast. Change is good. Really. Good and hard.

From a reader's point of view, it's a simple paradigm shift. Adults have habits--well, some of us do--of flipping idly through bound pages as we sip our lattes. Kids are forming new habits. Let's just hope they don't spill their strawberry fraps [please keep them from caffeine] on the keyboard as they're googling and clicking.

From a writer's pov, there's this little wrinkle of making a living. Hard to find internet markets that pay as well as print did--not that print paid all that well, or even all the time. In ten years I'll probably have it figured out, but right now it's dicey.