Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Skipping Stones Across History's Stories

Read the Printed Word!
The traditional way a layman learns a little history is by reading a book (or, perhaps, watching a TV mini-series, or seeing a movie) focusing on a character in a specific slice of time. The way I first learned about Union General Sherman’s 1864 march, and the burning of Atlanta, was by watching the iconic scenes of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara fleeing the city in Gone with the Wind. I first became aware of the fact that many white people are born and raised in Africa, and have been ever since early colonialism/imperialism, when I read about the life of a British-Kenyan girl in Barbara Wood’s historical novel, an underrated book called Green City in the Sun. My dad used to kid me about these kinds of stories, calling them “hysterical fiction”, but you have to understand that calling my dad a “history buff” is like saying Paula Dean’s cookbooks call for using a little butter from time to time. For Dad, the only thing better than a four-volume set on the life of Andrew Jackson would be a five-volume set. There is no fiction, except maybe in books about unicorns.

I think for many of readers—especially, but not exclusively, kids—historical fiction helps teach history by providing a realistic foothold in a sea of facts. Instead of saying, “the Battle of X took place on Month, Date, in the Year of Our Lord, blah, blah, blah”, a story about a character whose life is surrounded by the events of a specific time period makes it seem more real – even when the actual character is made up. I’m not suggesting we teach history only through historical fiction, since “facts” can too often be romanticized by Hollywood or bodice-rippers with a historical flavor; only that we remember how fiction can spark an interest to delve for more facts.

In my adult reading life, I still enjoy historical fiction, but I’ve found that I like reading nonfiction just as much. I am particularly drawn to a new way to learn some history lessons: I’ve discovered some fascinating books, where a clever author can skip across many years of history, focusing on a subject matter instead of a specific point in time. One of the books we love recommending to people who visit the bookstore is Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, by Robert Sullivan. What a cool, original method for examining the history of cities, the construction of sewers, plague, shipping, garbage,and pest control! Did you know that rats do not – cannot – exist without a human population? Our histories, our populations, like it or not, are inextricably tied together, and have been throughout time.

Another wonderful example of this type of “history” book is Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, by Tony Horwitz, is another great book that skips around the world— touching on subjects as diverse as map-making, sailing, imperialism, cannibals, beer, coral reefs, sex, natural history, the discovery of previously-unknown species—while following the journeys of Captain James Cook, who sailed and mapped a large part of the Pacific, the Antarctic, and the Arctic seas and lands, in a time when all much of the world knew of these areas was “Here There Be Dragons”. Most recently, our book club read The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, by Sam Kean. It’s been too long since I had high school chemistry, and honestly, it wasn’t my best subject even then. I refused to let that put me off reading the anecdotes of prima donna scientists, poisonings accidental and possibly purposeful, backstabbing races for the Nobel Prize, the development of chemical warfare, the immigration of scientists in the face of tyranny, and the discovery of each new element. If you thought science was boring, brush up on your protons and electrons, and bring the Periodic Table to life with books like The Disappearing Spoon!

Remember that history is in the sweeping movements and in the minituae of everyday lives. There are many ways to frame our history lessons, and it never has to be boring. If you are looking to liven up your learning, look to authors like these whose eyes see a new way to organize the facts of our lives.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Pleasure of the Flesh

Kevin Coolidge

I refuse to suffer through life as a vegan. I crave meat. The flavor, the texture—I relish it. Humans are not meant to be vegetarians. Our digestive systems are too short. We require too much protein. We need fat for energy--energy for exploring, inventing, thinking, hunting. Humans are designed to eat meat.*

We aren’t stupid, savage carnivores. We don’t prey on the sick, the old or the weak. They are too scrawny. Humans choose the biggest, fattest, tastiest animals. We love meat, and of all the meats, only one is in a class of its own, steak.

Steak is reassuring. I don’t love it because it’s cheap, or because it’s healthy. I love steak because of the juicy, tender flavor it delivers. Steak is satisfying like no other flesh. It has no equal among meat.** Steak is powerful.

A man remembers a great steak. That succulent, bloody, beefy juice that makes you want to tip the plate and gulp it in one big, long slurp. Steaks are not all the same. A great steak is worth seeking, and Mark Schatzker was a man willing to search for the world’s tastiest piece of beef.

What makes a good steak good? Some people know how a steak will taste, just by looking. Of the 200 meat graders employed by the U.S Department of Agriculture, 140 of those specialize in beef. In a single day, a grader can judge as many as 1,200 beef carcasses, and each grader is mainly looking for one thing, fat. Fat is flavor.

Marbling is the spots and streaks of fat within a steak. To a USDA grader nothing is more important. Steak with the highest marbling is the best steak and it is called prime. Next down is called choice, followed by select, followed by standard, which has almost no marbling.

Achieving marbled beef is easy. All you need is corn, lots of it. Before World War II, only 5 percent of American cows were corn fed, but now nearly all of them are grain fed, raised in a feed lot, injected with hormones, and fattened too fast. The result is beef that is consistent, mass produced, a commodity.

Is there other steak? How do you grow a good steak? Is a Texas steak the same as steaks in other countries? What about Kobe beef? Japanese cows that are said to be massaged with rice wine and given cold beer to drink. What about France? The French claim to know everything when it comes to food. The French must make a good steak?

Mark knew the world is a very big place. There must be a lot of steak out there. He decided to have a look. This quest became the book Steak, and it would take him to seven countries across four continents.

His odyssey involved hundreds of various cuts of steak, prepared in dozens of different ways, seeking satisfaction, joy, and the perfect piece of steak. This book inspired me to hunt for better steak, let it inspire you to unleash your primal hunger…

*Humans aren’t true carnivores. Our livers can’t handle too much protein. Our fast digestion seems best suited for ripe fruit, certain vegetables, and of course meat.

**Bacon doesn’t count in this particular comparison; it is the candy, the dessert of meats. Steak is the main course, the heartier fare.

Raw? Medium rare? Or a steak done well is well done? Email me at from_my_shelf@yahoo.com Miss a past column. You can get your fill at http://frommyshelf.blogspot.com and ketchup. Make no mistake about it. I like my steak, but I’m an opportunavore and I’m more than happy to meet you…

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Geek’s Guide to Dating

Kevin Coolidge

What is a geek? The word comes from the German word geck, meaning fool, and in the late 1800s the term geek referred to a performer in a traveling freak show—thus the term came to be used for a peculiar person.

The word has evolved to connote someone who is extremely knowledgeable—even to the point of obsession—about a topic. There are wine geeks, sports geeks, and Ringers*, each closely following the minutiae of their chosen obsession.

What was a derogatory term for the socially inept has now been taken back. Geeks are now eccentric, intelligent, full of enthusiasm, and sometime a little awkward. That can be bad news, and it might make dating a little hard, but that’s why you want a copy of The Geek’s Guide to Dating by Eric Smith.

The good news for geeks is that their capacity for passion is a definite plus when it comes to the dating experience. Geeks can also be creative and remember even the most trivial of details, which can be a very good thing in a relationship.

Your particular geeky passion is something to keep in mind. Dating someone who loves science fiction might be great, but if not, you may still have other attributes in common—such as a mutual disdain for the “first” three Star Wars movies.

Knowing your geek type will help you access your strengths and weaknesses for dating. Are you a Pop Culture Geek, Technogeek, or an Academic Geek? If you are comfortable with technology, you can advise on purchasing electronics. Just be careful to not be snobby if she lacks your tech-fu, and remember that your date may be more knowledgeable than you.

Meeting a potential mate IRL** isn’t always easy. Geeks are lucky to have online channels available to connect and meet people with similar interests. There are MMORPGs***, social media networks, and online dating websites.

There are niche sites and more mainstream sites that cater to a general audience. Some charge fees like Match.com, but there are free ones—such as Okcupid and Plenty of Fish. There’s also Craigslist, but its pretty bare-bones and prone to serial killers.

You also have to look for opportunities in the physical world. Let’s start with some suggestions where you are almost guaranteed to find people who share your geeky interests. The comic book store is a bastion for geeks. If you see her freaking out over a TARDIS book light, make eye contact and smile.

Using the observations you’ve made about her interests, start a conversation, not a debate. Stating your opinion might come off as condescending. Ask her advice. If she’s looking at the manga, ask her what series she would recommend. Your favorite store can be more than just an establishment for getting your preferred books; it can also be a social gathering place.

Do you ask her out? There are a few important things to consider before you make your move. Are you prepared for a date? This step may seem premature, but what if she wants to hang out now? Have you gauged her interest? Throw out some casual questions: Is she dating anyone? Are there any red flags—such as recent breakups or demonic possession?

When asking her out, it’s easy to choke. You need to have a strategy. You are going to want to familiarize yourself with key moves, and practice them. If she says yes, it’s just the beginning of the game.

If she says no, take heart. You’re learning what doesn’t work. Maybe you’re mumbling. Maybe you shouldn’t have started the Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate. It’s OK. You’re building character…

*Nomenclature for LOTR fans (Lord of the Rings, a trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien)

** IRL means “In Real Life” YW

***Massively multiplayer online role-playing game: Are you sure you should be reading this?

Geeky, sexy? Or Nerd is the word? Email me @ from_my_shelf@yahoo.com and comment. Miss a past column? Be cool. Past columns are available @ http://frommyshelf.blogspot.com Don’t be afraid to be geeky. I met my wife acting in a ten minute play festival. She lit my cigar and it’s been burning ever since…

Hobo Bookstore Cat (2003 - 2014)

Dear friends, it is with heavy hearts that we inform you, if you did not already know, that we had to say goodbye to our sweet boy, Hobo, on Friday, Jan. 17th. We thank you all so much for your generous help with Hobo's vet bills, as we struggled to find out what was making him so sick. Despite our hopes, it was confirmed that Hobo did, indeed, have a "mass" nested in his thoracic cavity, pressing against both his heart, and his esophagus and trachea. We kept him as comfortable as possible, but finally it just got too difficult for him to do even the most basic things, and it was time to let him go.

All pets are special. This is obvious to anyone who has ever owned a pet, and to many people who have never had the chance, but who still love animals. Both Kevin and Kasey have owned many pets, as have most of you -- yet we all recognized that Hobo was an extra special guy. He was, in many ways, the community's cat. He belonged to everyone who came to the bookstore, who found us on facebook, who read Hobo's book, who had Hobo visit their library or school. He was a real gem, and he touched all of us with his gentle nature, his goofy antics, his affectionate attitude.

Hobo spent most of his life working in customer service. His first job was at Kevin's gym, Touch of Wellness, where Hobo first adopted Kevin in the summer of 2003. In the beginning, Hobo worked outside as a greeter, then inside, checking on all aspects of gym life. After the gym closed, Hobo took some time off to find himself, as writers are wont to do.

After much quiet reflection and a few AWOL adventures (breaking out screened-in windows to go for a summer moonlight stroll or two), Hobo began work on his memoir, a children's book entitled,Hobo Finds a Home. This was exciting, but Hobo once again yearned to be with the public. He felt customer service was his calling, and the bookstore was the answer. He began coming to From My Shelf, first only sporadically for book signings and children's events, then more regularly, until he was a full-time member of the staff at From My Shelf, from 2010 to 2014.

Hobo's jobs at the bookstore included playing with children, delighting crazy cat people, rearranging sidelines, regular maintenance on computers and the cash register, checking air flow of heating vents, and soaking up sunshine to spread to everyone he met. Hobo was also a regular model for photographs, as well as being the icon for a wooden sidewalk statue (by carver Bill Schlegel), a Christmas ornament (by Mary Wise), local children's artwork, and for the weekly Gazette newspaper column, "Cat Tales: Writing about Reading."

Hobo is not only survived by the humans he lived with, Kevin Coolidge and Kasey Cox, but by two girl cats, Gypsy and Velvet; all the people who have worked at From My Shelf as staff members, but especially Jen, Rachel, and Kris; regular bookstore visitors, both locals and tourists alike; and a community of people, near and far, who thought of Hobo as their special cat, too. Thanks for sharing him with us.

We'd like to thank Dr. Haas, and all the people who work at the Wellsboro Small Animal Hospital for the incredible kindness and patience they showed us during Hobo's illness. We'd also like to thank everyone who donated to Hobo's fundraiser. After paying Hobo's bills, the remainder of the monies raised from our fundraiser will be donated to the Animal Care Sanctuary here in Wellsboro.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Hemingway Hoax

Kevin Coolidge

Never trust a man who doesn’t like cats…Irish proverb

Uncanny focus, curious, observant, a dislike for being disturbed—they sit for long periods of time and sleep more than they probably should. Writers are a lot like cats. Complex, unorthodox, full of personality quirks, hunting when he wills it, working when it’s time—a writer is not a herd animal.

Now, I’m not saying you have to have a cat to be a writer, but the best writers have at least one cat. Mark Twain, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein--they all loved cats. It helps to have someone to understand that writing is a process. You aren’t being unproductive or lazy. You are cultivating stillness.

One of the most influential and manliest writers* of the 20th Century, Ernest Hemingway, was a dedicated feline lover. Like most cat hoarders, he started with a single cat. A ship’s captain gave Hemingway a white six-toed cat, named Snowball.

Today, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum on Key West is playground to approximately 40-50 polydactyl cats. Cats normally have five front toes and four back toes. Not all the cats at the Home have the extra thumb, but they all carry the gene, and can give birth to a Hemingway cat.

If you take the tour, you’ll hear that these kitties can trace their lineage back to the original Snowball, but James Nagel, a Hemingway scholar, claims that Hemingway didn’t have cats when he lived in that house.

“Hemingway liked cats but Pauline, to whom he was married, wanted peacocks. So they got peacocks for the yard ... The time when he had so many cats was when he lived in San Francisco de Paula, Cuba.” The estate in Key West is just one of the many places trying to cash in on the writer and the cats associated with him, claims Nagel.

Regardless of where you fall on the Key West cat debate, Hemingway wrote some of his best work in this home, including the final draft to A Farewell to Arms and the short story classic The Snows of Kilimanjaro. I rather suspect there was at least one cat around.

Waiting, seeking, stalking--striking and feasting on the flesh of your thoughts to satisfy a primal need. You are a writer, and you must feed the hunger, and the cat. OK, you can get yourself a big slobbery dog**, but if you want to be a writer that is remembered, you need to get yourself a cat…

*Hemingway ran with bulls, hunted, fished, went on safari, occasionally took a rifle with him, though he preferred his fists. He wrestled bears, rode sharks, and never shed a tear when he got a paper cut. This is also a man that named a cat Snowball…

**Don’t buy into all the cat crap. Jim Kjelgaard, Wilson Rawls, Jack London—all were dog lovers. Of course, if you have a dog, the stipulation is that you are an outdoor writer.

Cats? Dogs? Or fluffy bunnies? Email me at from_my_shelf@yahoo.com and let me know. Miss a past column? No need to go hungry. Just visit http://frommyshelf.blogspot.com and get your fill. Hobo was a Hemingway and with such a rich, literary tradition of course he wrote a book, “Hobo Finds a Home”—simple, direct, unadorned, just like Papa would write…