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Review of the book I read Tuesday, July 19th.

So apparently, although I didn't know this before reading the book, the Getty museum is set up as a replica of a Roman-era dwelling, complete with garden layout swiped from Pompeii. As a result, they've put out this book about the ancient associations and references of the herbs growing in their (extremely accurate) gardens.

This is a really good sourcebook for information about herbs in Greece and Rome. You get the name of each herb in Greek and Latin, the current taxonomy, the current English name, a lovely water-color showing any distinguishing features, and a list for each herb of references from classical texts, including medicinal, magical, honorific, and culinary uses. There are sections from stories and poems, discussion of which authorities believed what about which herb, analysis of the difference between Greek and Roman beliefs and usages, and a few recipes.

And there is stuff in here I've never seen anywhere else. Parsley apparently had an association with the underworld in Greece, for instance; it was supposed to descend to the underworld nine times before it sprouted, and may have had some use at the Eleusinian mysteries. Consequently it was not widely eaten. The Romans, on the other hand, though they also thought it was a little unworldly, appear to have eaten it with bread as a standard breakfast. Plautus hated garlic. And mustard. Knowing Plautus, somehow this does not surprise me. Garlic actually is an antiseptic, and its uses as one were known as far back as anyone can tell; Galen also suggests that it will keep off dangerous beasts if eaten (and possibly anyone else, too). There's an attempt to deduce the flavor profile of the now-extinct silphium from the things people compare its flavor to in cookery texts, and I conclude that I would have hated it, as the description they come up with is 'kind of like onions, only very bitter and with an aftertaste rather like mint'. Well, these are the people who put garum on everything (a strong fermented fish sauce-- you can kind of approximate it today with Vietnamese fish sauce, but garum was much stronger, smelled rather impressively, and was used about how people now use ketchup).

There's discussion about the immemorial confusion between oregano and marjoram, which apparently dates to before Hesiod and is not helped at all by the fact that the two crossbreed. There's mention of how the Greeks knew about ten species of thyme and had them in a hierarchy. It's interesting to see which names have come down: basil does come from basileus, which is ancient Greek for king, and it's yet another of the plants sometimes used as crowns for victors in battle. (They had what we would now call ordinary basil and what we would now call holy basil, but not any of the more esoteric ones.) You get things like a mention that asparagus water seethed with basil and garlic was meant to be an aphrodisiac. I doubt it.

In short, do not be put off by the museum-related nature of this book, because it's a very nice collation of material that one could otherwise go through an entire reference library to seek out. And a fine bibliography. And you don't have to read Greek or Latin, though it would help. I only wish it were longer, and maybe referred more to the Babylonians and Sumerians, because there are tiny smatterings of that material and it interests me, though I understand that that was not their focus.
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As it says on the label. This is a manual about how to set up a system to have worms produce Really Nutritious Compost. It covers things like how to build a bin to hold the worms, what kind of bedding you should use, what species of worm to use, what you can feed them, how many worms to buy for what amount of garbage, and so on. Basically, if you can think of a logistical detail that might be relevant about keeping a worm-compost bin, it's in here, including a note that you must not let your cats use the bin as a litterbox and the author's personal tips for getting rid of possible fruit flies. (She says that if you put beer in your fruit fly traps, they will be attracted to it but it will kill them, as opposed to, say, cider vinegar water or fruit juices, which have the potential to let them breed. The difficulty I see is that this requires having beer around, and not only that but beer you do not intend to consume.)

And she goes into the science behind worms and their ecosystems and the mineral content of the worm castings and so on. And there are cute illustrations.

The whole thing is written at a level which doesn't talk down to an adult, but which could, I think, be comprehended by a bright third-grader, which is nice.

The main conclusion I drew, mind you, is that even though a worm system requires substantial maintenance only every three to four months, it slots neatly into the area of my mind labeled Too Much Work For How Serious We Are About Gardening Right Now. We have a compost heap already, which seems to be thriving, and even has things living in it-- granted, those things are fire ants, and we want them evicted stat, but they certainly seem happy. If we ever need really high-grade compost for some reason this might be worth thinking about, but honestly it isn't something my household would find terribly useful. If we get around to that vegetable garden, perhaps.
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Back, home, rested, backlogged. Oh, so backlogged. I have been faithfully reading a book every day, but lo, there was traveling. So the first review here is for the book I read on Thanksgiving Day, yeesh. And the next batch of reviews are probably going to be fairly short until I catch the heck up.

Swan for the Money is the eleventh of the Donna Andrews mystery series I've been reading, not that it matters as I have read three of them, out of sequence, and while there is chronological progression it doesn't make much difference. It is true, as various people have suggested to me, that the ones not set at a reenactment fair or a con are not remotely as fun. This one is set at a rose show, which, you will note, is neither a reenactment fair nor a con. It's not that it wasn't a fun book, but it didn't have either the thing where I recognized exactly what was going on as a perfect parody of exactly what would be going on or the thing where it felt like a fresh new place to set a mystery-- I mean, Hercule Poirot went to rose shows; they're exactly the sort of thing you get in Ye Olde-Schoole Country House Plot. It is possible that if I were a person who goes to rose shows, this would be a good parody, but as I am not I would have liked the book to be a good takeoff on the sort of mystery novel set at rose shows, and it may have been trying to be that but if so it was not succeeding. I got through it on a sort of general affability and the usual wittiness. I am going to track down and buy the two I really liked and probably read the rest of this series whenever I am in the mood for something pleasantly harmless. Will let you all know if any of the rest turn out to be brilliant.

On the day after Thanksgiving, I read Growing Fruits, which is a guide put out by the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. We have in our garden lemon trees, pomegranates, figs, persimmons, a nice new olive tree, and hypothetical future grapes, so I was actively looking for pointers. I concluded that the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens is not located in Zone 8b, which I suppose I should have known going in, only everything else on Ruth's aunt's shelf of books from the same source said All-Region Guide, and this one (which was of course the one that might have been relevant) did not. I did however learn things about growing fruits somewhere else! The book covers many of the most common varieties of fruit-- apple, pear, stone fruits, various berries-- and discusses planting, pruning, harvesting, common diseases, how to select a specific varietal of your fruit, and so on. They have handy little charts saying whether the kind of apple you want will work in your zone (no), and a chapter on rarer fruits which covers things like pawpaw and lady-apple and jujube and anything else that totally is not on the list of Things In Our Garden, seriously, it was like they'd seen the list, how rare is it to try to grow lemons really. I discovered that I am officially terrified of pruning as their recommended method appears to remove half the tree and caused me to start whimpering about how our figs are only so high anyway. Also, we are apparently in an area where grapes standardly get some weird disease, which I remember hearing vaguely about from other sources and which means we should resign ourselves to possible failure or else get the disease-resistant kind that don't taste as good. Okay then. At any rate, if you live anywhere near or at least in the same latitude as the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, this is a thorough, readable, illustrated, friendly book I could totally see using as your fruit bible. Although I am probably not pruning the pomegranates to their recommendation because honestly we mostly have them for the foliage. And it is not worth trying to get the olive to bear, really, because no one wants to take the time to soak the fruit in salt water and beat it with a stick so we can eat it. At least, no one here, if you want to we can talk about that.

On the day after that I read Around the World in Eighty Days, by Michael Palin, a present from [personal profile] sovay, who is one of those persons beyond price who consistently gets me books I wouldn't have thought of and find interesting. This was great, this was the sort of book that makes you devoutly hope the author has gone out and written about seventy-three more, which I see via Google that he has in fact done. Palin did a BBC TV series in which he did actually go around the world in eighty days with no air travel, not quite staying entirely in the footsteps of Phileas Fogg but starting from the door of the same club in London (and he calls his attendant filming staff, en masse, Passepartout). I can't better his words about why he did it and I'm not going to try:

The compulsive urge to travel is a recognized psychical condition. It has its own word, dromomania, and I'm glad to say I suffer from it. The ambition of every dromomaniac is a circumnavigation of the planet, but it's a less fashionable journey now than in Jules Verne's day. Part of the reason is that you can do it by air in 36 hours (a technological feat that Verne would have greatly appreciated). But air travel shrink-wraps the world by leaving it small, odourless, tidy and usually out of sight.

There are container vessels which will take you round in 63 days, but you will see only water on 58 of those. The reason why Phileas Fogg's 80-day journey retains its appeal is that it is still the minimum needed to go round the world and notice it.

His modes of travel include container ship, dhow, train, car across the entire Arabian peninsula, dogsled and hot-air balloon, the last two included solely because at that point he was aiming for the gratuitous. He describes being attacked by a parrot in Hong Kong (he informed the parrot it had mistaken him for John Cleese), being forced through a truly ridiculously embarrassing crossing-the-line ceremony at the International Date Line, and getting into his compartment on India Rail to discover that there were already two people in there who insisted their names were Michael Palin, one of whom was female (he sat in the corridor). He is mistaken for Michael Caine, Michael Jackson, and, in fact, John Cleese. His prose is consistently witty but reaches touching without straining itself, and he has a gift with an incisive lyrical description in about three words. Also, this is a really fascinating document of the way the world was in 1989-- there are long stretches of this when he was out of touch with the rest of the world in a way that I think would simply not happen now that there are cell phones, and I also suspect that one can no longer drive a film crew across the Arabian peninsula on no notice at all. And Hong Kong was still British and he speculates about what might happen at the handover (and basically gets it right). Highly, highly recommended.

If I keep up reviews at three a day, I'll be caught up on... Friday. Well, better then than never. We'll see how it goes.


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