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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Kinda, Sorta Highlights of British History, Part I

The Famous Stonehenge, dating from around 3100 to 2000 B.C.

Kinda, Sorta Highlights of British History. Part I covers ancient Britain, sorta.

These few short forays into the history of Britain are not complete, kinda like your wife offering you a sip of her champagne, when what you really need is a Scotch please, and leave the bottle.

Plan on becoming a historian?  Skip my thumbnails and head for libraries, museums. Sign up for archeological digs from Southampton to the Orkney Islands.  Plan on spending years toiling, unsung and unappreciated. Or, grab that Scotch and read on.

If you’re shallow, impatient and only want to feel smart around people who haven’t yet left the Nevada desert, I’m your guy.  I can guarantee you’ll sound positively brilliant at cocktail parties.  Others who are very shallow will find you fascinating, or alternatively say things that make you cautiously back away.

“My wife’s cousin went to Britain to have his penis removed.  Here, I’ve got photos in my wallet.”

“Britain?  Is that near Shreveport?  One of my mothers lived in Tampa.”

Ok.  Tell those people you have to go floss, while we dive into the rubbish bin of British history.

Prehistoric Britain:

A quick reference:  The Stone Age started about 2 million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago.  The Bronze Age began about 4000 years ago.  The Iron Age began about 1200 years ago.  Something to Remember:  The people and tools and weapons didn’t change in one fell swoop, hence the gaps between when one age kinda stopped and another kinda began.  We’re now in the So Smart We’re Stupid Age.

900,000 years ago humans of one form or another migrated in and out of Britain, because until 10,000 B.C. Britain was connected to the continent.  Then a mega flood separated Britain and Ireland from the mainland.   This was the original Brexit.  No written language from the early human periods has survived. For this, students should be forever thankful.

Who were these ancestors who came and went, lived and died and finally disappeared?  The oldest was homo antecessor, but many others of whom we know little, called Britain home.  Of course you recognize Neanderthals, who lived in Britain for a while, then returned some 20,000 years later, only to disappear again.

Here’s a tidbit:  Non-African humans share between 1% and 4% genomes with Neanderthals, which explains a lot.  By the way, know why these early humanoids are called Neanderthals.  Drop back to 1856, where ancient bones were discovered in Germany’s Neander Valley, which in German is Neandertal, named after Joachim Neander, a preacher.

After the Neanderthals left Britain, eventually other migrations brought in farmers and such. Tribal life took over, but tribes shifted and were overrun and moved out of the way, or moved to another valley, etc.  Best guess is there were 27 recognized tribes.  Where did they come from?  Who were they?  Not much known that I’ve read.  But they shared Celtic languages spoken across Europe. A good place to start your own excursion into Britain’s ancient past.

But, even if we don’t have written records of Neanderthals or any of the tribes, of course, there are some remnants of written history from explorers who touched the shores of Britain, including one Greek in particular, Pytheas of Marssalia.  Marssalia was a Greek colony and the city’s modern name is Marseille. Although his written records have not survived, other sources have preserved what he wrote.

There are also remnants of the Celtic language in Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Wales, and the Isle of Mann.  In some places, such as Ireland, the remnants are pretty large.  About 20 % of those in the Republic of Ireland can speak Gaelic.

One thing constantly fascinates me about the earth and it’s populations.  Changes.  Climate changes. Whole continents shifting. People coming and going and conquering and leaving again.  One thing for sure, today is never exactly the same as tomorrow will be.

Before the Romans and even after the Romans conquered the majority of Britain, the island tribes traded with Europe.  As a matter of fact, in spite of various Roman campaigns, including Julius Caesar’s invasion of 43 B.C., which marks the beginning of recorded British history, it’s interesting to note that the Romans did not choose to occupy.  Some historians say that the Romans refrained from immediate and direct military occupation of Britain because the amount the tribes paid in tribute and taxes to Rome was greater than if the Romans took over.

Julius Caesar

The Roman Empire around 54 A.D.

Here’s another tidbit:  Somewhere around 40 A.D., Caligula, the Roman Emperor noted for his vicious and otherwise perverse and demented ways, planned a conquest of Britain.  He assembled an army in battle formation facing the English Channel, then ordered them to go to the beach and collect seashells, saying it was the plunder that the ocean owed to Rome and the Palace.

Emperor Caligula

In the next part, we’ll deal more with the Roman occupation, what caused the Romans to withdraw and what happened next.


1. How many tribes were there in Britain during the pre-history days?
Ans:  Lots.  “I don’t know,” is also a good answer because evidently nobody else does either.

2. Did Neanderthals marry into my family?
Ans: If you have to shave the bottoms of your feet, I'm pretty sure the answer is yes.

3. What did Caligula do for a living?
Ans: It’s pretty hard to say.  He collected seashells down by the sea shore.

4. Why was it called the Stone Age?
Ans:  I’ll give you two hints:   California and Colorado are starting a new Stone Age called the Stoned Age.

5.  Is it terribly important to know what happened in Britain in the thousands of years before anyone knew what was happening?
Ans: Yes, but I don’t know why either.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Wife Between Us, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

The Wife Between Us, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

This book engages you from page one, which is really not the beginning of the book, it’s only the prologue.

“The street is loud and busy, with yellow cabs racing by, commuters returning from work, and shoppers entering the deli on the corner.  But my eyes never stray from her.

She pauses in her entryway and briefly glances back over her shoulder.  An electrical charge seems to pulse through me.”

And farther on:

“She’s oblivious to what I have done to her.”
“She is unaware of the damage I have wrought; the ruin I have set in motion.”

And right away you wonder, who is who in this drama, this mystery, this psychological thriller?  The characters are sharply drawn, yet distantly indistinct.

Who is following whom and why are the players first one name and then another, with the time sequences a puzzle of inconsistencies? 

The people are New Yorkers, politically correct, shallow enough to be oh-so-sensitive and they attach importance to the most remarkably unremarkable bits of clothing and jewelry and shifts of weather and scents.   The details are held up and examined.

But even as unsympathetic as the characters are, I kept reading.  Why?  It’s like a baseball smashing through your window.  All you really need to do is clean up the glass and have the windowpane replaced, right?  For humans, that’s not nearly enough.  We want to know the whole flipping story! Whose ball is it?  And most of all, who’s the bastard who didn’t fess up?

I readily admit that normally after a first few pages of a book like this, I would have slammed it closed and tossed it across the room, irate that the author(s) had wasted my time.

But, instead I read on.  I had to face it, that I was in some inner way thrilled by the exacting perversity of people I wouldn’t have spent five minutes alone with.  They seem normal, yet creepy.  The kind of people who may speak kindly and be impeccably dressed, yet you wouldn’t be surprised to find them drinking directly from a fifty dollar bottle of wine, while they used pliers to pinch the heads off rats.

Want to find a character to like?  Look somewhere else. These folks seem to all have secrets you may not want to know about.  But, I’m curious. Always.  Did curiosity really kill the cat!  Nine freaking times?  How about dogs?  Does curiosity kill them too?

Along the way, the plot comes together.  But, maybe not.  Maybe it’s unraveling.  You find yourself saying , “Ah, now I’ve got it.”  NO, you don’t.  Shreds of evidence are starting to feel like splinters embedded in your fingertips.

I turned pages faster than a mother of triplets changes diapers.  And, the last two or three dozen pages were a breathless sprint!

I found myself thinking, I really do not like these characters!  Maybe I kept reading because I like revenge, or maybe I’m just a curious cat.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Friday Night at Issimo

Friday Night at Issimo

Ya got a favorite go-to spot for Friday nights?  Sure you do.  Me too. Friday night spots are special, without a lot of planning.  Your fav spot dances into your mind; you invite a couple of friends and order some wine and noshes….hey, what else do you need?  One of my favorite spots is a small Italian deli in Homburg, Issimo.  You know that Italians are famous for their appreciation for family.  And when you walk through the door at Issimo, you’re immediately part of the family.

What’s special about it?  Glad you asked because I can tell you what makes any Friday night place special, yours and mine.  Friendly staff is number one.  It’s a place where the manager and wait staff call you by name and always throw smiles at you as you walk through the door.  Of course, you also greet them by name!

At Issimo, we know Franco and Vecenzo, Afërdita, Sylvia, and Leonardo.  How come?  They’re friendly enough to invite conversation. Always smiling.  The men shake my hand, the women give me hugs.  It’s only about two minutes before I have a glass of wine in my hand.  I don’t get that kind of welcoming service at home.

Second things that are mandatory for a fav are super food and wine.  At Issimo you can count on every wine, every cheese, every olive and slice of bread being wonderfully delicious.  Yes, it’s all from Italy and the staff knows what part of Italy it came from because they picked everything out and didn’t just order it from a supplier.  For the wine, you tell any of them your taste and it’s as if they know your taste buds better than you do.  It’s that way with the food as well.  Parma ham is not just a style, it came from Parma and not just any ham from Parma.  Issimo’s Parma ham is a tenderly cured and thinly shaved piece of ham that crosses the palate as a gift from the heavens.

Third requirement is atmosphere.  In my case, an Italian deli should feel like Italy.  Issimo is in Germany, but there’s nothing phony about it. No plastic rounds of cheese or plastic sausages hanging over the counter.  Step through the door and inhale deeply.  Yep, this is the place.

But, it’s like that with any fav place, right?  A hamburger joint should feel comfortable and welcoming and have the smoky smell of burgers and fries.  In a BBQ joint, your nose should lead you there and your clothes better smell like BBQ when you leave.

At Issimo, with the whole package of staff and food and atmosphere, this is Friday night as it should be. Great wine and cheese and ham and even better conversation.  Politics?  No way.  This is the time to chat about books you’ve enjoyed, and places you’ve been, and places you want to go, and the fine points of where this and that wine came from.

At Issimo it’s more than a Friday night, it’s a special Friday night.  Just like yours, right? Saluti! 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett

A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett

I love books that clamber for your time and attention, with compelling characters, a fast moving plot, and a world that wraps around you and draws you in.  An author who can do that will be forever my friend and companion.

Now a disclaimer.  I am an unapologetic anglophile. When I have a few spare days and a full piggy bank, you’ll find me in England, soaking in the theater and the sights of London, or wandering further afield to spots like Dartmouth, Oxford, Bath, and Cambridge.  The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a panorama of familiar history.  Especially fascinating is how the upper classes of England lived in the bygone era before the First World War bled Europe white and forever changed society.

A Dangerous Fortune spans the lives of the Pilaster banking family from 1866 through 1892.  But that’s only a very placid, two dimensional description.  Time to throw in a twisting, turning plot of ambitious devilry pitted against honorable intentions, dangerous scoundrels against ethical men and women, upper classes, with their private clubs and scandalous wealth, against the lower classes living only a day from starvation.

I couldn’t put the damn thing down!  Ken Follett is a fabulous storyteller who convinces you all is determined, until it suddenly isn’t, who paints his characters into impossible situations, then twists and turns around solutions the reader would never have guessed. “Oh, my god, what next?” is the question I constantly asked myself, just before I decided it wasn’t too late to read ‘just one more’ chapter!  Wife is waiting on supper?  Well, she’ll just have to wait!  Supposed to join friends for wine?  Looks like we’re going to be a tad bit late.

Yes, even in the undeviating society of the Victorian era, the upper and lower classes shared lives amid swirling pools of friction and enchantment.  People’s fortunes did rise and fall.  The rich got richer, or sometimes poorer.  The poor sometimes rose ‘above their station.’

Hugh Pilaster, the black sheep of the powerful Pilaster banking family, is only able to survive though wit and ambitious intelligence and something more.  He holds the keys to unlocking a dark family secret. He’s the member of the family who’s only tolerated because he is family and he knows too much.  He also has unmatched business acumen.

But, Hugh, although central to the plot, is far from the only character of indelible traits.  There’s the constant and skillful schemer, Aunt Augusta, her lackadaisical son, David, Hugh’s friends that bridge the gap between scandalous and forthright, and so many more actors of every stripe who populate this rip-roaring tale.

How can a book, written in 1993, and nearing 600 pages keep you glued and impatient to find out what happens?  Think a plot and characters from the 19th Century must be dusty and uninteresting? Maybe you think ambition and scandal and the conflict between families and businesses and the rich and the poor are only found in history books and won’t ring true to the modern mind.  Oh, are you in store for an eye-opening treat!

Ken Follett’s A Dangerous Fortune.  Pick it up and you’ll hear the sound of horses’ hooves on London’s cobblestone streets, smell the cigars and leather in exclusive men’s clubs, see women as the powers behind the power… and be in for the ride of your life!