Absolutely everything under the sun

Plus, Julia Child’s letters, a child transplanted from the Kalahari, the epic story of the black exodus from the American South, a chambermaid’s tale, and how objects reveal the world’s history

Absolutely everything under the sun

Billions of years from now, the sun will cool to ‘a dark cinder,’ but before that, it will get ‘hot enough to start melting our planet,’ writes Richard Cohen | EPA/Keystone Press

Richard Cohen

When he set out to write about the sun, Richard Cohen had to learn nearly all the science from scratch, “as my high school was run by Benedictine monks who had little time for such disciplines.” In over seven years of exhaustive research, he did his homework—but Chasing the Sun goes way beyond solar science to explore the myths, the art, and the scientific discoveries that have helped us understand “the star that gives us life.”

Early societies personified the sun: in a fable from Aesop, the sun plans to marry, causing the animal kingdom to fret that “half a dozen little suns” could scorch the land. (This teaches us that “one can have too much of a good thing.”) By 1952, when the hydrogen bomb went off, “for a split second,” Cohen writes, “an energy that had existed only at the center of the Sun was unleashed by man on Earth.” Today, the brightest sustained light on our planet is the Sky Beam at the Luxor Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.

As he discusses subjects like sunbathing, timekeeping, and the endless solar references in art, literature, music and politics, one begins to wonder when Cohen will run out of topics—so much is touched by the sun. Or not: some creatures, the so-called “dark biosphere,” manage to eke out a living deep under the ocean. For example, the angler fish, which hunts for food up to 5,000 feet below, makes its own “sunlight,” attracting prey with a bioluminescent glow.

One day, the sun will die—but not before getting “hot enough to start melting our planet,” Cohen writes. The sun will then cool to “a dark cinder of degenerate matter.” But that’s billions of years away. Maybe we will have some good spaceships by then.

Absolutely everything under the sunAS ALWAYS, JULIA: THE LETTERS OF JULIA CHILD & AVIS DEVOTO
Edited by Joan Reardon

On March 8, 1952, Julia Child mailed a small, sharp French knife to American author Bernard DeVoto along with a note thanking him for a column he’d written in Harper’s criticizing American cooking knives. Child was living in Paris where her husband, Paul, was posted with the U.S. State Department, and she was studying cooking, an experience that had made her acutely aware of the inferiority of American blades.

A few weeks later, DeVoto’s wife, Avis, responded on her husband’s behalf with a long, witty letter: “Everything I say you may take as coming straight from him—on the matter of cutlery we are in entire agreement,” she wrote from their home in Cambridge, Mass., before expressing her own avid interest in cooking and asking Child for tips on reproducing two dishes she’d eaten in Paris.

Thus began a correspondence that blossomed into a lifelong friendship and paved the way to the 1961 publication of Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. “Foodies” long before the term was coined, Child and DeVoto shared liberal political views, generous spirits, and a low tolerance for bores. News of the day filled their letters, which could shift in an instant from condemnation of Joseph McCarthy to a discussion of blanquette de veau.

Funny, frank, and often poignant, the exchanges also reveal DeVoto’s overlooked role in the creation of Child’s masterpiece. A tireless cheerleader for the project, she found an American publisher; when the manuscript was rejected as too complex for the American housewife, she located another. As Child’s stateside proxy, DeVoto sourced shallots, tested recipes, offered editorial advice and much-needed moral support: “HELL AND DAMNATION,” the usually unflappable Child wrote in 1958. “WHY DID WE EVER DECIDE TO DO THIS ANYWAY?”

Distance enabled candour, Child once wrote astutely to her “soulmate”: “Perhaps if we had lived next door, we would have developed curtains and veils and various tender heels.” What a shame that would have been—once for those who love to cook, now for those who love to read.

Absolutely everything under the sunDANIEL
Henning Mankell

“Crazy” is one of two words Alfred Herrnander has for Hans Bengler upon meeting Daniel, Bengler’s newly adopted son (the other is “why”). Daniel is from the Kalahari Desert, where Bengler had journeyed a year earlier, in 1876, in search of an insect he could name after himself. His bigger find is the eight-year-old African boy, sold to a fellow Swede after witnessing the murder of his parents by German mercenaries. At 27, Bengler is unmarried, weak of character and low on cash. He decides on the spot to bring the boy home. Herrnander, his former botany professor, is baffled.

But the reader never is. Mankell writes from inside Bengler’s psyche in such pristine language that the muddiest parts of Bengler’s personality are transparent. (This is the first English translation of Daniel, published in Swedish in 2000.) He is ineffective but stubbornly vain; he cleaves to high moral principles but is ultimately driven by loneliness. His attachment to Daniel is self-serving, yet somehow sympathetic, even loving. The first time Daniel smiles at him, Bengler feels a miracle has taken place. The first time Daniel reaches for his hand, he knows that everything has changed.

An equally vibrant and viable narrative emerges when Mankell shifts to Daniel’s point of view. Bengler takes reasonable care of Daniel, and the boy comes to trust him. But he longs for his parents. On a boat ride to Stockholm, Daniel imagines the swell of the sea is the rocking sensation he experienced as a newborn, hanging on his mother’s back. He looks constantly for his parents in his dreams, and becomes obsessed with learning to walk on water, believing this is how he will manage to return to the desert.

When Bengler abandons Daniel with a couple in the country, the boy begins to unravel. He makes several valiant and remarkable attempts to reach the ocean in order to return home, all thwarted. While those around him wonder at his motives—at his very state of mind—the reader does not. In Mankell’s unique treatment, the boy’s “craziness” makes plain—if heartbreaking—sense.

Isabel Wilkerson

We tend to think of “the old country” as a place immigrants talk about, whether it’s Ukraine or Italy or Ireland. Another land, in other words. Seldom does the term refer to a place within the same political boundaries, where the currency, head of state and national anthem are the very same as those left behind. Except when it comes to the American South, and the six million black people who left from 1915 to 1975.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Wilkerson tells the life stories of three: Ida Mae Gladney, who, in the throes of the Great Depression, left rural Mississippi for Chicago; George Stirling, who fled a Florida lynch mob and landed in Harlem at the end of the Second World War; and Robert Foster, who drove from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the early 1950s.

They left the South for personal reasons, and didn’t see themselves as part of a movement. But in her lively recreation of their journeys, Wilkerson makes clear the very critical role they and others like them played in the 100-year trajectory from the American Civil War to the Civil Rights Act of 1964—the time it took to cement emancipation for their people.

The stories the three tell from the South are predictably horrible. But the moments of bigotry outside “Jim Crow” territory are somehow even worse. A New York bartender smashing the beer glasses George and his buddy have just drained. A pit left behind by the white family who literally uproot their home so as not to live on the same Chicago street as Ida Mae’s family. The stream of New Mexico motels that claim to have no vacancy, leaving Robert with no choice but to keep driving in the dark, desperately fighting sleep.

Still, the successes are sweet. Robert lives to see his grandson accepted at three Ivy League schools. Ida Mae gets a glimpse of Martin Luther King, Jr., and even meets a would-be senator named Barack Obama.

Perhaps sweetest of all, George, a born activist, finally makes a difference. In his job as a railroad porter, George was required to move black people to the “coloured” car when trains crossed into the South. After 1964, he would quietly advise passengers of their right to remain in their seats. Thanks to him, some of them did.

Absolutely everything under the sunHAND ME DOWN WORLD
Lloyd Jones

Only halfway through Hand Me Down World do we really meet Ines, a chambermaid at a Tunisian hotel and the novel’s protagonist. Until then, she’s glimpsed second-hand, through the memories of other characters.

This narrative strategy is curious. In Jones’s last novel, the Booker-shortlisted Mister Pip, the heroine feels able to “slip inside the skin of another” when she reads Great Expectations. No such connection can be made with Ines, at least at first; she is somewhat opaque. We learn, from her hotel supervisor, that she is seduced by a wealthy guest, gives birth to his son, and is duped into signing adoption papers. After he spirits the boy away to his Berlin home, she smuggles herself across the Mediterranean to track them down.
From there, her tale is told mainly by the privileged Europeans she encounters, who view her as secondary to their own stories—here the novel artfully enacts post-colonial dynamics of power. Eventually Ines is imprisoned, and her testimony throws into question what we have been told previously.

But Jones doesn’t simply set up a black-versus-white, good-versus-bad conflict: Ines herself is prepared to use morally murky means to achieve her goals. Everyone, Jones suggests, is tainted by the value system she has internalized through her low-paying work at a luxury hotel, where she caters to guests’ whims.
As one narrator passes Ines off to the next, all interactions can be viewed primarily as transactions driven by personal desire and need. This is a dark view of the world, conveyed with much irony but very little humour. At times, the novel feels heavy-handed, manipulative in its construction. And yet, Jones leavens it with revelations about the possibility of honest communication. Perhaps, he suggests, respect and even love can grow from listening to, and reading, one another’s stories.

Absolutely everything under the sunA HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 100 OBJECTS
Neil MacGregor

Man the toolmaker may no longer be the preferred designation for our special place in the world, not now that we have seen crows lay down nuts for car drivers to crush, not to mention our commitment to gender-neutral language. But the idea still says something profound about humans: we do make tools, as opposed to using what comes to hand, and from the beginning we have made them more sophisticated than absolutely necessary. More beautiful, in short. That fact abundantly justified the BBC Radio series “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” based on British Museum items, and this remarkable book by the museum’s director.

Consider the stone tool found by Louis Leakey in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge in 1931. At least 1.8 million years old, it would have worked well for shearing meat from bones—MacGregor tried out a replica on a roast chicken—and also for cracking open bones to get at the nutritious marrow within. Fitting neatly to the hand, its comfortable shape, straight sides and sharp edge were created by five chips on one side and three on the other. Could a serviceable tool have been crafted with fewer chips and less effort, asks Sir David Attenborough? Very likely, he answers. The only conceivable reason for more work was a dawning aesthetic sense: it looks better.

With the exception of an Olduvai axe, the other objects on MacGregor’s list are closer in time to the modern age, far less mysterious, and the work of human, rather than hominid, hands. But whether they are two swimming reindeer carved on a mammoth tusk 13,000 years ago in what is now France, a two-millennia-old Olmec stone mask from Mexico, or a bronze Japanese mirror from about 1100, all of them show the same ancestral tendency to be more complex and beautiful than they needed to be—and what a spectacular treasure house the British Museum is.

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