Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky

When Europeans first came to North America, the passenger pigeon was numerous enough to seem an unending resource. Fish and seafood seemed not far behind–wasn’t there a petition passed around among servants of the eighteenth century to request that their employers serve them lobster and oysters no more than three times a week?

Mark Kurlansky has done several “microhistories”, or books specializing in some specific aspect of a subject–salt or oysters, the Basque nation, the Works Project Administration’s “America Eats” project during the Great Depression–and now here in this book, the codfish. As with his other books, this is approachable without being simplified and reasonably reliable.

Why cod?

Even today, who regards cod as being remotely valuable as a fish? This is the stuff of fish fingers and fish-and-chips wrapped in a newspaper, dried cod, salt cod, chowders and scraps for the compost heap. A lean fish and a dry fish, cod was easily salted or dried (and often both) and so was an easily transportable commodity and therefore an easily tradeable commodity. Readily preserved, it was a valuable source of protein in the centuries prior to reliable refrigerators, or even reliable canning. Easily caught and in great numbers, cod fed the masses. Until it became fished out.

While perhaps prettier than some, cod is hardly a delicacy, now or when it was first fished….and it has been fished in force. Despite being a comparatively hardy, rapidly reproducing fish, cod is now (or rather was at the time of Cod‘s publication) no longer a commercially viable fish. Fleets of fishermen have gone out after cod, in great numbers and with ever increasing efficiency, for centuries. Long prior to World War II, fishermen and scientists were coming to recognize they could not continue to take cod in such numbers–the increased catches were not a result of the cod population remaining steady, but rather that of the human techniques becoming more efficient.

Why Kurlansky? Well, not least because he manages to balance basis in fact with decent research with an approachable writing style. While Kipling might have produced a more roistering tale of a young nation in Captains Courageous, here I end up being sympathetic to a fish, and not a terribly attractive one at that (though hardly the worst-looking fish out there, at least from the human perspective). Providing a bit of individual human sympathy, for the Perry fishermen in Canada, doesn’t hurt, and providing interstitial recipes, modern and historical, fresh and dried, breaks up what might have been dry in it’s length, even at a fraction of the size of academic texts.

While I confess I’m still not convinced that cod was the primary reason driving European exploration of the New World, or rather the seas surrounding the New World, I’ll concede that cod was an important reason. (Surely, the centuries of trade and exploration were driven by many reasons?) Another problem, though not one Kurlansky could have fixed short of publishing an updated version, is simply that the book is now fifteen years old. While the majority of the book is still as valid as it ever was–Icelandic fishing practices of the seventeenth century aren’t likely to change, any more than the salting techniques of the nineteenth century Gloucester and Grand Banks fleets–I can’t help but wonder what’s happened in the intervening years. I doubt the cod has recovered to the point of being viable as a commercial fish, but finding out what, if any, laws have been enacted or withdrawn in the interim would be interesting.

What to read next? Well, Kurlansky has several other books out, but Bill Bryson might be an alternative.


The Lumberyard and Mrs. Barrie by Jane Barrie

Ever wonder what it’s like to own your own business? Don’t, unless you’re prepared to do a lot more billing and personnel management than dealing with the projects of your dreams. Perhaps you’ve thought how much overlap there is between men’s and women’s spheres? More than many men would like to admit, even prior to the surge in Women’s Lib in the 1970s.

The Lumberyard and Mrs. Barrie is a more or less autobiographical work, published in 1952, about one woman’s stepping into the financial shoes of her husband’s assistant when he reveals that the lumberyard/building supplies business he owns and runs isn’t doing as well as he’s made out over the previous six years. In fact, it was foundering completely and on the verge of going out of business…a fact the husband was doing his best to keep from his wife despite her having invested $15,000 of her own money, almost all she had, in his business to keep it afloat.

It is not until the husband allows as how he’d better not take her to Paris on their second honeymoon because the business is a trifle shaky that she suspects there’s something seriously amiss. Her husband’s one of those charming but more than slightly happy-go-lucky people who can charm the socks of anyone he sets his sights on, but without a scrap of business sense, much less the heart of granite required to dun people who’ve fallen behind in their payments to him. It is perhaps a measure of his own charm that he has managed to cajole his own creditors into extending as much as they have…but even this much credit is coming to a rapid end. The wife comes in the next day to find two haphazard women in the office, one who does billing and one who does receipts, neither of whom have any idea what is owed in the other’s purview, and none of the clerks and suppliers who work the sales floor arrived, despite it being half an hour after the business is supposed to have opened.

Horrified, she takes the business in hand quite firmly. The two other women begin working together to sort out all the piles of paperwork into something a modern office would recognize as “organized”. The sales staff begin arriving on or before the store’s opening time. Trucks go out fully loaded each morning as soon as they’ve been filled with the previous day’s orders…and if they arrive back at the main store before the end of the day, they’re loaded with orders that have been received that day since the trucks’ departure for the next morning’s deliveries. Hardest, but perhaps most important of all, Mrs. Barrie then begins work on collecting the monies owed the business while negotiating terms of payment for the creditors on what they owe others.

When she started at the lumberyard, the scuttlebutt was that it had no more than a few weeks left to stay in business, and her threat of filing bankruptcy (and therefore allowing creditors only pennies on the dollar and not many pennies at that) if those selfsame creditors refused to accept her payment plans was all too believable. While the company had good cash flow, the overhead was too close to income for comfort and staffing was inefficient. However, she managed to collect something like 80% of the $110,000 worth of debts owed the company while paying down well over $200,000 in credit lines to them…all within two years. Indeed, she’d negotiated payment plans (and honored them!) well enough that within a year the wholesalers supplying them had gone from insisting on C.O.D. deliveries to accepting sixty-day payments on deliveries shipped on a regular schedule without having been ordered….and the bank had quit sending nastygrams within six months.

This is one of the books I picked up on the course of stocking an on-line bookstore; I’m not sure how widely it’s held these days so (with apologies) this may be something of a teaser entry for readers without access to a decent Interlibrary Loan system. (If you haven’t got a library card at all, much less any idea what this “interlibrary loan” is, shame on you. You know what to do!) For more avid readers, ‘Jane Barrie’ was a pseudonym for Mildred Savage, and I’m sure that the name of their home town, as well as of their chief competitor and their main clients, wase equally fictitious. I suspect that she had a bit more innate talent, not to mention training in business technique, than she let on; I think the book’s intended to be more a screwball comedy memoir than the account of a woman proud to be a strong-minded businesswoman.

What to read next? That depends on whether you liked the period piece aspects of the book or the descriptions of the wife’s perspective on working in what is, after all, even today largely a man’s world, that of home renovation and related fields, such as carpentry, plumbing, and bricklaying. If it’s the former, I’d suggest Betty MacDonald’s autobiographies, her sister’s books, or perhaps Jean Kerr’s collections of magazine articles. If it’s the latter, perhaps something along the lines of Helter Shelter or Dreaming in the Dust. All of these books have the same sort of light-hearted take on their various subjects, to varying degrees, though the writing styles have changed considerably in the thirty years between the two clusters’ publication.

The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float by Farley Mowat

Dreaming of the glorious life of freedom that sailing the seven seas, or at least three or four of them, might grant, Farley Mowat bought a boat.

And regretted it almost immediately.

For starters, she was designed as a fishing boat, not a pleasure cruiser. This meant that as much space was given over to cargo space and as little to the comforts of the crew as possible: there were three stations for fishermen on deck with two cavernous wells into the hold, but living quarters (sleeping, cooking and all) that wouldn’t pass muster in a walk-in closet in a cut-rate McMansion today. The fact that she was elderly and hadn’t been used for some time meant that she was not in the best condition, to say the least, and her equipment was antiquated…

OK. The ship leaked like a sieve. The pumps were incapable of keeping up. The engine kept shaking apart, leaking diesel into the bilge and then sparking right where the fuel was puddling. The masts and much of the rigging was quite literally held together with baling wire and netting ties. The hull was “sealed”, in a manner of speaking, with several inches of gurry. (For non-commercial fishermen: you don’t want to know. Really.)

The Happy Adventure was cantankerous, to say the least. The beginning of her maiden voyage under Mowat’s ownership and captaincy should have given him a clue about the ship’s nature: he and his companion ended up traversing the bay backwards while under full sail forward when the make-and-break engine started in reverse.(The “make-and-break” engine commonly installed in fishing vessels in this area had only two speeds, so to speak—forward and backward—and would randomly start in one direction or the other.)

Mowat spent a great deal of the subsequent sailing seasons wrestling that bull-headed vessel along in an effort to actually sail her. Voyages seemed to consist largely of alternating between plugging her porous bottom with whatever variant on sodden dirt was available, and searching frantically for the next mud bank while using ungentlemanly language in reference to the make-and-break engine. He did later fix the Happy Adventure as well his finances permitted, though even electric pumps and a newer four-cycle diesel couldn’t cure all its ills. Getting stranded in various outposts, in varying degrees of desolate isolation, was inevitable for Mowat and whoever was crewing for him; the Newfoundlanders were nonplussed but on the whole charitable, and indeed Mowat and the woman who became his wife, Claire, ended up settling down in one of the more hospitable communities for several years.

Mowat’s style is amusing, but the various voyages are clearly at best miserable and at worst skimming disaster. It’s amusing to read, but I can’t see wanting to do this up close and in person. I’m not sure how exactly truthful the book is; I’m sure there was such a boat, and he did struggle with it more or less as described, but I’d be curious to hear how much creative non-fictionization was going on.

While Mowat may be better known for books such as People of the Deer and Never Cry Wolf, he did nevertheless show a great talent for this sort of humorous writing. (Indeed, some would argue that those two auto-biographical non-fiction books were humor/creative, as well.)

(For all the editors out there: yes, the title is grammatically incorrect. It should be ‘the boat that/which wouldn’t float’. Now, shush. You’re missing the point: the title of this book parallels one of his other books, The Dog who Wouldn’t Be.)

Miss Bagshot goes to Moscow by Anne Telscombe

Nothing to do with Harry Potter, this Miss Bagshot is an elderly British spinster, determined to travel to exciting exotic climes, by herself. Her escapades are an embarrassment to her family: here is a seventy-year-old spinster who her family members believe should remain quietly by her fireside, knitting woollies for her grand-nieces and -nephews. Instead, she travels off to exotic climes that might give experienced younger travelers qualms: the Amazon, darkest Peru, Tibet and more. No Brighton or Bournemouth for this intrepid adventurer! The largest drawback from her nephew’s perspective is her tendency to take off for far-flung places without the wherewithal to get home much less to pay hotel bills while there. Instead, she seeks a job when possible and works her way through the country until she’s quite ready to come home. If she can’t manage to earn fare home, she throws herself, as a distressed British Citizen, on the mercy of the nearest British consulate which sends her home and bills the family.

Needless to say, her family, already somewhat embarrassed by Miss Bagshot’s previous escapades, expresses a concern to the branch of the U.K. government which concerns itself with foreign relations. It is this concern that prompts the Home Office to start a file on Miss Bagshot when she develops a yen for travel to the Soviet Union. Despite Miss Bagshot’s nephew’s best efforts, she gets her visa and heads off to the U.S.S.R., on the same plane as a British delegation of the Anti-Fascist League for Peace off to meet their Moscow counterparts; she is quickly subsumed into their group as the result of a series of assumptions of the Intourist escorts, to the extent that they rearrange their planned tours of various factories and other examples of Soviet might and progress to include what Miss Bagshot would like to see.

It is on the delegation’s last day in Moscow that things begin to get interesting. Two of the British delegates, cooling their heels in the outer reception room of the British Ambassador to the U.S.S.R., notice whiskey being carried into the inner office. Tired of vodka vodka vodka at every meal, they throw themselves on the mercy of the secretary, Jackie, who not only produces some gin in teacups but also invites them to her birthday party, where they may get more non-vodka based alcoholic beverages. After a final banquet which does not quite go as intended–Miss Bagshot’s speech on women needing pretty frivolities in addition to the glories attendant on Soviet employment results in several officials rushing home with flowers and chocolates for their wives–several of the delegates head off to Jackie’s birthday party.

This itself is leavened by not only the mercurial hostess inventing amusing party games but also the presence of a journalist, Stewart, who is working for the Moscow office of a British newspaper. His story with associated photographs is picked up by the home edition of the paper…which comes to the attention of Miss Bagshot’s nephew. Horrified at her impropriety, he insists that his son, Humphrey, head straight for Moscow to retrieve her before anything more embarrassing happens. Unfortunately, just as Humphrey arrives, Miss Bagshot vanishes from the Intourist radar by leaving the officially sanctioned hotel for Jackie’s apartment to recover from a virulent cold while the hostess is out of town on vacation.

By the time the nephew finds Miss Bagshot, her disappearance has begun a minor international scandal, making the Soviet and British newspapers above the fold and attracting scandalized attention from her family and the British and Soviet governments. The press descend when they discover the location of the mysterious Miss Bagshot, but she is determined to not only see more of the real Moscow but find work teaching English to fund her stay. One night, she manages to give the reporters the slip, and takes the bus out to a deconsecrated basilica, and acquaints herself with the squatter families living there. Upon Miss Bagshot’s return to the apartment, Jackie is ruefully clear about the chances of Miss Bagshot moving into the basilica, insisting that Soviet Intelligence will already have stationed guards at the location in order to prevent further contact of this sort. This proves to be true–there is an armed policemen there and they are tailed by another agent. The book ends with Miss Bagshot coming home, dreams unrealized, and the Home Office thankfully closing their file on her.

Written fifty-two years ago now, this is a trifle outdated in terms of literary style and never was popular enough to remain in many libraries’ collections today. It does provide a glimpse into what visiting Moscow might have been like at the time, an era when international access to Moscow and the U.S.S.R. was limited in the extreme; while it’s not technically a travel book, I’m not sure quite else how to describe this. I appreciate that Miss Bagshot is, in the end, forced to acknowledge that things will not go as she wanted, realizing that her hostess the secretary is correct in her assessment of how interactions with Soviet citizens play out; in screwball comedies such as this it would be all too easy to have Miss Bagshot get her way, but instead she comes home, leaving unrealized her dreams of living in the dilapidated basilica with the vagabonds there. This is Telscombe’s first novel, and she wrote at least one other about Miss Bagshot, set in Tibet.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey

The author was struck ill with a particularly virulent strain of the flu while in Switzerland1. Although she recovered from the original bout of influenza, it played havoc with her immune system, leaving her with something approximating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, only much MUCH worse. This left her unable to turn over, much less rise from her bed, and required her to move from her beloved farmhouse home to a minuscule studio apartment, close enough to town that she could get the nursing care she needed. One day, a friend brought her a potted up wild violet, which happened to contain a minuscule wild snail under one of its leaves.

Flat on her back in a stark white studio, having little else to look at other than the ceiling, Bailey became fascinated with the snail, watching it crawl about its now circumscribed home. The snail had fairly clear tastes, both in crawling surface and in what it ate: it preferred forest humus to ordinary potting soil, creeping along the violet’s leaves to avoid the latter, and portobello mushrooms were a gourmet feast. At night, it crept out to explore the world around its little violet pot, nibbling at various things tasty by the alien standards (to humans) of a woodland snail. Even as debilitated as she was–she’s still incapacitated by most people’s standards two years after the book’s publication–a snail’s needs were low-key enough for her to manage. She attended to its gastropodal needs as she recovered, and in the end wrote a bit of prose that might equally well be called free verse. (No idea what the snail had to say about matters.)

As with so many books, this is not for everyone. It will hopefully come as no surprise that a book won’t have a lot of thrilling high speed action if it’s about a woman prostrated by illness who occupies her otherwise empty days by watching a snail crawling about its terrarium. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for an author with the patience (albeit enforced by an outside influence) to sit still long enough and quietly enough to actually hear a snail eating? see it moving?

This is a remarkably swift read for a book by an ill woman about the daily activities of a little snail. Don’t let that fool you. If you’re the sort to read memoirs reflecting on the inner life of molluscs, which even at their most sophisticated, aren’t terribly complicated creatures from a biological or intellectual standard, this will give you cause to stop and think. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would; while I zipped through the book on first reading, I came back to it for a second slower and more contemplative reading.

Mother Nature Network
Odyssey Books

1or perhaps Italy; I’m not entirely clear on this point.

The Search for Bridey Murphy by Morey Bernstein

Is reincarnation possible? For most members of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic subdivisions, no, although there are some few who believe otherwise–though for Buddhists and Hindus, this is another matter entirely.

Is it possible to remember our previous lives, once we have gone through the process of reincarnation? That’s the question that Morey Bernstein brought up with his book, The Search For Bridey Murphy.

Morey Bernstein, a businessman in Colorado in the 1950s, became interested in alternative medicine and what were then experimental treatments, and hypnotism’s use in same. The first portion of The Search for Bridey Murphy is Bernstein’s description of his own interest in and exploration of what was then experimental medicine–he talked a psychiatrist into giving him electroshock treatment, purely out of curiosity about what it felt like, and underwent several other similar treatments–concentrating on hypnosis and the possible uses this had in treating various psychological issues.

The description of his involvement with Virginia Tighe, called pseudonymously Ruth Simmons in the book, does not begin until about a third of the way into the book, and is a reasonably natural offshoot of his interest in hypnotism. He found Tighe to be a good subject for hypnosis, going easily into a deep trance, and was surprised during their first session to find her shifting into the persona of a young Irish girl, one Bridey Murphy. During this first trance, Tighe revealed little more than she was in trouble for scratching the paint off her newly redecorated iron bedstead. Over the course of four more hypnotic trances, Tighe revealed under Bernstein’s questioning that in this previous life, she’d been born in Ireland in 1798 to a homemaker and a barrister, married another barrister and moved to Belfast where her husband taught, and died of a fall in 1864. During the trances, Tighe, a Midwestern housewife who’d never been abroad and had similarly Midwestern parents and family members, not only spoke in an Irish brogue but revealed details about Cork, Belfast and rural Ireland that she should not, in theory, have known.

Alas, the book had to be rushed to print before Tighe’s claims were thoroughly researched, and not only did the book prove popular but was made into an equally popular movie. For a while.

Bernstein’s claims about Bridey Murphy have been pretty firmly debunked, and in quite short order after the book’s publication, for skeptics down to the merely mildly dubious. As with others susceptible to suggestion while in hypnotic trance, Tighe apparently dredged up the stories told her by her childhood neighbor in Chicago, one Bridie Murphy Corkell:
The Skeptic’s Dictionary
Malcolm Macmillan.

As it turned out, while Tighe was raised for the majority of her childhood by her uncle and aunt, her parents–part-Irish–had Tighe until she was three, and they lived in Chicago. Not necessarily long enough to form conscious memories, retrievable in adulthood, but long enough to store a considerable amount of information, judging by Tighe’s ability to recall details decades later.

True Believers will always believe…for the even mildly skeptical, hypnotic trance or parlor trick? I’m not going to judge or (forgive me) suggest a conclusion for readers. The Search for Bridey Murphy was an at least amusing read for me, even 50+ years after its publication, not to mention the efforts to debunk Bernstein’s claims subsequent to said publication. I don’t know if hypnosis still has a place in medical treatment; however, I’d ask readers of this and similar books to keep in mind the credentials of the person presenting the information: Bernstein has no training or expertise in the medical or historical fields. It’s interesting to note that Tighe herself seemed to have little interest in the process of discovering her past life, even according to Bernstein’s own descriptions. He had to persuade Tighe and her husband to fit five hypnotic trances in over the course of a fairly long period–a year?–in between the Tighe’s other stereotypically normal activities for a young couple in the mid-50s.

Eskimo Parish by Paul O’Connor

Priests in the lower 48 may have to deal with bad roads, bad weather and poor attendance at services, but count your blessings: at least you don’t have to deal with a team of malemutes which has taken a dislike to one another. Your car doesn’t pick fights with itself while you’re waiting for traffic to ebb. Parishioners in northern Alaska, even today, must perforce miss Sunday service if the leads freeze over before you get the boats in the water but while the land’s still too soft to support snowmobiling.

This is one of those odd little books that, so far as I know, garnered minimal attention when it was first published and has sunk like a stone in the intervening decades: it’s a partial autobiography of a Jesuit priest who felt the calling to serve the indigenous peoples of northern Alaska at a time when this was something of a Terra Incognita, even to the indigenous peoples of southern Alaska. It’s a diverting read today, as much for the opportunity to read that specific Jesuit missionary viewpoint as it is to read a description of life in northern Alaska in the 1930s and 40s.

In 1930, Paul O’Connor felt the calling to serve as parish priest for the Catholic indigenous peoples in the northern portions of the Alaska territory. For his first few years, he served as an itinerant priest, travelling by dog-sled in winter and boat or airplane in summer when the tundra was too soft to travel by sled. In many ways, this would be merely the memoir of a priest serving any far-flung rural parish–he visits the sick, anoints the dying, performs baptisms and marriages as needed–if it weren’t for the fact that he is traveling between parishioners by dogsled. Well, and serving what is in many ways an alien culture to his readers, and to himself. He remained for sixteen years, and upon his return home wrote a memoir.

Like Eva Alvey Richardson’s book about her teaching experience in Alaska, Arctic Mood, it’s a book set in a place about which few Americans1, whether from the territory in question much less the lower 48, knew little at the time of the book’s publication. It’s a reasonably sympathetic tale, though readers might do well to remember who the narrator is, and the time in which the book was written: there’s no little amount of missionary zeal explicit in O’Connor’s narrative, not to mention condescension towards the “ignorant savages”. (I can’t help but wonder what the indigenous peoples thought of these men and women who came with a strange religion or educational agenda, though they seem to have been reasonably amiable about it.) Just for the record, the Bruce Publishing Company was not exclusively (or explicitly) a religious publishing company–rather it was a small imprint which concentrated on business, education and religion. In fairness to O’Connor, his agenda is, not surprisingly, concentrated on bringing the Word of God to a people who’ve had little opportunity to hear it otherwise; he does seem to appreciate the local culture.

The white man and his inventions for decimating time are to [the Eskimo] a source of philosophic wonder. When you tell him with pride that you can cover in an hour by airplane a distance that would take him a week to cover with his dogs, he will only answer with a noncommittal grunt “Eeee?” (Yes?)–if you do not speak Innuit. If you know his language he wil ask laconically, “Chin?” (Why, what’s the rush?). To him the impatient hustle is the white man is a puzzle. You inform him, quite readily, that it is to save time and he will ask you why you want to save time.

1a territory at the time of the book’s publishing, Alaska didn’t become a state until 1959